The whole trip was kicked off with a mad dash through the airport. And, I don't mean, dash like "oh shoot we're in a hurry, lets hustle." I mean frantic sprinting through the maze of O'hare, hauling a 40 pound pack that contained all my worldly belongings for the next five months. People were staring. Four different airline employees told us to go to the wrong place (convinced they all just wanted to watch us flail around for an extra five minutes). We were in a real life airport chase scene out of a movie. But not an intense, sexy action sequence scene -- more like one where slapstick music is being played over us tripping through the security line.
Rewind to that afternoon. Flight delay alert number one. Making quick friends with the dive bartender who was over the moon about it being Cinco de Mayo. Flight delay alert number two. Yeah why not bus around the neighborhood to find a cup of coffee. Until -- two canceled flight delays. Panic. We are all separated, an hour train ride from the Airport, and our flight is now boarding in 40 minutes. Panic!!! If there were ever a situation for time to stop being linear, or for apparition to be a real thing, now would be it. Eventually, when your insides are floundering while sitting on a city bus as the driver waits standstill at a stop for ten minutes, you believe that if you squeeze your eyes shut hard enough and harness your magic brain powers, you might just slip into time and space and come out at the terminal that's well over an hour away.
That didn't happen though. And for the sake of the story, I'm alright with that now in hindsight.
We did get to the gate before the plane took off. In fact, once we got there, the plane didn't even board for another hour. And then didn't even leave the ground for three more due to some combination of things involving making a repair, losing the paperwork for it, and not being able to find the copilot.
If you're keeping track at home, that's a one hour delay. Another one hour delay. A two hour un-delay. And then four hours of thumb twiddling divided between the gate, the runway, airplane number one, and airplane number two. By now, I was finally able to recognize the huge cosmic giggle I was currently a part of.
Touch down in Portland at 4am, and we are thrown right into the mouth of a hungry car rental hyena who is trying to convince me I need the 2 million dollar insurance protection plan (how are they still just as blood thirsty at the deadest part of the night??).
Fast forward through an hour of driving to where we were staying and a few meek but beautiful hours of sleep. The sun was up and we were on the run to the trees.
Lots of trees. Lots of riverbed skipping. Lots of mud between the toes and waterfall mist showers and wildflower picking. And the bow on top the perfect first day was found at one of the infamous food truck lots in Portland (hello sweet potato fries and vegan barbecue).
The next six days were an up and down rollercoaster, with the ups greatly outweighing the downs.
There was the first sighting of Mt. Hood while we were driving away from Portland, Pacific Coast bound, stopped at a little roadside pull off to pee behind some trees. There was a clearing in the brush, miles and miles in the distance was the soft, snowy white peak taking a nap on the horizon. I cried while seeing the bliss that came over Carly. And then cried again when looking back to the foreground at the gravel lot that had turned into a trash bin for other roadside tree trunk peeing drivers. Human beings, who came from the ocean and evolved under the trees, somehow still stuck in an identity crisis over what it means to "respect your mother."
Coming around the bend to merge onto Highway 1, we drank in our first glimpse of the pacific ocean. Screeching halt. Shoes off. Running a mile down the shoreline to feel the size of the mountainous headlands protruding from the ocean towering overhead. Soon after, realizing millions of dead jellyfish were washed up on shore right beneath our feet. At least they were dead.
This wasn't my first encounter with the Pacific Ocean. But it was my first one in 18 months, and that was a long enough absence to be moved by it. As a Michigan native, a freshwater guppy, I will go to my grave singing nothing but praise for the Great Lakes. They hold a really carved-in-stone place in my heart. And while there are qualities about the lakes that the ocean just can not fill, at the same time there are qualities about the ocean that are absolutely irreplaceable.
You can smell the life churning around in the ocean so much more vividly. It's wild. It's unconstrained and unforgiving. But at the same time, the long, calm tide beckons you to come and wade in the white water. The ocean sticks with you even an hour after you say goodbye, the salty residue that clings to your lips from just exchanging breath with it.
Even still, there's a lot of magic that the two share. Like the stirring that happens inside you when you see that expansive canvas of blue that eventually dissipates around the horizon as it mixes with the atmosphere. (Call it fluffy hippie shit, but I don't write off the power of the moon's gravitational pull and the fact that us human beings are mostly made of water.) And then there's the way you can see the bending of the earth if you manage to find a place high enough and open enough to catch a view.
