"I was, in fact, homesick for wildness, and when I found it I knew how intimately - how resonantly - I belonged there. We are charged with this - all of us. For the human spirit has a primal allegiance to wildness, to really live, to snatch the fruit and suck it, to spill the juice." - Jay Griffiths, Wild: an Elemental Journey

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

And Then the Travel Gods Had Other Ideas

Driving out of Salt Lake City after staying with a lovely family in an adult house (dishwasher, more than one living room, a landscaped yard, etc.), I had a slight brush with death.  The only superhighway out of the city is six lanes each direction, the busiest road I've been on in months.  I was hyper aware of traffic, resisting most temptations to gaze distractedly at the red mountains around me.

Driving in to Salt Lake (I didn't dare take a photo while
driving out)
Out of nowhere, a pickup truck crossed two lanes and cut me off so severely that I slammed my brakes all the way to the ground, veering onto the shoulder, swerving around a traffic cone, and missing his bumper by mere centimeters.  It was terrifying.

I sat breathless, shaking, and feeling my heart beat in my throat on the side of the road while cars whizzed past me at 80 miles an hour.  I'm alive, I thought.  It could be otherwise.  A cliche, yes, but I was acutely aware of its truth at that moment.  All of a sudden the skies were bluer, the mountains redder, and I felt an overwhelming love for everyone and everything around me.  Whatever happened today was going to be magical.  I will savor every moment.

Once I got out of the urban craziness, the landscape began to transform itself into what I had been imagining.  I've been many places in the west, but most of them mountainous.  I've been wanting to go to the canyons of Utah for years.  They are Oldman's favorite place, and he talked about them all the time.  I kept him in my heart as I drove, sending love out to him wherever he is right now, too euphoric to be angry or confused or anything other than embodied joy.

Here are some shots from the drive:
Starting to get canyon-ey
A shot from "The Great Salt Wash," a rest stop along the road

Oh yeah baby
I am working on improving my on-the-road eating, because if this is really going to be my life - and it IS right now - I can't live off of whatever I happen to find off an exit whenever I happen to be hungry.  I got prepared while in Missoula.  I raided the Saturday market.

My delicious, scenic lunch stop, with my cooler
as a table

Next to my lunch stop.  Apparently it's a popular place to eat.
What I love about traveling is that it brings me abruptly into the present.  When I see new places all the time, it is much more difficult for me to let my mind wander, worry, and fret.  Why would I want to think about anything other than what is in front of me when what is in front of me is so beautiful?  Perhaps as I become better at meditation and mindful living I will be able to adopt this mindset more often, even in "dull" places and circumstances.  But I am still quite a beginner and I need almost fatal car crashes and canyons for miles in every direction to keep me "alive and awake."

I took this present-moment thinking too far yesterday.  I was told by my hosts to take 15 south to 89 south, which would take me to Bryce Canyon in western Utah, my planned stop for the night.  I was so overtaken with the scenery when route 89 came up (I was literally crying and blubbering like a silly middle school girl) that I must have inadvertently taken 89 east instead of 89 south.

I didn't realize this for another two hours.

When I began seeing signs for Denver, I thought, That's strange.  Bryce is in the opposite direction from Denver.  So I pulled over and turned on my gps.  (I hadn't needed it before because I only had one turn to make, and I was using the car charging socket to charge my phone and iPod for most of the day.)  I realized with crashing clarity that I had, in fact, been going the "wrong" way for over two hours.

I put my hand over my mouth in a gasp.  Then I chuckled.  Then I laughed out loud.  Then I laughed so hard it came from my belly and shook my whole body.  I laughed until I cried.  Again.  A crazy lady completely alone on a desolate Utah highway laughing her ass off.

I was tempted to be disappointed for a split second.  This isn't what I had planned.  Going east meant I would be skipping Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park, The Grand Canyon, and Sedona.  But it also meant I would save lots of money on gas by cutting that whole part of my loop out.

As I sat in my car, wiping my eyes from my laughter tears and considering what to do from here, a scene from Missoula came back to me.

