Road-trip: Time to Think and Teach and Learn

In early June, when my doctor grounded me pending significant improvement in my health, the one trip I worried about missing was my planned drive to Tucson to teach at Canyon Ranch Institute last week. It wasn’t that I was so excited about driving to Tucson in late June when I knew daytime temperatures would be in the hundreds, it was the chance to work with a group of community garden organizers from around North America, plus CRI staff, on how gardens and parks can contribute to community revitalization and wellness. 

So I applied myself to reaching the improvement goals my doc outlined. By last Monday, I was on-track, free of pain and feeling well. That afternoon, I loaded my gear into Red and hit the road, singing along with Nora Jones as I headed southwest. 

My destination that night was a campground in Mesa Verde National Park, that “green table” rising above the desert. The drive there is five hours without road construction and without stops. Because I ran into lots of the first and did the latter, it took me six and a half. At six-thirty that evening, I was very glad to back Red into the shade of a Gambel oak grove at the campground, open the back and perch on the tailgate with my feet up, reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s lyrical and thought-provoking Braiding Sweetgrass over my simple dinner. 

Feet up, book in hand, Jetboil stove heating water for tea, hermit thrushes fluting voices echoing…

As the sun set, cool air flowed downhill through the campground and hermit thrushes fluted their sweet solos from the tops of the tallest oaks around the campground. I slept well and woke to those same thrushes fluting before sunrise, a lovely way to begin the day. 

As I drove farther south and west that day, past Sleeping Ute Mountain, through Four Corners, where the desert was the most wildflower-spangled I have ever seen it, and then across the Navajo Nation from north to south, I had a lot of time to admire that spare landscape, and think about my writing and what I wanted to teach in my “Planting Wellness” workshop at Canyon Ranch

Red sandstone buttes and unusually green desert grassland (that’s Indian ricegrass with the billows of straw-colored seedheads) on the northern Navajo Nation.

Mostly, I thought about what I bring to this work of writing and teaching. I have always struggled to define my message in just a few words. (In writing, that’s called your “elevator speech,” the pitch you can make to an agent or editor in the few seconds it takes for an elevator to go from floor to floor. An elevator speech might be about a single book or your whole body of work.)

Over the course of the long day it took me to drive from Mesa Verde National Park to Show Low on the Mogollon Rim in northern Arizona, with stops in Cortez (for WiFi and hot chocolate), Ganado (to visit Hubbell Trading Post National Monument, a stop I highly recommend to see a working reservation trading post, watch a Navajo weaver at work, and tour the historic trader’s house and farm) and Petrified Forest National Park (even if you can only drive the single park road and stop at a few viewpoints to see the vivid striped layers in the painted desert and the huge petrified logs are scattered over the ground, another highly recommended stop), I had a lot of time to think. (The day’s drive took me ten hours, including stops.)

Painted Desert from an overlook at Petrified Forest National Park (mid-afternoon, which is not the best time to shoot a photo, the temperature already a sizzling 98 degrees F).

Ideas bubbled through my brain over the course of the day and those scenic but not peopled miles (the Navajo Nation covers 27,000 square miles, about the size of the state of West Virginia, with a population of a little over 180,000 people scattered over that huge area, so while the landscape is spectacular, traffic and towns are rare).

I realized as Red and I crossed the high mesas clothed with silver-green sagebrush somewhere between Chinle and Ganado that my mission as a writer, plant biologist and person is really pretty simple: To heal earth and we humans by restoring the community of the land–nature–and our connection to that community, and to each other, and our own hearts and spirits. I do that work through my words, the plants I plant and the relationships I nurture at home and in my everyday life. In sum,

I plant wellness by restoring nature, and help other humans grow their own wellness. 

By the time I reached Show Low and my comfy motel room, I was exhausted by the drive, the heat and thinking. 

The next day, Wednesday, Red and I headed downhill, dropping nearly a vertical mile from Show Low (6,300 feet elevation) toward Tucson and the hot desert, traversing the layers of rock and plant communities from the cool and airy pine forests on the rim to the saguaro-studded desert far below.

The Salt River Canyon

On the way, we dropped into the Salt River Canyon, one of my favorite drives in Arizona, and stopped at Boyce Thompson Arboretum west of Superior and the man-made mesas surrounding the open-pit copper mines to walk among the saguaros and other cactus and shady mesquite trees before the day got too hot to enjoy it.

“It’s only 99.8 right now,” said the state park staffer encouragingly as I set out, “still under a hundred degrees.” Only by two-tenths of a degree, I thought, but I didn’t quibble. I wanted to get in my walk before I shriveled in the heat.

That night, I stayed with my friend Patricia and her dog Joy, who live two blocks from the house where my parents lived for 20 of their 26 years in Tucson. I drove by my parent’s house–the saguaro in the front yard is starting to look like a big cactus, and the mesquite trees we planted in the back yard to restore the bosque habitat are clearly thriving–and felt a tug at my heart. 

The rest of the week flashed past in teaching at Canyon Ranch, and working with the CRI scholarship winners and the staff–an intense and inspiring time, full of insight and take-way nuggets. My second night there, a thunderstorm rumbled in and poured rain for perhaps half an hour. The desert came alive with fragrance and movement and sound, quail whinnying as they foraged, lizards scurrying about, doves cooing and hummingbirds zinging past. 

That rain marked the beginning the summer rainy season and delivered the gorgeous double-rainbow at the top of the post. I felt blessed to be part of it all. 

Sunrise after the rain

On Sunday, I hit the road again, driving through landscapes familiar to me from my parents’ time in Tucson and our years in Las Cruces, New Mexico. I am taking the trip home by slow stages, honoring my promise to my doc to practice a new pace for my life, one that allows me time and energy to savor all I see and do.

It feels good to slow down, and especially good to know that once I make it home, I can settle in for the summer with time to read and think, meet some writing deadlines, rest and continue my work on healing me and my home ground–as well the earth itself and all who inhabit this glorious living planet.

Home in the place I love to work at what moves me, challenging body and mind, restoring heart and spirit. I am indeed blessed.

Cleveland sage, one of the West’s medicine plants, blooming at Canyon Ranch.