Friday, March 18, 2011

Looking back: My first week on the road

This piece was written over the course of my first week on the road - August 27th, 2010 :

I’m sitting on the bank of the Mississippi River in La Cross, Wisconsin with a wonderful urge to move and dance around. That’s the thing about being on the road, leaving things behind and being in transition. Time constraints (with the exception of getting to a certain place on a given night if your sleeping arrangements depend on that) fade away. You can do what you like. Be who you like. Act as you like, and know that you’re just passing through. I have a much stronger urge to take exceptional care of myself, maybe because I am far more alone than I have ever been in my life and I need myself to depend on. But I also have a very strong sense that those close to my heart are not too far away.

A silhouette of my lovely green parrot
Sometimes I feel an intense sense of loneliness and wish for everything familiar; lake Michigan, the parrot, my friends just a short bus ride away. All the places that I know, the comfort of my own home and my own bed. And then I look at myself and realize where I am now, I really am OK. I have a wonderful ability to create my own zone of peace wherever I go, whether it be within my head through good memories or through little mementos from home or by just enjoying what is around me right now at the moment and finding a peaceful place to be. It’s not always easy, and often takes some searching; searching for the right song to calm my mind, reorganizing my things so I have the right mementos right with me, or seeking out a peaceful wherever I am. Sometimes there awakens a little instinct inside me to awaken my old defense mechanisms and run to someone who can help comfort me. But I don’t because I don’t need it. All I need to do is get out and look around and listen to my body, because my body knows what it needs to be calm and at peace.

And so I’m sitting on the bank of the Mississippi River in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and just saw my first river barge. It’s HUGE, well, ridiculously LONG (500 ft?), and is being pushed by a tug. The interesting thing is that just about 15 minutes earlier I saw a lone tug, which I presume moves ahead of the long barge and scouts out the bends in the river and then turns around to help the barge turn should it need to. 

This is cool! 
I love seeing new things!

One thing I learned in Minnesota: don’t mess with the country roads. Another thing I learned in South Dakota;  let them surprise you. I’ve been avoiding the interstate highways for the most part, although sometimes I’ve become a little too zealous with trying to stop at too many out of the way places in too short a time. I ended up circling around the same 50 mile radius area for about two hours in MN before I was able to get back on track.  On the other hand, here I am in the Black Hills, where I let a tiny dirt road plotted on my route surprise me by depositing me at the old frontier For Meade National Cemetery. I am alone herein the late morning haze. I often like to stop by cemeteriesa, especially older ones for the forlorn sense of calm that tends to envelop them. Ironically, it is raining. At this particular cemetery are buried soldiers from the Indian wars in the 1870’s until 1940’s when the fort closed down. The history is rich and I got a number of books to read on it as well as one of the horseshoes from the original cavalry regiments that worked at the fort.

Missouri River - Platte, SD
Sailboats. Wind. The grasshopper grave yard on my radiator. The profound peace of ranch country on highway SD-44. The majesty of the Missouri River near Platte, SD. The strength and silence of the Badlands at dusk. No fear. Just a feeling of great protection.

One of the most fantastic parts about being on the road alone is that no one is your boss, you have no time table, and really you can take as much time as you’d like to do whatever feels right and pleases you best. Sometimes, where the ranchland stretches for as far as one can see, I’ll get out and just sit for a while. I passed through many tiny towns, usually no more than a general store and sometimes a gas station, but often not even that. Sometimes it’s just a lone saloon on a run down street of ‘has been’ buildings in ill repair. There was Witten, SD, pop. 87, and Buffalo, not much bigger.

I visted Badlands National Park. It was late afternoon by the time I arrived. A little tip: if you go in late and leave late, it’s free. I’m not going to write too much down about the park at night. You’ll just have to go and experience it for yourself. The approach in itself was almost haunting. I arrived from the south where they gray expanse of cliffs and pinnacles seemed almost foreboding, stretching between the endless sky and the forgiving green of the ranchlands and buttes. The wind is howling around you and the only sign of civilization is the roach, on which you have not seen a car for the past hour. And then suddenly, there’s Interior, SD, the run down south entry point into the park and highly recommended over Wall on the other side, which came off to me as a busy tourist mecca almost robbing the experience of wildness and beauty from the entrance to the park.