Head south a hundred miles and you run right into Newport, the sleepy but not too sleepy little harbor town built right on Yaquina Bay. We set up camp at a site just south of the town. Being the first week of May, we had the luxuries of formal campsite (a toilet paper equipped bathroom and a picnic table and a gated fire pit to cook over) without the company of the annual family reunion parties as our neighbors. Hammocks were hung, veggie dogs were grilled, and the cheap supply store wine was beginning to stain our lips as we cut through fields of beach grasses and wildflower bushes to find the harbor before dusk.
The sun set and the air was damp, that cold dampness stuck to our ribs all night as we learned the hard way that we had greatly underestimated Oregon's springtime chill. Everyone was thankful by the time day started breaking at 5am so that all hopes of trying to fall asleep while fighting off the shivers could finally be given up on. A small fire was kindled to allow our fingers to warm just enough to pack up camp.
Within an hour, we were warmed to the bone, had peeled through the most dazzling early morning fog, and were sitting down with hot coffee in hand and breakfast on the way.
There was a predicament. We had six days to make it to San Francisco. 800 miles, a little more if you account for the scenic detours. But there was a big scenic detour we were all eyeballing. In the South West corner of Oregon, about 4 hours inland, Crater Lake was tucked away in the mountains like a cozy little diamond. The lake formed almost 8,000 years ago in the caldera of a once active volcano after it's collapse. It's the deepest lake in the western hemisphere and contains some of the bluest, purest, cleanest water in the world. Making it there would be a stretch. Four hours in, and another four hours back to make it to an elevation that we were equipped to camp at. Since we were fed and caffeinated and on the road by 7am, we called it a go.
Flying through magnificent forests, skimming the edges of expansive river gorges, playing I Spy with the shy mountain peaks that began poking their way into view -- we were on the way. We rarely passed other cars. It was the swing season -- not quite summer yet, but winter had long said goodbye. People aren't exactly drawn to the mountains of central Oregon for slushy, clammy, half warm spring days.
We followed the long stretching road and watched as the trees grew taller and taller. From inside the car, you couldn't see the tops of them without pressing your nose to the glass. We were just under half an hour away, coming to the last bend that would take us up the final ascent to the rim of the crater that the lake was tucked away inside. Moving almost sixty miles an hour, until seconds later the car came to a screeching halt as a massive road blockade appeared at the flip of a switch as we rounded a wide corner. The huge metal barrier stretched across the entire road with a small sign mounted right in the center. Road closed for the season.
Eight hours out of the way, and none of us thought for a second that May would be out of season for a national park. But here we were, stuck. After the initial panic of almost running the car head first into a barricade that would have likely made it out better than us, my brain settled a little. FIgure it out. Here's a road block, a very literal one. So, figure it out.
Even if we had to turn around and drive four hours back without making it to the lake, it wouldn't be for nothing. I was sitting beneath some of the oldest, tallest trees I'd ever sat beneath, with arguably four of the greatest people i could possibly have in my presence, breathing some of the cleanest air my lungs knew what to do with. So maybe I wouldn't be able to check Crater Lake off my list of beautiful things my senses got to be tickled by. But traveling isn't about just checking things off your list. The list is a good starting place. But you can't be married to it. As soon as you are, a road closed sign or a delayed flight or an of the millions of other barriers that come with traveling will ruin you.
A few minutes later, a map was pulled out and we traced a route to what seemed to be the south entrance to the park. It was only another half an hour, so we were back on track. We directed the other two cars that had come to a screeching halt at the gate. We were all on our way, and after 40 minutes of recharged spirits and a winding, narrowing road that began to switchback up hundreds of feet, we were overlooking the most dazzling icy blue water. The hue was so piercing it was truly hard to believe it was real.
Being so early in the season, all of the roads that circled the perimeter of the crater were still closed. So we drank our fill from where we were and then made our way back to sea level. We still had quite a way to travel in hopes of making it into Northern California to camp. The mountains softened into rolling hills. Most of the landscape was so gently touched by man, the views were still quiet and peaceful.
