September 12, 2020: Written @ Wind River Range, WY
I didn’t think or plan about my first month back in the states until I was on my last flight from NYC to Buffalo. I figured I should just focus on making it back, successfully this time, before planning the next adventure.
On my last flight, when I could no longer doubt that I would actually make it home, I pulled out my notebook and started plotting a cross-country road trip across the states. The family I was staying with had arranged a ride with a friend from their farm in the Drakensberg to Johannesburg – he then offered to take me all the way to Pretoria, to the Qatar Embassy, since I was booked on a Qatar repatriation flight. After checking in, I took a bus from the embassy to the Joburg airport, flew to Qatar, and then to NYC. I wasn’t screened for Covid or really asked any questions except for what I was doing in ZA – “working” I said in a zombie state after over 20 hours on planes. I flew from an apocalyptic NYC airport to Buffalo, NY. The flight was about an hour, just enough time to plot out a plan.
I’d have to stay in quarantine for 2 weeks on Grand Island, NY. I reconnected with my parents, hung out on the farm, and sorted out US stuff: NY license, NY van registration and insurance, US phone number, fixed my laptop (hard-drive replacement to an SSD), and prepped for my move to North Carolina… and of course prepped for my tour of the country. I indulged in amazing food from my parent’s cookouts, drank beer again, watched some news – but still slept in my van, which I parked just next to the house. Time went quickly but towards the end of the two weeks, I felt reality sinking in. I wasn’t in South Africa anymore, life is different here – more complicated, busy, loud, aggressive, and tense. I emerged from my experience abroad dawning wild hair, a strange accent (a mix of all of the ones I’d heard), a tie-dye dress, always barefoot, and with a hyena like eruption of laughter. After adjusting to the status of the country, I could feel myself withdrawing and becoming reserved. Suddenly I realized I was actually back, whatever that means. My next phase would be moving(ish) down to North Carolina.
I actually squealed with joy when I opened my trunk of climbing gear (my mom can attest). I spent a lot of time in my van and my dad helped me build a few additions as well as finding the best new sneakers (tires) for her. Every evening that I was home, my mom and dad would pull up a chair to my “porch” next to the open side doors of the van and we would discuss new modifications and ideas. Slowly I sorted through my gear and clothes and repacked everything neatly. I planned to visit Sarah, my sister, and brother-in-law, Brent, in Denver, North Carolina; then I’d find an apartment in Durham (near Duke University). My hope was to find a studio apartment in the few days I was in Durham, then spend some time with them, before drifting for a month.
I broke down in tears a few times in Durham – nothing worked. The new tires I bought for my van were mounted wrong and it shook the whole way I drove it down to NC. Once there, I was told it was fixed (after $500 with a battery replacement – I knew it was the original battery so it was old) only to find another sensor to go off after a few hours of driving. Two out of the three apartments I looked into were scams. It was 90+ degrees with 100% humidity. Trump signs littered the air. I was ready to bail on this next chapter so many times.
I rubbed the tears and sweat off my face and focused on making it happen. I found a studio apartment and the complex agreed to a 6-month lease. I can bike from the complex to Duke and it’s right next to the highway to flee the city. The van tire issue got fixed. I met up with a couple of climbers using mountain project to set up some climbing plans once I was back from my trip.
I tore out of Durham and spent a fun weekend with my sister and brother-in-law. They took me out on their boat, cooked amazing food, and we went on a brewery tour. I realized I could live here. It would be a different lifestyle than ZA, but it was doable.
I’m not sure why I felt like I had to drive across the country… and back again. Sure I had some things I left behind in Seattle like a bouldering crash-pad, a tent, some books and maps, a fly rod, and some plants – but I didn’t really need them for NC. I wanted to reconnect with friends who had kept in touch while I was away, but my position at Duke is only 6 months so I could have done this trip after I was done there. I’m a choleric-melancholy personality (learned that in ZA!) so maybe I planned this on that flight just to make sure I was set up to have a way to process coming back and to feel like I was in control.
