Of Books and Empowered Women

It is hard to capture fully in words the sense of elation at returning to one’s alma mater and recognizing how much the place shaped the way you think about the world. Stepping onto the Mount Holyoke campus was like going back in time to a place with roots deeply grounded in almost two centuries of empowering learning, welcoming tradition, and liberating fun. I was amazed by how excited I was to be back here, squirming in my car seat like a little child with the promise of ice cream and swimming in her future.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Matt and I left Bennington in the late morning and took a lovely winding route through the Green Mountain State, definitely feeling the new weight in the car of all my possessions. The trees were so numerous there seemed to be more green to the state than mountains, although plenty of plunging cliffs and rocky streams paralleled our road offering the most varied topography of the trip so far. The road wove between little coffee roasteries, garden shops, and other businesses with such quaint names as Amaranth Gardens, Bodhi Books, Strawberry Fields, and we even saw a Vipassana Meditation Center. Between the apple orchards and horse farms the occasional ancient graveyard stood with faded, moss-enshrouded stones, a clear indication that this is the longest settled portion of the country by European settlers.

The roads began to look more and more familiar until I was able to take over from the map directions and point out the way to Matt myself. Near Northampton we crossed the Connecticut River, and cut diagonally toward South Hadley while passing old haunts I once knew: Food Bank Farm, the road to Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke itself––the mountain for which the school is named, that we would climb once a year on Mountain Day. At last we turned left onto College Street and drove under the black iron and brick gates, that were bad luck to pass under until one had graduated, and onto the college campus.

I showed Matt all my favorite buildings, inside the chapel and magnificent library (which was the primary reason I came to the school really, since it had immediately made me think of Hogwarts Castle). Even the four class symbols of a red Pegasus (my own class symbol), a yellow Sphinx, a blue Lyon (spelled like the founder Mary Lyon’s name), and a green Griffin, resonated with the well-known wizarding novels. We toured Clapp, the science building that housed the Environmental Studies Department that I majored in, and I left a little note for Lauret Savoy, the chair of the department and my mentor in my last semester as I wrote my children’s book Autumn, and my two-act play Live Power.

From there Matt and I continued our tour, passing through the greenhouse, to Upper Lake, into the Art Museum, past the amphitheater, Lower Lake, and Pratt Music Hall, to Rooke Theatre, where I once spent so much time I joked that they should set up a cot for me in one of the back rooms to rest between activities. We glimpsed the white house across the street that was my apartment senior year, and Mead and Buckland Halls in which I lived in the first and second semesters of my first year. From there we circled Skinner Green and stopped briefly in Blanchard Campus Center, before passing by Safford Hall, in which I lived the second semester of my junior year once I had returned from my study abroad semester in New Zealand. The only residence hall we didn’t visit was Dickinson, set further off the campus, where I lived for my sophomore year.

Whether in the MHC library, the Odyssey Bookstore across the street, or the Amherst Bookstore near where we had lunch, it was difficult to pull Matt away from the poetry and philosophy books. We did depart with a few new titles in hand, including Eaarth by Bill McKibbon, The Cosmic Blueprint by Paul Davies, and Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanitiesby Martha Nussbaum. We’ll likely read the latter out loud during parts of our return journey.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

As we drove away from Mount Holyoke I didn’t feel too much sadness because I felt for certain I would return here for other visits, and definitely for reunions once more time has passed since my graduation date. What I did feel though was intense gratitude. Two years after graduation, and now currently in a graduate program which I truly love, I can see more clearly what it is this particular school gave to me. This institution is in the business of empowering women, something few women even now in 2012 are given. In a setting where every student position––from teacher’s assistants, to theater directors, radio hosts, technical directors, and class presidents––is held by a woman, students can graduate with an accurate sense of a woman’s true potential. Like men, we are qualified to hold any position of power in the world, including United States president some day, but it sometimes requires a place such as this to open our eyes to that fact.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

