September 24, 2020
Northern California and southern Oregon are a blur of ponderosa pines and Douglas-fir. Arriving at Crater Lake, I peer down into the electric-blue water—amplified by the virgin, cloudless sky—and I feel a distinct shift. By the time I get to Idaho, having been on the road three days, nothing in me wants to turn west. So I say goodbye to the last familiar face I’ll see until I find my way to Washington—and go east.
The sky above Montana is as big as I’d always heard it was—and takes up every inch of my windshield. The earth-to-sky ratio is disorienting. And I feel small and redundant, yet somehow hugely important, at the same time.
The nights are short in Montana. And the mornings come early. Setting after nine then rising again before six, at this altitude, the Sun’s first rays pass effortlessly through the thin air—turning my tent into a sauna. In the mountains and dense forest, I’m driven from my sleeping bag not by the sun—but the morning chill and cumulative sound of silence. After breakfast, with no one around to hear my euphoric gasps, I bathe hesitantly in the pure, frigid water of a snow-melt creek.
Alone on the bank—scrubbing my usual oatmeal from my same, damn aluminum pot—the solitude is palpable. Life is a beautiful secret. And mine belongs to me.
“It appeared to have no companion in the universe—sporting there alone—and to need none but the morning and the ether with which it played,” Henry Thoreau once wrote of a lone hawk soaring across the New England sky. “It was not lonely, but made all the earth lonely beneath it.”
(I’m not sure how that’s relevant. I just like it.)
Across Wyoming, I anticipate and poorly prepare for nightly bear encounters. But get none. South Dakota (the top, righthand corner of it anyway) doesn’t interest me, so I keep heading north. When the rain starts, I’m certain it will never let up. Long after it does slow, and eventually stops, I take a wrong left turn and drive for miles down a dirt road. Red mud sticks to everything on my car it can reach; burnt orange dust will cover the rest, when I head back the same way, two days later.
Stumbling upon my own private glen—blanketed with grass and rimmed with ponderosa, birch, ash, and aspen—I camp alone for two nights, somewhere among the Little Missouri Grasslands of North Dakota.
In The Overstory by Richard Powers, I come across a line about “a giant hero and his big blue ox”—and I remember that, a very long time ago, I wanted to be a lumberjack more than anything. I’m not weeping for long, but long enough to be embarrassed—even with no one around. Finishing the book a few days later, I know I’ll never look at trees the same way again.
Entering the third week of my four-day road trip, I make my way back across Montana, and stop at a bison ranch just north of Yellowstone National Park—fulfilling a promise I’d made to some kind strangers two weeks before. For room and board, I decide to work without being asked. My hosts are way too polite to ask me to stop—even after seeing me pick rocks with a mini-excavator. They offer me their cabin for a few days, guessing I will enjoy the solitude, and I accept without blinking. Up eight hundred vertical feet of loosely-graveled switchbacks, I find a cozy shack, wood-burning jacuzzi, and small, man-made lake.
The days are quieter than the nights. And the evening murmur is only interrupted by the splash of a trout. No sign left other than those mysterious concentric rings spreading across the surface of the lake. Up here, I would swear the sunsets last longer: delayed for a few extra seconds by the mountain peaks of northern Yellowstone.
But nothing lasts forever. So after a painfully cold, hose-water shower, I make the long drive south to Alpine, Wyoming. Just outside of town, camping in a new friend’s field, I undercook some sausages—but sleep like a baby. After a peaceful night, I drive hard back through most of Idaho. Then, taking a slight right at the Snake River, I cut northwest across Oregon. I turn off I-84 just north of La Grande, and prepare to spend my last night on the road. The campground I find is the first in three weeks with showers that are not only free—but work.
Feeling fresh, I stop in south-central Washington to top off on coffee and fuel. Leaning into the last leg of the drive, I take Highway 12 to the top of White Pass—and start getting nostalgic before I’ve even started back down. After an hour on I-5, without reading the exit numbers, I know mine is coming. The road from here on will stay at two lanes. I’m just miles from home.
The streets of Tenino are as familiar as they ever were. The same street lights light up the same swaths of concrete. And the same train’s whistle sounds from the same distance and direction, at roughly the same time of day, as it has since I was six years old.