When people ask – how was Africa? I can’t come up with the words. I feel like I just came back from space, like an entirely different world. I was there for so long, it felt like another home. To come back, I just don’t know how to comprehend everything that I experienced and grew from. I don’t know how to talk about it or how to share all of the important things that I learned. And I don’t know how to comprehend and understand what is happening here. I think maybe on that last flight I was aware that it would be hard to readjust and I created this grand scheme to help ease the transition.
I’ve thought a lot about entropy lately (on this drive) – randomness. Where there is a point when enough energy is put into a particle in which it’s movement becomes sporadic, unpredictable, even meaningless one could argue. And right now, that’s me. I don’t know what to do; I don’t know where to be; I don’t know how I should act. I’ve also thought about it as a consequence of inertia. I felt like coming back was like being hurdled at a brick wall at full speed to be stopped in my tracks and act like an “American” (female) adult again. I was living so fast and free and untethered long enough that it felt like my movement would never end, and couldn’t end. Like I was thrown out into space.
For now I am happily in my van, my home. I’m writing this (from my new desk in the van!) in the Wind River Range, WY. I found I was quite anxious around other people on the trail. Gone are the days when Dav and I had the entire Drakensberg to ourselves to hike and climb our brains out. Here, I was asked to take photos of countless people for their Instagram (okay maybe that’s a bit judgmental) and I shared the trail with a lot of people who either had their phones out or felt the need to tell me where they were going, what they were doing, what they did last week, how many hikes they’d done this month, etc. As if I gave a flying fuck about it.
I hiked from the Green River Lakes parking-lot to the base of Square-top mountain to have lunch and lounge in my hammock. On my way back I saw a huge group of climbers trekking up their gear – I wondered if it would be possible to packraft gear to the base of climbs. A thought for a different time I suppose. The group was about a dozen people, which made me so uncomfortable that I nearly blocked out the “hello!” before I finally realized I needed to respond. As everyone in the Kalahari knew too, I’m definitely a loner and crowds make me anxious – especially in an outdoor environment.
I feel a bit shell shocked and skittish being tossed back in the US. But I’m sure everyone is feeling this way with how many changes have occurred this past year, month, even past few days. 2020 is a real doozey.
For now I’m trying to find the positive things about being back – like the mountains and my van, I’ve really missed them.
September 25, 2020: Written @ Skipout Lake, OK
So… covid, wildfires on the west coast, and the general status of the country has dramatically changed my plans. When I came down from the Winds, I had a ton of missed messages about how my plans were affected by the wildfires – which I really had no clue about up there without reception. Without having the outdoors as a safe place to hang out and social distance properly, it felt stressful to choose which friends to see over others. I processed the information on my drive to Jackson, WY and ultimately decided it was not the right time to travel the smoked out West Coast and to have a friend reunion during a pandemic. I was 2/3 of the way there, but pushing the last third just didn’t make sense. I decided to spend a few extra days in the Tetons and figure the rest of the trip out from there.
I had summitted the Grand Teton as one of my first big alpine climbs when I was living in Colorado. It had felt intimidating and scary and I had barely known how to place gear – let alone to find out that the Owen-Spalding route was filled with ice so we couldn’t place gear anyway. It’s a mild climb but with consequences for mistakes. The weekend after my ex and I had summitted, a guide fell to his death on that same route.
They still felt like big, looming mountains when I parked in the pull-off along the Snake River. Smoke from the West was beginning to create a haze but that day I could still see the peaks clearly. I looked up scrambles in the Tetons and found the Middle Teton on the list and before reading the rest of the options decided to do it.
I found a free BLM site to camp that night, packed my daypack, and stocked up on couscous. I planned to wake up at 5 AM and be at the trailhead by 6AM, then start hiking as soon as it was light. I wasn’t sure how popular the trail would be and despite promising myself I’d buy some bear spray, it slipped my mind in the chaos of Jackson. I thought I’d wait until the sun was coming up so I could at least see if there were any animals around, rather than be surprised in the dark.
When I pulled into the trailhead at 6, it was already filling up. I closed the curtain in my van as I prepped my breakfast and heard car doors slam and footsteps trek towards the trailhead. Anxiety crept up my chest and flushed my cheeks, but I held to my plan of starting at sunrise. There wasn’t a race up the mountain, who knows if they were even planning on summitting that specific one? I tossed down a banana with peanut butter, some granola and honey (fresh honey from my undergrad adviser I visited while home), and water. I taped up my heel knowing my hiking boots are old now and almost always create blisters. The sun started to brighten the sky at 6:30 when I stepped out of the van to face the crowds and try to focus on my objective.
