A view (from afar) of Delicate Arch in Arches National Park.
I arrived in Moab, UT, on Friday, September 25th. It was the start of my final week of travel. There was a feeling of heaviness hanging over me, an anticipation that soon I would have to return to my life quarantined in the city. This feeling was countered by the excitement of being in Southern Utah and about to visit four National Parks that appear in pictures to be nothing less than magic.
I was up pre-dawn on Saturday to get an early start into Arches National Park. It is one of the most popular National Parks in the country, and I understood that parking could be challenging if you delay your arrival. It also allowed me to catch the sunrise over the 2,000-foot red cliffs that towered above the Colorado River near the lodge where I was staying.
One cannot predict when Beauty will come for you. It can sneak up on you in the melody of a song or the lyric of a poem. It can come in a warm smile or the casual touch of a reassuring hand. You know it because its appearance has a momentary effect of paralysis. You simply cannot leave its presence until it is done with you. The sunrise that morning was so beautiful, so magnificent, that I could not walk away. Lost in the sight of the sun's coming—a daily happening, I remind myself, that I so rarely witness—that it delayed my departure for the park.
First glimpse of an immanent sunrise near Moab, UT.
Beauty arrives in a sunrise near Moab, UT.
Eventually, I did arrive at the trailhead for the most iconic arch in the park, Delicate Arch, and to my disappointment, the parking lot was already full. I had to take in a view of the arch from a distance, entrusting the zoom on my camera to bring me closer. I didn't linger but decided to move on and head to the Devil's Garden Trail, hoping that I would have better luck with parking there.
Good fortune awaited me as I did snag a parking place and quickly threw my daypack over my shoulders and set out for what would end up being about a 10-mile hike. Once away from the crowds, Devil's Garden Trail via Primitive Trail was exactly what I was looking for. The trail led past wind-sculpted stone arches and towering monoliths and provided a sense of mystery and wild wonder.
Hiking solo, you become acutely aware of your surroundings. At the same time you treasure the solitude, you recognize your vulnerability. You especially pay attention to people around you. Seeing another person can assure me that if I'm lost, at least I'm not the only one lost.
About halfway through the hike, I couldn't help but notice a woman in her late 20s or early 30s perhaps—hard to tell with hats and sunglasses covering most of the face—who appeared to be traveling solo. Though we each were moving at our own pace, we both ended up at the same destination at about the same time. I became curious. When one travels alone, there is usually a reason. Furthermore, Southeast Utah is a remote place. One does not happen to be here. One chooses to be here. I know why I'm here, but I wondered: What brought her here? What's her story?
It was nice to have someone to experience the park with. It provides a different perspective. You notice things you would have missed. She said, "This is my favorite arch." I asked why, and she shared what she saw that I didn't, and my point of view changed. That is what a good travel companion does and why they are so hard to find. They do not divert attention from the experience but add to it and make it more rewarding. They give you a way of remembering a place that isn't based solely on one's own subjectivity.
Perhaps our conversation was too comfortable that we weren't paying enough attention. I watched helplessly as she took an awkward step on loose sand and fell to the ground. There was a popping sound, and I could tell immediately that she was in a great amount of discomfort. She grabbed her ankle and grimaced. I asked her if she was OK. "This happens sometimes. I have weak ankles," she replied.
I think more than being in pain, she was embarrassed. We were back on the main trail with significantly more foot traffic. The first park ranger we had seen all day appeared seemingly, almost magically, out of nowhere and asked if we needed to be evacuated. "We? Oh, I'm not—we're not. We just met 45 minutes ago." I thought to myself, then quickly determined that trying to explain wouldn't be helpful. I realized that anyone passing by was likely to assume we were together and that I would need to see this through to the end. She insisted that an evacuation wouldn't be necessary. She wrapped her ankle, slid her foot back into her boot, and climbed to her feet. Fortunately, we were less than a mile from the parking lot, and the trail at this point was fairly flat.
We took our time walking back. She required no assistance from me, but I stayed with her because I thought the company might take her mind off any physical pain. I asked her what she would have thought of me if I had left her on the trail. She said she wouldn't have blamed me, and we had a good laugh about how nutty the situation was.
When we got back to the parking lot, I gave her my number and told her that if her ankle got worse and she needed some help, she can give me a call.
I thought I'd never see her again, but in just a couple of days, I would be reminded that life is full of surprises.
