It’s a beautiful day – sunny and not too terribly hot. I ease my car onto the highway, settle back and take a sip of the coffee that I’ve just purchased from one of my favorite coffee shops. Call it a bon voyage gift to myself for the long drive ahead. I’m actually getting a late start. It’s going on 10:00 a.m. and I thought I’d be on the road before dawn – yesterday, that is. Yeah, but there are a million and one things to think about when you’re preparing for a backpacking trip, and I’d fallen way behind. Hmmm…, that wouldn’t have had anything to do with me not making up my mind for so long, would it? Karma, eh?
For weeks, now, I’ve been gradually assembling my gear, perusing topographic maps, and pondering over descriptions of alpine trails. Believe it or not, making sure you can actually make it to the trailhead is half of the concern. Sometimes the trail only begins after a long trek down a road that’s only accessible by foot or pack animal or SUV. For that I rely on my copy of Gerry Roach’s Colorado’s Fourteeners and its companion map package.
Yesterday, however, I ended up spending the entire day making my final gear selections and packing it away just so into my backpack. I stood at the kitchen counter portioning out trail food and combining measures of Grape Nuts cereal and dehydrated milk into little Ziplock baggies that will only require the addition of water in order to make a healthy breakfast. I stood around my bed sifting through pairs of wool socks and trekking shorts, polypropylene jerseys and fleece gloves – selecting them, folding them, and then carefully compressing them into tight little vacuum-sealed packages. I sat on the living room floor taking stock of my mess kit, propane stove, waterproof matches, utensils, 10-in-1 tool, flashlight, survival candle, compass, and what have you. I sat at the dining room table checking out my drinking system, water bottles, and water filtration gear; and I sat on the couch going through my first-aid/survival kit. I’ve got sunscreen and a signal mirror; merthiolate, antibiotic cream, and bandages. I’ve got iodine tablets in case my water filtration system fails and I’ve got Vaseline and Moleskin patches in case my feet begin to blister. I’ve got aspirin and ibuprofen in the event that I succumb to one of those skull-splitting headaches that accompany the acute nausea of altitude sickness.
And as I packed it all away and strapped my tent and sleeping pad into place, my mind was busily churning through the many inglorious backcountry lessons that I’ve learned over the years – contemplating whatever else might come in handy: “Yes, I’d better scrounge up some lengths of rope in order to string up a bear bag,” I told myself. “Oh, and I should bring along some powdered electrolyte mix just in case a bout of altitude-induced nausea leaves me dehydrated from vomiting my guts out. And while I’m at it I might as well tuck away a couple of bags of that stomach-soothing licorice root and fennel tea. It will help get my digestive system back to normal should such an episode come to pass…” And so it was late in the evening of the day on which I was supposed to depart that I finally wrapped things up by weighing myself on the bathroom scale and then hoisting my backpack into place and weighing myself again. Fifty pounds. I’ve definitely carried heavier. I took a stroll around the neighborhood just to make sure that the heft and balance were okay. It felt good. No, it felt perfect.
Everything still feels perfect as I sip coffee and speed westward – listening to the hum of the engine, the whistling wind, the traffic outside, and the insects buzzing along the roadside. I’ve almost made it all the way across
by the time I feel the need to listen to anything else. I slide Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks into the CD player, and by the time I’ve listened to it all the way through I’m well into Missouri and ready to stop for lunch. Kansas
I gas up at a Quicktrip and then sit in a patch of shade on the sidewalk eating the salad that I’d made of whatever produce needed cleaning out of my refrigerator. People come and go, come and go, come and go. It reminds me of bicycling across the West. I sat on my share of sidewalks in front of gas stations back then, feeling as though my only job in the whole wide world was to watch the universe unfold. And watch I did, as though each passing moment were a plump and dew-moistened blossom opening up in the sweet light of dawn. Yes…, to be born again…, born again with each new moment. To be born again…
I drive in silence once again until I’ve reached the glorious Flint Hills – rocky here and rolling there, pinched and puckered, looking almost luminescent in the late afternoon sun. I could stop the car and hoist my pack and head out on foot from here. I could just keep walking and walking forever – or at least until my food ran out. Ah, yes, but a mountain stream is calling my name. I’ll be nestled in beside it by the end of the day tomorrow as long as I just keep rolling onward. And that is what I do… I just keep rolling onward.
I’m gaining altitude with each passing mile. The engine whines steadily and the temperature gauge rests solidly in the black. Perhaps my concerns about it holding up on such a long drive were ill-founded, after all. I slide a collection of the works of Thelonious Monk into the CD player and let such rhythms as Ruby, My Dear help the engine propel me onward. I pass what must be hundreds and hundreds of bright white wind turbines just to the north – spinning like an assembly of pinwheels that a child might have stuck into the front lawn. To the south, an occasional oil well pump turns slowly and lopsidedly, as if winding down to some fateful conclusion. Oil wells and wind turbines – two ways of being…, two ways of seeing. Everything is different, and yet nothing at all has changed. The engine whines. The temperature gauge rests solidly in the black. The odometer turns and another mile is past. And as I keep on rolling across the vastness of the Plains, I wonder just how many more miles I have left.
The sun is beginning to sink as I pass field after field of sunflowers – their blossoms facing east and drooping low, as if the weight of their seed is almost too much to bear, as if a long day spent gazing up at the sun has left them tired and ready for bed long before the sun has taken leave. Just as the sun is about to set I cue up John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and it’s almost as if the music is rising up from the prairie as I roll on past. Onward, onward…, into the sun…, into the night… Ba-dum, ba DUM…; ba-dum, ba-DUM…; a love supreme…, a love supreme….
It took a long time for the sun to disappear – like a cymbal splash that keeps on shimmering as it fades until you suddenly realize that you just can’t hear it anymore. I’m beginning to grow sleepy, but I’ve still got over a hundred miles to go before the town of Limon. The highway now is mostly filled with truckers and people driving with their bright lights on and people driving as fast as they can – as if the speed alone will keep them awake. Such driving used to piss me off, but I’m feeling different about things now. We’re all just doing what we think we need to do to make it to our destination. We’re all just fellow travelers on a dark and lonely road. I tuck in behind a trucker and let his taillights help me stay between the lines. Somebody else tucks in behind me and together we slip on through the darkness toward Limon.
It’s almost eleven by the time I ease the car to a halt in front of a motel that I’ve stayed at numerous times before. It’s in the older part of town – holding its own even as most of everything else has faded away. I ring the bell and a man stumbles out of the adjoining room. His face is puffy and red from him having been awakened from slumber, but as soon as he speaks in his Polish-American accent I realize that I’ve met him before – years ago when I last passed through town. I mention that little tidbit of information to him as if it’s almost incomprehensible, but it doesn’t seem to interest him in the least. Imagine that!
“Everything is different, and yet nothing at all has changed,” I think to myself as I hoist my backpack from the trunk of the car and shuffle off to my room. The man in the room next door is sitting outside drinking a beer and reading a book. We exchange greetings and I close the door behind me. I slide open the window to let in the cool night air and plop down on the bed. Tomorrow night I’ll be sleeping high up in the mountains beside a roaring alpine stream. I can almost hear it already way off in the distance – rushing down the mountainside. Hmmm…, perhaps it never left me from the very first time I saw it. Perhaps it’s always been here deep inside me all these years.
Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank
Sunflowers at Sunset image courtesy of Pixomar via: