“Joy — it’s not just a gift. In a sense it’s also a duty, a task to fulfill.”
(from Astonishments by Anna Kamienska)
“Let’s write about a dream trip — an idyllic summer journey to any place in the country.” This was the prompt I offered to the nine eighth-grade creative writing students gamely checker-boarded on my Zoom screen one Friday afternoon this past February. Sitting at our dining room table after returning from another week spent teaching in hybrid mode (half of my students in front of me in the classroom and half Zooming in from their bedrooms), I was end-of-the-week weary in all new ways. But this joyful club of after-school writers equaled happy hour and answering my own writing prompt set in motion the cathartic journey that followed.
My husband and I left Kirkwood, Missouri, early on June 13 and embarked on a 34-day road trip. After bidding farewell to our young adult sons, who spent those five weeks working at summer jobs and caring for the home, we headed west on Interstate 70, eventually traversing 6,450 miles while visiting four national parks, 11 state parks, one national monument, one national recreation area, five universities, five lighthouses, dozens of coastal towns, one great city, and many stretches of foggy/sunny beach. We spent 27 nights in a tent — a fact that I am absurdly proud of given that we are both in our mid-50s — and hiked/walked 124 miles. These statistics may strike some readers as tame (we witnessed, for instance, travelers significantly older than us doing everything we were doing, except on bicycles!), but the challenge was perfect for us. And the core reminders for me — that we are much stronger than we realize and that our somewhat broken world is exquisitely beautiful — gave pilgrimage weight to the entire lovely adventure.
As Robyn Davidson says in her memoir Tracks, the 2013 film version of which I show my seniors every fall, “The most difficult part of any endeavor is taking the first step, making the first decision.” Once Ric and I mapped out the trip on a Google Document, complete with routes and links and inspirational Google images; once we bought our “America the Beautiful” National Parks Annual Pass, booked the campsites, and Price-lined the handful of hotels; and once we started telling our somewhat skeptical family and friends about our ambitious plans, we were committed. In stubbornness against challenges, we unite.
That’s not to say that we were anxiety free, especially yours truly who seems to require daily reminders that “everything usually works out,” but once the journey was in motion, and as we gained confidence that we could, in fact, navigate the dislocation of perpetual newness in a different time zone several thousand miles from home, there was — as Ric declared after one dispiriting evening spent in grubby Crescent City, California — “absolutely no way” we were “calling it quits.”
Very early in the journey, we started to chart what we ended up calling “trip grace.” Concerned, as all tent campers are, about the prospects of dealing with heavy rain, we experienced just one wet night. Worried, given the realities of climate change, that we’d encounter extreme heat and/or wildfires, we avoided nearly all of it. Aware that we might have to contend with daily body aches from spending a month sleeping on camp mats and a single twin airbed, we both felt amazing, barely reaching for the Ibuprofen at all.
Exquisite natural landscapes, kind strangers everywhere, brand-new showers in the Oregon state parks, four lovely brew pubs, several thriving independent bookstores, a handful of charming ice cream shops, a steady stream of coffee kiosks, San Francisco’s colorful streets/parks/restaurants, a sky dizzyingly full of stars in Nevada’s Great Basin, fun texts and calls from our sons and siblings and friends — all of these elements and more helped offset the notably few upsetting experiences; in other words, we experienced the trip as a perpetual gift, a truth that still registers as slightly surreal.
Before we had our sons, Ric and I camped in multiple national parks (Everglades, Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, The Grand Canyon, Canyonlands, Zion). Rookie campers when we first met, we soon fell in love with the whole glorious mix: the simplicity and demands and low-cost of camping married with the unbelievable treasury of such gorgeous landscapes. Once our sons were old enough to carry their own packs, we camped with them everywhere, and we all agree that memories forged at Sleeping Bear Dunes and in the Rocky Mountains, at the Badlands and Yellowstone and The Grand Tetons, in the southwest parks and on the backpacking trips that our guys took with Ric and friends in the Pike National Forest and the Smoky Mountains are among our absolute favorites. After a bizarrely challenging camping trip in June 2018, I wondered out loud if my own camping days were coming to an end. But I’ve since realized that nothing quite matches it.