A short walk down into the "Park Avenue" valley offers an immersive view of towering walls and monoliths.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
I bid adieu to the tiny house by the creek to continue by trek south to Durango, Colorado, but before leaving Montrose, I decided to check out Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. It was a short drive outside of town, and I was curious to see what this park—which I had never heard of before—was all about. My only expectation was that there would be a canyon, and perhaps it would be black.
There is nothing that prepares a person for the sense of infinitude that comes when you first catch a glimpse of a deep place like Black Canyon. Your senses are overcome. Your eyes do not know how to communicate to the brain what it's perceiving. Your breath is held captive in your lungs until you remind yourself to exhale. In that spark, the brain sends a pulse through the body that makes the hair tingle on your arms and your spine shutter. The mind asks, "Is this real?"
Black Canyon provided this unexpected thrill. Though not as popular as other national parks, it is none-the-less a spectacle. I drove the rim, stopped at several overlooks, and put my camera to action.
I knew there was more to see at Black Canyon, but after a couple of hours, I felt I needed to get back on the road and continue onward.
It was a picture-perfect September day. Though not peak foliage, autumn's transformation had begun, which made for a colorful drive to Telluride, where I stopped for lunch. Telluride is postcard charming. Cornered by mountains to the north, east, and south the town felt isolated—maybe even protected—from the outside world. I understand why rich people want houses there and why vacationers flock there. I attempted to walk off my heavy lunch in the central village area before grabbing a cup of coffee and hitting the road again.
I traveled south on U.S. 550, also known as the Million Dollar Highway, between the old mining towns of Ouray and Silverton. U.S. 550 is considered one of the most beautiful roads in America, and after driving it, I agree. I stopped in both Ouray and Silverton and at multiple turnouts along the way. The mountains in the San Juan Wilderness flaunted colors that I have not seen anywhere else, and the relics of the old mining railroad scattered along the way aroused my curiosity and imagination. Did the miners of the past feel the beauty of these hills, or did they only see what resources could be taken from them? Everyone needs to make a living, but just the same, everyone needs to feel alive. Is nature's purpose to pad the pocket or to heal the soul?
San Juan National Forest along the Million Dollar Highway. Railroad relics leave behind tracks of a bygone era.
A old mining house abandoned in the shadows of time.
I spent the night at a cozy bed and breakfast in Durango. It gave me not only a good night's sleep but also a boost of youthful invigoration as I was the only one there under the age of 60 (from what I could tell).
I arrived at Mesa Verde National Park mid-morning, keen to visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site. I had read in National Geographic about the cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloans, so I could not pass on the opportunity to see the archeological sites with my own eyes. Due to COVID restrictions, visitors could not tour the dwellings, but I could still observe them from a distance and hike the trails around sites.
Cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloans in Mesa Verde National Park. c. 1200-1300 CE
After my hike, I took an audio tour of the area, stopping at a dozen of the nearly 5,000 known archeological sites in the park. I could not help but ponder how wrong we got the native peoples of America. When we saw their arrows, headdresses, and rituals, we thought they were "primitive" or "savage." Yet, I look at the homes they built and the cliff dwellings they inhabited, and I see engineers and architects. For 700 years—long before European settlers arrived in the Americas—they lived, adapted, and survived in this harsh environment. The creativity and savviness of these people are astounding if we don't get hung up on cultural and worldview differences.
It still remains a mystery as to why the Ancestral Pueblo people left the area around 1300 CE. Some hypothesize that it was environmental changes that drove them away. Others say it may have been social conflict or political threats. I can't help but think that maybe they just wanted to move on. Perhaps they caught a bit of wanderlust. Or maybe it was that very universal and human hope for a better life somewhere new.
Petroglyphs tell the story of a past people who once lived and left their mark on the world.
A statue dedicated to the Ancestral Puebloans welcomes guests at the Mesa Verde National Park Visitors Center.
View from the Continental Divide on the Cottonwood Pass
I left Cheyenne on a Saturday and drove south into Colorado. I was starting week five of my journey, and I had been pretty much by myself up to this point. When Jen, a good friend of mine from my Boston days 15+ years ago, heard that I was on this road trip, she invited me to stay with her family in Evergreen, CO. After a month of conversing with strangers, I was very much looking forward to connecting with someone I knew.
