Road Trip: Fear and Traveling Alone

In the past twelve days since I pulled Red out of the garage on October 1st to head south to Silver City and the Southwest Festival of the Written Word, I’ve driven nearly 2,500 miles, presented at two writing conferences, seen some gorgeous country, met inspiring writers, and gotten to hang out with dear friends. (The photo above is Crater Lake at dawn seen from the historic lodge at the South Rim, where I was two nights ago. Now I’m on the Oregon Coast at Yachats.)

Along the way and over the miles, I’ve also done a lot of thinking about my work. This morning, I finally could see MEADOW, the next book, clearly enough to begin drafting a book proposal, which was a great relief.

(Having a book rattle around in your head but not being able to conceive it clearly is kind of like being tapada, which can be translated as ‘blocked.’ In a particularly well, personal way that’s not at all pleasant.)

I’ve also realized and accepted some important things about myself and this unlooked-for solo life. The biggest came on the second day of the westward leg of this road-trip, when I stopped at Three Island Crossing State Park on the Snake River in southern Idaho. I had driven six hours already that day, coming nearly 400 miles from Price, Utah, and was headed on to Boise for the night, a destination I had calculated would leave me with a reasonable drive to Redmond, Oregon, the next day, the site of this year’s Women Writing the West Conference

I stopped at Three Island out of sentiment. On The Big Trip, the belated honeymoon Richard and I took ten weeks before he died in 2011, when we (actually I, since the glioblastoma in his right brain no longer allowed Richard to drive) drove a 4,000-mile route to follow the Pacific Coast from Washington to Southern California, we stopped at Three Island Crossing for a picnic one hot September day. 

Although Richard’s right brain was crippled by the tumor and his body swollen from high doses of steroids, he was happy to be with me, happy to be on the road, happy to be alive. “I’m a lucky guy,” he said right after I shot the photo below. 

Richard at Three Island Crossing, arms upraised in his habitual expression of joy, September 10, 2011

It’s not that he was fooling himself–he knew his life wouldn’t last long. He was just determined to enjoy it while he could. So he did. 

When I exited I-84 last Tuesday late afternoon and wound my way through the tiny town of Glenns Ferry and out to the state park, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel. I paid the entrance fee, drove past the campground and the new Oregon Trail Interpretive Center (closed by the time I got to the park that day), and parked at the exact same table in the now-deserted picnic ground at the edge of the Snake River. 

For a moment, I sat without moving. My heart whimpered, but then the view of the river, the shade of the big trees and the peace of the place soothed me. I got out, walked to the picnic table, laid my hand on it and repeated something I say every night to Richard’s spirit, “Thanks for being you and loving me.”

Then I wandered to the river’s edge and idly watched a Clark’s Grebe riding the current until it arced forward, long neck curving gracefully, to dive under the surface for a fish. 

When I turned back to Red, I spotted the cluster of tiny cabins in the shade by the edge of the picnic ground. Richard and I had considered staying at one of the cabins. The porches with swings facing the river looked awfully inviting. But by then, as he said, “my bladder doesn’t always communicate with my brain,” so a night in a cabin with no plumbing was just not possible. 

Last Tuesday night, I had an impulse to stay the night in that peaceful spot as a sort of tribute to Richard and me and all we shared. That would add a long hour to the next day’s drive, but what the heck, I thought. If they were still available for the season, I’d do it. 

Idaho State Parks photo

They were, so I did. I travel ready to camp, so it was easy to transfer my sleeping bag, water bottles, picnic basket and camp stove to the little cabin. 

I spent the evening listening to ducks gabble from the river, fish jump, grebes chuckle, blackbirds chatter, flickers call, and sandhill cranes “Khrrrr! Khrrrr!” from the distance as they migrated south high overhead.

Snake River at dusk, Three Island Crossing State Park

As the sunset faded and the great-horned owls took over from the daytime birds, a fishing skiff puttered by in the river. Voices drifted downhill from the campground, but I had the picnic ground, cabins and the riverside all to myself. I rocked on the creaking porch swing, the travel-stress melting away. 

A multitude of stars began to appear in the kind of darkness only found a long ways from cities. I identifed constellations, planets and more. 

And then my fears crowded in. I went inside the cabin and turned on the light, which I realized shone like a beacon, proclaiming for all to know that it was occupied. By me, alone. 

What if someone came down the deserted park road to cause trouble? I worried. The park staff had gone home for the night, the campground was too far away. I was a target there alone, and the cell phone service was questionable. What would I do? Where would I go? What if someone vandalized Red in the night? How would I find help? 

(I have a very vivid imagination.)

Once I had Richard’s solid form to comfort me. Now I don’t. I locked the cabin door, found my flashlight and set it by the bed, turned off the light and crawled into my sleeping bag. 

And then I did something I’ve never done before. I embraced the stream of fears, gave each thorough consideration and thought about what I’d do. I realized that I’ll always have a vivid imagination; I’ll always have fears. It’s just part of who I am, a skinny, freckled gabacha nearing sixty. 

Me on a solo ramble up the Pacific Crest Trail yesterday morning

I’ll also (I hope) always be the kind of person who doesn’t hestitate to take off on a solo road trip, to camp alone. The fears don’t have to keep me from reveling in the time out on the road, away from other human beings; the time in the tonic of the wild on my own. 

The owls continued their soft duet. A big fish splashed from the river. The night air flowed in cool and moist through the window screens. 

I got up and checked to make sure Red was locked. I looked at the night sky and breathed in awe at the river of the Milky Way pouring from black horizon to horizon. 

And I went back inside and slept soundly. At home on my own, fears and all.

The Snake River at Three Island Crossings State Park.