I declare: Enough freedom is enough.
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. When I spotted that soaring hawk in a holler in West Virginia two years ago, I swore I wanted their freedom for myself – and I got it.
Well, after two false-starts I did, yanked off the road due to house problems, then crooked spine problems that landed me in the hospital until, against doctor’s orders, I tore myself away again, far enough away, to Arkansas, that there was no turning back.
I kept going, through five giant Southwest states, over six months, all the way to San Diego, California.
Now, I’m aware that my nomad cross-county adventures – travel porn posts from redrock canyons to glacial lakes to my plunge in into the deep blue Pacific – have elicited the envy of at least a few of you.
But after eight months on the road – a full year if you count those two false starts – I can say with some authority: freedom is not all it’s cracked up to be.
And, truth be known, it is you, friends, keepers of the comfy status quo, I have come to envy.
As I exit the state of Idaho and enter Montana via Lost Trail Pass, descending into the vast and rugged Bitterroot Valley, I grip the steering wheel, chest tightened, and gasp for air in all this space!
Montana, aptly-named the Big Sky State, covers almost 150 thousand square miles and houses a population of just over one million, as compared to my home NON-state of the District of Columbia where close to 500 thousand are crammed into a postage stamp of 68 square miles.
I couldn’t wait to escape the suffocating, orderly marble-hall’d chaos of my beloved birth city.
So why earth, the further I drive down West Fork, a pine-tree lined two-lane road that follows the roiling river, into the verdant forests, does my breath get shallower, as though I’m penned into an airtight cell?
I lose my GPS signal, the radio turns scratchy, nothing but country twang and God-rock.
When I finally spot the blue mailbox, now 30 minutes outside the closest piddling town of Darby (2 saloons and a dollar store), I expel a pent-up breath and turn down the gravel drive.
The log cabin glows with incandescent light as I pull into the guest parking.
Heart pattering, I tip-toe across the broad, slant-roofed front porch and jump at the sudden clang of the chime disturbed in a gust of wind.
As I cross the threshold, I see that this so-called cabin, for which I’ve paid dearly (mid-summer, vacation throng rates), is anything but rustic. From the vaulted ceilings over the living area dangles a gigantic antler chandelier, and a bear skin, head and all, hangs from the wall. Roaming, tentatively, through the ample kitchen/dining area, place-setting for six, I then ascend the grand staircase to a loft furnished with oversized leather couch, giant screen TV, and full-sized foosball table, the painted wooden players stand ready for action.
My eyes widen as I peer into each prim, themed bedroom – the bear, the elk, the coyote room - then climb the hand-hewn ladder to a secret fourth bedroom nook.
It's so much space, with so many options, I have to go through a Goldilocks ritual to choose just the right bed in which to sleep.
Nonetheless, inside the four solid log walls is where I promise to remain for the entire first week of my stay, if not longer.
Because there's no way in hell am I going out into all that wildness that surrounds me.
In the course of my cross-country journey, a city-slicker without a compass, I've been lost in the wild a few times - hiking the slickrock of The Escalante, the desert of Joshua Tree, the high Sierras of Mammoth Lakes. On my most recent triggering adventure, a 2000-foot, 8-mile climb up to jaggedy Elephant’s Perch in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, I lost the trail on the descent – had to bushwhack and backtrack for hours, Camelback empty and mouth dry, trying desperately to locate, through forest monotony, the blessed river crossing – stumbled to the dock just as the last boat across the lake was fixing to depart, thus saving five additional miles of death march.
I'd invested in a Garmin satellite SOS device and finally learned how to use it.
But I've hit a wall, one year into my nomad journey.
I'm beyond exhausted, simply making basic daily decisions – where to sleep, eat, hike, be, what to do with all this space and time I’d afforded myself?
Though that’s essentially what freedom of the road is!
Poor me. What a miserable burden.
After 12 thousand road miles, 15 states, 500 hiking miles, 20-plus national parks and forests, countless bodies of water swum or traverse, I pine for the romantic status quo, the known, the confines of home.
I still have 2,500 miles and over a month ahead to reach my origin point, Park Road, my home of 25 years in the tiny diamond of ‘Taxation without Representation’ Washington, DC.
Thank God I didn’t sell, I tell myself, now. A month back I got an off-the-books offer I could hardly refuse and fantasized cutting the last string and flying high like an un-tethered kite. But I couldn’t muster the courage.
“You already are brave,” insisted a dear friend as I lamented the missed chance.
Though, at this point, I cannot muster the energy necessary to plot my trip home. Do I take the northernmost route, through Canada, the middle, through North Dakota, or southern, through South Dakota? I don't know.
