A look at "Thor's Hammer" and beyond in Bryce Canyon National Park
My drive from Capitol Reef to Bryce Canyon was one of the most peaceful and enjoyable drives during my road trip odyssey. Perhaps the knowledge that I would end my day in Las Vegas heightened my ability to enjoy the moment. I drove on a quiet highway, passing small towns and valley farms, listening to Aristotle's Poetics on audiobook. At some point, the orange dividing lines on the road disappeared, and the road turned into what we called home a "black-top" or a no-frills strip of asphalt. I consulted Google Maps to make sure I hadn't made a wrong turn. It assured me that I was indeed on the right path to my destination. I settled into the drive and reflected on the preceding weeks, the people I met, the places I visited, and the chance to connect with something beyond, that ineffable something that lifted me from the doldrums. I felt the most profound sense of gratitude.
I arrived at the Bryce Canyon Visitor Center and got the last stamp of the trip in my National Parks passport book, then set out to see what there was to be seen. I didn't know what to expect from Bryce Canyon, except when I mentioned it to people who had been there, they all had the same look on their face. It was a look of delight. Their eyes smiled, and their head nodded in knowing affirmation, followed by a, "Oh, you're going to love it."
Strolling among the hoodoos
Bryce Canyon was one of the biggest surprises of the trip and perhaps the most magical of all the landscapes. It's not a canyon. It is numerous canyons and amphitheaters carved into the side for a forest-covered plateau. The canyons boast the largest concentration of irregular rock columns, called hoodoos, in the world. The towering spires and sandstone walls stand proud and defiant against the elements prone to batter. The rugged beauty of this area is a testament to the audacity of the natural world.
As I bopped down the trail from Sunrise Point, I came across another surprise. I noticed a hiker in front of me and further down the trail — a woman with a slight hitch in her step. As the gap between us closed, a thought popped into my head. "It can't be," I told myself. I blinked my eyes rapidly, rubbed my eyes cartoonishly, and looked again. The backpack was the same color, and she appeared to be nursing a sore ankle. "Is that…?"
I passed her on the left, trying very much not to be creepy while looking back at her. She stopped in her tracks.
“Lena?" I retorted, feigning perplexity with my voice. Sure enough, it was her, the hiking companion I met in Arches National Park two days prior. We picked up right where we left off.
"How's your ankle?"
"What did you think of Capitol Reef?"
"No, I won't judge you for wearing the same clothes you were wearing two days ago."
The delight of this chance encounter made the land seem more magical. The conversation turned to banter, and we joked about what other hikers were thinking. We took our time strolling the trail, gawking at the scenery, and snapping pictures along the way. We climbed up the Navajo loop trail through the narrow canyon called Wall Street and arrived at the canyon rim at Sunset Point. A decision had to be made. I opted to head back down into the canyon to see a bit more — it was my last day in the wild, and I wanted to make the most of it. She decided it was best not to push her luck with her tender ankle. So we wished each other well and went our separate ways. If life were a Hallmark movie, perhaps the story would not have ended there. But experience has taught me that life is not a movie, and I've learned to say my goodbyes. Except for the exchange of a few text messages, we have not spoken since.
I rolled into Las Vegas as the sun was setting. I was greeted enthusiastically by my dear friends, who welcomed me into their home. "How was your trip? Tell us all about it!” I stumbled. Where do I even begin? I thought to myself. How can I possibly explain the journey of these past 40 days? It wasn't just the places seen over the many miles driven. It was over the rugged landscape of my soul that the greatest distance was traveled.
After I returned to Los Angeles I wrote this reflection.
40 days. 7 states. 9 National Parks. 4,408 miles driven. 110 miles hiked. 1,448 photographs snapped. 60 hours of audiobooks.
I drove through 115-degree heat and a snowstorm. I traversed mountains peaks, weaved through canyons, stumbled through deserts, felt wind rumble forests, and watched time float down rolling rivers.
I saw numerous bison, elk, deer, and antelope. I met two Red foxes and one lonely rattlesnake.