It was a tad strange to be back in an urban area. Driving through Denver, I thought, "I remember this." The traffic, the noise, the pace of movement, it was all familiar. I stopped for lunch at an outdoor suburban brewery. College football played on the TV monitors as I downed a Hefeweizen and BBQ pork sandwich. How quickly the wild retreats when one re-enters the civilized world of shopping centers, parking lots, and microbreweries. I had both a feeling of comfort and loss. I missed the city-dwelling life before the pandemic—the ability to satisfy any taste of the palette, and the bustle of the city with its ample distractions. It felt good to be back; yet, as tempting as it was, there was also a part of me that wasn't ready to return. The wilderness wasn't done with me yet.
I enjoyed my time with Jen, her husband, and two kids and welcomed their generous hospitality. We drank lots of wine and laughed as we reminisced about the old days and how our lives (and the world) had changed since then. I couldn't help but think that I was peeking in on what my life could have been. Somewhere in the hypothetical multiverse, there is a version of my life where I am married, raising kids in a suburban neighborhood, in a beautiful place like this. This vision is not a bad one at all. There was an allure to it that made me wonder if I had made the right choices in my life. To be 41 years old, still single, still chasing something that I have yet to find. Why? What was it all for?
Hiking in the Mount Sneffels Wilderness
I stayed in Evergreen for a few days, then left on a Tuesday morning. From this point forward, I disconnect entirely from work, taking vacation days for the remainder of my trip. When I was planning this trip, a friend of mine from Colorado urged me to spend time in the state's southwest region. "You won't regret it," he promised. He was right.
I took the scenic 285 S toward Buena Vista, CO. Along the way, I listened to Thich Nhat Hanh's book Old Path White Clouds about the life of the Buddha or "the one who is awake." As my eyes followed the road ahead, I determined that my life had been void of two-lane highways for too long. If I never saw another freeway, I think I could be content.
In Buena Vista, I picked up the Cottonwood Pass (route 306) for a stunning drive that topped out at over 12,000 ft as it crossed the continental divide. I stopped several times for pictures, a stretch of the legs, and to simply pause and take in the vastness of the stoic landscape and the moodiness of the cloud-whipped sky.
I arrived in Crested Butte, an old mining village turned charming resort town, in the late afternoon and had lunch at a pub on Elk Avenue. I did a little shopping and then continued on to Montrose, where my creek-side "tiny home" Airbnb awaited me.
Welcome to the "tiny house"
The next day I met up with another good friend of mine. I first met Becca eight years ago, when she led the trip I was on to Indonesia. We connected again a couple of years ago in Tanzania when she led my Mount Kilimanjaro trek.
I met Becca in Ridgeway, and we headed to the Blue Lakes trail in the Mount Sneffels Wilderness for a day of hiking and fly-fishing. Multiple times on the trail, the path would bend and open to a vista that stopped me in my track as I uttered, "My God." The beauty of these lofty mountains was enough to leave me nearly speechless.
Unlike my fly-fishing attempt in Wyoming, we each caught several fish and, as gently as possible, released them back to the lake. On the trail, we talked for hours about travel, faith, and social justice. We finished the day bouncing down the dirt road in her four-wheel-drive SUV singing 90s hits, then downing beer and pizza back in town. It was one of the best days of my entire trip.
I left Yellowstone on Labor Day, exiting the park's northeast corner at the Cooke City-Silver Gate near the Wyoming/Montana border. It was a quiet drive. I listened to Plato's Symposium on audiobook and made a few stops to hop out of the car and snap pictures of the bison herds hanging on the side of the road.
A grey ceiling of clouds appeared just outside of the park entrance, and the temperature began to drop. I was expecting a rainy journey to Billings, but the drive turned into more of an adventure than I anticipated.
I noticed most of the traffic, what little there was, turning right on Highway 296 and going around the mountain range that stood between me and my destination, but Google Maps had me staying on Highway 212, the scenic Bluetooth Highway and a more direct route. As I ascended the pass, a blanket of clouds swallowed the road with light rain to accompany it. The scenic byway was not scenic at all, as the only thing I could see through the fog's milky haze and the red glow from the taillight of the truck in front of me.
The temperature continued to drop, and the rain turned to snow as the road climbed past eight, nine, then 10,000 feet of elevation. It was one of those driving situations where there is nothing you can do except keep going. Just two weeks prior, I was driving through 110-degree heat; now, I'm in a whiteout snowstorm. Fortunately, after I reached the summit and began the descent, visibility improved.