We rolled over the California/Oregon boarder just in time for Phantom Planet to come through the speakers (thanks, Carly). We were all sweaty, still bundled up from being in ankle deep snow, antsy after being in a car going on 7 hours, yelling the words to our middle school anthem, finally in the place we were yelling about.
We set up camp just as dusk set in, cooking over the fire using headlamps and pocketknives. We were nestled in a grove of redwoods, but since it was so dark already, you could only feel the shadows of the prehistoric trees all around. It was a kind of safe feeling, but I still got a little spooked walking just outside of the glow of the fire to pee.
We were up as soon as the sun cracked through the trees, on our way to the best greasy spoon breakfast I've had to date. It was a tiny little place, with decorations that probably hadn't changed since it opened decades ago. Greasy, but not too greasy, with mediocre coffee and every flavor square of jelly you could imagine. It was perfect.
Our sweet waitress told us about a grove of redwoods that was right around the corner. With bellies full of hash browns, we headed straight there. As soon as we all stepped out of the car, we scattered; with Alex writing by the river, Carly heading down the trail, Caleb sitting atop a giant that had fallen years ago. I went straight for the biggest granddaddy tree I could find.
If you've never encountered a place in nature that has made you cry, I mean sobby, blubbery, laughter filled tears of insignificance and joy and solitude and bliss all at the same time, I encourage you to make it a point to find that. For me, it came after pacing the 34 steps around the trunk of the biggest granddaddy redwood in the center of the entire grove. To put your hands on a living being that ancient and magnificent, to feel hundreds of years of life pulsing beneath your palms, it was indescribable. So I just let go and allowed myself to be filled with laughter and blubbery, blubbery tears.
The night following, we camped at another state park a few miles south. We spent the afternoon setting up camp and cooking over the fire and staining our lips with cheap wine and watching elk graze in the open fields that were cozied in between the sky-scraping trees. As dusk fell, we befriended the couple camping next to us. They were on their honeymoon. We all shared dinner together, trading provisions, passing a joint around the fire, filling the air with laughter and music. Somewhere along the night, the topic of death came forth, and it hung in the air in a heavy but not sorrowful way. I fell asleep to the sound of a fire crackling feeling very dreamy yet vividly alive.
We were all awake and packed before our new friends had stirred for the morning, and we were on the road without having the chance to say goodbye. Even now, I don't even remember their names. Encountering strangers on a whim has made me learn to appreciate the fleeting relationships you create while traveling. I will probably never again run into most of the people I have met while traveling. and the wonder in that is fantastic. Your paths intersect for a moment or an afternoon, and you share some kind of beautiful overlap, and then continue on your way. The need for me to keep up with everyone, where they are and where they have been, is unconquerable. No one person has the capacity to hold appropriate space for everyone all the time. But I do have the capacity to hold space for you in this moment. While we share shade from the sun at a beach. While we share laughter around a fire. While we share a passing glance on the sidewalk. And the more I hold space for where I'm at, the more I find myself feeling full, even in the absence of others. And if that isn't what we are all striving for, then I don't know what is.
The rest of the trip was a blur. In some capacity, it included: queasy stomachs after lots of winding roads through the dense hills of Northern California. Exploring breweries in small ocean harbor towns. Refusing to pay $5 to some asshole who was profiting off of people who fetishized driving through a tunnel carved into a still-living 2,000 year old tree that just happened to be on a piece of land he owned. Getting shitty souvenir group tattoos. Watching baby cows frolic down grassy hills (this isn't even an embellishment, I saw the happiest cow I'll ever see and it almost made me cry). Beach combing for treasures critters had long left behind. Sleeping one last night within ears reach of the ocean. Getting a rude awakening when civilization slapped me hard in the face in the form of San Francisco rush hour traffic (and what a rough first impression of the Golden Gate). Eating vegan soul food that was possibly even worse for me than most of the greasiest not-vegan food I've had. Reuniting with old hometown friends. Cuddling with a dog named princess on the floor of a stranger's living room. Finally showering. And at the very end, letting out goodbye tears at an airport terminal at 6am as we all prepared to part. Me, carrying my life on my back, about to get on a plane that would drop me right into an entirely new adventure, with my partner and best friend at my side.
A hoi hou, until we meet again.