A Few of My Favorite Things

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.

Boondock experience
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. 😉

National Park
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.

Chance encounter
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.

Wildlife sighting
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.)

Nature moment
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.

All-around experience
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.

Spiritual awakening
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.)

Days 34 & 35: Sedona

I’d been looking forward to Sedona and its red rocks, though I wasn’t sure what to expect of the place in general.  There’s so much hype about its new age religious mysticism and energy centers…and I wondered if the place might be teeming with tourists (it kinda was).  But I do love exploring a new town.  It reminds me of when I first moved to Portland and everything was new and waiting to be discovered.

It’s almost unbelievable how beautiful the views are in every direction from anywhere and everywhere you go in Sedona.  I felt overwhelmed with trying to capture pictures of the landscape and ultimately kind of gave up on trying to get a single shot to encompass it all – or enough shots to splice together for a grander view of it.

My first day in town, I did a driving tour, beginning at the visitor center (I love visitor centers!) and hitting the local hot spots, including viewpoints and the renowned Chapel of the Holy Cross, a Catholic church built into the red rock.  Just like I did at the Old Santa Barbara Mission, I felt a sense of peace just sitting in that space…and then I went outside and nearly told a woman about herself for being aggressive and demanding and ungrateful as I graciously took pictures of her and her friend… Ugh.  So much for my zen moments.

I did just a bit of hiking that first day then headed to camp early to catch the sunset from my camp chair.  It was a hot night in my tent without much of a breeze.  It wasn’t 116°, like back in Phoenix, but it certainly wasn’t a pleasant night for sleeping outdoors…!

I woke early the next day to what sounded like a fire-breathing dragon outside my tent, which rather surprised me because I’d only read warnings about rattlesnakes… Turns out there was a hot air balloon flying just above my site!  You can understand, perhaps, how that might have sounded like a dragon.  Anyway, it got me up and going at sunrise and off early to hit the “quintessential” Sedona hike – the West Fork Trail.  Lucky for me, not a quarter mile into the route, I met Carlos from West Texas, and we hiked together the rest of the way.

The trail was nothing extraordinary…until we neared the “end,” when the red rock cliffs “closed in” on either side of us, with the creek filling in between and getting progressively deeper the further along we went.  Carlos and I hiked and hiked, almost to the point of needing to swim in deep waters to continue.  Wading in the cool water with the hot air and red rock all around us, outlasting most of the other hikers on the trail…it was truly incredible – and, yet again, something I wouldn’t have ventured solo.  I slipped and fell just once on a mossy rock, and I’m certain Carlos was more upset about it than me.  It’s funny with company how even spills are easier to take.

We took two more hikes together – one to the top of a mesa for sunset and another the next morning, our last in town, as our farewell to Sedona (for now).  We’ll probably never see each other again, and we may never even talk, but having a companion certainly made my time in town that much more enjoyable.  And that hike…it was unforgettable!

Day 20: Starlight & Sand Dunes

Today was a day I’ll never forget.

In lieu of going to Mount Whitney and at the suggestion of an Instagram-er I follow, I drove to “Movie Road” in the Alabama Hills area outside of Lone Pine.  This is a range of hills and rock formations near the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada that is nothing short of incredible.  So much so, in fact, that since the 1920s the Hills have been featured in some 150 movies and a dozen more television shows (mostly old Westerns and modern adventure films I’ve never seen).  They’re epic.   

The first time I hiked in the desert was with my friend Colleen in Arizona a couple of years ago.  Then, I hoped we’d see (note: see not encounter) a rattlesnake.  Today, hiking solo in the sand around scrub brushes and shadowy rock formations, I was on alert and hoping against hope not to see one.  Funny how being alone changes my perspective (and fear factor)!  I was convinced every wild sound was a rattler warning me against encroaching on his territory…and my ankles were terrified!  Ultimately, I probably saw fewer rocks and hills than ground cover.  Despite high temps, the breeze was pleasant, and I was nearly alone on the trails, which was a nice change from days previous.

Coming off of my first solo desert hike (a short jaunt, I’ll mention, because of said scared ankles), a newcomer asked me about the trail and the hike and the sights, and we got to talking.  He was also traveling solo (a South African in the states for the first time), and we talked about the joys and challenges of such.  I surprised myself when, in less than five minutes of conversation, I suggested he join me in my journey to Death Valley later that day.  I’d been nervous about going alone because of the heat and risk of car trouble, coupled with lack of cell service.  To my delight, he accepted my invitation…and I hoped we’d travel well together.

At the suggestion of a ranger I’d talked with earlier in the day, we hiked – climbing over rocks and surprisingly lush thickets of grass we hoped weren’t teeming with snakes – to a remote (unmarked and un-trafficked) waterfall where we swam (er, waded gently) with an “army” of frogs.  (One was delighted by our company, swimming near us and fearlessly observing our every move.)  It was like inhabiting a tiny jungle in the midst of the desert!  We had ice cream that melted almost faster than we could eat it.  We raced to the top of a lookout (Zabriskie Point) to catch the sunset and couldn’t have been more amazed by its vastness and beauty.  We visited the lowest point in the lower 48 states (Badwater Basin), where we fixed a broken down car and applauded ourselves for saving two lives (I mean, what else were they gonna do after dark with a dead battery, no jumper cables, and no cell service!?).  Then, most incredible of all to me, we laid atop a sand dune watching a very dark, very vast sky sparkling with stars and got to glimpse a lightening storm in the distance.  It was a surreal experience, sitting in Death Valley with a stranger-turned-friend from halfway around the world, observing all that incredibleness of nature.  I wanted to capture the moments in a jar and carry them along with me in my journey – even the hot sands blowing in my eyes since it was that very breeze that made the 111 degree temperature bearable. 

The experience was unforgettable, as I got to explore spaces and take in vistas I’d never have braved alone.  It was nothing short of a perfect aligning of strangers and stars and sand dunes and storms!