As a blogger, sometimes I struggle over how much to say about thoughts or events. It’s not that I’m particularly shy about sharing what I’m thinking, but more that I wonder if some people will find this stuff too hard to handle. Perhaps it will seem too painful to some readers. I wonder if perhaps I should preface a post with a warning. I suppose this piece could be labeled with the “Beware! This content not intended for those who would rather avoid hard stuff!” tag. If you’re inclined to heed that warning and wander off, don’t fret as I’ll soon be putting up another post about one of the many wonderful places we’ve been during this trip. Anyhow, read on if you dare.
There’s much more that I wish to write about this trip – and I will. Although we’ve arrived at our winter haven in Bisbee, I intend to continue writing a fairly chronological account of our wanderings. Hopefully, those will be interspersed with life as it happens to us while here in the desert. However, before writing anything more, there are a few things that I’d like to say about traveling, and what I’m feeling these days.
Yesterday was my birthday – but I’ll admit to having felt rather glum for most of the day. Two years ago, I spent my birthday, sitting on a fold-out cot in the corner of Don’s room in the cancer evaluation wing of a large, modern hospital. He (and I) had been there for most of a week while various scans and other tests were completed after he’d been admitted with a serious infection secondary to as yet undiagnosed cancer. On my birthday, a succession of doctors came and went throughout the day, dropping one bombshell after another concerning the extent of the cancer. The radiology specialist showed up with bone scans and told us, almost verbatim, that instead of telling us which bones had cancer, it would be easier to tell us which didn’t (legs and arms below the hips and shoulders, and skull). Everything else was riddled with cancer. The medical oncologist who would be setting up the chemo said that she could only offer “months, not years.” The good news was that, unlike most people with advanced NSCLC, no tumors had appeared on the scan of his brain, and what had previously seemed to be something on the liver and spleen might not be anything.
After the last of the doctors had been and gone, we laughed darkly at how we could be rejoicing over them not finding evidence cancer in the brain, liver and spleen. Yippee! Hurray! Several days on a very powerful course of IV antibiotics had left Don feeling sufficiently well that he suggested we order take-out chinese food to celebrate my birthday (a tradition we’d had for years), and that I should go down to the hospital gift shop and pick out a card. I did so, and returned to the room. He wrote me a love letter inside – it’s now among my most treasured possessions. We picked at the chinese food – neither of us having much appetite after such a bad day of news. We always made a point of ordering fortune cookies, just because the fortunes were so lame that they were good for a hoot. When I broke open my cookie and unraveled the paper, it said, “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.” I remember feeling shock and anger wash over me. When Don asked what mine said, instead of swapping fortunes to laugh over, I deftly shoved the nasty scrap of paper into my pocket and came up with some typically lame line such as, “You will impress all with your charm.” I suspect Don knew that I was making up my fortune, but he didn’t press me for a reason. After dinner, we sat on his bed, musing over how quickly life can turn from pretty good to mush, and how this cancer thing had come out of left field. Of course, it was that way when my dad was diagnosed too, and with several of our dogs. It’s probably no great wonder that I have such an incredible hatred for cancer.
Anyhow, that was yesterday. My birthday has become little more than a reminder – a footnote to some evil story that’s probably best forgotten. It’s now another day and I carry on as that seems to be what you do in these situations. But, I thought some of you might be wondering how it feels to “come in from the cold” after almost three months spent on the road in a van with two dogs, so I’d like to write a little about that.
On the wandering life, I have mixed thoughts. On the one hand, I was beginning to feel a little weary from the driving and the making and breaking camp – but just a little. On the other hand, I wonder if my restlessness is so great that I’ll find it hard to remain still. While on the road, five days has been just about my limit for any one place. After that, I’m antsy to be on the move again. I’m hoping that I’ll find enough to do this winter, to be able to settle down to do some of the art and writing that I’ve contemplated while on the road.
What about life on the road? How do I feel about that way of life after almost three months? I’d be lying if I told you it was easy. It isn’t. Traveling in a van with two dogs takes a load of tolerance on everyone’s part. Living this way has very little in common with traveling in a large motorhome. Personal space was at a minimum, particularly during the three weeks when a good friend joined us while we tripped around together in California. However, I think we did okay. At times, Sabrina, Sage, or I, would be growling or snarling – either their canine or my hominid version of “Hey! That’s my spot!” or “Dammit, you’re lying on top of my legs!” But all in all, we managed not too badly – perhaps even gracefully to anyone watching from the sidelines.
But there was a week spent on the Oregon coast when it rained and rained and rained while we tried to keep dry and wait it out in the van. It was horrible. One morning I’d finally had enough, so I packed us up and headed straight for the desert. Then there were the windstorms – the last of which happened just days ago at Red Rock Canyon State Park on the edge of the Mojave. A blow came up so suddenly that the campstove was, quite literally, torn apart and sent flying in a couple of directions. I never did find all of the pieces, so now the lid hinges have been replaced with twisted bits of wire from the roll I keep in my tool box.