I traveled solo, but I did not travel alone, for I met many fellow sojourners along the way.
What was I looking for? I still don’t know. There was no epiphany, only the rediscovery of the many tiny miracles; in each sunrise and sunset; around dusty corner bends; in the smile of a welcoming host; in the chilly air of the starry night sky; in the enduring rhythms of life in a world away from humankind.
I encountered the great Silence, and it was divine.
A sublime sunset over Yellowstone
Mesa Arch frames the rugged sandstone landscape in Canyonlands National Park
I left Arches early on Sunday morning to head to nearby Canyonlands National Park. I entered the park from the north in the "Island in the Sky" district, which is how, I believe, most people view Canyonlands—from above, looking over the landscape's cavernous rifts. To say the area is vast would be too obvious. Words and pictures fail to capture its scope, which invoked a sense of both wonder and frustration. My eyes could not open wide enough to consume the whole of it. Still, there was a desire to draw closer, to descend its water-worn walls, to feel the timelessness more intimately. To access the canyon floor would require a 2–6 hour drive—depending on where you're heading—through the east entrance of the park. I did not have the time for that, so I had to settle for a couple of short 1–2 miles hikes above the rim and a promise to the land: "I'm not done with you," I whispered as I drove away in the early afternoon.
The official line is that water and time carved this epic ditch in the earth.
I think it looks like God took an ax and split the earth open.
I arrived in Capitol Reef National Park in the evening hours when the sun paints the red rock walls with its orange-hued light before retiring for the day. It was a lovely welcome.
Capitol Reef stretches nearly 100 miles from north to south along the geologic formation called the Waterpocket Fold. It's basically a lift—or monocline—in the rock layers of the earth's crust that occurred during a "big event" 50-70 million years ago. An ancient fault lifted rock layers on the west side more than 7,000 feet above the rock layers on the east side. Over the millions of years that followed, ongoing erosion carved and crafted its novel and colorful formations and canyons.
"Follow the light"
On the road into Capitol Reef National Park
While the park runs north-south, the only highway that enters the park runs east-west. The park's scenic northern and southern districts can only be reached via dirt roads that require high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles. I had one full day at the park. The allure of being in a place that so few people visit enchanted me, so I arranged for a guide to take me, via a suped-up Jeep, to the Cathedral District in the north end of the park.
My guide was a friendly young man, perhaps in his late 20s. A Utah native, his heart and love for his home state was evident. He worked for the park service as a guide most of the year. During the offseason, he lived simply, often on nearby BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land camping out of his truck. We turned off the highway onto a sandy path that led to the wind- and rain-chiseled sandstone cliffs that reminded early settlers of the flying buttresses of gothic cathedrals.
My guide snapped this picture of me as we explored the "Temples of the Sun and Moon"
What struck me, beyond the alien formations of the land, was the silence. City-living is a cacophony of noise. You can't escape it. But here, with the car engine off, without wind, animals, or movement, and void of the rhythms of life's sundry sounds, there was a marvelous stillness. My deafened ears grasped for a note to reassure me that my sense of hearing was still functional. In this kind of deep silence, you become aware of an otherness—that thinly veiled something that is always there, but we are unable to grasp in the commotion of life's comings and goings. It is the sense of infinitude, the everlasting and boundlessness of life that sits just beneath the surface of our everyday experiences.
"Am I still on planet earth?"
My guide explained the differences in rock layers—basalt, sandstone, shale—and I nodded my head like I understood what he was talking about. We traversed the wild landscape for six hours, and since it was just the two of us, the conversation spanned the whole spectrum of topics. We reviewed our favorite movies and shared religious philosophies while touching dinosaur bones and ancient lava flows.
When I retired to my room for the night, I felt a bit of melancholy. It was the eve of the final day of my 40-day adventure. The next night, I would return to the bright lights and swirling sounds of civilization. But before I got there, I had one last stop to make— Bryce Canyon.
A look down at the "flying buttresses" of the Cathedral Valley, a place where the silence is numinous.
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.
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
A WRITER KEEPING THE FAITH IN LOS ANGELES