Or, How I Threw My Easy Bake Oven and My Polkadotted Tent into a Blue Van and Went Camping Alone
In October 1997, I threw caution and salary to the winds, took five weeks leave of absence from my job, and headed West, driving a large loop from Ann Arbor, Michigan through Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, before heading back again. I seldom write holiday letters, but that December, I felt that I had something interesting to say, and so wrote about this solo trek, one I had been planning since I was a child.
Although it feels a bit like cheating, I borrowed heavily from that letter for this post. Written almost 15 years ago, I consider it my first foray into travel writing. If nothing else, it is a bridge to a more excitable, more flexible younger self … my inner Took, if you will.
I left Ann Arbor on October 6th, and spent my first three nights on the road at the Zen Buddhist Temple in Chicago. This involved getting up at 6 am for morning practice which included meditation, prostrations, and chanting. I ate meals and ice cream with the Venerable Samu Sunim (the Buddhist Monk who runs the temple), and cleaned the kitchen with the Dharma students who lived in the Temple. I also did all manner of work practice, including spending hours unpacking several bales of kapok, a creamy, fluffy cotton used to stuff meditation cushions. After three days, the rhythm of life and work at the Temple began to feel natural and familiar, and I thought to myself, “I love this life. I could totally live here.” On day four, I moved on.
From the Temple, I drove to Boulder, Colorado. I ate at the Boulder Salad Company, watched two cat puppets tango on Pearl Street, and hiked solo in the Flatirons. I talked with people from Germany, London, Australia, and Virginia while making dinner in the kitchen of the Boulder International Hostel. I gave my leftover spaghetti to the tall, sunburned guy from Australia, who was in the last six weeks of a year-long trek through Europe, Mexico, and the States, on a budget of 15 dollars a day, carrying nothing but the pack on his back. I left Boulder, thinking “I can’t possibly find any place as beautiful as this. I should just spend the next four weeks here,” and crossed the Rockies into Southern Utah.
I spent the next 3 nights camping at Arches National Park, north of Moab, in a campground called Devil’s Garden. Temperatures at night hovered around freezing, and I could hear coyote yipping in the distance in the early mornings. The park is surreal, full of fiery red rock formations, tall rock “fins,” and natural arches. It seemed the closest I would ever come to walking on another planet. I spent one evening curled in my sleeping bag in the natural amphitheatre at the foot of the Delicate Arch, waiting for the full moon to rise. I hiked down in the moonlight with an Irish boy named Phelim, whose face I could barely see. He claimed that in Ireland, the Big Dipper was called The Plow, and I gleefully began to point out other Irish constellations (The Leprechaun. The Potato.) When I left Moab, I thought to myself “now this is definitely the most beautiful place I have ever seen — I should spend the next three and a half weeks here,” and drove on to Bryce Canyon. Bryce was lovely, and completely different from Arches with its neon pink and orange walls and delicate, eroded spires called “fairy castles.” The hostel in Bryce felt grim and unfriendly, and I was glad to leave it.
From Bryce, I drove over the Escalante Plateau down to Scottsdale, Arizona to meet my dad and brother Mark at the Scottsdale Hyatt. I felt like Jeremiah Johnson when I pulled up in my filthy Explorer full of camping gear, and stepped out in front of the glass-block fountain in my hiking boots, well-worn clothes, and unwashed hair. I suppressed an urge to growl when a well-trained valet in a white shirt, straw cowboy hat, and bolo tie ran to my truck and asked me “Can I take your keys, ma’am?” I’m surprised they didn’t insist on flea-dipping me before letting me into the hotel. Dinner that evening included a gondola ride in a small man-made lake (complete with a gondolier who sang Santa Lucia in Italian — call me a sucker but I was impressed). The next morning, the three of us headed north to the Grand Canyon. My father, a veteran organizer of incentives travel for his company, had been to the Canyon several times. He had the name of an experienced Park Ranger whose brains we decided to pick to see if my brother and I could get a last-minute permit to ‘hike the Hole.’
Following the advice of the Park Ranger, Mark and I took a number at the Backcountry Office, and successfully applied for a 3-night permit to hike in the next day. We rented packs and gear at a Park shop, and staggered around the hotel room under our fully-loaded packs, blissfully ignorant of high-tech fabrics, lightweight gear, and proper pack loading strategies. I still remember the look of dismay on my dad’s face when I fell backwards onto my pack, laughing hysterically, trapped on my back like a beetle.
