It’s always so difficult to talk about your travels. How do you summarize moments like this?
But this summer’s solo road trip was one of the most important things I did this year. As I spent days driving through the red rock beauty of Utah, or the bright blue spaces of Wyoming, singing to myself, car dancing, or stopping for photos, I found the adventure I had sought.
This adventure brought me calmness, the kind of calmness that patted me on the back after I set up my first solo tent, after I cooked my first campfire meal, after I climbed 4-, 5-, then 8-mile hikes through canyons, each as beautiful as the last. Sometimes I would hike alone for nearly an hour in Yellowstone, my bear bell jingling at my side, my senses ready for the sound of breaking sticks or tumbling rocks to mark the imminent presence of a wild animal (my arrival and departure were earmarked by two deadly grizzly attacks).
While I never saw a bear (up close; I needed binoculars), I saw bison and deer and antelope, all in the hundreds. And my own fears (of solo hiking, of driving across the country, of sleeping alone in a tent) evaporated in sweet awareness of my strength.
Yellowstone, like any grand place of enormity and raw animal behavior, made me poignantly aware of life’s fragility. Yellowstone, an active supervolcano that could erupt at any moment, reminded me that life is precarious and impermanent.
And then, when you come across a meadow like this, with the awareness that it could all be eradicated in a single dark hour? The moment is all the more dream-like, all the more important.
But it wasn’t Yellowstone that put me in silent awe as I drove for hours across inhuman beauty (for Wyoming is truly underpopulated). Entire mountain ranges and valleys made me pull my car over for minutes, sometimes hours, in order to taste what I was seeing before I returned to the car, the words of Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums on audio CD echoing my own thoughts. I, too, had explored the wilderness on my own and had discovered just how healing being alone could be.
And beyond Yellowstone, in the condensed vistas of the Grand Tetons National Park or the penny-red cliffs of Zion National Park or the copper-gold sunsets and sunrises of Bryce National Park, I encountered moose and mosquitos, rock-covered hikes and mud-filled rivers.
But one of the most poignant moments for me was this sign, quietly placed throughout Yellowstone. At one point in early America, fires were considered “bad,” and men worked and died doing so as they attempted to tire the hungry wildfire flames. Taming wildfires, like early colonization of peoples, was considered “good stewardship” of the earth. It was only in the 1940s and 50s when scientists recognized the value in fire, which scorched the earth but rejuvenated the local ecology, allowing the seeds of new forests to grow through the burned skeletons of the old. In fact, some tree seeds could not be released from their branches unless exposed to a high temperature. Fire is natural and, beyond that, necessary. As a result, controlled fire burns became part of park fire management and educational signs like these emphasized fire’s usefulness.
This concept was particularly interesting to me. Part of my rationale for the road trip was to escape from my own fire: the pain I felt from my breakup with Rafael. When I saw this, and heard the story behind the sign, I began to see the parallels in my own life: I had experienced a fire, but the fire would be good. This fire would bring new seeds into my life, and maybe I wouldn’t see it now, but I would see it soon. I knew I would heal.