ON THE SHORES OF WALMART IN CHEYENNE, WYOMING

My months of traveling high up in the mountains, soaring from mountain range to mountain range, ended on the shores of the WalMart in Cheyenne, Wyoming. It was the perfect ending.

I was on my way to visit friends in Colorado, it was a long drive, and I planned to stop for the night in Cheyenne. I had written down the directions for a campground nearby and, since it would be just for one night, also for the WalMart there. I had heard over the years of people pulling in to WalMarts in their RVs to spend a night, and the whole idea of it had always seemed repulsive. But this time I had found myself writing down the address, almost as though someone else was working my writing hand.

When I got near Cheyenne I realized it was time to make a decision: the campground meant turning west, the WalMart east. I imagined myself driving up into the mountains, finding yet another lovely remote quiet campground in the trees by a stream. Then I imagined turning into the town, parking amongst a sea of cars and trucks, surrounded by lights and noise and people, and my heart jumped with excitement.

First I treated myself to dinner in a crowded little restaurant. Driving around a city with a trailer attached to the car is tricky, I have to think ahead. Is there room to park? I need either two empty spaces in front of each other, or a long enough stretch somewhere, usually in back. And is there an easy way to pull out of the lot without having to turn around in a small space? I always make the cars in back of me wait a minute while I scope out a place before entering. The food in the restaurant was good, but even better was all the chatter swirling around me. I was back with my herd!

I spent the rest of the evening in a Barnes and Noble, catching up on the books that had come out since I disappeared up into the mountains. It was wonderfully crowded and I wove in and out amongst the groups of people, hardly looking at the books, getting that sense of many bodies close around me, even lightly brushing into a few as I passed, stopping to listen to all the voices, the overlays of chatter. Had anyone been paying attention I may have seemed like someone who needed close watching, just in case.

Then it was time to get ready for the night. I drove around the WalMart parking lot until I found a spot where one of the too-bright lights wasn’t working and pulled in there. There were no trucks wheezing in the lot, thank goodness, and lots of cars and even a few RVs. I parked, got out of the car, and walked the three steps into my little trailer. My bedroom is always at the ready, all I had to do was pull the curtains and put on my pjs.

Right away I fell into a deep sleep (I’m an ace sleeper) and woke up four hours later, as usual, before falling into another deep sleep. I usually stay awake for an hour or two between those two sleep cycles. I understand that this is how people in sleep experiments begin to sleep when they spend weeks in a dark cave. Usually I read or write during my awake time, but this time I lay in my cozy bed, marveling at the situation. I was in a WalMart parking lot! After months in the most pristine awe-inspiring beauty I’ve ever seen.

I became aware of people talking, laughing, footsteps all around. I raised my head and peeked out the window by my pillow and watched the wee-hours’ WalMart scene.

I was right smack in the middle of the two a.m. hub of Cheyenne, Wyoming social life. The parking lot was full, there were people all over. They were pushing carts full of stuff, or walking eagerly towards the entrance, getting in or out of cars, or standing around talking to each other. An elderly couple got out of their car right next to my bed (little did they know) and walked arm-in-arm towards the store, smiling at each other with what looked like shopping anticipation. A sad-looking mother maneuvered two sleepy young pajama’ed kids and a baby into a cart and took off for the entrance. One couple were near enough my bedroom window so I could hear their argument as they got back into their car: he wasn’t making enough money all because of his crappy friend Larry. A woman in a black business suit and frilly blouse stood uncertainly right by my window, maybe trying to decide if it was worth the long walk to the entrance in her very high heels. And this was all taking place in just my tiny spot in that parking lot. I was right there, in the midst of it all, in my pjs, in my bed, in my very own bedroom.

So this is how it ends, I mused, as I lay back down on my pillow. I had wondered. I had even wondered sometimes if it would end, I was loving my nomadic life in the mountains so much. I began thinking back, seeing if I could go from campground to campground, chronologically. Number one was up in the Sierras outside Lone Pine, with Mt. Whitney in my direct line of sight right from this same bedside window. The last campground was outside Red Lodge, Wyoming, on the side of The Beartooth Highway, and there I had been invaded by mice. As I started to fill in the campgrounds between those two I found myself almost teary with longing and regret. I was already nostalgic. By the time I reached campground number eleven I must have fallen back to sleep.

The next morning, after making a pot of tea and getting dressed, I opened the trailer door and for a moment surveyed the exotic asphalt landscape around me. I took the three steps to the car door, got in, and drove off into the next segment of my life.