Not even 30 minutes into the hike, I came upon a couple who were stopped in the trail. Two black bear cubs scampered on the trail ahead – no sign of the mother yet. The guy peered ahead down the trail and asked if it was another bear – “it’s a human standing on the other side of the bears” I replied unable to muffle my laughter. “Bad eyesight” – he shrugged. Soon we had a bottleneck of hikers. Five, then seven, then ten people were stopped as we waited for the bears to move off the trail. The mother was in sight now and was slow to amble along, clearly not caring about the traffic jam of humans behind her. Then, a climbing guide with two clients pushed past us clapping and scuffing his feet shouting “Hey Bear! Go make some bear jam! Go get your berries and make some jam!” Apparently these bears frequented this particular trail often. The bottleneck broke up and soon I passed the couple and chased after the climbing party, not to catch up or pass but because they set a good pace and I was ready to leave the gawking crowd.
At the turn-off to Garnett Canyon, they stopped to change out of long pants. We exchanged a quick conversation – they were heading up the OS route on the Grand. They had crampons so I assumed it must still be snowy/icy up there. I drove through a snow storm in Wyoming on my way to the Winds which apparently also hit the Tetons. I told them I appreciated how they took the initiative among everyone to move the bears along. The guide said he had done some maintenance painting jobs while the pandemic shut down the park and he was amazed at how the wildlife took over the park – even to the point where one afternoon he was painting a building in the park to later find a bear taking a nap just next to him. They asked where I was from and I stammered multiple answers – a question I still haven’t really been able to answer smoothly. “New York… well sort of, driving from there… was living in South Africa for the last 16 months so just kind of drifting… moving to North Carolina, living in my van now…”
Soon I reached another junction where Northwest led to the Grand and Southwest led through the meadows to the Middle and South Teton. I made my way up through the meadow passing some camps, then hopped over boulders up to the saddle. I met a solo man coming down and learned he had summitted early that morning, in the dark. The rocks were loose and there was some snow up there – he said. At first he seemed concerned I was doing it alone, but after assuring him I was fine, we shared some stories about where we had hiked. He was from Sri Lanka and told me he would meet me on a mountain again, somewhere in the world, someday.
I huffed my way up to the saddle – I was struggling with the altitude, which made me feel annoyingly unfit. A large party contemplated going for the summit at the saddle. Before I could fully catch my breath I decided to begin the ascent so I wasn’t stuck behind them. It was slow, the rocks were very loose, and it was more like swimming through scree than a scramble, but eventually I perched on top of the summit block and gazed at the Grand. Two guys from Chile were already on the summit – they were going to school in Chicago and were working remotely while visiting the national parks. We were photographers for each other before a few other guys joined at the summit. What a strange community a summit party creates! We were people from different parts of the world and all decided to stand on top of this big, tall rock and look down at the world below.
I hadn’t paid much attention to others who summitted after me while I was up there so on my descent, after I wiped out in scree and heard a laugh from someone behind me, I didn’t recognize him as part of that strange summit party. I laughed and shrugged, he passed, and we continued down. He slid, then I slid again, we laughed, then struck up a conversation. We hiked back down the 6000 feet and 7ish miles together back to the trailhead exchanging experiences and stories and laughs. I welcomed the company after a few days of isolation in the Winds and he was soloing as well. We hopped in the creek to cool off, I showed him the trail to the Grand (which was his original destination), and we leap-frogged past other hikers as we skipped our way down. When we reached the trailhead – “Hey, if you haven’t eaten your couscous yet and want to grab some food, I’d be game for an elk steak!” he said. I panicked and backpedaled and said I needed to find a campsite and drive to Idaho the next day so I couldn’t… At the van, I ate canned chili (basically dog food) and wished I’d been more graceful returning to the real world and not being socially awkward… and that’s how I missed the chance to eat an elk steak.