I stopped for lunch in Red Lodge, Montana, with wet snow continuing to fall. I asked my waitress at the pizza parlor about the weather. She shrugged her shoulders and said, "It's September. It happens."
I arrived in Billings in a steady downpour. I tried to check into my Airbnb; however, I discovered, much to my surprise, that it was still occupied. I talked to the host, who said the previous guest had refused to check out, and he wasn't sure what to do. I ended up in a hotel that night and arranged to move on from Billings to my Airbnb in Sheridan, Wyoming, the next day.
My time in Sheridan, which was eight days in length, was my most prolonged stay in a single place for the trip's duration. I had a private bungalow that was attached to a quaint country home. The homey location was perfect for my needs, and it was refreshing to stay in one place for an extended period.
Hiking Tongue River Canyon in Bighorn National Forest near Sheridan, WY
My host in Sheridan was a friendly all-American family. Ben and Sarah were native Wyomingites with four kids from elementary to high school age and a pack of sled dogs they raise and race for sport. One evening, Ben invited me to join him when he fed the dogs, and I eagerly accepted. The dogs were full of energetic spirit, and it became apparent to me that these dogs lived for one thing: to run. I was envious of the wild simplicity of their lives; their purpose transparent, and their joy so pure.
Feeding time for the dog sled team
When I wasn't working, I explored the area. I perused the Western and American Indian art at the Brinton Museum. At King's Saddlery, I daydreamed about quitting my job and becoming a cowboy. I hiked the canyon trails in Bighorn National Forest.
While driving around Sheridan and the small towns surrounding it, I noticed something that piqued my curiosity. All of the schools in the area were immaculate, at least from the outside. One evening, I asked Ben about my observation. He said that all the public schools in Sheridan were Blue Ribbon schools. I asked him what drove the economy that allowed such investment in public education. "Energy," he said. The big energy companies have mined the area for decades, providing jobs and tax revenue to fund schools and infrastructure.
Living in Southern California for fifteen years, I've seen the impact of climate change: longer heat waves, less rain, snowmelt earlier in the spring, devastating wildfires that are becoming more and more frequent. California has resources to combat the negative impacts of a changing climate, but many places in the world do not. We hear about the wildfires in California (or Australia—those poor, cute koalas), but less about the extreme weather taking lives and ruining communities in the Philippines, Myanmar, or Pakistan. The human impact on the climate must be addressed.
However, my time in Sheridan reminded me that there is a human impact on both sides of the climate debate. The economies and livelihoods of many communities are dependent on current resources—coal, oil, gas—of energy consumption. These communities must be included, not excluded, in the climate change conversation and the transition to clean energy.
After my stay in Sheridan, I drove down to Cheyenne, where I stayed at an Airbnb that was more like a hippie hostel on a ranch. Upon arrival, I was instructed to enter the house, remove my shoes, spray myself with COVID spray, then make myself at home. The secret ingredients in the COVID repellent were moonshine, witch hazel, and essential oils. It was tongue in cheek, but I obliged. It was 2020, after all, and I was willing to try anything at this point.
After several days of gazing at the backside (the western side) of the Grand Tetons, I was anxious to get a closer look. Leaving Idaho and crossing back into Wyoming, I stopped for a short 5-mile hike in the meadow rich Jedediah Smith Wilderness. Bear spray on my hip, I was ready for anything, but the wild was calm. The hike was peaceful, and my only encounters were a few people, a couple of dogs, and the remnant flowers from the spring bloom.
A view from the valley in the Jedediah Smith Wilderness
After the hike, I stopped in Jackson, Wyoming, for lunch and hopped on a Zoom call for work. With a full belly and my work responsibilities behind me, I continued my drive north. I stopped several times to take pictures and bask in the stately wonder of the jagged alpine peaks and soon realized I had shorted myself on time. A few hours is not nearly enough time to take in this iconic and aptly named "grand" mountain range. (Whether "Teton" is aptly named, I'll let you decide for yourself.) It is stunning to behold, and I longed to be swallowed by the view, consumed by the wonder of these heaven-reaching pyramids of stone.
A view of the Tetons, snapped along side the road.