I was sitting at the table with Canyon, the 3 year-old resident of the house where I stayed, while his dad was in the shower.  We had been playing and talking together, and out of nowhere, he asked, "Are you happy?"

"Yes.  Are you?" I replied.

He looked at me very seriously and said, "Sometimes I'm happy and sometimes I'm sad."

"Me too," I said.  "And sometimes I even feel angry or scared or all kinds of other feelings, too."  He nodded like he understood.  "What makes you happy?"  I asked him.

"Weeeellllll," he thought, sucking on his dried fruit rope, "This fruit rope.  And this water."  He pointed to the cup of water in front of him.  "And your computer."  He pointed to my laptop, which we had been using to look things up on google earth.  "And this table."

"Is that it?" I asked.

"Yep," he said.

So in that moment in my car, all of a sudden in a place where I didn't intend to be, faced with a decision about where to go next, I was inspired by Canyon.  I realized that my happiness wasn't just because I thought I might be going to Bryce Canyon and Sedona and all that.  I was happy because I was seeing this scene, on this road, at this moment.  It didn't matter where I was.  It didn't matter where I was going.  Everything is beautiful and I can be happy in all of it.  Right now.  No more waiting.

I decided that the same benevolent travel gods who saved my life in Salt Lake that morning must want me to go this direction, so I started my car and kept going east.  I'd hit Moab in about an hour and a half, and from there I could see Arches National Park and the Canyonlands.  I sent a few last minute couch surfing requests from my phone, hoping to find a host in Moab so I wouldn't have to pay to stay somewhere.

But the travel gods had more surprises in store for me on this incredible day.  They blessed me with this breathtaking sunset, which I would have missed if going in the other direction.

As I approached Moab in the dark, I saw the signs for Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.  I still hadn't heard from any couch surfing hosts, so I was considering pulling into one of those parks and trying to find a place to sleep in my car without paying for a campsite.  But I figured the powers-that-be would probably be all over the dirtbags, drifters, and freeloaders trying to do that same thing, especially in national park land.  I kept going into the town.

When I arrived at about 9pm, I went into a place called Pagan Mountaineering, not really sure what I would say or what I was looking for in the way of help.  But the girl behind the counter looked friendly so I figured that was a good start.

"Hi," she smiled at me as I walked in.  She was wearing a faded maroon hoodie with her light brown hair thrown into a messy knot at the nape of her neck.  She wore dangly silver earrings and had chalk marks on her fingers, presumably from climbing.

"Hi," I smiled back and approached the counter.

"How can I help you?" she asked, rising from her stool to meet me at the counter.

"Well, I just got into town.  I made a wrong turn.  I was supposed to go to Bryce tonight," her eyebrows raised as if to emphasize how far off course I had gone, "but here I am!  I'm living in my car and don't really have any money to pay for accommodation.  Is there somewhere I can sleep safely in my car around here?"

"Hmmm," she looked up at the ceiling and squinted her eyes as she thought.  "That's kinda tricky because the police are all over people poaching camping around here.  Camping is a big industry for us so they're big about trying to force people into paid campgrounds."

"Yeah, I figured," I said.  "That's why I didn't stop at Arches or Canyonlands."

"Oh definitely not!" she shook her head.  "You'd get caught sleeping in your car there in no time.  Oh I know!" she raised her index finger in an "aha" gesture.  "You can drive up to the mountains."  She looked at me as though I should be satisfied with that answer and happily go on my way.

"Great.  Um, where is that?  Which mountains?"

"Oh duh," she laughed.  "I forgot you don't know where you are.  Here," she said, pulling a map from under the counter.  She explained clearly how I could get out of town and into the La Sal mountain area just 15 minutes away.  Apparently it's public land, so anyone can use the pull-offs on the road there and camp for free.

"Thank you so much," I said once I had written down the directions.  I turned to leave but she stopped me.

"Wait.  It's going to be cold up there.  Have you slept in your car before?"

"Yep.  Plenty of times on this trip.  I have it all set up," I said, proudly.