All I seem to be able to do, now that I’ve landed in Montana, is hide inside the protective cabin walls, exorcise the fear out of me by penning myself up and hope my desire for the big outside world seeps back in.
The key, I decide, is to follow a boring, structured daily routine from which I promise not to deviate. I post the ambitious, rejuvenating schedule on the microwave.
On the first morning, I cannot get going. I set an alarm, but ignore it. I never was a morning person. Finally, at 9:15, I’m shoved out of bed by the obnoxious honking call of a pair of Sandhill cranes.
With sleep in my eyes, I unroll my yoga mat on the plush carpeted floor of the loft and begin.
Seated in the middle of that rectangular 24 X 68 square inches of rubber, I feel myself exhale, my shoulders relax, my jaw loosen.
I had yearned for a boundary.
Then I lead myself through a rigid routine of sun salutations – inhale, arms up, exhale bow down, touch ground, inhale, half-lift, exhale, forward fold, inhale, right foot steps back, left foot steps back, exhale, lower down, chaturanga, inhale, updog, exhale, downdog, right foot steps forward, left foot steps forward, inhale, rise up, salute the sun, exhale, hands at sides, mountain pose. Other side.
I do six or seven rounds. On the last, panting round I allow myself to stop and breathe in downdog, down the length of my crooked, tired spine.
After yoga, I sit at the porch table with my ginger tea to write my morning journal entry – three pages, no more and no less, to share anything that pops into my mind. Freewrites empty me out so that there’s a clean slate upon which to compose, let’s say, this scintillating essay.
Then I make breakfast – even though by now it’s almost noon – the same thing each day: granola with nuts and berries, flax meal and a sprinkle of cinnamon.
The scene outside the outside the cabin confines, the mountain the rises up behind the property, may beckon me; but nope, I resist any temptation to step out and play in the sunny alpine day.
The internet service is terrible at the cabin. Though I have some Zoom calls scheduled, I must put myself on mute and shut my video in order to participate. I am horrified, at first, to be so disconnected. But within a day, I am happy to have an excuse to further seclude myself, even virtually. And no problem with the phone – I have no cell service. I cannot talk to anyone.
I stay inside and write and make food and eat.
My world shrinks down.
The West Fork branch of the Bitterroot River is right across the street; at night, I think I hear it flow.
Give Myself Some Slack
Stupidly, on the third day of my cabin confinement, I give myself a bit of tether. I march across the road and through the thicket that scratches my legs, only to discover there’s too much of a ravine to cross to get there. Joyfully, I retreat back to the lodge.
A few more days go by. On Friday, I let myself take a short drive. The hospitable hosts have brought me a loaf of fresh-baked wheat bread - talk about homey - and they've encouraged me to visit Painted Rock Lake, up the road - a campground, boat ramp access.
I must admit, my legs are a little itchy to move in the sagital plane – that is to say, forward.
I promise I'll just go see. But I will not make the mistake of looking up trails on my hiking app and thus get flooded by a world of Bitterroot possibilities. I know I am living in the shadow of infamous Trapper Peak. But I will not go near that trailhead.
I follow the river for four miles, sunroof open, wind blowing through my hair, inhaling the sweet scent of pine. It does feel good to be alive.
After one big curve in the road, I spot a formation of red and yellow jutting about 800 feet into the stark blue sky, and my mouth gapes open. All the minerals oozing out of that thing. Then I spot the lake, wide and smooth and green, and feel my lips curve into a smile. I pull into the campground area, which is full of trailers and RVs, and I brake abruptly, searching for the bloody turnaround. I want to get out of there. But, instead, my legs force me to park, beneath a tree, get out and take a walk, “not a hike,” they assure me.
So I go, follow the rim for a few hundred yards, through needlegrass, waving away mosquitos. Then I about-face, scamper back to safety of my VW, and zoom back home.
I called it home, see? I am pretending. Though, talk about homey: the kind host couple in the adjacent main house bring by a loaf of fresh-baked wheat bread, still warm.
They may be worried about me; I'm worried about me.
I thank them and shut the door; I have dinner to make. I have my routine. Though I may just turn-on Judy Woodruff and PBS Newshour, like I used to do at home-home, on my island. I try, but the signal isn’t strong enough. Judy keeps timing out, making faces at me from the frozen computer screen.
“It’s okay,” I tell myself. I don’t need to know what’s going on in the larger world; how the Ukrainians are fighting like mad for their freedom, while I take mine for granted.
Find a Middle Way
See, this all comes down to boundary issues I developed in childhood.