Yellowstone was the reason I left LA on this road trip. In the COVID climate, the great outdoors was one place that still felt safe, at least from the virus. I had never been to Yellowstone, but I've felt drawn to the site for many years. Knowing that Yellowstone was in my own proverbial backyard, I assumed I would get there someday and choose to travel internationally when I could. Unable to travel abroad this year, I could no longer resist the pull that Yellowstone had on me. The time had come. All other stops on this 40-day road trip were in service of my eventual arrival to and return from Yellowstone National Park.
Yellowstone is extraordinary, and I write that without hyperbole. The park is so many things that it is difficult to describe. It is grand waterfalls and deep canyons. It is thick disorienting forests and wide expansive plains. It is thrillingly close wildlife and otherworldly geothermal activity. When you see the exploding geysers, the bubbling hot mud, and the steam leaking from fissures in the ground, you can't help but feel the eerie premonition that this whole place might erupt right beneath your feet. If it wasn't all so wonderful, it might actually be frightening.
My cabin was in the Canyon resort area of Yellowstone. The place was not a rustic log cabin like one might imagine; the bed was soft, the water was comfortably hot, and the electricity was reliable. It's what the place did not have that made the difference. There was no TV and no wifi, and I was lucky if I got a single bar of cell phone reception. I could not retreat to the cabin at the end of the day and engage in the artificial company of a television show or distract myself with social media. There was no way to drown out the whispers of the soul by escaping to the mundane entertainments. My options were to read, write, or listen to music; each required a kind of slowing down that confronted my perpetual restlessness.
On the second night, I went for a drive, looking for a quiet place to watch the sunset. I found this rise above a small pull-over on the side of the road. I climbed the mound and saw the serene Yellowstone River wind through a golden valley, loons bathing in the shallows, and mountains silhouetted in the distance. A herd of buffalo on the opposite side of the road attracted fellow sight-seers' attention, so I had the spot to myself. I found a place to sit on the highest point of the overlook. I sat cross-legged and took several deep breaths.
A tremendous sense of gratitude swelled in me. The disappointment and anxiety that lead me on this trip melted in the sight of the simple beauty and the wild elegance.
I had not heard from God in a very long time. Years ago, God was my companion. He was with me in conversation and had much to say. I had confidence that the Great Father had a plan for my life, and we often discussed how the plan was going. I sang songs to God. I felt a lot of guilt over my failings. But over the years, the voice of God faded. It went from a resounding voice to a subtle whisper. Then, it vanished altogether into silence.
Above the Yellowstone River with the reflection of the sunset dancing on its glassy surface, I thought, "Well, here I am, Lord. If you have something you want to say to me, now is the time. I'm listening."
I took several deep breaths. I repeated. "Here I am. I'm listening."
The Voice of God was absent. However, I felt a presence come and sit beside me. I again said. "If you have anything you want to say to me, I'm listening."
Still silence. No words of assurance. No directions for what to do next. No explanations for why life was the way it was—only God's presence.
In that moment I realized, my faith in a God that is "up there" or "out there" somewhere, speaking its will into my life, was dead. There was no going back to that God. I felt that in the deepest way.
Instead, a God that is here beside me, above me, around me, in me; a God in which I live and move and have my being has risen in its place. This God of beauty, God of mystery, has little to say. No instructions. No explanations. No messages. No certainties. No affirmations. No judgments. It offers only its divine and transcendent presence.
A few simple words began to impress upon my heart, not from a voice from above, but from a place deep inside my being: Abide in me. Abide in my love.
The whole experience lasted, I don't know how long, maybe 30 minutes? I got what I came for, but not what I expected. I met God, and it was Silence.
A peace that surpasses understanding filled my soul, and a smile of sweet surrender graced my face.
A view of the Oregon Trail along the Wyoming/Utah border.
After visiting Zion National Park, I spent the next week in Park City, UT. The outdoorsy lifestyle of this small town nestled against the Wasatch mountains provided a perfect place for realigning with my new unsettled life. In the mornings, I explored local trails or sat outside on the deck of my Airbnb and read. In the evenings, it was more of the same.
Not knowing anyone in the area, I had to set aside my introversion and practice my cringe-worthy small talk skills with locals. My eagerness to connect with someone prompted an overniceness and willingness to chat. However, after about ten minutes of conversation, the exhaustion set in, followed by the panic of having no idea what to say next. I had to remind myself that I encouraged this conversation, and I had to stick with it.
