BOZEMAN, THREE FORKS, HELENA

What effect would it have on a person – well, on me – to travel alone for months at a time, moving from campground to campground, interacting only with strangers? Would changes occur in that person – well, in me – and if so, what would they be?

I’m aware of some of the changes, and they are some of the reasons why I love this life, at least for a while each year. Of course, my main reason for traveling this way is to live out in nature, to see as much as possible of this amazing country, to be outdoors under the sky most of the day surrounded by beauty. But it turns out that this life offers even more than that.

There’s something about not being involved in any close way with people that is relaxing, easy, and it feels like I’m getting a vacation from my Self. In campgrounds, I meet lots of people, but it’s always brief, time-limited. In some campgrounds I talk to almost no-one, sometimes for days at a time. Those are usually the campgrounds where each site is private because of bushes and trees, so we campers don’t see each other. The most social ones are those where visibility is high, and it’s in those that much more visiting back and forth goes on. I like them best. I like meeting people this way, with no preconceived notions on either side. When I travel like this I am without most of my identity, all those markers that define me: my personal history, my professional history. I’m just whoever I am right there right at that very moment.

I think my months of camping are like my evenings of playing quartets (I’m a cellist), back when I spent my long days as a psychotherapist, intensely involved with people. They are both, camping alone and playing quartets, ways of unhooking from the complexities of human interactions, ways of entering very different worlds. After a few weeks on the road I find I’m less and less aware of myself, I’m focussed on just what’s around me, almost without myself in the picture. I wander in the wide open spaces and gradually spaces open wide within me, all the incessant internal clutter and chatter drifting away. I like this state very much. Until I don’t, and that’s when I go back home to take part in regular life again.

Recently, an unexpected opportunity came to me to learn more about the effect on me of being so alone for so long. One evening I found myself sitting in a friend-of-a-friend’s house in Bozeman, Montana, listening to a concert of robust piano-trumpet jazz. It was then that it hit me, and I almost gasped out loud with surprise: I have not been inside a house for almost three months. And I have not been with family or with friends or with anyone I know or with anyone who knows me, for almost three months.

I sat there in that Bozeman living room with about twenty other people, all strangers, but every one of whom I had found interesting in the milling-around time before the music began. It was a remarkable house, designed by the owner: lots of immense rock faces and soaring windows and twenty-five foot ceilings. Many of the huge paintings on the wall and the enormous sculptures outside on the lawns were made by some of the people sitting there with me. The house alone would have been sufficient entertainment for the evening.

Afterwards, when I got back up in the canyon where my little trailer stood all alone, waiting for me, I made a cup of tea and sat in the dark under the stars. The piano and trumpet still cavorted together in my ears, the excitement of being with all those people still electrified my racing mind. I was so jazzed up by the whole occasion that it took two cups of tea before I could even begin to calm down. All evening I had felt like a child, so excited and happy that I could hardly contain myself, and I found that I was spurting out whatever came to mind to say, also just like a child. My social editor had gone to sleep! I don’t think I embarrassed myself, or anyone else, and I enjoyed it all, in the way a child enjoys Christmas and birthdays. I can’t think when I last had anything like that experience.

It was even more noticeable to me a few days later. I had moved camp to a little town called Three Forks, named for the confluence of three rivers: the Jefferson, Gallatin and Madison. Together, right there in Three Forks, they all become the Missouri River, which, after flowing north for 2,565 miles, becomes the Mississippi River. It wasn’t the visual extravaganza I had expected to see, but the thought of what that wet encounter generates was thrilling to contemplate.

The town is sad, too many boarded-up storefronts, the valiant businesses that are still open waging what looks like a losing battle. But out of this rises the Sacajawea Hotel, shining white and proud and flawless. It was there I met friends for lunch, people I know, people who know me. We ate on the wide porch, and afterwards sank back into the couches behind us to recuperate. Again, I was surprised at how like a child I felt, so excited to be with them, so full of chatter I could hardly stop.

And then I learned that this child-like openness also has a down side. Somehow that protective wisdom that we gain over the years had also gone to sleep and I was left vulnerable in ways that I wasn’t prepared for, ways in which I’m not vulnerable in my usual adult life.

It was in Helena – Helena of the beautiful old homes, lovingly restored and maintained, the streets lined by tall arches of trees – Helena of the capitol building with the breathtaking rotunda, in which one has immediate access to all government officials at all times, including the governor himself – Helena where every Wednesday evening in a different outdoor park or empty lot or quarry a band plays and the community comes together to talk and laugh and dance – it was in that Helena that it happened. I was again with friends and when I interrupted one of them during a conversation we were having he lashed out at me in a way I’d never seen before. He did it more than once before the visit ended. He shouted, shook his fist in my face, his own face red with fury, shouting and shouting. For a split second my vision contracted, I saw only his mouth, wide, a gaping maw, lips twisted in anger. It was only that split second, then I became my adult self again, going about my business, making a mental note to avoid conversation with this man in future. But I was left shaken.

