Secrets of an Endless Road

When I left Colorado in the fall of 2016, it was with an underlying sense of disappointment regarding all the things I wanted to do, but never actually did. It wasn’t a long list: hike a 14er, visit Leadville, explore the Sangre de Cristos, stop by the Sand Dunes. I was disappointed that I’d lived so close to all these opportunities but never made the time to go see them. Driving from the San Luis Valley to Laramie almost hurt my heart, because I didn’t know when I’d be back. I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to do the things that I’d meant to do.

Life has a funny way of working things out for the better, though. I got to come back to the same area of Colorado less than 4 months later, and stay even longer that time. And in that time, I got to do all of the things I was kicking myself for not doing the year before. Most of them, more than once. So now, it’s rare that I feel guilty for not visiting the unplanned places along the way. Life is short, but it is also circular. I just add those impromptu places to the list, making sure to stop by again on my next trip through. All things work together for good.

With that in mind, I made an itinerary. Actually, I made three: different routes to some of the same places, with different things to see along the way. The three itineraries covered everything from the Canadian Rockies to Route 66, and all the classic western vistas in between. And then, the night before leaving, I crossed off two of those itineraries, loaded up my truck, and headed to Moab.

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The Utah desert.

I’d been there a few times in the past, for family vacations and weddings, and even considered moving there a time or two. But with any area so rich in geology and adventure and western history, Moab tends to get a little too touristy for my liking. This time around, though, I continued to learn the wonders of offseason travel. Once you get beyond the first-visit necessities, there is still a world of things to see and do there. I received recommendations from people who love me and Moab (and know how much I love Mexican food), I drove two hours one-way to day hike into the Needles backcountry of Canyonlands National Park, and I spent too much money in a local art store. I woke up one morning to the realization that my Airbnb cabin was next to a pasture full of horses, because I can’t go anywhere without befriending some equine buddies. I ate breakfast burritos from my tailgate on BLM land more than once. And I left, feeling like I knew a town based on snippets of time spent there throughout my life.

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The Needles backcountry.

From Moab, I headed to Zion – a place that used to be my favorite National Park. It’s now in my top 5 favorites, because I’ve gotten to explore so many parks, so in-depth, since I deemed it my favorite. But still, it holds up as one of the best. When I was in the park at age 18, I saw people hiking Angel’s Landing, and decided to hike it myself when I made it back there. The only obstacle between me and the top of that fin of rock was the slight fear of heights that I developed while climbing in Wyoming in 2015. Hiking Angel’s Landing in 2012, I wouldn’t have given fear a first thought. Here in 2017, I was a little apprehensive. But upon receiving impromptu conditions reports from hikers on their way down, and learning that there was no ice along the way, I went for it. I had Fleetwood Mac stuck in my head the whole way up, and at the top, I realized that any fear I’d previously felt was now gone. (Kind of an odd realization when you’re holding on to a chain with 1000-foot drop-offs on either side.) After taking a few pictures, I took a few minutes to simply enjoy and appreciate what seems like one of the most-Instagrammed hikes in the country.

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Angel’s Landing view.

The next day, I left Zion – one of the most-visited National Parks in the country – and set out on a highway known as the “Loneliest Road in America”. The drive to Great Basin National Park felt like the beginning of a Stephen King novel. That spooky feeling increased when I passed another truck, only to see that not only was it the same color as my truck, it was the same make and model, as well. I’m used to living in remote desert settings, but eastern Nevada felt like the Twilight Zone for a while. For almost a hundred miles, there was only the straight, two-lane road, bordered by barbed wire fences, broken by the occasional mountain pass. Every so often I’d pass some small clusters of cattle. And soon, I felt my internal uneasiness shift to focused freedom. I felt the same way the horses must feel when you pull your saddle and untie the rope halter, and watch them run and buck all the way out to their pasture. That mindset stayed with me the whole time I was there.

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Barbed wire fence and Great Basin sunset.

I went from feeling like I was in a Stephen King novel to feeling like I left a Great Basin-sized piece of my heart there, on the south side of the loneliest road in America. I was half-tempted to unload my truck and hire on with some buckaroo outfit. That sense of belonging was expounded by staying in an Airbnb owned by the friendliest border collie puppy, and discussing the merits of horses versus mules with my neighboring table at a state line truck stop diner. It’s outstanding country there, too. Within the National Park, there are countless diverse hiking options, from subterranean caves to historic irrigation ditches to alpine lakes. You can even summit one of the tallest peaks in the state, or embark on a multi-day backpacking journey – which I fully intend to do. And on my way out, I learned of archaeological digs and hot springs in the vicinity, too. So heads up, Great Basin, I’ll be back.

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Stella Lake, Great Basin National Park.