The next day I in fact drove to Utah, not Idaho, since I was no longer making the mission out to Seattle. I found a forest service road near Salt Lake City to spend the night. Dinner was the classic couscous and (newly purchased) Valentina’s hot sauce. The next morning I made my way down to SLC and booked a campsite on Antelope Island. It was a very developed campground, which felt weird, but I hung my hammock in the small shaded picnic area and tried to contemplate the expanse of the salt lake. In a couple of days, my friends Mikaila and David would be heading down from Portland to reunite.
My left heel was torn open from my boots, as expected. I had plans for a climbing day and a canyoneering day with Mikaila so I hoped I’d be able to let it heal before then. But time sitting stagnant did not do well for appeasing my mind. I decided the next morning to hike to the highest point on the island, instead of rest, to sort my thoughts out.
Frary Peak isn’t very high or a very long hike, but it was the best I could come up with. I taped up my foot and ignored the annoyance of the blister. The trail to the ridge was wandering so I was able to see a lot of the landmarks on Antelope Island. Soon I reached a craggy ridge and scrambled across it to the summit. From there I was able to see a large section of the lake, nearby peaks, SLC, and the rest of the island. The landscape from the summit was stunning; I was surprised. I hadn’t expected a beautiful view being so close to SLC – maybe it was the smoky haze that blocked out the city, or just a different perspective from the top. I lounged at the top for about a half hour before meandering down – I’d have to find a new place to sleep that night and I didn’t think I’d have many BLM/forest service road options being so close to the city.
I found a forest service road that climbed straight up the mountains out of Ogden. It zigzagged up washboard switchbacks and just when I thought I was pushing my van a bit too much, I found a large pull-off to park her. A trail from the pull-off led me to a nice perch to watch the city below. I was happy I was up there, and not down there in the chaos. As night fell, I watched the city light up below me. I felt removed from the world and like an alien observer trying to make sense of it all.
Later that night, as I lay panting in the van in the heat, I heard a car pull up next to me. Soon slurred voices filled the silence and bass from a car stereo pulsed in the air. I should have assumed that being so close to the city it would be a popular place to party. I couldn’t tell how old they were or how intoxicated, but I hoped they’d leave me and my van alone. I was really not in the mood to be messed with and didn’t want to have to deal with them. Luckily, it was a short party and they left. Soon I fell asleep.
The next day I returned to the city below and back to Antelope Island where I’d be meeting Mikaila and David. I retreated to the island hours before they arrived and had my first call with Dav since I left the Drakensberg. He wanted to hear about the trip so far and I was so excited to talk to someone we chatted with outbursts of laughter at each other’s stories and shenanigans. It made me miss South Africa and our adventures. We promised we’d continue them soon, wherever that may be.
David and Mikaila arrived late afternoon – I spotted them from my hammock slung in the pavilion of the campsite we reserved and soon we were in an embrace. Jumping right into an adventure, we pumped up the double kayak they brought and the three of us set out to paddle to the nearest island. After a long time paddling, and not getting very far, we questioned our goal that still seemed miles away. Instead of pursuing forward, we flopped into the water and marveled at how easy it was to float. So much so that it was actually difficult to swim, or twist, or change direction. We swam and pushed the raft back to the shore, which seemed a lot farther than we had paddled. At times we could walk on the lakebed – the average depth of the lake is only 14 feet. It was a strange sludge feeling and I wondered what decaying matter we were padding our feet through.
Back at the campsite we indulged in Auntie Anne’s (vegan) mac-n-cheese with cooked broccoli. David and I drained most of the whiskey I had brought while the three of us reconnected and shared stories. It was so so good to be back with friends and though our lives evolved in different directions, we still could hang out and chat like old times.
The next morning we woke up to a bison casually strolling through our camp. David left to visit his family a few hours away and Mikaila and I hiked a lake front trail in the morning, then returned to make breakfast at the campsite. After some change of plans, we decided to head South of SLC to explore the Wasatch Range. It felt like autumn up there and it was amazing. Cooler temps compared to the 90+ degree days in SL and golden aspens were stunning. We toured the sites along HW 150 and caught each other up on life stuff.