And that night in my dreams I was visited by all the people in my entire life, from toddlerhood on to ex-husband, who have treated me in this way. I don’t think I would have had these dreams if I had been in my usual life at home. It was as though that man’s anger was a laser beam cutting through years and years of protective coating, hitting the innermost core of all that trauma. I responded as I had as a child, almost immobilized by shame and self-loathing. It has taken me days to recover.

But I have recovered. And I’ve had the opportunity once again to feel love and admiration for that little girl who suffered so, that little girl who is now me, that little girl who has been able to grow up and make such a fine life for herself. And to take such long amazing solo camping trips every summer.

ENTERING MONTANA

Yesterday I drove from Jackson Lake in the Tetons, through Yellowstone National Park, into Montana. I had been looking forward to seeing Yellowstone, thinking the drive would be full of breath-taking wonders. Instead, I spelunked for miles and miles through an endless long cavern of pine trees, thick and dark, unable to see anything but them, muttering under my breath all the way. As I neared Old Faithful I wondered whether I had to stop and look at it, irritated that somehow it would be irresponsible of me not to. How long might I have to stand around waiting to see some water shoot up out of the ground? I was feeling very crabby and put-upon about everything. And then suddenly, through a slight clearing in those accursed pines, I saw a huge shining white plume shoot way up into the bright blue of the sky, with tiny diamonds of water sparkling all around it. Old Faithful! Wow!

When I arrived at my new campground outside Bozeman the first thing I noticed was the smell. A thick complex somewhat sweet smell, probably a mixture of the many different flowers blooming all around. The second thing I noticed was the air, the sky; I’ve never seen such clarity, breathed in such purity.

But that crabbiness I’d had in the morning driving through Yellowstone had by now developed into a cancer of the psyche. That’s how it felt. There was no sudden traumatic event that caused it, I imagine it had been developing incrementally over a number of days, and yesterday it came into its fullness. The main outer symptom was the sentence that reverberated, over and over, all day, in my mind: What the hell am I doing, living like this? It quickly metastasized to every aspect of my thinking and feeling: I’m sick of looking at beautiful scenery, I don’t ever ever ever want to see another lake or mountain, especially not another pine tree. I’m sick of cooking and cleaning up and eating, every single day, it all tastes the same. I’m sick of reading, I forget it all right afterwards anyway. I’m sick of being all cheerful and chatty when I meet people that I’ll never see again. I’m sick of thinking all my thoughts, over and over, they are so repetitive and boring. I’m sick of pretending I can write anything worth reading, it’s all such drivel. I’m sick of taking care of all the stupid details of life, all the stuff. And mainly I’m so sick of being so alone in the world, trudging on and on, day after day, all by myself. What the hell is the point of it all? And yes, what the hell am I doing living like this?

I have to admit, there was a strange sort of satisfaction in throwing myself so fully into this state. I wasn’t depressed, certainly not suicidal – those states are very different, I’ve known them well, luckily far in the past. It’s something else that hits me every now and then. I think what I feel at those times is a hopelessness, a deep loneliness. I know some people who would call it, somewhat pompously if you ask me, “the existential despair of being human.”

I couldn’t get to sleep, even though I was tired. My mind kept going on and on with an increasing litany of woes and complaints. In desperation I finally got up and got my laptop, which was icy cold because the night was so cold and wet. Interesting, through all my misery I was able to look around my little trailer and bask in its comfort and coziness. I sat up in bed and spent an hour or so listing every negative thought and feeling that flitted through my mind. I must say it was quite an impressive performance, and the list is amazingly long. I knew the moment when I was finished, and I immediately fell into a long deep sleep.

And this morning? The sun is shining, the colors everywhere so bright and pure that I keep thinking I must have put on my polaroid sunglasses. That wonderful Montana smell is even more pronounced, maybe because of last night’s rain. The sound of the stream next to me is the perfect bass line to all the birdsong. My breakfast, the same one I eat almost every morning, tasted new and fresh. I walked up the canyon, there were deer and even a fox. I made it effortlessly up and down high inclines. I felt myself smiling, through and through.

Lord, what fools we mortals be. Yes indeedy-doo.

THE CONTINENTAL DIVIDE

It wasn’t easy to leave my perfect campground in the Tetons. Such a rich full life I had there, and for two whole weeks. I’m always surprised how long two weeks is when I’m traveling, much longer than two weeks at home. It feels more like two months. Truly. Every day was filled with new sights, experiences, people, challenges, and that’s what stretches time out, makes it last longer. It’s the lack of all those surprises, all that variety, that turns things routine and predictable as we get older, that make us wonder how the past two weeks whizzed by so fast. I’ll have to add this to my ever-growing list of reasons why I love to go camping: I think I’ve found a way to prolong life.