What can I say about the Grand Canyon that hasn’t already been said? One poet called it “the grave of the world,” which was quite a cheery thought to keep in mind as we said goodbye to my anxious father early Tuesday morning October 21st, and hiked the 11-mile South Kaibab trail to the Colorado River in about six hours, setting up camp for two nights at the Bright Angel campground. It is surprisingly civilized down there, especially for those who can fork over the dough to ride down on a mule. Those people get to stay at Phantom Ranch, which has a canteen (with beer!), tiny cabins with showers, and gourmet pre-prepared meals. I was a bit sad to discover a payphone attached to the ranch — the long arm of Ma Bell reaches everywhere.
The third night we hiked halfway up the Bright Angel Trail to the Indian Gardens Campground. That evening, we hiked out to Plateau Point, a flat spot in the middle of the Canyon, where we watched the sun set on Zoroaster Temple, saw Jupiter and Saturn cross the sky, and spied for satellites. The next morning we hiked back out to the Point to watch the sun rise, and Chef Mark cooked onions and sausage with garlic and honey on the camp stove.
It was funny — on the way down we were talking about how great it would be to hike the Canyon for a week — no, two weeks — no, a month! By the time we slogged up the last thousand feet to the South Rim four days later, all we could talk about was how we couldn’t wait to have showers, sleep on real mattresses, see a movie, and eat popcorn! The perfect life, I suspect, lies somewhere in between.
After the Canyon, the time seemed to fly. I dropped Mark at the airport in Phoenix and continued south to Tucson in search of warmer weather. I had just missed a huge snowstorm in Colorado, and it was getting cold. I was so captivated by the murals found all over Tucson that my time there turned into a photo safari as I hunted down and photographed every mural I could find. I hardly remember anything else about the city. I did visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and saw two mountain lions sleeping just behind a thick pane of glass. They are huge, much bigger than the pictures on the warning posters at the Grand Canyon Ranger Stations. They say that if you are attacked by a mountain lion you should fight back. I got a closer look at one and thought “yeah, right.”
From Tucson I drove to the hostel in Silver City, New Mexico, where I was “discovered.” The day before my arrival, a young woman named Camille had come to stay at the hostel. She was driving up to see the Gila Cliff Dwellings, and rolled her car down a 30-foot embankment. While she was waiting for AAA to send her plane tickets, I invited her to come with me to see the dwellings the next day. We compared trekking stories; she was filming an independent documentary on women doing cool things, and had traveled from Seattle through Detroit, New York City, and New Orleans, filming interviews. She was on her way to Tucson for her last interview when she rolled her car. I told her about my trip, and she asked if she could interview me for her documentary. She followed me around with her hand-held camera for the rest of the day, asking me questions: “What has been the scariest part of this trip for you?” (almost dropping my car keys into a Port-o-Potty); “What advice would you have for someone considering a trip like this?” (Go!) The documentary is tentatively entitled “Fiesty” — look for it in future Oscar nominations.
From Silver City, I headed north to Hostel Santa Fe, where I cheated at Scrabble with Mark the hostel host (“Io” is one of the moons of Jupiter, but it’s also a proper noun, which I neglected to mention when playing it for the win). I spent Halloween at the hostel carving two pumpkins and dancing at a gay bar with a group of gorgeously-dressed drag queens.
My next and last stop before heading home was Durango, Colorado, and Mesa Verde National Park. Mesa Verde is home to the largest group of cliff dwellings in North America. Our guide told us the story of the Anasazi, forced to abandon their dwellings almost as soon as they were built because they had depleted the area’s natural resources. He made us close our eyes, and quoted from an old Indian saying: “Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. That which he does to the web, he does also to himself.” Looking through the dark windows of the dwellings was like seeing into the future, not the past. That was one spooked tour group that climbed out of that canyon.
I arrived home on November 6th, having driven just over 6,000 miles. It was hard getting used to working again, but eventually, I returned to familiar rhythms, re-established routines, and told myself that I needed the job, if only to finance my next adventure. It took another three years before I let myself admit that the job no longer satisfied, my relationship wasn’t working, and after 10 years there, Michigan was still not my home. This time, I packed my stuff into a Budget panel truck, and moved myself and my cats into my sister’s house in Maryland in search of a new adventure.
Not one to pass up a chance to go trekking, my trip from Michigan to Maryland did include a slight detour through Italy and England, during which I invented Laura’s Italian Train Test, learned a lesson about guidebooks the hard way, and realized that travel, among other things, is a great way to stress-test a relationship.