It’s me that’s different. Or maybe I’ve just recaptured a bit of the altered state of reality I brought back with me from Southeast Asia. It doesn’t feel like anything all that special—but it’s certainly more than nothing. I guess I just feel a bit more like me again. “A thing reaching toward the sun, ready for anything,” as Powers might put it.
Until they finally did, I couldn’t wait for those last few (hundred) miles to pass by. But for days now I’ve found myself in a kind of dream state, regularly playing the whole damn thing out backwards in my head. “Who has not known a journey to be over and dead before the traveler returns?” John Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1962). “The reverse is also true: many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased.”
When the wind picks up and the leaves rustle, I can’t hear anything else. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, surrounded by mountains and forests, but I never really saw them. And sure, I’ve seen my share of abiotic wonders—sketches of the human body by Leonardo da Vinci, a high, chaotic ceiling painted by Michelangelo, the Colosseum, the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge—but nothing created by the human hand will ever impress me as much as that which has simply been appearing, and disappearing, for hundreds of millions of years.
And what’s even more astounding, to me anyway, is that if by some fluke of evolution we had never existed at all—it would all still be here. And so much more.
“Perhaps we may have overrated roots as a psychic need,” Steinbeck wrote. “Maybe the greater the urge, the deeper and more ancient is the need, the will, the hunger to be somewhere else.” All I needed to do to truly appreciate nature, it would seem, was tirelessly and continuously pull at my own roots. Until something finally gave, and fell away. And whatever was left, most of my worldly possessions, could ride—then in my new Honda, now in my old Jeep—behind me as I’ve shuffled about the Earth.
Before I hit the road, the sense of ambiguous gratitude I’d stumbled upon during my time in Malaysia and Thailand had begun to slip away. But out there—trying to make as little noise as possible, to be as small as possible—I got it all back. And so much more. The only thing to do now is hold onto it, and hope it stays with me—wherever I go next.
Off the road, the coffee is made much quicker than the instant I so often savored. And after a month, I can barely remember the reassuring spring of my canvas cot. The supremacy of the mountains, the polite company of the trees, and the solitude of the road have all faded, too. And I begin to wonder: What the fuck was I actually doing out there?
Without a standard plan, or approved heading, I find that a simple agenda is the best agenda. These do not typically include stability or comfort, but that’s not exactly a deal breaker for me. The more of those two things I’ve brought into my life—the less life has asked of me. And—starting somewhere in my twenties—as the comfortability of my chairs, reliability of my cars, and regularity of my paychecks all increased, I liked the person I was becoming less and less.
“A kind of second childhood falls on so many men,” Steinbeck wrote. “They trade their violence for the promise of a small increase of life span.”
By violence Steinbeck means fervency. He means fire or drive, intensity or zeal. For a beautiful life never gets any easier to attain. We just habitually adjust our standard of beauty and conception of conflict. “I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment,” he wrote. “I did not want to surrender fierceness for a small gain in yardage.”
Yes, I’ve done most those things—or at least tried to; and I do enjoy my current level of gusto. But that type of savagery takes too much effort. We are masters of making things exceptionally harder than they need to be. It is our greatest talent as human beings. But why? Life itself has a way of softening us, grinding us down, dulling our edges. Eventually, and discreetly, we become unthreatening to many—and uninteresting to most. And this is usually when we start to ask ourselves: What the hell is it all for anyway?
Most answers won’t satisfy. None I’ve ever heard do anyway. But I’m also not sure we need some grand explanation. Lately, the Sun’s warmth or a hot cup of coffee has felt as much like “a reason to live” as anything else. For what is contentment really—other than an equal mix of optimism and adaptability? Bliss is simply a sustained willingness to change—first in a way you never believed you could, then in a multitude of ways you never knew you needed to.
The pessimists, skeptics, and kindly religious folk among us might not concur. But hopefully we can all agree that, at least, there’s no best reason to put two feet on the floor every morning. “For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour,” Viktor Frankl wrote—after surviving Auschwitz.
Only after I was home—stationary, warm, safe from impending bear attacks—did the purpose of my trip begin to make sense. So the justification I give now, to you, will likely be dissatisfying. But it is what it is.
In the end, I drove all those miles, built all those fires, and spent all those nights shivering in a tent simply to relearn something I already knew: Life can be a complex and brutal undertaking. But mine belongs to me.