People keep asking me “What was your favorite part of your journey?” And I’m finding it such a difficult question to answer. I can’t pinpoint a single experience or view or location as the favorite…but I can identify a few of my favorite things. (Bear with me here; this is a long one…!)
Early on in my journey, I freaked out a little about the search for dispersed camping sites. I didn’t have any experience at all just going into a forest and finding a spot…and the task right away proved much more nuanced and daunting that I ever imagined. I’d made advanced reservations at a campground my first night in the Redwoods then figured I’d just wing it from there. But “winging” it resulted in my first panicked break-down on the side of a road just 48 hours into my trip. So, I made the decision to ease into dispersed camping and stay at some campgrounds along the way. And all I can say about campgrounds in general is that they are hit or miss. Seriously. Some are quiet and quaint and forested and lovely; while others are everything but. I found Mill Creek Resort on the Hipcamp website, and it was all the things good campgrounds are made of – great facilities, secluded sites, wooded surroundings, running water (faucets, toilets, creek, and laundry!), and fantastic people. The owners are a young couple who live on-site and go above and beyond making the guest experience extraordinary. And since the grounds are located in a tiny mountain community, locals wander in for breakfast and milkshakes and add to the uniqueness and character of the experience. This is the first place I wanted to settle in for a bit..and someday, I’ll return.
Once I settled into the “dispersed” camping routine, I feel like I nailed it, discovering some great spots! My first foray into national forest camping was significant because it involved facing major fears (of potential animal encounters, of seclusion in a forested space, of physical vulnerability…), and I’ll always remember my site off a logging road in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, with a breathtaking view of Shasta’s snowy peak from one window and a reassuring view of Gma’s almost-moon from the other, glowing in on me most of the night. This is where I first dug a hole for…you know. And the next morning, I washed my face and brushed my teeth in a creek nearby, feeling like a true wild child for the first time on my journey. It was liberating, and I felt a freedom having faced my fears and survived my first night boondocking in the wild west. 😉
My parents were less than thrilled about my trip, but for Christmas they gifted me a national parks book and an America the Beautiful annual parks pass, and this was the most lovely gift they could have given me. I couldn’t wait to explore the parks! I was most excited about Joshua Tree and Glacier, but Lassen Volcanic proved to be my favorite of all the parks I saw. I’d never heard of it and honestly thought it was going to be a big pile of ashy after-volcano mess…but it turned out to be so much more extraordinary than that. Hiking in some areas of the park felt like walking through a Pixar film. It was so green and almost other-worldly. It looked too pristine and felt too idyllic to be real and natural…but Mother Nature, I was reminded over and over again on my journey, is the greatest creator of all.
I did a lot of hiking on my trip, so it’s difficult to identify the one hike that moved me most, but when I look back, I can’t help but think of Mt. Shasta. The drive up to the trailhead was an adventure in itself. It was the first of many drives that gave my little Civic a real run for her money (and the first one to shake lose her ski plate, which would have to be zip tied or duct taped three times on my journey). At one point in the climb, I was literally driving 1 MPH! I hadn’t even known this was possible, but the climb was steep, and the rocks and ruts were big. (A fellow hiker said to me “You climbed that hill in a Civic!?!” Yes, yes I did – for better or worse!) Unbeknownst to me, this particular trailhead is mostly used by backpackers climbing to the peak. I may have been the only hiker on the trail without technical gear and skis for sliding back down the snowy patches near the peak. And I was wearing hiking sandals…! I had no intention of hiking to the top, but I laugh at myself looking back. It was a challenging climb, and I lost my way coming back down and had to “Marco Polo” some hikers and tag along with them to relocate the trail I’d lost. But I did it. It was the first of many hills I would climb on my journey, literally and figuratively.
Of all the towns I visited, Victoria, British Columbia was my favorite. A close second was Telluride, Colorado. Then Jackson, Wyoming. In each of these places, my experience was enriched because I was spending my time in the company of friends, new and old.
Leap outside my comfort zone
Shonda Rhimes wrote a book called Year of Yes, and it’s about her giving up resistance to living life to the fullest. I bought it just before my journey and tried to incorporate her advice and life learning into my everyday, saying “yes” more than I said “no” to new experiences out on the road. I remember one night in particular pushing the bounds of my comfort zone, and I smile looking back on it, even though I was close to miserable in some of its moments… I’d started talking to a guy at a bar over lunch in Telluride and wound up meeting up with him to let him introduce me to some local culture and experience later in the evening. We went to a natural hot springs (my first time) where an old guy named Warren was sitting along the edge of the pool with a bathrobe covering nothing but his shoulders, doling out PB&J sandwiches and passing around his water bong to share with the group. All the folks who eventually filled the relatively small tub were naked but me, and I got crowded out of my seat by a bunch of young hippies, one of whom didn’t even notice me and almost sat right on me with his bum in the buff. I probably appeared a bit prudish in my swimsuit, but I’ll never forget the experience and staring up at the sea of stars in the dark skies above the pool of naked strangers.