I wouldn’t hold Mom’s hand crossing the street – Wisconsin Avenue, one of the grand diagonal state streets, two lanes each direction, a major route into the city. I could barely walk; but I did not need her help. I pulled and tugged to break free. Mom gave up, eventually, left me in the gutter, kicking and screaming, and crossed without me.
I looked up, red-faced, and couldn’t believe she’d left me. All I wanted was to cross by myself, next to her, alone, but together.
Don’t you see what I’m dealing with, here?
I am searching for this middle way – freedom and security together.
By the sixth day, I release myself a little further – toddler on a leash. I take myself back to the lake.
Last time, I’d spotted a sandy beach by the dam. I smile when I see it, park the Tiguan, spray myself with SPF, flip-flop across the lot, and setup my chair in the partial shade of a Ponderosa.
It’s a tiny beach; it’s sunset. A couple with a dog sits at the edge, pitching a stick into the water.
The lake is massive. Painted rocks rise out of it. I feel my chest expand with breath as I watch the sun sink toward the V where two mountains meet. I pad up to the edge in my Chocos and step in. It’s chilly; a tiny yow seeps out of me.
I look back at my red chair on shore, still there, waiting for me then wade in, up to my knees, giggle with glee. I’m breaking free.
Then I count to three and dive in and swim like mad into the stripe of shimmery sunlight.
I roll over onto my back. My Chocos help me float in the freshwater, buoyant as a boat. I move my limbs in synchronicity, like making a snow angel, open, shut, skirting across the surface, making ripples. I breast stroke, back stroke, side stroke and freestyle, stretching my limbs out of their sockets, feeling my length. Open my eyes under water: it’s so clear; I see schools of minnows and shapes of rocks.
Breathless, I return to shore, stepping across sand to get to my little red chair, wrap a fluttery sarong around my shoulders.
This place is good, I declare, as my cheeks relax, eyes half-close, the dusky air chills my toes. I resolve to return each evening, to make the lake part of my small, safe routine.
Cleansed, cooled, skin tingling, I return to the cabin, make dinner, eat, read, go to sleep. Repeat.
I’ve never been so enthralled with boundaries as I have as a nomad freebird.
Break Outa the Box
I was that kid, willful eldest, who rebelled from the moment I exited the womb, who fought Mom’s silent rules for me, like four sides of a box that tried to contain me.
Don’t upset your father
Don’t overshadow your sister
Take care of your little brother
Don’t ask too much of me.
Until the married music teacher came to the rescue; then I found myself in a deeper trap, married, at 18, to the teacher, savior, predator. When I finally broke free from wedlock at age 27, you better believe I’d never allow myself to get locked up in that prison again.
This morning, almost two weeks into Montana, after my yoga routine, I move into packing motion. My legs and spirit are recovered enough for a moderate hike up to Baker Lake. I’ve downloaded the trail map and send a GPS away message to my friends. As I secure the canister of bear spray onto my belt, I feel some hesitancy. The pamphlet pictures of bloodied fisherman and hikers are almost enough to stop me. But my legs walk me out the door to the car.
After an hour searching for the trailhead – sometimes the biggest challenge on a hiking outing – another 6 miles up the steep dirt road I go – winding up the switchbacks – swerving around potholes – adrenaline tinged with doubt pulses through my veins. I am just about to U-turn back when, around the next curve, I spot the familiar carved wood Forest Service sign.
I exhale, park in the shade, get out of the car, fill the bladder of my Camelback with 2 ample liters of water, fit the sunshield into the windshield, lock the door.
I’m ready. I adjust my backpack straps as I step onto the trail, steep from the very start, traversing roots and rocks. As I pant up the hill, I sing aloud, Lord I was born a Ramlin’ Anne. My lame rendition of the Allman Brothers is sure to keep the black bears away.
Legs strong, heart pounding, I’m out of the confines of the cabin, out of Mom’s box for me, out of MY box for me, watching for bears.
After two miles and 1000 feet of ascent, I arrive, breathless but intact, at the high mountain oasis. I scamper across boulders, drawn by the sound of waterfalls. As the water cascades down, I feel its power in my belly.
I have the choice to go further; according to the GPS, two lakes lie beyond this one.
But something stops me – I stop me – plop down on a rock and watch a lone golden eagle circle the green water, then soar into a stand of trees.
I feel my heart flutter: I got their freedom for myself, I did. Then I strip off my hiking gear and dive into the icy water, pop back up screaming with delight.
Freedom IS all it’s cracked up to be. It's a precious gift for which I'm grateful.