In such a state of thought I departed Mount Holyoke, and Matt and I drove to Amherst to have some lunch at one of my former favorite eateries, Fresh Side. The warm day called for an outdoor lunch on the sidewalk in the shade of some ginkgo trees, a lunch of ginger honey ice tea, an assortment of Thai and Vietnamese tea rolls, and a little bean paste mochi for dessert. After a quick stop in another bookstore we recrossed the Connecticut River and entered my favorite town in the Pioneer Valley, Northampton. We settled in to the downstairs of one of the best study cafés in the area, The Haymarket, to do a little reading and writing before meeting up with our hosts for dinner. I relaxed into the chair that I had most likely written at least a couple papers in over the years, and once again gazed around the olive oil colored room with its assortment of tables and tiny votive candle holders. I could almost convince myself I was still in college, on one of those school days in early fall when everything feels fresh and exciting and the desire to learn whispers in one’s ear on the crisp autumn winds.

Come early evening we drove a few miles north to Whately to meet my dear family friends who had gathered together to see us for this one night we could spend in the area. Over stories of how Matt and I met we enjoyed a delicious roast chicken dinner with an abundant salad, Massachusetts’ best sweet corn (we heard that assessment from a well-travelled, corn-tasting expert), and summer fruit salad. The accompanying beverage was kombucha brewed by a man I once knew when I spent a summer at the nearby Sirius ecovillage in Shutesbury.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

We chattered away the evening looking at birth charts and transits, photos from our trip, and sharing stories about our families. I wish we could have one more day here at least, but our travel schedule keeps us moving. Tomorrow we drive to our last stop on the East Coast, a visit to New Jersey to see Matt’s brother, and then we point our noses westward once more, and begin the long journey home.

The Woods Are Changing

I am sitting by the deck in early evening, as the shadows grow long upon the sun-dappled grass, listening to the call of a mourning dove. As I watch a diversity of finches and other song birds eat at the bird feeder and play in the stone bird bath, chipmunks, squirrels, and butterflies all dance about each other in the peaceful quiet of a Vermont backyard. There are no sounds of traffic or other human voices, only the whistling of the gentle wind through acres upon acres of trees. And the mourning dove continues to cry.

A short burst of rain on Saturday night at Green Lake broke through the heat wave, and as we awoke Sunday morning to drive to Vermont we knew we would be traversing through more pleasant temperatures. We planned to set off by 8:00 am, but were delightfully delayed by the unexpected arrival of another dear aunt, who had come down several hours the day before from northern Michigan. We only had a half hour with her, but it was enough to double our smiles at leaving, while also strengthening the desire to stay a little longer. Reluctantly we were able to break away from the family embrace and set out through Detroit toward the Canadian border.

I realized as we passed easily through customs––I am after all a dual citizen and have a right to be in both countries––that on this trip we would not only pass through nineteen different states, but one province as well, technically making this not a cross country trip, but a transnational trip! Although I had noticed little change in climate or landscape for the last few days of driving, once in Canada I could begin to discern the more northerly qualities of the land around us. The air smells different up there, more thin yet pure as though it were made from fewer ingredients. The trees became taller and deeper green, with thick foliage in the undergrowth, and swampy ponds choked with bulrushes and reeds. The land appeared less disturbed by human hands, and several stretches of forest would pass before we would see a farm nestled between the trees. Heavy wooden barns and red houses gave the impression of older family farms, although I imagine many of them practice conventional agriculture the same way as their neighboring American farmers do.

We passed over the Grand River and in a fleeting glimpse I saw steep cliff sides topped with entangled trees, the gray rocks plunging into the rushing river. We entered a stretch called the Green Belt where wind rippled silver through long grasses, and meanwhile we settled in to listening to half a dozen or so episodes of This American Life. David Sedaris with his slightly sighing gay whine and perfectly placed adjectival jibes, an episode on bridging the gap between secularists and Christians, gun lovers and gun haters, and even a piece on fiascos including a hilarious description of a Peter Pan production in which absolutely everything went wrong. One of the most interesting episodes was on Harold Washington, the first black mayor of Chicago who was a key player in the slowly shifting racial attitudes in the Windy City. By the end of the day’s driving Ira Glass seemed to have become a third traveler in our car.