Sailing, South Dakota
I arrived in the badlands via Yankton, SD, where I stayed with the most dear and wonderful hosts, Thane and Brenda Paulson of Sioux Falls. They not only opened their home to me, but also their sailboat. I am so greateful for the trust they gave to me when they put me to work on the boat for a night sail, and then in preparation for the race down the Missouri river. I remember asking a billion questions and learning about how and why the wind works around the sails. I remember hoisting the main sail and helping open up the sloop sail, learning about real and apparent wind direction and riding, legs over the guard rail on the bow of the boat into the moonlight. I slept better than I had in years that night to the gentle rocking of the boat in the harbor. Sailing is on my list of things to explore more. I’ll be looking for a way to do that. I ended up leaving quite early in the morning to a route recommended by Thane and Brenda down rte. 44 from Yankton to Rapid City.

They said it would be beautiful, but I’ve been learning more and more to keep my expectations open. I had no idea that just beyond Platte, SD, I would meet the mighty Missouri River, which approached from above gives an unprecedented  view of vastness and power of the water and the valley below. Snaking around the bend from rte. 44 on the east side of the river, I found a quite park, where amongst a grandma and her two grandkids, stripped down to my underwear and swam and flipped and splashed in the water, the same water that Louis and Clark touched 200 years prior.

Wild Horses, North Dakota
I’ve always had a tendency to want to optimize what I see and do; To plan it out just right so that I’ll get the best parts. But really, everything that ends up happening turns out to be stunning in its own, surprising way. I reached Theodore Roosevelt National Park around 5pm on Monday, August 30th. A storm was brewing, and I forged into the park just as the few remaining visitors were leaving. It was here that, as the rain abated, I told the earth, the sky, the clouds, the sun, the river, the rain and the creatures on the land and the air that smelled of sage and sweet grass, in a voice that was not quiet, that I AM ALIVE! I AM OK! And I LOVE YOU! And the sky, and the clouds and the sun and the air answered with the fullest rainbow I have ever seen; a full rainbow from horizon to horizon, and my first North Dakota Eagle. I stayed in the park until late that night, met some wild horses plodding along the road, which I watched for quite some time before heading out.
It’s daylight now, and I am sitting along the little Missouri River, the hills of the badlands stretching in front of me, the sky blue, and the wind in my hair. I met the horses again, ambling down the road and then galloping across the field in front of me down to the river, where they turned and looked before heading down the bank to get a drink. One has not seen true freedom until they have seen the wild horse, of this I am sure.

A storm near Buffalo, ND
In a place like this, amongst the buttes of the badlands, the prairie dogs (and their little high pitched barks), the wild horses, the scent of sage and the wind in the grass, you just wish that these moments would go on forever. You want to stay, you want to find a way to come back, or live here forever. You want to hold onto it and make it last. But like most things in life, there’s a time to let go of this too. To pass through and be full of love and thanks for what you have been where you have been and what you have felt. And then you move on, and new things, lovely things, magical things, will always join you on the way. There will be many difficult things too. But there will also be magic.

Often, I’ll stand in the grasses, the wild ranchland spreading out in front of me and imagine what it would have been to live out here on the planes, under the shadows of the grand imposing buttes with the wind at your back on horseback, as an Indian or as a settler. The earth here has so many stories to tell.

Someone I spoke with in passing told me I should make sure I have a radio with me at all time, because folks from the city, they can’t stand the silence. But I think I crave it. Even here though, in the park, it’s hard to escape the sound of a car passing in the distance or even an occasional airplane overhead. I can’t put down the wonderfulness of technology (for here I am amongst the grasses and rocks typing on my little pocket sized computer), but there have been many times when I choose not to bring a camera, or even the binoculars because I just want to be there. I want to come here and stay for days, explore by foot and by horseback. I’ve never been so content as when I am outside.

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