After Park City, I headed north to Idaho. Abandoning the freeways and interstates for two-lane highways, I finally felt as if I was truly getting away from the constant noise and frenzy of life (yes, even life in quarantine can be filled with noise). A repetition of yellow warning signs featuring silhouetted wildlife and messages of free-range cattle added to the sense that I was somewhere new. There is both a thrill and discomfort that accompanies this feeling. Leaving the comfort of familiarity behind and stepping into the tension of the new, one becomes open to possibility.
After stopping for a world-famous raspberry shake in Garden City, UT, I crisscrossed the Utah/Wyoming/Idaho border for miles following the famous Oregon Trail. Progress was slow as I discovered many "I've got to get a picture of this" moments as the highway rolled through hidden valleys and opened to mountain vistas.
Back in LA, where time and convenience were of the essence, I could open my gated car garage with the click of a button. When I arrived at my Airbnb, a sturdy home on the Teton County plain, four sheep lay in front of the gate. My instructions said to "shoo" the sheep away, open the gate, and come on in. I hopped out of my car and approached the lounging animals. The sheep stared at me, and I stared back at them. After some coaxing and clapping, followed by a fit of pleading, the sheep moved off the drive, and I pushed open the gate. Two dogs ran toward me, tails wagging, eager to welcome their new guest. I drove through the gate, hopped out of the car again, and swung the gate closed, careful not to let loose any animals. "I can relax now," I thought to myself, "no one here is in a hurry."
When I met Andy, my host, he offered his hand. I hesitated, then shook his hand. His was the first hand I'd shaken in the five months since the pandemic began. "Should I wear a mask?" I asked. "Nah. Unless you feel like you need to," was his response as he led me into his home. The pandemic—or the concern over COVID—had not reached this corner of the world.
I met two young travelers, Fernando and Esther, coincidentally also from Los Angeles, working remotely, as I was. I welcomed the company. We laughed together one evening as Fernando (of Asian and Latino descent) recalled as a child the day that he realized he wasn't white. Esther charmed Andy into taking us flyfishing, a first experience for all three of us.
On the second night, Andy shared his story. He served three tours in Iraq. This house he built near the Tetons was his "therapy." He became overcome with emotion telling us about the nonprofit he started to reunite retired military dogs with their handlers. "Those dogs saved so many lives… it's only right." He described the pure, tearful joy when a soldier reunites with his or her dog. In Andy, I saw a man working with the shadows in his soul. He was a good man who cared deeply about others while doing his best to reconcile his personal suffering with a desire for inner peace.
Andy epitomized the American ideal of self-determination. A hard-working kid from North Dakota, he joined the military, where he got into technology. After his service was complete, he consulted, then started his own businesses and found success and a livelihood. He designed and built his own house, which he (and his wife) opened to travelers from across the world. It's a place where people like me can sit outside and watch the sun drop gloriously behind jagged mountain peaks while swapping stories with one another. This is America at its best. When hospitality softens ideological divides. When our shared humanity triumphs over politics. When three Californians can sit on an Idaho man's porch laughing and crying about the surprises, joys, and struggles of life.
The moon rises over the Teton mountains.
The American flags waves proudly in Andy's front lawn.
Leaving Los Angeles, I found myself in the barrenness of the Mohave Desert. It was an appropriate place to begin my journey. Isolated in an apartment for months, the walls felt like they were closing in; each day the jaws of a claustrophobic vise-grip twisted tighter. In addition to the heaviness of the world’s crises, I was working through another failed relationship. Its confusion and disappointment weighed on me like an anvil pressing on my soul. I was empty; spiritually, emotionally, and mentally. I needed distance and space. I needed to drink from the well of some other place.
I wanted to go somewhere, but where? I looked at my wall map. My eyes kept returning to a space in the US I had yet to explore: the American West. It didn’t take me long to decide that it would be the place of my wandering. The West remains a mythic space in the psyche of Americans (and the world). And though the vast wilderness may not be as wild and undiscovered as it was in the 19th century, symbolically it is still a place for journeymen and women. It is still a liminal space for the adventurer, the gold-seeker, the one searching for new life.
But first, the desert.
As I drove through the dusty and parched landscape, the temperature hovering around 110 degrees, questions of uncertainty whispered in my mind. Would forty days of solo travel compound my feelings of isolation and loneliness? What if my vehicle was not up to the task? What if I got COVID? How would I take care of myself? What if I spread COVID? Is this trip reasonable or selfish? Doubt sat next to me in the empty passenger seat as I passed miles listening to Dune on audiobook. I gazed out the window. I was on Arrakis.