Our road navigated along the narrow strip of land between Lakes Erie and Ontario, and our short view of the latter gave the impression of a sea rather than a lake. It is not hard to understand why they are called the Great Lakes. When I was a little girl my mother read me a wonderful story called Paddle to the Sea, about a young Native Canadian boy who carved a tiny boat with a wooden Indian seated in it. He set the boat out in a frozen streambed where it sat until the spring thaw melted its waters and sent the boat sailing downstream. The story follows the little boat and Indian as he descends through each of the Great Lakes and eventually leaves the fresh water for the salt of the ocean. As he floats by an ocean dock he is picked up by a young man working quietly, a man who recognizes every feature of this beautiful carving. Against all odds Paddle to the Sea fulfilled his name and in the same moment found his maker years after he began his journey.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Matt had never seen Niagara falls so we committed to the traffic and tourist attractions to get a view from the Canadian side. On the slow moving road mist from the falls speckled our windshield. People were everywhere. At the end of a half hour wait we were directed into a parking lot, even though we didn’t want to stay long, where $20 was removed from us for a few minutes of parking. Rather disgruntled, we walked along the sidewalk weaving among visitors from all over the world to see the epic falls. An old rusted boat appeared to be disintegrating up river of the plunge. I wondered what horrific accident may have occurred here in the past. At last we were able to see the falls themselves, visible through a haze of mist and rainbows, unimaginable quantities of water gushing over the edge every second. The Maid of the Mist boats approached the crashing waters far below where we stood. I’ll now admit, it was worth the stop.

To return to the US we crossed the Rainbow Bridge and entered New York state. We were on the East Coast. We had driven to New England, a place I have been to many times before but always by plane. It was somewhat surreal. The woods had a different feeling here, that older world change from the forests in the rest of America. Here there were cabbage fields and rivers, rolling hills providing brief open vistas of the state. Gray cliffs towered over the road, and on one a narrow white crucifix had been erected. Little towns poked out among the trees, visible by the height of their church steeples. Unlike the freeways of the West Coast the highways here were guarded by steep tolls. We had definitely come very far.

The sun sank below the horizon and we saw the last of its vermillion light on a wide reservoir over which a duck flew at the same pace as our car. We crossed the border to Vermont and entered Bennington minutes later, to be welcomed by my uncle, aunt, and cousin at their beautiful home. A delicious dinner of grilled salmon, green beans, and fried sweet potatoes awaited us. A truly cozy welcome.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Today was dedicated to sorting through all my belongings that I left here, bringing some items to Goodwill and packing the rest into the Ford Focus. It was like greeting old friends as I opened each box and looked at journals, college notebooks, letters, and art supplies, as well as clothes, cushions, necklaces, and so many other lovely things. After easily parting with three heavy boxes for donation, we managed to pack everything else into the car, even leaving enough space for all three mirrors to be safely used for the drive home. I feel a certain sense of freedom now that I have collected these belongings once again. I now feel as though I have completed a necessary trip that I had the responsibility to take, and now that it is done I have the freedom to travel anywhere new that I want. Not that these current travels are close to over, but rather that I have seen this key piece through.

My cousin, Matt, and I went into town for a few errands, including dropping off the boxes at Goodwill. We stopped at the library and spent a few minutes adding pieces to a 1000 piece puzzle someone had been working on. Next we got ice cream cones and strolled in the sun while licking their dripping sides. Once back at the house I took a brief wander around the property, tasting peas and raspberries in the garden, and lying under the low-branched apple tree to watch the clouds drift past. The temperature was idyllic. Within the hour the three of us were merrily at work in the kitchen, preparing whole wheat pizzas piled high with fresh mozzarella, mushrooms, artichokes, tomatoes, broccoli and, for those who enjoy them, red bell peppers. The whole meal was completed with a plate of ripe cantalope, blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries.