How do I feel after all of this traveling? There isn’t one answer. During the times when I’ve been in places alone or almost as alone as you can get, I’ve felt relaxed and at peace. At other times, I’ve felt very stressed – usually when I’ve camped in places where there are other people around. After living on my farm for over thirty years, I’m accustomed to having a lot of unoccupied space around me (unoccupied by humans, that is). In a campground, there’s little sense of personal space. People wander around doing all kinds of odd things. Sometimes weird stuff happpens. A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in a super place with wonderful geology, but on one night, a group of wannabe musicians and a photographer showed up at one in the morning and proceeded to shoot photos using a strobe flash to light up the towering cliffs. This went on until 5 a.m. A couple of days later, a group of ORV enthusiasts camped a bit down from me and sat around half the night, lighting up the whole end of the canyon with propane torchieres. When the coyotes in the canyon began to call after sunset, these turkeys shone floodlights on them and hooted and imitated coyote calls. Predictably, that put an abrupt end to the coyote serenade. For giggles, they rode their ATVs back and forth over the 150 feet between their campsite and a vault toilet, stirring up dust that blew into everyone else’s campsites. After a couple of nights, all the beautiful geology, and fascinating flora and fauna in the world couldn’t keep me there another minute, so I packed up and left. I guess that’s one of the good things to be said about living out of a van – if you don’t like the neighbours, you can pack up and be gone within minutes – and I’ve done just that a couple of times during this trip.
Was it fun? That’s another one of those difficult questions. Since Don’s death, I’ve had a pretty hard time having fun in the usual sense of the word. The friend who traveled with me for three weeks knows me very well and says I’ve changed a lot – that it’s actually painful to see what the past couple of years have done to me. I knew that already, so it wasn’t really news, but interesting to hear someone say they’d noticed. That said, the traveling seems to have been good for me. I’m still dealing with a lot of anger over Don’s illness and death. Not anger over being left alone, or of having to deal with life on my own now. I think I’ve pretty much come to terms with all of that and am managing well – perhaps better than most people would in my position. No, this is something different. I still harbor a very intense and raw anger over the cruelty of cancer and what it did to to my best friend – a gentle person of uncommon kindness. And then there’s the more subtle after effects of the ordeal. Just the sound of a certain kind of cough, a fleeting glimpse of Boost in a grocery store aisle, an empty courtesy wheelchair in a store, any air suction noise that mimics that of a ventilator, buzzers that sound like warning alarms on life support monitors, cancer-emaciated movie stars on magazine covers, or the taste of fresh strawberries like I used to make high-protein smoothies for Don each morning…. All of these and more are now triggers to set spinning the stone that grinds yet another raw edge on nerves that have endured too much..
Traveling seems to have provided the best option for healing. If I’d stayed at the farm, I’d have been pacing my cage in a place where I felt little or no connection. Here on the road, there are so many new and unpredictable experiences each day, that it’s practically impossible to sustain any emotion, especially anger, for more than a few moments at a time. Driving the van requires at least some level of dumb concentration. In fact, to me, it seems almost a form of meditation. Exploring new areas brings constant change – maybe not a “fun” kind of change, but the kind where I can feel wonder at the geology of a place, or at the tremendous mass of a sequoia, or the raw power of waves crashing against sea stacks. Cactus wrens perching on the van’s roof racks to study me while I cook breakfast, or ravens flying over my campsite as they utter musical cronkings amid a whoosh of wingbeats, put small cracks in the hardness of my veneer. These moments don’t quite register as “happy”, but they’re pleasing at some deeper level where they manage to sop up some of the anger and make it easier for me to feel less troubled for awhile.
Over the space of three months, it feels like there’s been some change in how I feel. And when I compare myself to last year, doing much the same route, I realize that I’m in a very different place now. Last year, everything was an incredible struggle and left little mental space for observation. I was still dealing with a horrific amount of mental pain and physical exhaustion, while also attempting to do things I’d never tried before – like driving across Canada and down through the U.S. alone with Sabrina, who wasn’t doing too well either at the time. I wasn’t accustomed to driving on busy freeways, and yet here I am a year later, feeling “at home” rolling along in the midst of a pack of speeding trucks and commuters on 99 in the Central Valley, or on I-5 just north of L.A. In that respect, I’m light years from where I was a year ago. It’s true that I’ve become increasingly strong, confident and capable — but it’s just as true that the anger remains – and that’s the hard one. It burns as hotly as ever deep inside of me, like an unseen sun, whirling as it prepares to go supernova. What to do about that? It may be that the only thing that will make that feeling ebb is to give it time to burn down into glowing coals. Ten years later and the embers of a similar anger over my father’s death from cancer still occasionally crackle in some dark corner of my mind – a place reserved for the kind of pain and anger that never entirely vanishes. But for now, I just carry on and hope that some day I will be in a different place than where I am now. The traveling seems to play some part in all of this – helping to keep me going while everything gradually sorts itself out.
And so, I’ve returned to Bisbee. It has felt like a homecoming of sorts. I chose to camp at a few favourite spots in the nearby mountains on the final nights before I settled down for the winter. As I approached, familiar ranges loomed up to welcome me — the Whetstones, Mustangs, Dragoons, Huachucas, and finally the Mules. For now, it seems that I’m home.