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THE BEARTOOTH HIGHWAY

And now it’s mice that are plaguing me. I had no warning that this was going to be my next challenge.

I finally got to a campground on the Beartooth Highway. I had to wait for the snow storm to have its turn there, the same storm that had driven me out of Glacier long before I wanted to leave. Then I had to wait for the snow to melt enough so that the roads would be reopened. My waiting time passed quickly, thanks to a friend I visited in Helena, and to a protected campground I found in Three Forks. And hallelujah! also thanks to my equipment, even the heater, which is all still working just fine. It’s now been over a whole week since it was all repaired and put into working order for the first time on this many-months’ trip.

In the afternoon when I arrived in the Beartooth campground I heard about some live music that was going to happen that evening in the nearby town of Red Lodge. As I drove there I noticed how eager I was to be in a roomful of people again. And the people in that pub were perfect: mostly locals, all having a roaring good time. The pub is large and was packed, but I managed to get a little table for myself and ordered a glass of wine. The group was three skinny Mennonite country and western singers in big white cowboy hats. They sang all the standards, we sang and clapped along and were wonderfully loud and raucous.

After I’d been there a while a waiter came over and asked if I’d be willing to go sit in a chair over by the wall. There was a couple who wanted a table. I had already noted that I was the only person in that entire room who was there by myself, so I knew why I was the one being asked. I’d had enough of my wine by then that I could be gracious, but I’m always acutely aware of the difference between being in the world with a mate and being in the world as a soloist.

When I got settled into my (actually much more comfortable) chair by the wall the waiter brought me a thank-you glass of wine, then the bar tender sent one over, and then there came one from the couple. I sat there laughing with my four glasses of wine – I had to ask them to bring me a little table – I who rarely drink more than one. When I got up to leave I was wishing there was such a thing as a doggie-bottle. Maybe the waiter and the bartender got to drink what was left.

The next morning when I awoke I reached just my hand out of the warm blankets and turned on the heater. Someone told me later that the temperature had been down to 16 degrees during the night. In about four minutes the whole trailer was toasty, and that’s when I got up and made tea, right there, on the stove next to my bed. After all my years in the tent, sometimes in equally cold weather, this little trailer continues to be a source of utter amazement to me.

It was that next morning that I discovered the mice. Every section of my car (I’m very organized) was filled with their tiny black pellets. I tried to take an understanding view, thinking how cold it must have been for them in the night, but I couldn’t quell my murderous impulses. In the back of the car, in my kitchen, they’d eaten almost an entire tomato, yet, interestingly, spurned a lovely red apple. They had also gotten into my bag of books and chosen an ancient yellowed paperback copy of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises to feast on. They obviously got much more out of that book than I ever did. They loved the warm softness inside the thick towel in my showering bag, and seem to have licked at the liquid mint soap. The box of kleenex and the roll of paper towel were almost gone, with little stray white wisps all around them. I figured they had taken it all back to warm up their nest, but I was very wrong about that.

They had built a huge nest, in just that one night, up inside the motor of my Outback. In the motor! Again I tried to imagine their poor little shivering bodies in the cold, but in fact my fantasies of mouse annihilation were growing ever more violent. Those little black poop pellets all over my car were bad enough, but now I had to worry about them chewing up all the wires of the motor. And here I had thought, just hours before, that maybe the rest of my trip might be worry-free. Thank god they haven’t gotten into the trailer. Yet anyway.

I decided on a geographical cure, hoping that the next campground would be mouse-free. I brushed and shook out and wiped and washed as much of the black pellets from the car as I could. I was unable to erase the image in my mind of hundreds, maybe thousands, of mice blanketing the entire interior, scurrying, nibbling, pooping. All day I felt their little ghosts in there with me, just as repellent as the actual beings.

It was in that frame of mind that I spent the day on the Beartooth Highway, considered by some to be the most beautiful road in the world. It’s certainly one of the scariest: a narrow two lane road that in twelve miles of switchbacks rises 3000 feet, seeming to barely cling to the steep mountainsides. Thank goodness there are frequent pull-out places to stop and take a look. It’s an astonishing feeling to look down at mountain peaks, and down into all the valleys and canyons between them. Probably similar to a helicopter ride through mountains.