I drove away on that Twilight Zone road that I learned to love, and went to the fourth-most populated city in the Rockies: Salt Lake City. I stayed there for a night and left early to go to the first ranch I worked for, outside of Laramie. The theme of the SLC/Laramie leg of the trip was catching up with friends I’ve had for years. It feels so strange to say that I’ve known them for years, because the time has gone by so quickly. In Salt Lake, my friend and I picked a lunch place based solely on a somewhat-related inside joke. In the Laramie Valley, it was hiking through the snow, watching the stars through a veil of campfire smoke, exploring parts of the ranch I’d never seen, and drinking coffee in the morning golden hour light with my favorite horse. In Josh Ritter’s song Homecoming, he sings, “This town right here’s my everything, and though I’ve been so long away, it has my heart, be still my heart, my heart will stay in this town.” That’s how I always feel about Laramie and the valley.

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The Laramie Valley from the Rawah Wilderness.

A few days later, it was out of Laramie and east to Omaha, over a stretch of highway that I’ve driven so many times that it feels like the pavement should be worn out under my tires. I got pulled over in western Nebraska because a headlight was out, the first time I’d been pulled over since high school. I also helped my friend Megan judge her students’ Shakespeare monologues, we got coffee and dinner, and laughed over literature. Then we left to go back to our hometown for Thanksgiving.

Having a copilot in my truck made the final stretch go by so much more quickly, and we got to live the road trip we’d dreamed of in Ireland earlier in the year. All of the acoustic music and grey and green scenery and laughter continued as we flew through the states: Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan. We pulled back into Detroit, zipping under old train overpasses while listening to Mumford & Baaba Maal singing, “So open up my eyes to a new light, I wandered round your darkened land all night.” I dropped Megan off and promptly got pulled over in front of my hometown’s city hall, for the same burnt-out (now fixed) headlight. Everything comes full circle. And I pulled in my driveway at home.

For whatever reason, being on the road gets me writing. A month can go by wordlessly, and then all of a sudden, I’m on some open expanse of highway and there it is. Inspiration. Add in a disconnection from a normal routine, country that I’ve never seen before, places where I’m a stranger, a perfect soundtrack, and all of a sudden, I have a lot to say. Maybe because I’m going beyond my comfort zone, and learning from the newness. Between the succulent stuck on my dashboard and the wire horse and cross on the rearview, the words start flowing and I’ve even pulled over a time or two to get them all down before they’re gone.

As Ian Tyson sang, “You got to get it all down, because it’s bound to go.”

So now, I’ve been back in my hometown for a little over a month. Enough time to celebrate two holidays (and almost a third), to unpack, start my first-ever indoor job, and begin to reflect on the wild ride of ranching and road trips that the last few years have put in my path. Among all the realizations, with more certainly to come, is the sense that although this is my hometown, home is everywhere. My senior year of high school, I read a poem by Tennyson, and one line has stuck with me for the five years between graduation and reunion. “I am a part of all that I have met; Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untraveled world, whose margin fades forever and ever when I move.”

I’ve left pieces of my heart all along that long yellow line of life, and I carry those places with me: in my duffle bags, truck tires, memories and mind’s eye. I felt it in early spring, driving over the hill from a former home to a new one, and couldn’t quite put it into words. So I shelved it, knowing that everything is cyclical, and if I was meant to write it, it would come back. Here it is.

I felt it when I ran errands like a local in a town I haven’t lived in for years, and in another where I’ve only visited. I felt it in South Carolina at age 17, like I was coming home to a place I’d never been. (Thanks, John Denver.) I feel it in the woods of northern Michigan and the streets of Midtown Detroit, in Laramie, Salida, and the San Luis Valley. All the places where I’ve left a little bit of my heart, whether I notice it or not.

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Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Those feelings are powerful enough to leave my heart in a wreck with the realization that since I’ve loved so many places I call homes, there may never again be one sole place to call MY home. It will always be the west in my soul. And Big Sur, Belfast, and everywhere that people I love now live. If I had a choice, if it was under my control, would I move everyone I love and every place I love to one location? Maybe. But probably not. Because such a large part of the joy in this restless heart of mine comes from seeing the places that draw those I love, learning why the trails and coffee shops and downtowns mean so much to them: all the reasons they chose to put down roots.

I’m certainly not writing this to humblebrag about places I’ve been fortunate enough to visit. It’s simply to sort out some holdups about the concept of home. Sometimes it feels like a pretty distant ideal when the road seems endless. But what I’m trying to say is, home is wherever you make it. It’s the people you’re with, or the memories you share with the place. It’s where you open your heart enough to leave something behind. And it’s knowing that countless people were there before you and even more are certain to follow, but for one short, shining time, it was yours.

 

Sweet Disposition – The Temper Trap

“Jump up, find me a mountain, shake off the sheep I’ve been counting. Chase that sun till it runs out of sky.” – Longer Gone, Eric Church

“Have you smelled the whiskey and the smoke burning out underneath your tires?” – The Ghost of Traveling Jones, Ryan Bingham