We wrapped up our reunion at a brewery in Heber City, UT. We’d see each other soon – 6 months max. The weather forecast for the Uintas was rain so I headed South to Moab. Four hours later, I found a BLM site on the Green River. Savannah looked like a beast perched up on her dune at the campsite as the sky exploded with the colors of the sunset. Her new shoes looked sharp, especially with the rims painted black – thanks Dad!
The next morning I drove into Moab; it was scalding. I remembered hiking to a waterfall in Mills Creek but looked up the wrong coordinates and wound up at a popular hiking trail for the creek proper. I parked a ways down the road as everyone else had the same idea and picked my way up the creek to try to find a secluded place to cool off. There’s a large pothole type formation where people cliff jump – but from what I could tell the water was still only a few feet deep at the deepest. It was cold though and I dipped in with the dozens of others and dodged flying bodies throwing themselves into the shallow water. I skirted around the pothole and eventually found a place to hang my hammock and wait out the heat of the day. That night, I found a campsite on Willow Springs Road (my usual) and planned to solo Elephant Butte canyon the next day.
I’d done Elephant Butte a few times so thought it would be a good canyon to see what soloing is like. There are mild scrambles and only two rappels; plus route finding wouldn’t be an issue having done it before. As I entered the wash, a guy was exiting who had just soloed it. It was his first time doing the canyon and I was excited for him that he did it and soloed it! The first anchor had been moved (rebolted) but besides that it was just as I’d remembered. There was the fun scramble up to the saddle before the first rappel. Then unfortunately the rebolted anchor set the rappel down a more gradual slope rather than the free hanging one I remembered. Then there’s the trek up the cliff band before the summit and the fun little crack climb to get up there. Then a steep but sticky walk down the canyon to the last free hanging rappel into a pretty little alcove nestled in the canyon. The route went smoothly but I realized I missed sharing the fun with friends. You can’t really Wohoo! down a rappel by yourself – well you can and I did, but it’s just not as fulfilling. I was happy I did it though – now I know I can and I can keep pushing into soloing things.
I decided to check out La Sal Mountains next. I had done the Pleiades wet canyon a few years before but never hiked to any summits of the range. It’s about an hour and a half drive from downtown Moab to the trailheads of the mountains. I had a lazy morning and eventually made my way to the Warner Lake Campground, reserved a site, and actually watched a movie in the van. It was sporadically raining and I was kind of tired and lazy – it was perfect.
The next morning I felt antsy before my alarm even went off. Almost like the anxiety I felt for the Middle Teton but there was no stimulus for pressure, it was all internal. I rubbed my feet together and flipped around in my bed before surrendering and getting up and changing clothes quickly in the cold – it was 41 degrees! My foot was still fucked so I planned to do a casual hike up to a saddle – either Burro Pass or Jackass Pass. I moved my van from my campsite to the day parking to find I was the only one parked to hike that morning. I set off past Warner Lake and through the cattle gate, twisting through the golden aspens. I heard a shuffling, glanced into the woods and thought I saw a burnt stump, realized it was way too black and shiny to be a stump, and looked up again to find a black bear. I made some noise so it was aware of me whereupon it then romped closer and stood on its back legs checking me out. I too straightened up and threw my arms out and made more noise. I checked back occasionally but he/she didn’t follow me. The next bend in the trail I glanced up to see a massive black animal which I thought was a huge bear – but it turned out to be a cow. It gave me quite a fright though.
I reached the junction for each pass and initially headed up Burro Pass. But this trail was part of the Whole Enchilada trail and I anticipated dodging mountain bikes on my way down. So instead, I turned around. I worked my way up the “dry fork” aka Jackass Pass trail. I again set out on too quick of a pace and found myself stopping to give my heart and lungs a break. I took the last few switchbacks up to the pass slow and thinking I for sure would be done once I got there. But then the small sign advertized Mt Manns summit only ¾ miles further, so why not continue. The trail switchbacked up scree and eventually made it to the top of an impressively large summit. Peregrine falcons soared through the air so fast that the sound their bodies made cutting through the air was piercing.
At the summit I could see where Burro Pass was so decided to make a loop of the hike and descend via the WE (Whole Enchilada) trail/Burro Pass back to the campground. I did indeed have to dodge some mountain bikes but it was nice to take a different route down. The last section of the trail back to the parking was uphill and I was incredibly tired – enough so that I had to stop and take a breath in even the last mile. I realized my body was cooked – I don’t really know what to do with myself alone besides physical activity and having fun.