More than three months have now passed since we returned from our summer trip. When I outlined this essay, I planned originally to focus on the vicissitudes we experienced on this trip (homesickness relieved by surprising connections, grimness brightened by unexpected light), but as I started writing, I found myself wanting, instead, to map the beauty — not as a means of denying the tough moments, but as a reminder that where we put our focus really matters.
So, instead of detailing the bleakness of some of the small coastal towns, the grubbiness of some of the visitor centers, the depressing ubiquity of cannabis smoke, or the Yellowjacket infestation at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, I want to spotlight Trinidad, a California town so flower-bedecked and friendly that it surely acts as a balm for anyone who visits. Instead of charting the evidence we experienced of a climate in crisis (Lake Teresa now a puddle, Samuel Taylor State Park devoid of water, the eerie smoke from multiplying wildfires), I want to remember the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge and the Yaquina Head National Recreation Area, the North Beach Light House and tiny historic Oysterville, and the entire network of trails in Humboldt Redwoods State Park — landscapes so breathtakingly pristine and well-tended, so green and loved and life-affirming that just walking through them is a spiritual experience.
“What were your favorite places, your favorite moments?” family and friends asked when we returned. It’s difficult to narrow the list:
- the Wonderland Trail (still socked in snow) at Mt. Rainier National Park and sitting in the enormous leather chairs at Paradise Inn afterwards;
- the 12-mile hike to Deer Lake at Olympic National Park and the spontaneous three-hour campfire chat with four strangers who became friends that same evening;
- the fog and sea grass at Greyland Beach State Park and catching our first glimpses of the Pacific Ocean;
- the stroll along Oregon’s Seaside promenade and all along Cannon Beach, home to the famous needle rocks;
- the spectacular Cape Lookout Trail, a hike so gorgeous it remains imprinted in aesthetic memory files;
- the murres and penguins and sea lions at Yaquina Head, and the delightful percussion made by the water striking wet, black cobblestones;
- the hundreds of miles of S-curves we drove along the Pacific Coast Highway, nearly all of them sporting spectacular ocean views;
- the afternoon we rounded a corner and spotted a field full of white and yellow lilies;
- reading about Mabel Bretherton, the widowed mother of three who kept the North Beach Lighthouse for two yearsin the early 1900s;
- the smells of Juniper and Pinyon Pines at Humbug State Park, one of the purest scents I know;
- catching our first glimpse of the mighty Redwoods, trees so majestic and otherworldly that they defy description;
- our early morning walk through the mist-covered Lady Bird Johnson trails, and the afternoon hike through the Rockefeller Grove;
- everything we learned about the resilience of these trees, including the importance of nurse logs and snags and banana slugs and fire-proof bark;
- watching the sun sink into the ocean against a pink and lavender sky from the rocky promontory at Russian Gulch;
- our 12-mile walk in San Francisco amidst the perfect weather and colorful diversity of Golden Gate Park and Chinatown;
- marveling at the giant Sequoias at Calaveras and the 3,000-year-old Bristlecone Pines at Grey Cliffs;
- the kind strangers at one of the grubbier state parks who rescued and returned Ric’s prescription glasses;
- Sacha in Nevada, who charged us just $2 for steaming cups of freshly-brewed coffee;
- the exuberant young people at the welcome center in tiny Ely;
- the little boy named Weston who told us all about edible Redwood Sorrell;
- the flagger who granted us a free pass to stream past the more than 100 cars waiting to navigate a rockslide blockade;
- all of our games and songs and stories, a daily reminder that I am married to my best friend.
In truth, there are so many trip highlights that I don’t have room to record them all, and this is before I mention how much I enjoyed the simple, daily tasks of camping itself: deflating the air bed, packing down the tent, making our oatmeal breakfast, packing our knapsack lunches, finding the day’s trailhead, completing our song-filled hikes, playing games at the picnic table, setting up the tent and making dinner, and finding the best place to watch the sun set.
During one of our longer hikes close to the end of the trip, weary and un-showered and homesick and spent, Ric and I jointly decided that we would never camp for longer than 10 days again. As of this writing, we both agree that we would happily camp for 15 days or longer. Traveling is a task and camping in a tent while traveling is often a difficult task, but for us it is not just a duty to fulfill, it’s a joyful gift. That lesson, along with a heightened awareness of our own strength, our enduring bond, and the world’s great beauty, are trip takeaways worth both holding onto and sharing.