What made that campground so perfect? It was beautiful and spacious, with views of the mountains and plenty of shade. I made three good friends – three! – and felt a real pang at our goodbyes. There were fine walks to be had in all directions without having to drive to a trailhead somewhere. There was a book exchange in the ranger’s office, and that’s where I found a copy of Age of Innocence. But mainly it was the unusually interesting, outgoing, fun-loving people there that made the difference. Just like in any community anywhere.

Adding to the perfection was the town of Jackson nearby. I didn’t find the town itself appealing, I was never tempted to walk around in it and explore. But in it were some excellent things. The library had an actual little store set up to sell second-hand books. Four walls filled with books, all carefully arranged, and every wall worth looking through. I so like having my reading dictated by whatever books I find as I travel. I bought 27 books there at the library. Some of them have turned out to be real duds, so bad that when I contributed them to the ranger’s book exchange shelf I did it when no-one was looking, in case someone might think I considered them good writing. (Yes, I know, I’m laughing at myself too). And some have been stellar surprises. I saw two good movies there (Chef and The Railway Man), and heard some good concerts. There’s a fine farmers’ market every Saturday morning. There’s a green park, almost empty, in which I could eat my lunch whenever I was in town and then lie down right there on the grass under the tree and take a nap, with no-one paying the least attention.

When it rained I enjoyed that too, now that I have my little trailer and my dependable canopy. What a difference they make! One afternoon I was standing under the canopy, making a red lentil soup, with lots of onions, tomatoes and peppers, when one of the dark clouds suddenly let loose a deluge of rain, lasting for maybe half an hour without letup. The canopy kept me completely dry, and it was one of the most memorable cooking experiences I’ve had, stirring that soup there in that tiny bubble of dryness, while the rain pounded and the thunder boomed all around me. I sat cozily on the couch in my trailer to eat the delicious soup, and was ever so happy.

I left all that and drove east, out of the Teton National Park, out into Wyoming. I drove through miles of wide open spaces, rolling hills, rugged rock crests, miles and miles of ranches. I found a little campground with hardly anyone in it. It was raining and cold and dark when I got there, even though it was the middle of the afternoon. The few other people camping there were inside their huge RVs, there was no sign of life anywhere. I decided to stay just two nights, long enough to look around the area and also decide where to go next. I read a few of those 27 books. It was a wet cold lonely time, such a contrast to the Teton campground.

On my drive I had crossed the Continental Divide at the top of a 9000 foot pass, just a few miles before reaching the campground. The land, the campground, the people, the nearby town were all so different in so many ways from my experiences in the Tetons, that I began to wonder whether perhaps some human aspects defining the two different sides of the Divide have not yet been considered.

I realized I knew very little about the Divide, so when I drove in to the nearest town, Dubois (pronounced Doo-boyz), I went to the library to see what I could learn about it. Everyone refers to Dubois as “a true Western town.” They’ve made only a few concessions to tourists: a couple of cafes, a gift shop, a wooden sidewalk. I found organic kale in the small grocery store, as well as a loaf of good bread.

I was surprised to learn that The Continental Divide is defined not by the height of the mountains (though it is called “The Backbone of the Continent”), nor by the directions that the rivers and streams run, but by the particular ocean that the waters run into, the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico on the one side, the Pacific Ocean on the other. It runs from the Seward Peninsula in Alaska, through Canada along the tops of the Rocky Mountains, through Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Rocky Mountain National Park to New Mexico. From there, it follows the crest of Mexico’s Sierra Madres and extends all the way to the tip of South America. Every continent except for Antarctica has a continental divide.

I was even more surprised to learn that there is a Continental Divide Trail, still only 70% complete. The Appalachian Trail was finished in the 1920’s, the Pacific Crest Trail in the 1930’s, but Congress didn’t endorse the making of a Continental Divide Trail until 1978, and from the beginning budget problems, fights over the land, lack of public awareness have all stood in the way of its completion. Just a year ago The Continental Divide Coalition was formed, and so far 10,000 volunteer hours of labor have been coordinated by them, so it’s still very much a work in progress.

Only about twenty-five hikers complete the trail each year, taking about six months. On the unfinished parts they have to either bushwhack or walk on roadways. Along with the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, for hikers it’s like winning the Triple Crown to be able to complete all three. The trail itself is considered the most raw, wild, and remote, with the most spectacular scenery in the U.S. and a greater diversity of geology and nature than on any other trail. I wonder: could my Outback pull me and my little trailer from one end of it to the other?