I drove back down through Moab to Willow Springs. The road was surprisingly full for a Wednesday so I drove further than I usually do to look for a site. A sandy rutted out hill stood between us (me and Savannah) and some free campsites so I pushed Sav through it. She bucked and twisted and it felt like a car version of a rodeo, but eventually I parked her at the site. For the rest of my evening I was entertained by others attempting this path and was shown up when 2 ancient looking RVs rocked their way up and over it. Watching them from the roof of Sav, I thought for sure they’d tip but they stayed steady and camped in the spaces next to me.
Moab to me is a place for friends to play. I realized I was getting down about being isolated here and how much the place had changed. Willow springs was more busy, new hotels and restaurants were built up in town, even Gearhead changed location. I left a day early. I experienced the desert, in a different way than usual, but it was time to move on.
Before leaving I lapped the (North) Canyonlands loop. I stopped at the Green River overlook to take a gander and at another rest stop that held a significant memory for me. Then without further adieus, I left Moab and drove South and then East through Colorado and then South again into New Mexico. By 5 PM I rolled into Vance’s Place aka Juicy Jitters, in Cuba, New Mexico.
Continued September 27, 2020 @ Elkmont Campground, Great Smokey Mountain National Park
I found Vance’s Place on iOverlander – an app for people travelling in their cars/vans/rigs that has camping (free and paid), shower, laundry, and auto-mechanic sites. I was really just browsing through places to stop in NM since I wanted to take the southern route back to NC, I-40. I thought Cuba was a funny name for a city in NM and decided to check it out. It was a Thursday but I called ahead anyway – their business name is Juicy Jitters. It appears that their primary business is their smoothie/coffee stand next to the highway and they also have a small camp area in their yard. This space is equipped with 2 built out buses for people to rent out and some spaces for people to park. It was $10 to park and camp for the night.
I arrived around 5 PM and a tall, pretty girl who reminded me of my childhood friend, Madeline, greeted me with a huge smile before hooking on a mask to her ears. She was vibrant and bubbly and friendly and after missing friends in Moab I really appreciated her energy. She showed me where to park and told me about a grocery store nearby, but that there really weren’t any good restaurants in town. I did go in to town and stopped at Mickey’s Grocery store to buy a red pepper, some jalapenos, and bananas for breakfast. I tossed the groceries in the van and walked next door to find some New Mexico beer. A loud horn and shout made me jump and cover my head, followed by laughter and a smog of exhaust smoke. Right… catcalling is a thing in the US. I so happily had forgotten about that while I was in the desert.
I returned to the campsite and found Vance and his girlfriend (I’m embarrassed not to remember her name especially since I really liked her! Maybe we never even exchanged names) sitting at the coffee stand. We chatted for about an hour, socially distanced, about the status of the world and our instinct to retract from all of the pressure and tension but also feeling responsible for being aware and present. They had considered going on the road before the pandemic hit, and the rest of the chaos ensued, but realized they were probably in the best place in Cuba, NM. Vance said the population of “Cuba” is recorded as 2500 but really only 700 live in town. The census covers 20 – 30 miles in every direction around the town center to include people living off the land and on the outskirts. He inherited the property from his family and saw the opportunity to create Juicy Jitters and the small campground since it was between popular places like Santa Fe and Durango and Moab. They had three adopted dogs, but I only met Dennis – a shy pitbull rescue that sort of acted like a cat where he wanted to be near you but didn’t want you to pet him. Coffee business picked up so I returned to the van to cook dinner, with my fresh red pepper and spicy jalapenos.
As I was cleaning up the van and reorganizing, I met a guy who was renting one of the bus conversions out long term. His name was Micky and he worked for the parks service. After introducing himself, he invited me to have a beer on his porch (literally 10 feet from my van). We sat and chatted under the dark night sky for hours into the night and I sampled more NM beer. He told me about what it was like working for the parks service, and during covid. He suggested some places to explore in NM, though I still wasn’t sure of my plans. He had served overseas in the army so we exchanged desert stories about scorpions and camel spiders. Eventually, he said out of the blue to keep doing what I’m doing because he thought I was doing it right. He shared he was a new dad, at the age of 38 and didn’t want to be an old dad. I told him he could make it whatever he wanted it to be – he could be the best dad to his daughter, no matter what age he was. We exchanged a big hug before saying goodnight. It was an unexpected and appreciated brief connection.