The road is 63 miles, from Red Lodge to a town just outside Yellowstone, called Cooke City, population 140. I spent some time talking to a woman who has lived in Cooke City for years. I tried to get a sense of what it’s like to live in such an isolated spot with so few people. From what she told me I gather that everyone there, from birth to old age, spends all their free time during the day doing vigorous outdoor activities, so that by evening they are so tired out all they want to do is go to bed. With each other? Unfortunately, she wasn’t willing to discuss those most interesting aspects of her community with me, a stranger. She did admit that there were people there who hadn’t spoken to each other for years.

In talking to her I could see how ready I am to be involved with people again after my months of relative solitude on the road. I can hardly wait to get back to take up my part again in the social network of Oracle, my little town, population 3500. I’m suddenly – as though a switch was thrown – longing to be with my friends again. I’m ready to go home!

But will the damn mice leave my motor intact so that I can get there?

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK

I think I’ve figured out one of the reasons why Glacier is so extraordinary, besides all the stunning grandeur. I had been there already for a few days – hiking through woods and across meadows to see waterfalls, climbing up mountain passes to see lakes deep in the valleys on the other side, driving the spectacular Going to the Sun Road, watching the fast-moving clouds change the light and the landscape and the weather every few moments – when it hit me. The Sierras and the Tetons stand pretty much in straight rows, facing wide valleys on either side. In Glacier, the mountains are different. I began to notice that everywhere I stood in Glacier I was in what I came to think of as a bowl, created by the mountains all around. Sometimes a small bowl, sometimes vast. But there was always a 360 degree view of mountains around me. The floor of whatever bowl I was in was always filled with variations of meadows, wildflowers, boulders, waterfalls, streams, brooks, lakes, trees, forests, the colors all unusually bright. The constant was the surround of mountains anywhere I stood.

The effect of this on me was subtle and profound. For one thing, along with the astonishing beauty present everywhere, the scene always felt somehow human-scaled, not overwhelming. And with all the bright-colored wild flowers in the lush meadows and the sounds of flowing, burbling and/or falling water, it was easy to smile, to feel optimistic, and to feel myself a part of the scene, not just an observer. The mountains themselves, circling the horizon, gave me a sense of being held, contained, protected.

I was there for almost two weeks, as far north as I could go, right at the Canadian border, spellbound by everything around me. I was looking forward to staying much longer, but the weather said no. A storm came in from the west, predicted to last four days, bringing icy cold temperatures, sleet and snow, and making visibility almost nil. One or two days I could have managed, but four was too many. I decided to start making my way back south, towards home.

Home! In all these months I haven’t thought about my house, not once. In the past while traveling with my tent I’ve pictured it to myself fairly regularly, but not this summer. Is it because my little trailer is so homey? And even now that I know I’m heading towards it, I’m not able to picture it yet. When I try to, what comes into my mind is the Oracle Post Office. In it I see more than three months of my mail, huge piles of it, waiting for me. I haven’t given mail a single thought all this time, but now it sits heavy in my mind. I’m beginning to worry that there will be terrible consequences for not being there to take care of a certain bill or a notification about something or other. I suddenly realize that one of the things that makes my months of camping in the summers so sublime is that I’ve removed myself from all the daily responsibilities for all those details-of-life that get more and more plaguing to me every year. I fully understand now all the old people who leave unopened bills piling up for months and months,for their shocked middle-aged sons and daughters to discover when they visit. I’m now one of them.

Going home means taking on all those responsibilities again and I just don’t want to. I’ve been free as a child all summer, and now I feel like a rebellious adolescent, looking for ways to avoid doing what the adults are telling me I have to do.

It will be a slow trip home, thank goodness. I have friends to visit in Colorado, and there’s one more mountain range along the way for me to explore. I recently came across a photo of the Sonoran desert, and for the first time since I left on this trip it gave me a pang of longing. I’m going to count on thoughts of that desert to help me transition back into “real” life. But oh dear.

RIP TIDE

Here’s an account of the undertow that has pulled at me for three months and almost taken me far out to sea.

After the hitch had been installed on the car by U-Haul in Tucson, back in April, including all the electrical wiring that can connect the car battery to the Scamp, I drove home and tried it out. The signal lights didn’t work! Twice I took it back to them, they claimed everything was fine. I found a mechanic in Oracle who got the lights to work, so I figured everything else did too, and when I left on my trip I thought that was the last I’d have to think about it.

In the Sierras, in my first campground, the battery ran down, so I tried to charge it with the car motor. No go. A number of people in the campground tried to figure out what was wrong but couldn’t. Was it the battery? Was it the U-Haul wiring? Throughout this whole saga the one upside has been the way my electrical problems have brought me together with wonderful fellow campers.