I arrived at my first stop, an Airbnb in Toquerville, UT, and settled in for the night. The next morning I woke pre-dawn, and I got my first glimpse of the many wonders I would see on this trip. Winding up Route 9, the cliffs of Zion National Park rose around me. The 2,000-foot rust-red walls towering to my left and right stood in contrast to the green foliage springing to life around the Virgin River. This is what I imagine the Garden of Eden would have looked like. I realize I’m back at the beginning. I get a glimpse of paradise, before the separation, before all the brokenness. The breeze tingles my face as a smile appears on my face. My thirst subsides for the moment.
Route 9 winds through Zion National Park
The magical landscape of Zion
The car is packed. I’ve kicked the tires. And I have more trail mix than one man can possibly eat. I’m soon leaving Los Angeles for six weeks on a solo road trip through the iconic and mythic American West. Utah. Idaho. Wyoming. Montana. Colorado. Utah. Then back to California. That’s that plan: to return in time to start my fall semester of school. It turns out to be, exactly, a 40 day wandering in the wilderness.
I’m not disconnecting completely. During this pandemic, I’ve been working from home, and there is no sign of returning to the office anytime soon. So I’ve decided to take advantage of this unique “work from anywhere” time by hitting the road for a good long time. I’m traveling solo, and staying at Air B&Bs along the way. I’ve planned the trip in such a way I can continue to work remotely while getting a long break from the glimmer and madness of Los Angeles. I’m leaving it behind for time in the desert, in the mountains, and in the wide-open spaces that allow a person to think, feel his smallness, and perhaps crack open the rusty vault of a weary heart.
The philosopher Martin Buber said, “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” I believe this to be true. The purpose of travel is not to see the expected. It is not to tick the boxes on a Rolodex of waypoints. The purpose of journey is to step across the threshold of the ordinary and enter the unknown, a place that is elusive while living in the comforts of everyday life. It is about the dumbfounding of one’s ego and the awakening to something other.
Why am I going? I’m not entirely sure. It feels right. It makes sense. I’m too proud to admit that it may be a reaction to a culmination of disappointments or some sort of middle-life crisis. Or perhaps I’m simply bored. But these explanations are far too simplistic and do not account for the complexity of a soul’s longing. I don’t believe travel needs an explanation, for the journey is reason enough.
As I’ve been preparing for this trip, I’ve been pondering this poem by Rilke:
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
Rainer Maria Rilke Book of Hours, I 59
Above a field near a deep royal bay,
A kingdom of birds flew, frolicked, and played.
In this sky kingdom, were birds of a feather,
Blue birds, red birds, some even looked heather.
The blue feathers ruffled the square feathers’ tassels,
Left feathers rumbled with right feather rascals.
Gray feathers warbled of bright feathers’ whistle,
Bright feathers squabbled at green feathers’ bristle.
Though grumbles and sighs and prickles and cries,
All birds held faith in the song of the sky:
That all birds, all birds, have a right to fly.
Among the birds, there was a special lot,
Long feathers were game from every flock.
Long feathers soared to a song of their own,
To serve and protect flights of the kingdom.
Behold, the long feathers. The hardest job of all.
They are brave. They are noble. They answer the call.
But alarmed word spread with tales and utters,
That wings of red birds were clipped by long feathers.
“How could this be?” Barked the birds of a feather.
“It doesn’t make sense. Long feathers don’t fetter.”
So chose many birds to ignore the sad plight.
“Those red birds don’t get it, don’t put up a fight.”
Yet more birds tumbled, and aloud they cried,
“It’s true. Look! Another red bird can’t fly.”
“No!” Said the square feathers. “Red birds don’t get it.”
Follow their orders, and you won’t regret it.
“Rules and flight orders,” the red birds declared.
“What good do they do if they are not fair?”
“Stay in your lane!” Privileged feathers retorted.
“This fury is ugly and makes you revolted.”
Anger, it deepened, for no one was listening,
The kingdom divided with all feathers quibbling.
For no one could guard against fear and distrust,
It grew and spread until the kingdom went bust.
Trees were uprooted, and bushes defrocked,
Red birds screamed, “this injustice is a crock.”
