On the Road, United States

Vernita Falls

There are no pictures, because you are driving and you have to keep going. No pictures but what will burn itself in the memory centers of your brain, just like light burns onto the chemicals of film, the chemicals of photo paper, for you to pull out at a later date and remember. No pictures but what you make on your mind, and what you recall from it because something you see now, through the windshield, tickles something you saw before, in a picture, in a museum, through an airplane window.

90 takes you over the first set of mountains, into the fog, by the sleeping ski slopes, and out the other side. Past Vernita Falls, Dallas Road, Coffin Road, the famous (who knew) Teapot Dome Gas Station. Out past the vineyards, the apple groves in the process of being harvested – apples so big and ripe you can see them from the highway – past the wind turbines and burned fields. Frequently, you want to stop, take a photo. Frequently, you wonder who names these places, and how.

My maternal grandmother’s name was Vernita. She died two weeks, almost to the hour, before I was born. In her honor, my middle name is her first name – because my mother didn’t think Vernita was a nice thing to do to a girl in the 70s. But who, out here, in Eastern Washington State, who knows when, had this same uncommon name, and gave it to a waterfall I don’t have time to stop and see?

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Onto 84, crossing the gorge into Oregon, you travel behind a truck filled with sweet onions, their papery skins flying off behind and a waft of onion scent trailing you both over the border. The land dries, the wind flies, dirt dances up into whirling dervishes of land, lost in its own silent prayer.

Occasionally, an ancient barn will crumble by the roadside. Next to it, the new one, the house built in the years between the two. Occasionally, next to it, nothing but land, nothing but the hills, and the freeway, nothing but these dilapidated remnants of America’s agricultural past. Sometimes, the remains are of a cabin, no town near, no river, no….nothing, but the skeletal remains of Manifest Destiny’s westward expansion and the casualties that came with it. Dead dreams by the side of the road. Road kill of a different kind.

And then a car on fire, fully engulfed in flames. And then a strip mall: Kohl’s, Best Buy, Starbucks, Target. You could be anywhere, but you are here, wherever it is. Soon it is southern, eastern Idaho, northern Utah, the Snake River cutting deep through high dry mesas, creating a fertile green farming valley. Somewhere, the rock is volcanic, black and sharp, and then everything is red, rust-colored. Out 80, into the mountains, the snow fences begin, lined up and waiting for the weather to come like a farm of solar panels waiting for the sun.

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And then Wyoming. Wild, wonderful, heart-breakingly gorgeous, with the green aspen turning gold and the black trunk of cottonwoods striking out behind yellowing leaves, along the riverbeds, up the valleys between hills. Trains snake through the canyons, hug the red-rock cliffs, slither low on the prairie behind the scrub brush and sage, carrying the loot of virgin land. They fade into the distance the same way Vernita Falls faded behind you, the same way the distance fades into fall – nostalgic, fogged over, waiting for weather to come.

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Life Skills

This Time, That Way

From the house where I’m staying, I can see the sound. I’m about 100 yards from the beach. This past weekend, following my nephew down there to be his steadying arm while he placed his two-year-old feet on logs like a novice on the balance beam, I realized how seldom I go down to the water, despite it being so close to home. Literally, so close to my house. But the next day, seated on the deck with my feet on the railing, the sun waning, and a book in my lap, I realized why: because it’s so fantastic when you walk out the door, it’s hard to understand the need to go the extra 100 yards.

The same is true while hiking. The trip around Mountain Lake, just under four miles of trail that crosses a damn, a number of bridges, has one manageable switchback and a million magnificent trees, is so pleasant, so wonderfully beautiful, familiar, and yummy smelling – in rain and sun – that it’s hard to bother with any other trail, say the one up to Twin Lakes, or down to Cascade Falls and across to Sunrise Rock.

I swore when I came back to the states that I would make everything familiar unfamiliar, do normal things anew, to keep my love affair with the world alive. Settling into my month of doing nothing, I’ve discovered just how difficult that is to do when the status quo is so damned blissful. But what are we missing by not pushing ourselves a little farther? How will we know, if we don’t try?

The hobgoblin of all that pleasantness is complacency. It’s not just that the deck is pleasant, or the trip around Mountain Lake, nice. They are each so much more wonderful than one can imagine, experiences that make one feel truly lucky to be a part of them, even when they have been done over and again for decades. It becomes a challenge to push for a different fantastic, blessed experience. When something seems so wonderful as it is, even when experienced over and over again, how do we convince ourselves that there is something out there, easily attainable, that is even MORE fantastic? If we raise the bar, we run the risk of not meeting it, even when all signs point to the hurdle being, in this circumstance, low. Do we have to feign dissatisfaction? Dare we risk disappointment by choosing to call even the good status-quo, not good enough?

I say yes, risk it. Risk it often. The world is capable of constant surprise, if we just give it the chance. The Mountain Lake trail is the best, but when the bridge was out for a month, I started going to Twin Lakes, and you know what? Even better. Better because different. Slightly longer, in the woods with a wider, more foot-sure path, and then the prize of the lakes at the end. A steady, gradual up, followed by a steady, gradual return. A different set of people hiking it.

A wider path

A wider, more foot-sure path

Go to the beach. You can hear the waves from the house, but you can hear them better from the shore. You can smell the ions flushing through their crest, shallow and gentle though it may be. Relax into the repetitive motion of failing to skip a rock, and eventually, it will surprise you by bouncing up off the surface and jumping a few times before plopping down below.

Don’t judge. Don’t call yourself lazy, or complacent, or unwilling. It’s ok to appreciate all that you are, and all that you have, and still seek more. Because it isn’t more – it is different that we seek. This time, go THAT way, the way you haven’t gone before. Seek, and ye shall find your different.

Trunk across the path of life: a new opportunity to duck and keep going.

Trunk across the path of life: a new opportunity to duck and keep going.