My next campground was up the mountain from Bishop, CA, and I spent time wandering around Bishop, seeking someone who could help. I found a man in a gas station who had the right device to discover what the problem was, and I couldn’t believe it: U-Haul had failed to install the charging wire. I got the name of a guy who worked out of his truck and actually made house calls to people in campgrounds. I told him what I needed, he said he could do it. He came, he spent an hour putting in a charging wire, and left with me thanking him profusely, despite his hefty fee.

After he had disappeared I discovered that not only did his wire not charge anything, he had used the fuse for my windshield wipers to attach the charging line instead. I discovered this in sudden pouring rain as I drove up the mountain road, far from my campground. It was all I could do to see enough to pull over to the side. I had to wait a long time until the rain stopped, and it’s just lucky that I carry books with me wherever I go.

The next day I took the battery down to be charged, in case it was the battery that was defective, and the guy also fixed the windshield wiper by putting in a new special fuse arrangement for the charging line.

At the next campground, still high up in the Sierras, I discovered that the battery did not hold that charge, and so assumed the problem lay there. I bought a new one.

By the time I reached my next new campground outside Ely, Nevada, it was clear that even the new battery was not charging. In Ely there was a regular auto repair shop, and I put myself in their hands. It turned out that the guy who installed the charging line right there in my campground had used 8 different little pieces of old used wire (it’s all under the car so I never saw it) all held together just barely. The Ely man ripped out all that guy’s work and redid it carefully. He thought very highly of his abilities, and charged me accordingly. He also diagnosed why I no longer had a right turn signal or brake lights on the Scamp: the converter box that the Tucson U-Haul had installed was defective, I needed a new one, but he didn’t have one. I was on my way to the next destination, so I figured I’d find a U-Haul there and have them do it.

In the Tetons, my campground was outside Jackson, Wyoming. The U-Haul business there only rented out trucks, they didn’t do any kind of work. I finally found a place out in the woods, two guys, a little scary because no-one but the three of us was there. They spent 1/2 hour doing unnecessary things on my car, calling it “diagnostics,” and then told me that what I needed was a new converter box. I pointed out that I had told them exactly that, but they charged me royally anyway. They suggested I go to U-Haul. I stayed in the Tetons for a few weeks and since I didn’t need any electricity there I happily took a break from thinking about it all.

When I got to my new campground outside Bozeman, Montana I applied myself to it again. The U-Haul place in Bozeman put in a new converter box for me, and even though it took them an entire afternoon I was excited afterwards that finally everything seemed to work and charging was easy. I was feeling good! I had exactly two weeks of that good feeling. Two weeks, out of the so far three months of travel.

I was ecstatic that I could now go to Glacier National Park since I had a heater that worked. It was going to be cold there. My first night there I tried to turn on a light and nothing happened. My spirits took a nose dive. Oh no, not again. But it wasn’t a matter of again: on the second night it became far far worse.

I was driving home late after an evening spent in the nearby little hikers’ lodge, enjoying the warmth and lively camaraderie. Miraculously I had just arrived at my camp site when the car – my brand new car! – shut down. Shut down so completely that I was unable to shift into park or even to engage the emergency brake (I was on a steep incline). I didn’t dare take my foot off the brake. What to do? It was very dark, everyone in the campground was asleep. And then another miracle: three flashlights approached on the path. It turned out to be three young men from Alabama, and on hearing my “Could you help me please?” they came over and put huge rocks in front of the tires so that I could get out of the car. We split the two beers I had left in the fridge (runs on propane) and they were so full of hilarious banter that I was greatly cheered for the moment.

Next morning I took stock: I was without a car in the most remote campground so far, no towns at all nearby, no phone reception and wi-fi so slow in the little hikers’ lodge that it sometimes took ten minutes to open or send even one email.

It took four days to solve it all. The car was carried on a tow truck for ninety miles to the nearest Subaru dealer. They tore out every single wire and device that had been added to the car over my three months of travel, starting with the original U-Haul installation. They had never seen anything like it. They put in a whole new Subaru-approved system of wiring, and had to replace the burned-out alternator. So far everything is working perfectly, but it will be a long time before I reach for a light switch without wondering whether it will work.

Yes, U-Haul will be hearing from me.

