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
A WRITER AND TRAVELER KEEPING THE FAITH IN LOS ANGELES