I heard his forerunner cough to a start at 6 AM the next morning. I had a bit of a headache from our beer selection and couldn’t imagine how he was feeling starting work so early. I packed up by 7 and pulled into the coffee stand drive through. I asked what her best smoothie was and she asked if I liked mangos and raspberries – “two of my favorites!” I replied. I saw they had stickers and asked to buy one. She gave me three for free and said she hoped I came back through someday, I told her I hoped I would too since it was such a cool place. So if you’re ever passing through NM, stop at Juicy Jitters aka Vance’s Place – it will for sure be worth it. I was so grateful for friendliness and positivity after dropping into the US in its current state. I’m so happy I stumbled upon this spot.
I considered taking their suggestion of stopping in the hot springs in the Jemez mountains. However, the temperature forecast was 90+ and I decided to add an extra day in the Smokeys at the end of my drive and plow through the long days of driving first. I drove 7 hours from Cuba to just inside of Oklahoma. I realized I’d probably never take the southern route again… driving across the top of Texas sucked. From Albuquerque to the East was pretty remote but at least the landscape was something to look at during the hours of driving. Once I entered Texas, I passed a sign that read – “Welcome to Texas, Drive friendly. It’s the Texan way.” I found the Texan way to be very unfriendly and the roads unmaintained. So much so that after doing an okay job at dodging old shredded tires, a tire from a semi truck exploded in front of me and smacked Savannah right in the face. I saw it happen too late and was unable to dodge it and the tire jarred the van. It’s a fast highway with nowhere to pull off so I couldn’t check the damages until about 20 miles later at a gas station – luckily no damage, surprisingly and luckily.
I got off the highway just past the border of Oklahoma – another spot I found on iOverlander. It was supposedly a national grassland (I’d only heard of national forest before) and was about 20 miles from the interstate. I was skeptical and wary – I’m confident traveling through states I know like Colorado and Wyoming and Utah. But I’d never been to Oklahoma and don’t know much about what it’s like traveling through the South. Eventually I turned off at a sign for the national grasslands and down into a lovely little park. A few families had tents set up and another van occupied the lot. I could feel my shoulder and neck tension ease – there is certainly more stress traveling solo and trying to make sure you can find a safe place to sleep at night. The campsite was even free, up to 14 days. I took advantage of the trees and strung up my hammock and actually had 4G to set up the rest of my trip, and plan for my return to civilization. I booked sites in the Smokeys and messaged someone about parking my van at their air bnb in Durham, NC – since my apartment is only open on Oct 2 and my job starts Oct 1. That night I dreamt I had parked at the bottom of a 90 degree dirt hill which the van would have no way of making it up and that people were trying to flip my van over… clearly some aftermath of the stress.
I woke up before my alarm and had the van packed and moving by 7 AM. It would be an 8 hour day of driving to Buffalo National River, Arkansas. I had done some water quality experiments on samples from the Buffalo River after a woman named Tracy in Arkansas read my MS thesis online. She emailed me at the University of Washington lab and asked if we could develop a test to screen for domestic pig DNA. It took some digging but we determined we could screen for domestic pig contamination (compared to feral pig which do inhabit the area) by developing markers for a target of a gut microbe that is only present in domestic pigs. Recently, a large pig CAFO (captive animal facility operation) was established near the river and, in the past few years, the water quality of this once pristine river plummeted due to algae blooms. Tracy believed it was due to runoff from the animal facility. I had a capstone (honors) undergrad student in the lab at the time who was interested in public health and genetics and she decided to take on the project with me as her mentor. We used new technology in the lab (droplet digital PCR – which is super cool!) to test for this domestic pig microbe. We designed the test and it worked on the control samples Tracy sent. But she was having some issues with the water sample collection and abiding by requirements necessary for the lawsuit. Donia, the undergrad student, graduated and I left for the Kalahari before she was able to get the samples. I’m not sure if this work has continued since I left UW, but the test was developed so I hope so.