We fly and we fall while our tears we must dam,
Enough. Enough! No more timid as a lamb.
Sadness came, but still no understanding,
Just shouts and points and further dividing.
Till one day a long feather flew to the middle,
Removed his long feather with offer to settle.
I am here, will listen, I will not ignore,
For justice, I make the first step to restore.
A red bird joined him, in the act of accord,
“This hurt runs deep, and will be hard to explore.”
The red bird, she pointed to ghosts in the sky,
“Can you see? Can you hear? Do you feel their cry?”
“I can’t fly.”
“I can’t fly.”
“I can’t fly.”
“I see. I get it. We’ll make rules to fix this.
So please, settle down and stop all this protest.”
“Rules? Yes! But no. It must go far beyond that.
Empathy. Conversation. Transformational act.”
“Break bread. Walk beside. Listen to our stories,
Breakthrough. March forward. And demand just juries.”
“Justice is action, a revolution of the heart,
Be still, be uncomfortable, find unity through art.”
“‘Love thy neighbor’ He said, is not a suggestion,
It’s a command to obey, without apprehension.”
The long feather, he paused, not sure what to say,
The red bird proposed, “fly together this day?”
Up they soared, towards heaven, the wind lifted them high,
A new era was born in that wide open sky.
“You are right. It is ugly and painful to admit.
For so long, for too long, we’ve lain complicit.”
“Frustration today, with heartache and tears,
Come love. Come peace. Come justice all year.”
All birds of a feather watched the two glide,
Together, they flew, with nothing to hide.
Behold, the long feather, the hardest job of all,
With humility and action, you answered this call.
The books are piling high, and I've only just begun this new academic journey. After much deliberation, I decided to go back to school this past fall to pursue my Ph.D. in Myth Studies. I've been courting the Mythological Studies program at Pacifica Graduate Institute for the past few years, but the timing was never right. Last summer, I felt that urge, the call, that this is what I needed to do.
That call, that instinct, that voice was the same feeling I had when twenty-two years ago, I decided to study for the ministry. It was the same call I heard when four years later, I stepped away from vocational ministry to attend film school. It was the same feeling I had when I decided to move my life to Los Angeles 15 years ago. I had not heard her voice in a very long time, but last summer, she returned with her gentle yet persistent and familiar encouragement, "go."
All the rational objections surfaced in my deliberation. This is going to cost me a fortune. It will take at least five years to complete, and in the end, there is no obvious return on investment. I mean, assuming I'm able to complete the program and I'm awarded the degree, what does one do with Ph.D. in Myth Studies? Teach, maybe? I'm not looking for a new career. Disney has been good to me.
So why am I doing it?
Curiosity could be a reason. I enjoy learning new things, especially on a subject matter that I find so fascinating. I love story, and doing a deep dive into the myths, stories, epics of the world is exciting to me. The sense of accomplishment might be another reason. I like things that are difficult and feel a bit impossible. I find enticing the tasks that require focus and dedication over a period of time. Creative inspiration is another reason. I've struggled over the past few years to write truly original stories. I've been in a creative drought, uninspired, trying to find something to spring my imagination to life.
But I don't think any of those reasons fully satisfy the question of why. The simple yet more mysterious answer is because I felt that if I didn't do this, I would be ignoring the call. I wouldn't be doing what I'm supposed to be doing with my allotted time here on earth. Honestly, I don't know what will happen at the end of this, and I'm okay with that. I don't need to know. "Go," the Spirit beckons and have faith in the journey. The destination will reveal itself in time.
So every 4-5 weeks, I drive up to the school, near Santa Barbara, for three full days of classes. The rest of the work is done at home. The biggest challenge has been finding the time to complete my school work while working a full-time job and trying to maintain a semblance of social life. I'm figuring it out, and I'm getting used to the new norm. But most importantly, I'm beginning to feel that spark again.
The Myth Studies program is built on three pillars: comparative religious studies, classic art and literature, and depth psychology. I'm through one term of classes, and I'm halfway through my second term. So far, I have no regrets. The content has been a lightning bolt to my storytelling mind and has enriched my soul. My cohort is comprised of smart and insightful people from diverse walks of life. I'm already thinking of dissertation subjects and mentally preparing for the work that lies ahead. I'm so glad I listened to the call.
A WRITER KEEPING THE FAITH IN LOS ANGELES