It’s a couple of months after the end of the trip, and I sit here in supreme quiet in a house full of boxes, still waiting and still wondering, “Where next?” After more than eight months on the road, we are living in the pleasant burg of Bella Vista, Arkansas, the home to our furniture, my wife’s parents, and this small house we bought last summer. But it’s not home. We’re not staying here.
After the last interview in Salt Lake City, we found ourselves staring at a map with no more routes. There were no more poets on the list, and no more stops to make. We had nowhere to be. We charted a long, circuitous route back to the center of the country, delaying the inevitable return to some kind of normal life.
In southeast Utah are two gigantic national parks, Canyonlands and Arches, and we put them on the schedule. Like normal tourists, we loaded up the Pepsi and the cameras and went for what seemed another sightseeing obligation. You know what I mean? You end up in Tourniquet, Wyoming, and someone says, “You gotta see the rock shaped like a ’57 Eldorado.” So you go. You shoot nine pictures of it. You touch it. You buy a postcard and a t-shirt, then start looking for a place to get a burger.
But as we rolled into Arches, we were greeted with towering sandstone spires that reached to the sky, gigantic slabs of red rock, some razor thin, that all crowded the snaking road that leads through the park. It was stunning and humbling.
We spent most of two full days seeing what we could, hiking across gritty canyons – which sometimes led right to sudden and beautiful grassy pastures – to see sandstone arches. In the northern section of Canyonlands, we looked down sheer cliffs that fall hundreds of feet and look over hundred-mile views. We pulled lawn chairs up as close to the edge as we could and had lunch.
As one day wound down, we found a rock outcropping over the Green River valley and sat on the stone, cross-legged in complete silence. I thought a lot about the journey, the places we’d seen. I looked for deep reverential meaning in it all. Why here now? What’s this place about? Why do I get to see it?
I thought about the tremendous toll that the trip was taking on me, the long hours, fitful nights, the writing, interviewing, transcribing, keeping everything running, the equipment, the upkeep on Winnie Cooper, the miles that stretch every day into fuzzy horizons, the travel which just blurs towns and states and people together. I thought about the months that had passed. And most of all I thought about my poor wife who stood by me right from the beginning when the book idea was born.
We sat there on this outcropping and once I looked over at her. The entire and absolute weight of the universe was on me. And she smiled. We were miles away from anything, staring down the sheer cliff face. I wondered if she had an answer, a secret, a path out of here and onward. I wondered if she was just thinking about pushing my fat ass off the ledge.
Now, miles and months away, I find myself writing madly. The travel has been a goldmine for my imagination and sometimes I sit on our porch – a waterfall crashing below me – and on my laptop tap lines that pour undiluted out of me and the places I have seen. I write the desert, the mountains, the plains, and the rocky coast, and people we met along the way are on every page. I’m getting it all down.
Once we got off the road for good, we cleaned out Winnie Cooper and the want ad went in the paper the next day: “2004 Winnebago, V10, queen bed, satellite dish. Saw a billion stars. Price negotiable.”
With nearly 20,000 miles of perspective pressing on me, I’ve realized that the notion of stopping, of settling in one perfect place is not my dream after all. When we began this journey, I imagined that one night we’d cross the threshold of a new town somewhere. We’d roll in through a town square, spot a kid eating an ice cream cone, drive up to a house with a porch, and we’d be home.
That’s not how it’s worked out.
The place for me, at least, is a moving target. The place for me is always a little further down the road.
Once, months ago, we were majestically lost somewhere in America. We had taken too many chances with my casual navigational strategies and we were rolling down a high numbered highway directly back to the last place where we thought we knew where we were.
And there was no panic. There were things to do, of course, a place to be. A poet waiting somewhere.
But what can you do? Instead of going to pieces I just turned the radio up when I heard a song we’ve always loved. I reached over and grabbed the map off of the dash and tossed that thing somewhere in the back. Beth laughed and I did, too. I reached across and touched her hand, we sang this song, and just pointed our vehicle down whatever road it was we were on.
This was the place. It wasn’t on any map.