"Do you have a sleeping bag?" she inquired.  I nodded.  "I mean, like a good sleeping bag?"  She lifted one eyebrow as if trying to figure out if I actually had any wilderness experience or was just some unsuspecting tourist that she was about to send to her death of hypothermia in the desolate mountains.

"I have a 20 degree bag, a liner, a quilt, and a full merino wool base layer."  I sounded awesome.

She smiled in relief.  "Ok you're set.  Good luck and enjoy the view in the morning.  It'll be beautiful when you wake up!"  I thanked her again and went on my way.

As I drove up the winding, mountain road, I had my doubts.  It seemed much further than she had specified to the public lands portion, but then, I guess everything seems further and more extreme in the dark.  Just as I was getting too jittery and was considering turning around to suck up paying for a hotel, I was startled as my headlights caught something ahead of me in the road.

Nine pairs of eyes.  Attached to big, black bodies.

I sat breathing heavily, trying to make out what they were before driving any closer to them.  Bears.  Oh god I didn't think there were bears here but here they are - NINE of them!  I can't sleep up here no way oh my god.  Just then one of the pairs moved closer to me and came fully into my headlights.  My heart pounded into my ribs.

It was a cow.

I let all the breath out of my lungs in a self-conscious laugh.  A bunch of freaking cattle.  I honked until they moved out of the road and kept going, chiding myself for being so skittish.

Eventually I found a pullout, just like the woman had said, and set about getting ready for the night.  I boiled some water on my camp stove to eat one of my dehydrated meals.  I changed into my wool layers and put on my hat and thick socks.  I breathed some more air into my mattress and set up my bedding.  I got my bear spray, knife, and phone handy for safety.  And then I remembered to look up.

Holy god in heaven.  The stars.

This is what I had been waiting for.  I climbed onto the hood of my car and leaned back on the windshield.  I could clearly see the milky way and more stars than I've seen since the Badlands in South Dakota - maybe more.  I lay there in awe for I have no idea how long, counting shooting stars and feeling that deliciously small feeling that only comes from high-quality star-gazing.

When my dinner was eaten, teeth brushed, and bladder emptied, I crawled in to my perfectly warm car bed and fell blissfully asleep.

The next morning, the sun woke me up around 7am and I could finally see where I was.

Couldn't ask for a better sleeping spot.
I put my car back together and headed down the mountain and into town.  I found a great little cafe, where I sit writing this now, and used the bathroom to brush my teeth, change, and make myself slightly presentable.  Then I ate the most delicious huevos rancheros with green chiles I've ever had, and set about figuring out what to do from here.

I had seen a hostel on my drive into town this morning, so I called them and made a reservation for tonight.  I still hadn't heard from any couch surfing hosts, and too many nights in a car bed without a shower or a refrigerator can be tough on my back, my stench, and my refrigeratable food.  Plus the hostel is only $10!

If there is one thing this trip is teaching me - yesterday especially - it is that I am taken care of.  I feel love and support from all my friends and family back home, but I also feel something deeper - something without a name.  I refer to it as the travel gods, but I guess I could also call it God, the Tao, Shiva, the Universe - whatever.  But I can say for sure that I feel held.  I KNOW I am not alone and not in danger.  I know that everything is working exactly as it should.  

I know my purpose here is to love - love everyone I meet everywhere I go.  With all the love I feel coming in, I've got to do something with it anyway or I'll explode into human confetti from the pressure of it in my cells.  So it doesn't really matter where I do the loving - in Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, or Pennsylvania.  Because like Canyon, my three year-old sage guru, it is this place that makes me happy, wherever this place is in the moment.


  1. I am BURSTING with love and joy from this! Melanie! I love you so much!

  2. Just catching up - awesome view! wonderful story. Love the human confetti idea.

  3. Beautiful! Thanks, Melanie!

    1. My pleasure, believe me. BTW, I don't use this blog anymore - in case you didn't know. I do all of my blogging at www.journeytowildness.com now. Come on over!