When I set out on my journey, I had no idea how many people I’d meet and get to know along the way. I thought I’d spend most of my time in solitude, trying to figure out what the heck I’m gonna do with the rest of my life. Perhaps I didn’t discover my “path” because I spent too much time accidentally meeting people…but I have no regrets about any of it. I had fun with and learned something from everyone I met. My most rewarding chance encounter happened in the Alabama Hills of California. If I hadn’t met Dawid, I’d never have braved going to Death Valley on my own – and I wouldn’t get to say I visited the hottest place in America in the heat of summer and discovered a waterfall (and a friendly frog!) in a surprisingly lush area of the park. I also wouldn’t have saved two lives, as Dawid tells the story.
I didn’t see my first bear until 8 weeks into my trip. Even then, it was from a very very long distance…and I could only sort of see it with binoculars (a cub, shaking berries loose from a huckleberry bush). I actually began to think bears were imaginary creatures – and wonder why in the heck I’d spent $90 on aerosol sprays for warding them off! I never once saw a rattlesnake, and that’s okay, but I do wonder why the most interesting (and admittedly intimidating) creatures seemed to evade me. There must be some significance to that, right? Thankfully, I did see buffalo – loads of them – and they absolutely amazed me. They were my most favorite creature-encounter of the journey! (The giant tarantula I spotted crossing a rocky road in front of me late at night outside Sedona was a close second.)
This one’s a toss-up between two very different experiences. My initial favorite moment in nature was early on in my trip when I escaped the crowds of the Redwoods to curl up with John Muir (er, his writings) on the trunk of a fallen tree and watched the clouds pass slowly overhead. There was simple, lovely, I’m-doing-this-thing-I thought-I couldn’t-do-and-this-is-the-stuff-it’s-made-of joy in this experience. I felt at peace with the world in that time and place. On the flip side, late in my journey, I explored a relatively out-of-the-way cave with Julie on a hike in the San Juan Islands. It was pitch black inside, and she was terrified, but I felt alive, invigorated to have absolutely no idea whatsoever what might lie around the next turn, or even just beyond the few feet I could see in front of me by headlamp. I felt brave. I’ve chickened out of a lot of things in my life, quitting before making good on commitments, without following-through on this, that, or the other thing… But in the few minutes we were inside the cave, I felt almost altogether free of fear, and it was incredible. In retrospect, this feels like a good blueprint for life, since we never know what’s to come but have the opportunity every day to forge ahead anyway. I don’t always do this, but on that day, in that cave, I did, and it felt good. Really good.
I met a lot of great people in my travels, and all of them made an impact on me and my journey, but my hosts at Lake Tahoe made an especially lasting impression (I’m certain I can’t put into words here all the reasons why). I’d met and talked with the Liegingers for a mere twenty minutes when Betsy invited me to stay with them at their home. When I showed up, I immediately asked “Does it seem weird that I’m virtually a complete stranger and I’ve come to stay with you?” Her husband and brother answered unequivocally “Yes…but not to Betsy it doesn’t.” She and I share the same name and birthday; we both collect heart-shaped rocks in nature; and we have the same dishes, for goodness sake. I was meant to pick them up and give them a Lyft back in the spring, and we were meant to connect on my journey. I’m not sure why, but I’m certain it’s so. And I’m very grateful. What lovely people they are, and what a lovely time we shared.
It seems crazy to recall a single sunset and evening of stargazing, but I do. It was outside Joshua Tree, California, and it was magical. That night, I showered outdoors under a ginormous sky emblazoned with the colors of the setting sun. Then I laid naked in the desert landscape under that same sky as it transitioned to night and filled with a million twinkling stars. In those moments I was at once all alone and intimately connected to the entire cosmos. I felt an incredible sense of calm and tranquility, at peace with my place in the world. I don’t often feel like I really belong in this time and space (I feel like an interloper in a culture and society I don’t understand – and vice versa), but for one night, I belonged. I felt like everything was going to be okay, and for someone like me that’s a really significant sensation (perhaps the intention of my journey). I’m a perpetual over-thinker and a worrier. As an empath, I often obsess about the feelings of others and try desperately (sometimes unconsciously) to align myself with their expectations, even though they don’t fit me. But that night I got a reprieve! Under that sky, in the middle of the desert, I seemed to sink into my truest self and accept all of her, to love her with my whole heart, and I got a sense for what it might feel like to live the life my soul intended. It was incredible, and if I could jar up that feeling to sip on for all the days of my life, I most certainly would. Until I figure out how to capture that essence of Universal alignment, contentment, and belonging once and for all, I will return to this experience over and over in my mind’s eye because to me it felt like coming home.
And those are a few of my favorite things. ❤
(It’s very interesting to me how many of these things happened in my first month on the road… Hmmm.)