When I saw the Buffalo River was sort of on my way to Tennessee, I planned to make a stop. I felt a connection to it through the work and was curious what it was like. I drove across the entire state of Oklahoma – which is funny only because I have a mean old ex-boyfriend who is a state trooper in OK. And no shit I was followed by a trooper patrol car my last 20 miles driving through OK before crossing into Arkansas where the car turned around. Could it have been him? Who knows, probably not, but maybe.
I continued on into Arkansas and came to the conclusion that Arkansas is the land of ridiculous roads. It felt like I was operating, well driving, a roller coaster as I guided Savannah up and over hills, around twists that seemed unnecessary, and all at high speed. Finally, I found Buffalo Point, and swerved down into the campground. It was at the bottom of the gorge and was buzzing with people. I was surprised with how remote and obscure the roads around the park were. Eventually I found that there was still availability for walk in tent sites and found a vacant site next to the parkinglot where I could cook and hang but still sleep in the van. I really do hate paying for campsite with the van, but being in a new place and with how the world is here these days (or how it seems to me to be), I felt it was worth it to pay for safety and not take chances in a new place.
Once parked, I realized there wasn’t reception down there. In Africa I didn’t have a number anyway so no one could keep tabs on me. But a nagging voice in my head convinced me to hike all that way back up and out of the canyon to send a message to my parents telling them I found a site and everything was good. It was appreciated, but to me felt unnecessary after I’ve been so used to being untraced for so long. I did the local hikes around the camp in the last two hours I had before dark, then retreated to the riverbed for sunset. The water level was incredibly low… I wouldn’t have even called it a river in its current state. Large fish swam slowly upstream, visible from the shore, and with their dorsal fins breaching the water surface. I didn’t know if this was normal for autumn, but it sure didn’t seem like it. The river occupied about a quarter of the riverbed and I sat on a rock that should have been half way into the river and underwater, instead of surrounded by dry pebbles. I noticed the algae in the stream and I guess I unintentionally surveyed other families and kids playing in the water while my knees were to my chest and feet far from the water. I’m sure every waterway has contamination of some kind, but I knew too much about this river to want to cool off in it.
My goal to start driving was 6 AM, but that was pushed til 7 AM as sleep tendrils convinced my brain otherwise. It was a long 11 hour drive into the Smokeys in Tennessee. I binged listened to the available podcast episodes of “Paper Ghosts” which were shocking, unimaginable, and rawly told. Slowly the hours passed by and when I wasn’t listening to abductions and murders I was lost in my own head. Sometimes when I drive it feels like I’m watching a movie – the van has an incredibly huge windshield and side windows and I just sort of take in the world as I pass through it. There are a lot of people, a whole lot. As I watch them pass I try to imagine what their life is like. Sometimes they’re mad and shouting in their cars at their partners or kids. Sometimes they’re alone. Some have beat up cars and fast food wrappers crammed up against their windshields. And some are perfectly manicured and buttoned up. I know the way I live my life only makes sense to me, and I wonder if they imagine that as well. How different we all are and what matters to us.
I arrived at the outskirts of the Smokey’s just as the sun was setting and the sky was lit with vibrant pink clouds. I wound my way up narrow, steep roads, taking the backway into Elkmont Campground, and arrived at this campsite, just as darkness crept in.
A very delayed finish to this story: November 13, 2020 Durham NC
The next day I woke up fairly early to squeeze in a quick hike up a branch of a river. The sun was filtering through the leaves and it was a warm, beautiful morning. It had been about a week since my last shower, so I took a spur trail down the ravine to a small pool in the river. The water was cold but refreshing.
I drove to Nashville to pick up a friend I had made in the Kalahari. He’s Australian and was living with his girlfriend in Tennessee (we both left the Kalahari at the same time). I brought him back into the Smokey’s and we caught up on what it was like post-desert. It was helpful to talk to someone who was having similar feelings as me with trying to navigate the “real world.” After I dropped him off back in Nashville, it was time to head back to Durham and begin the next chapter.
Literally no part of the trip went as planned. I never made it to Seattle, but was it really a bust? I don’t think so, just another misadventure to add to the ever growing list.