In the morning Matt and I will take our shortest drive of the trip, to the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts to stay with dear friends and visit the place that, in many ways made me who I am today: Mount Holyoke College.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

To Travel to the Green Lake

Our minds felt as thick and hazy as the air of Ohio as we departed Cincinnati in the mid-day 104° heat. Our musical accompaniment thrummed out the rhythms of the road, syncopating to the rhythms of our thoughts and musings: Sweet Honey in the Rock, Jimmy Cliff, Rockapella, Benny Goodman, Johnny A. The journey from Cincinnati to West Bloomfield, Michigan, though by far the shortest of our adventure so far––totaling 282 miles––never really picked up the speedy ease of our previous drives. The roads had more lanes, more congestion, and weaving trucks. The landscape never opened out into expanses of nature as it had on other days, but stayed more stubbornly embroiled in suburb, city, and monocrop farm.

About halfway there, while massive military planes flew overhead to their local air force bases, we suddenly realized the gas tank was nearly spent! It was the first time we had not filled up before departing our starting location. As we awaited a gas station to announce itself on the roadside signs, I fell back to thinking about the greatest difficulty I have with undertaking this particular road trip: burning the gallons upon gallons of gas it takes to drive over 6,000 miles across the country and back. Yes it is expensive, but in the long run such a trip is far more expensive when counted not solely in monetary terms. The cost to the environment, from extraction and refinement, to the releasing of CO2 from our exhaust pipe, to the cost in human lives from war and corrupt politics, spreads a dark stain across our more simple desire to view the country from the ground level while visiting friends and family. How do I justify being able to take this road trip? The costs are no better had I flown; the use of petroleum is just more hidden when one is not filling up the tank oneself at least once a day. The correlation between the burning oil and the burning weather we drove through could not seem more apparent.

I love to travel. It is a major part of who I am, no matter where it is I am exploring. Meeting new people, having deep conversations in different accents, sampling new food, smelling new lands, hearing new cities, delving further into familiar haunts of years past. A different side of myself is able to come out in such situations. But it seems that traveling as it has been thus far in my lifetime may be rapidly becoming an activity of a bygone era. Flights and long car trips will become less feasible, or at least less justifiable to people like myself who are beginning to consider the greater costs of such privilege. Will it ever be possible to reconcile my passionate love of travel with my deep love for the Earth? It is an issue with which I struggle greatly. Yet I think with such joy on my own past adventures, and long for so many more as I hear the stories of those who have gone further than I.

After what felt like a longer drive than usual (although much shorter in reality), we pulled into the familiar driveway of my aunt and uncle’s home on Green Lake in Michigan, just outside Detroit. The shape of the house, the lawn, the trees, the dock, all had a familiar resonance that pulled forward archives of summers spent here. My cousin, who is becoming increasingly similar to my uncle in looks and mannerisms as he gets older, greeted us with a smile at the door. It was like coming back to a distant home away from home.

The weather, still oppressively hot despite the descending sun, sent us into the teal waters of Green Lake. My childhood fear of the lake weeds growing in the deepening waters off the shore led us to take the paddle boat––the same one I had played on as a little girl––out onto the deeper waters surrounding the diving board raft. Cannonballs off the raft into the sixty-foot deep waters quickly erased the weary of the road and the heat of the day. We paddled around for about an hour, resting on the step that protrudes off the raft just below the water’s surface, the three of us discussing the last few years of our lives, biodynamic farming, California vineyards, Rudolf Steiner, hitchhiking, crossing international borders, and many other topics. I enjoy seeing how similar threads of interest run between all my cousins, but also how we each weave those threads into our own tapestry.

The following day, the seventh of the trip, we spent relaxing at Green Lake, my cousin and I going for a wind-deprived sail in the neighbor’s little Sunfish boat, while Matt kept pace with us in a bright red kayak. Upon our return I convinced myself that if I could not get over my fear of lake weeds and swim to the raft at this point in my life I would never be able to and would wallow in shame until the next opportunity. So while no one watched I took a deep breath and left the safe sandy shallows and began to swim out over the dark green weeds. I jumped more than once as one or two tickled my stomach, and my imagination exploded with images of snapping turtles, eels, giant catfish, and demonic leeches all with a particular hunger to eat free-range Becca. But before long I reached the deep open water where I was safe (theoretically), and I floated along peacefully on my back until I persuaded myself to make the return journey. Eventually, of course, I did and arrived thoroughly out of breath (from outpacing the monsters) but also proud of myself for taking on my childhood fear.