SLEEPLESS IN THE TETONS

I awoke in the wee hours last night, my heart pounding. It rarely happens that I wake up at all, and usually I just take a quick look out the big window by my pillow and fall right back to sleep. Now and then I’ve seen extraordinary things in that moment of waking. A few weeks ago in the Sierras there was a bear looking in the back window of my car. Next morning I checked: there were no scratches anywhere, but there were wonderful paw prints in the dust on the back window. I considered preserving them but couldn’t figure out how. Another time I got to hear seven or eight different farts firing off almost consecutively from a number of different tents near my trailer. In the silence of the night they were like a trumpet fanfare from a PDQ Bach concert. Often there’s a captivating light coming from the moon through the trees or across a field. But last night when I awoke my heart was pounding and I felt awful.

I soon realized that the pounding originated in an errand I had done that afternoon. I’m still, after weeks and weeks on the road, beset by the ramifications of the terrible job U-Haul did putting on the hitch for my trailer. There are still two serious deficits that their carelessness is responsible for: I still have no back up lights on the trailer, and no right turn signal back there either. I can imagine any number of situations where that could easily cause an accident. I keep thinking those two items are being fixed, but so far it always turns out they haven’t been. I’m getting so tired of taking my car to mechanics, nice and even interesting though some of them are. Luckily the solution lies in something affixed to my car, so at least I don’t have to pull the trailer around to the garages.

Of course I would have gone to the U-Haul place here in Jackson, but it only rents moving vans and trailers, it doesn’t have a mechanic on board. Nowhere I’ve been in the past months has had a U-Haul mechanic nearby. Garages here are busy. One told me they couldn’t give me an appointment until the end of August. So I went to the one place that could see me right away. I told them that I had already had it checked by two different people, neither of whom could do the work while I would be in their area, but I had learned that what I needed was a new converter box.

“Well,” said Brian the owner, “Eric here will do the diagnostics. He’s top-notch, the best around, and we won’t charge you for the full hour if it takes less time. We charge $109. an hour.”

One hundred and nine dollars an hour? To stick his little meter into the non-working converter box? What are psychologists getting paid these days?

“Well, it took the other two mechanics who diagnosed the problem less than five minutes, so I expect if your Eric’s as good as you say he’ll do it in even less time.”

I watched Eric from afar. He took all sorts of things apart, unnecessarily, and didn’t get it all put together until half an hour had passed. Another half hour went by until Brian came over to me and said that what was needed was a new converter box. Aaargh.

“But we don’t have one on hand, and anyway, you should force U-Haul to make good on their job. Here, I’ll give you the phone number for their marketing department, they’ll handle it all for you.”

He also handed me a bill for $60.

And this is the moment that I must have remembered in my sleep, the one that woke me with a pounding heart. I should have reminded Brian that I had told him when I arrived that I already knew what was needed. I should have just refused to pay. But I didn’t. Why not?

Was it because their garage was way off in the woods, and there were just those two guys and me there? I really don’t think that was it. This has happened to me before in my travels. A feeling of helplessness creeps over me, I hardly even notice it. But there I was, pulling out my credit card, then backing away from them and even saying “goodbye and thank you.” I can’t remember, but I hope at least I didn’t smile.

It mostly happens when I’m traveling alone, this feeling of helplessness. When I’m at home I feel I’ve got my friends behind me somehow. But out on the road it sometimes feels like just me against the world. It’s not a rational feeling. I mean really, what could they have done if I had just refused to pay? It’s more a rush of vulnerability that comes over me, and I wonder if there’s something I can do about it when it next comes.

And why was my heart pounding? I tried to figure it out last night, because I couldn’t make myself get back to sleep or concentrate on a book. I got as far as a sense of shame. I was ashamed of myself for my weakness, for not standing up to those money gougers, for letting myself be taken advantage of, for backing away and even saying thank you. I imagined them rubbing their hands and smiling triumphantly to each other as I drove away and that made me groan out loud. (Remember, it was the wee hours, everything seems worse then).

This helpless passivity is especially puzzling to me because I usually kick myself for erring on the opposite end of the continuum (if it is a continuum), being too quick to feel that I’ve been mistreated somehow, too quick to lash out sharply or crabbily at someone. I aspire to a calm thoughtful appraisal of every situation, but apparently that’s too much to hope for. But this other extreme is just as upsetting to me. Neither one feels like the real me. In other words: God! It’s so hard to be a perfect person!

And I think maybe it’s especially hard when traveling alone, things seem more exaggerated, every detail takes on more importance. Luckily, so do the good things. For instance, this afternoon I shared a beer with a woman whose tent is nearby, we just laughed and chatted together, no big deal, but my oh my, it was such a pleasure.