By Ellen Nimmo
It started out as a wish. Or a loosely held plan. But it turned into a wild hunt for a van.
Only it wasn’t the heavily market-researched, family friendly, Dr Pepper slurping, van that my pal Matt mentioned in this post he shared around Thanksgiving time. No, this van was to be of an altogether different sort, even if the end game was oddly similar. I hunted on the streets of social media marketplaces and roadways of craigslist. I messaged, I scrutinized, for whole minutes at a time no less! I looked up towing capacities and engine reliabilities; still, the alluring, #vanlife evaded me.
But I went anyway.
Tuesday, December 21st around noon the dog and I hit the road.
We took the southern route. Over to Kansas, down through Oklahoma, into Texas, and then straight across towards the sea, the world’s largest, the vast Pacific. It was quite a few more miles mind you, but I thought it might cut down on any potential weather hazards. Which, as luck would have it, it did. The roads were clear except for a day of rain once I reached the Bay area, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Passing amongst the rolling winter-tan hills of Kansas, hawks dotted the interstate fenceposts and trees, peering into the waving grass to find a sustaining meal. In Oklahoma, hundreds and hundreds of geese flew overhead in their familiar V pattern across a sky divided by white clouds and billboards. Passing near a lake mysteriously filled with trees, their branches stretched skyward in abject praise, just before we drove up on acres and acres of prairie. Grasslands filled with the looming bodies of wind turbines, their giant white limbs circling in hushed hums, their blinking red eyes appearing in synchronized clusters just after nightfall.
Ahh the open road: So full of strange and beautiful sights.
It’s a standard of many journeys I suppose, but enthusiasm hoisted me on that first day. Eager to get going, eager to see, to explore, eager for the solitude, for the adventure, eager for the time away from the normal routines and everyday scenery, and eager for the eventual reunion with my parents and sister in the lands of way out West. But enthusiasm fades, don’t it?
Nevertheless, days two and three brought their own wonders, keeping my anticipations warm. Yellow fields thick with cattle in Amarillo slowly turned into bare and rocky salmon-colored plateaus. Two hours in a gridlock of traffic led us, slowly, past a semi that looked not unlike an enormous overcooked steel turkey. The trailer was split open and steaming, exposing a rib cage of metal and plywood. Yikes. Ten and two. Ten and two.
As I drove further and further westward, as the miles stretched ever forward, they simultaneously appeared in the recesses of the rearview mirror, and the knolls and peaks became shaded with stoic communities of dark green. A fellowship of cypress and juniper mingling across the hillsides, illuminated by rays of sun, darkened by rolling piles of cumulus. On day three of our journey, the foothills revealed patchy scars of charcoaled timber and, at a welcomed pit stop, we walked up a rosy, rocky trail to an overlook where the orange-pink hills stretched out in every direction. Picking thorns out of the dog’s paws every few yards since we unknowingly ambled amongst the wind-scattered abscissions of cacti. The western wilderness can be beautiful. And harsh.
Then there were the gorgeous green hillsides, orchards, and vineyards which appeared, painterly and mystic as we moved along our course. Then, just beyond those gilded valleys and hills, a forced detour took us through a place which looked apocalyptic, a place where the rain stood atop the soil in motionless mocking reflection of the silver sky above. As the detour concluded, we emerged onto the straightest two-lane highway you’ve ever seen. It was so straight and so flat that the sky domed large and luminous above it, like some unavoidable tunnel, a mouth, swallowing up the road beneath her.
I tasted my first In-and-Out burger somewhere in Southern California and read the small verse printed on the fry paper: Revelation 3:20.
The fourth day, Christmas Eve, I wove along the beautiful twists and turns of US-101. Through the Redwoods in a patchwork of rain and sun, rain and sun. Sometimes you’d round a bend, turn and look out over a valley you didn’t realize was there, and see everything enveloped in rainbow, rainbow, rainbow. White knuckle driving, but worth it.
I arrived about 4pm at an Airbnb my parents had rented for the weekend in Gold Beach, Oregon. My sister and I greeted one another with a big hug. Strike up the harp! Then the dogs got in a squabble.
Ahh: the ebb, the flow.
The ocean at Gold Beach was a sight to see. Waves that swirled, crashing in, receding out, and the sun setting against her glistening, turbulent surface. It was breathtaking. It was cold. It was nearly Christmas and I had made it into the warm embrace of some of my most dearly beloveds.
Here’s the part in the story where I could tell you about the precious hours I had with my family or the ways in which it fell short of the idyllic or the snowy, adventuresome voyage homeward. But I’m not going to. No, for the time being it all feels just a bit to sacred to try and describe.
Unquestionably, this was a Christmas I’ll remember for years to come, but in many ways it feels like the road we all must travel. The uncertainty of what lies ahead, moments and sights which cause our breath to catch in wonderous admiration, rest stops, thorny paths, rain, sun, the strange, the beautiful, the warmth of a meal shared with loved ones, the chill of a coastal winter wind, and best laid plans changed due to conditions far beyond our control.
Thomas Merton is a fellow I don’t’ know much about, but I read him quoted recently. His words gave me pause. Which, in turn, had me skirting the s-curves of a more inward mountain pass when I searched and found another of Merton’s musings:
Our real journey in life is interior; it is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever-greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts. Never was it more necessary to respond to that action.
Ahh: The hallowed road. May it lead us to paths everlasting. Drive on dear friends, drive on.