LOLO (near Missoula, Montana)

During a whole week of quiet contentment in a serene idyllic spot, not a single dark cloud crossed my smooth unfurrowed brow. I didn’t see any monumental sights during that week, or have any rollicking adventures, everything was on a small quiet scale. Even the little trailer was without a single fault, everything worked perfectly for the very first time. The whole week was dreamy, undemanding. Are you already thinking of something else you could be doing right now, rather than continuing to read this? Other people’s happiness is just not all that interesting to read about, even when we’re happy for them.

There were no big belly laughs either, but lots of chuckles. My campground, the Lolo Creek Campground, right on Lolo Creek, off Lolo Road, halfway between the town of Lolo and The Lolo Hot Springs, was in the Lolo National Forest. So was Lolo Mountain. I was pleased to learn that no-one really knows how the name came about, though there are a number of uninspired speculations.

Lolo creek, hand in hand with the road all the way, snakes between and around and through the steep high pine-dense hills (mountains?) so together they traverse a narrow winding valley with not much room on either side. It’s the opposite of that icon of the west, the long straight empty highway reaching to a far-distant point on the horizon. When the sun was low enough to cast serious shadows, I walked that road in the late afternoons, listening to the creek, rounding corners to find ever new variations on the idyllic theme. I wondered why I would ever leave that enchanted place.

That sweet beauty was punctuated here and there by unexpected chuckle-worthy things. For instance, there was an enormous sign on a garage at one of the houses that dotted the road. It announced in huge letters: ANTLERS GALORE……WORLD HEADQUARTERS. I passed by it a few times before I no longer could contain my curiosity. I knocked on the door. An elderly man answered, opening the door only wide enough to see me, and was suspicious when I asked about ANTLERS GALORE. I was almost ready to walk away when I had an inspiration: I explained that I’m a writer – so far it has always been a plus to identify myself that way, no matter what the situation. Do real writers experience that? – and I told him that I was doing an article about Lolo. He brightened up, came charging out the door, and led me to the garage.

“Boy, that’s great. I could use some advertising.”

Inside in one corner there was a pile of antlers, looking like long curved twigs, in the middle of the room a table with a small electric saw, and little piles of cut-up antlers all around it.

“I take these to the farmers’ market every Saturday and people buy them for their dogs to chew on.”

“So this is it? The World Headquarters of Antlers Galore?”

He seemed surprised by the question. “Yes of course” said he.

Luckily he didn’t ask to read what I wrote. Does a blog post count as an article?

All along the road are frequent signs: Point of Interest 1/4 mile. At the pullout there is always a large wooden sign, often a triptych, each one covering some facet of the very long history of this area. Each is illustrated with wonderful drawings, in themselves worth stopping for. Equal time on these signs is given to the centuries and centuries of Native American history along this road, and to the total of 5 nights that the Lewis and Clark expedition camped there on their way west and then on their way back home. There is an entire state park devoted to those 5 nights, right on the exact spot that Lewis and Clark set up their tents. That spot has been scientifically determined, and one of the determinants was mercury. In their day the camping bible that everyone lived by specified exactly how many feet from the tents the latrine should be dug. Lewis and Clark’s latrine was found by finding traces of mercury in a certain spot. Mercury was one of the ingredients in a medication given to men with syphilis, which two of L&C’s traveling companions were being treated for. Bingo.

Fort Fizzle – really! – commemorates the morning in 1877 that the U.S. army got ready to intercept the Nez Perce and keep them from coming into Montana from Idaho for bison and salmon. The fort is a hole in the ground in which the soldiers stood, and on top are two long horizontal poles through which they stuck their rifles, ready to shoot and make the Nez Perce turn around and go back. As they waited and waited, standing in that big hole, the Nez Perce, almost 1000 of them plus 2000 horses, passed them silently and unseen on a trail over a ridge right in front of them. Hats off to whoever had the idea to publicly and forever commemorate that day.

I was lulled by my time in Lolo. It was so pleasant and easy there, everything about it. But there was a part of me that wanted to get going, get on to the next place. I usually know exactly where I’m headed by the time I’m ready to move on from somewhere, but this time was different. I couldn’t decide whether to go north or to go south, or maybe east or west. I stared at my maps, and no place called out to me. I needed a kick in the pants.

It was finally a weather report that gave me that kick. For days there had been solid rain and cold predicted for Labor Day weekend in Glacier National Park, one of the many destinations I had been eying, but one day that suddenly changed to “chance of showers” and “partly sunny.” By next morning I was on my way.