Photo by Paul Tarnas
Photo by Paul Tarnas

As dusk came on more Tarnases came over to visit and Matt was able to meet another uncle and aunt, plus my grandfather. We all talked until the sun sank below the horizon and the candles, mosquitoes, and fireflies came out. Green Lake puts on their Independence Day firework show the weekend after July 4th, so we were treated to a second showing this year. As the colored rockets exploded in the night sky, I sat with my grandfather who was thrilled with the spectacle. I appreciated having the time to speak with him; he is almost 89, and is a gem mine of stories, of which I was able to hear several, sometimes interwoven with each other in a creative narrative. It was wonderful to hear him say he is happy.

Today we leave early for Bennington, Vermont to see more of the Tarnas family, and also to achieve the main objective of this road trip: to retrieve my belongings that I have not seen since my college graduation.

Humid Heartland

Our arrival at Lake Quivira, Kansas coincided with a rose vermillion sunset over the rippling waters of the lake, visible through the lush, leafy, summer trees. July 4th was the first morning we were able to sleep in, which was such a gift after spending 1,846 miles on the road. Feeling highly privileged, we stepped out of the air conditioned house and drove a little black golf cart into a cloud of steamy heat, swelling with the buzzing of cicadas. We drove down to the lakeshore and dove straight into the water, our bodies probably steaming like a hot cooking pan run under a cool stream from the kitchen faucet. I was soaking in utter contentment.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Earlier in the day we had been given a driving tour of Kansas City, passing along hot, empty streets between towering brick buildings. The city reminded me somewhat of Newcastle, England, with the red buildings and arching bridges. The gold-leaf roof of a church shone out from the city center, and the shimmering metallic arches of the performing arts center echoed the design of the Sydney Opera House in Australia. While hearing stories of sunken steamboats found buried in fields, and limestone caves miles deep used for storing frozen produce, we drove past the famous Plaza shopping center, and saw the Hallmark headquarters where my aunt had held a twenty-one year career as an artist and letterer.

Our Independence Day dinner was classic American fare: corn on the cob, cole slaw, fried chicken––which, yes I will admit was a first for me––and my personal favorite of home-grown basil, local cherry tomatoes, skewered with a toothpick to mozzarella bathing in an olive oil and balsamic sauce. The discussion over dinner, primarily with a self-declared “hardcore” conservative, was about as lively as one could get while remaining friendly. Matt thrives on such discussion, and the table was like a verbal match of ping pong with multiple players participating at once. The starting topic was Obama’s healthcare program which was just upheld in the Supreme Court, that led each of us to parse out the details of what was good and what needed to be changed, and that the Republican solution to just repeal it was not enough: another alternative needs to be offered for that to be realistic.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

The conversation ranged over many of the most controversial bi-partisan topics, from education and taxes, to evolution. Matt and I had to make it clear we are not what would be considered “mainstream liberals,” and both sides of the conversation learned not to assume the other was a caricature embodying the full ideals of the mainstream left or right parties. When the discussion turned toward evolution we began to narrow in further and further, starting with Matt speaking of how creationism cannot be taught as a scientific alternative to evolution, because they are coming from entirely different fields. However, as we gave examples of evolution we discovered our conservative conversationalist did in fact believe in both adaptation and genetic mutation, but not evolution, which he had separated out. His argument was similar with global warming: he said he believed in climate change but not global warming. Ultimately though, as we were feeling inclined to wrap up the discussion out of consideration for our hosts, we came to a similar agreement on evolution, as recognizing the physical evidence for evolution while also recognizing the Divine influence present in the universe’s unfolding as well.

