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 52 & 53: Yellowstone & the Tetons

A couple girlfriends came to visit me for the Perseid Meteor Shower this weekend, and since some of the west’s darkest skies are a little ways outside of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, we definitely planned to explore it.  Like the most popular animals in the place, the park is huuuuuuuge.  We’d drive and drive to see sights then turn around only to realize we had 100 miles to drive back to camp.  Yikes!

One of my favorite features of the park is the bison.  Or American buffalo.  We asked a gal at the visitor center where we were most likely to see large animals, and she recommended we take the east route through the park, bypassing its busiest stops and more trafficked roads.  Sure enough, it wasn’t long before we came upon a traffic jam.  Two of us got out and walked ahead (we walked way faster than the traffic moved), and I was delighted when I saw my first buffalo in the distance.  I probably took 15 pictures (not really but almost)…then we circled the bend only to see DOZENS MORE.  To me, it was absolutely incredible.  Up until that point, the only traffic jam I didn’t mind involved farm machinery.  Moving forward, I’ll wait patiently for a herd of bison any day.  I was absolutely in awe.  (And I’m fascinated with the history of the animal and its conservation and management in the park.)  Looking at the bison, to me, is like looking back in time, since some 65 million of the massive animals once roamed free in North America.  There are far, far fewer wild buffalo today, and most of them (98% or more) are likely genetically different than their ancestors due to breeding with cattle over the years, but seeing the bison roam free in their natural habitat at Yellowstone felt prehistoric to me (I half expected Fred Flinstone to show up!).

For better or worse, we didn’t see any grizzly bears…but we did spy an elk lying unphased in tall grasses while a mass of tourists (including us) snapped pictures of him/her from a safe distance.  And we saw a wild (!?) llama, which is an animal near and dear to my heart. ❤

Watching the sun set over spouting geysers and glistening pools of geothermal activity, including the Grand Prismatic, was breathtaking.  Knowing we spent much of our time in the park in the caldera, or hollowed-out part, of a once and still-active supervolcano was nothing short of mind-blowing.  And the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone was almost more incredible to me than that other Grand Canyon to the south.

We skipped the more snailed-pace of the watercraft (canoes and kayaks) and rented a small motorboat for exploring as much of the area of Jackson Lake as possible.  It’s disappointing nearby wildfires have created such a haze around the Tetons (tis the season), but even seeing their grandeur through a veil of smoke is pretty incredible, especially over the lake.  I love water, and I love mountains, so spending a few hours this close to both of them brought my soul joy.

We didn’t see much of the meteor shower because of cloudy skies, and that was a bummer, but the maniacally-aggressive mosquitoes in the area made retreating to our tents early more than tempting anyway!

It’s interesting having folks join me on my journey.  I’ve got my routine, I’m not in a hurry, and I’m generally at peace with and sometimes delighted by unexpected happenings such as bison backing-up traffic for miles.  Sharing my car (my living space), time, and energy with folks who think, travel, and camp differently proved trying at timesand I’m sure, as with anything and everything in life, there are lessons I’m supposed to learn and take away from the experience.



Day 45: Unstuck & Smiling

Definitely started the day feeling leftover ick from yesterday.

As soon as the desert sun started to heat my tent, I headed in the direction of a narrows hike the guy at the visitor center recommended…and found myself wondering all the way if he’d ever been on the particular backroad he’d sent me on because it definitely wasn’t suitable for my Civic!  After making my way over rocks of all different shapes and sizes, crossing ruts and washouts, and questioning the route at almost every turn, I reached a point I knew I couldn’t travel beyond.  Carefully I backed probably a quarter mile uphill of the narrow road.  With no turnaround in site, I negotiated some sagebrush for a sticky 14-point turn-around (rough estimate there)…only to get another half mile up the hill to a jumble of rocks I had managed to clear coming down but definitely couldn’t clear going back up.  Thank goodness I got a AAA membership before I embarked on my journey – and that the tow company fudged my location just a bit to get my recovery compensated.   As it turns out, AAA doesn’t cover backcountry towing… Thank goodness for the kindness of strangers.

It’s funny; stuck in the desert waiting for a tow truck (er, jeep, cuz the truck couldn’t traverse the road either), I felt no frustration, no upset, no impatience.  I talked with my dad on the phone, and he said “I’m so sorry this happened,” but I found myself surprised to be totally calm.  The situation was what it was.  And I just was.  It seemed like part of the journey, maybe a lesson about being kind to myself and patient with circumstances even in the face of being stuck, figuratively or literally.

After my assisted escape from the rocks, I took my time en route to my next destination, enjoying talking with my people by phone and observing my surroundings, stopping when the sights and scenery seemed right (toadstool rocks!!!).  My gosh Utah is hot this time of year…!

Surrounded by Navajo Nation, where I can’t do any dispersed camping, I decided to book a Hipcamp spot for the night.  (Hipcamp is a website that lets folks rent their land to campers; sites range from ordinary to extraordinary, primitive to glamp-ish, and I’ve had mostly positive experiences with it.)  What I discovered when I arrived at the backside of a giant mesa and the base of a red rock formation near Monument Valley was something of a camping bed and breakfast, with spots for tents, a spot for my car, and some underground native shelters, as well as a large communal restroom (with showers that don’t take quarters or run for a limited time), a barn full of furniture for lounging and a shared kitchen, and outside space with communal seating, firepits, and the like.  And kittens galore!!

I settled myself into a swinging chair with an awesome view and relaxed into my book, hoping to attract some company – and it worked!!  In just a bit, a woman with a lovely accent started a conversation and asked if she and one more could join me in a bit.  Yes please!  Ellena and her daughter were traveling from Switzerland, on a birthday and pre-school outing for Zoë.  Today was her 16th birthday, and we shared cake and conversation and lots of laughs under the Milky Way, talking into the night, wishing on stars, and snuggling with (or narrowly avoiding, in Zoë’s case) curious and playful kitties.  Most of my chance encounters have been with men, and that’s okay, but tonight, I was grateful to be in the company of women.  More than anything else (except maybe my couch and a daily shower…), I miss my cat and my girlfriends.  And tonight, I was delighted to have my love cup filled with kitty snuggles and feminine energy.

I’m certain I’ll fall asleep wearing a smile.