By this time dusk was falling and we turned our attention to other things, namely making our way down to the lake to embark upon the pontoon boat to view the fireworks, the closest display of them I have ever seen. As the last smoke faded from the sparkling, colorful flames, we turned around to see the full moon rising and reflecting its golden orb into the black waters of the lake.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Early this morning, the fifth day of the trip but the fourth of driving, we set out from the house at 8:15 am and began our day’s travels through five states: Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. The landscape remained a rich green the whole route, alternating between hills and trees, and skillet-flat fields of corn, potatoes, and soy. We rode over wide rivers, including the famous waters of the Mississippi when we passed by St. Louis. Early memories of reading Huck Finn flashed through my mind as we hovered for several seconds above the legendary waterway.

Rupert Sheldrake joined into our conversation, which had been rather lively since the discussion the night before, and the subject of morphic fields intermingled with the corn fields passing left and right. We were listening to a tape from 1982 when Sheldrake gave a talk at Esalen as part of one of Stan Grof’s workshops entitled “A New Science of Life.” If an animal participating in its species’ genetic field undergoes a genetic mutation it may be less like its species but still part of the field. However, if enough mutations occur then the animal may actually change

Photo by Becca Tarnas

morphogenetic fields entirely, becoming a new species and cultivating its own field that will grow with more generations of participation. The ideas fit perfectly into our previous night’s dialogue. My primary question for Sheldrake would be, what accounts for creativity? I believe I understand how species develop based on past generations through the morphic field, but what can bridge between fields? Might that be where the Divine comes in, perhaps to participate with the creativity of the evolving individuals?

By early evening we were pulling up to our destination near Cincinnati, Ohio to be greeted by many members of Matt’s family, including his mother and grandfather. The 105° heat of the day was at last wearing away, but the humidity remained thick in the air with the mosquitoes and fireflies, the latter of whom flashed in the dusk sky like fairies signaling one to a secret woodland feast. We had our own feast inside, followed by an evening dip in the pool and a series of home videos of Matt as a baby and a toddler from his childhood home in Florida.

In the morning we leave for Michigan, for a stay on Green Lake from which many of my own childhood memories abound.

From Mountain to Plain

From salt flats to mountains, gray plateaus to grassland, fields of corn to deciduous woods and marshy ponds, this country is a an eclectic patchwork quilt dissolving in the blink of an eye to new ecosystems and climates. Since yesterday morning we have traveled 657 miles from West Wendover, Nevada to Sidney, Nebraska, and another 542 miles from Sidney to Lake Quivira, Kansas near Kansas City. With each mile my eyes drank in the subtle and dramatic changes alike of the landscape, and I wondered at the lives of the people whose homes we passed. What are their lives like in each of these places? What do they think about? What does the land they live in mean to them as they lead their lives in each particular place?

Our morning began early in the campsite in West Wendover, after a night of fractured sleep disrupted by sweeping desert winds. Although there was a gentle evening heat in the air when we set up our tent at 7:30 pm, not long after sunset a howling wind picked up that increased dramatically throughout the night. I was woken from sleep several times, wondering if our tent was strong enough to resist the gusts, or if we would be unexpectedly exposed to the night air by a sudden tear through our abode. However, come morning our tent proved the stronger, and we found ourselves being slowly steamed by the newly risen sun. Hoping to avoid being thoroughly cooked, we packed up quickly and were on the road by 7:30 am. Or what we thought was 7:30, for as we crossed the Utah border we switched to mountain time and lost an hour of our morning.

The desolate stretches of salt flats, glimmering pure white in the desert sun that exposed them long ago, began to give way to pale blue patches of water, which soon increased to larger bodies of water dotted with salt piles and columns. These pools offered a perfect reflection of the surrounding mountains and hills, showing even the delicate “bathtub ring” lines ascending up the mountainsides where once these shores lapped. We were in a valley ringed by time.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Without warning the isolated road was filled with cars, and as we entered the traffic we saw blue barrels strewn over the highway divide, indicating an accident with a large cargo truck. It seemed that no one was hurt, but we may have been too late to tell. But the pause in our traveling speed let us notice something else: no longer light salty ponds, but a grand expanse of rich azure stood to our left – the Great Salt Lake. I have always had a strange desire to view this lake, ever since reading the moving tale of its rising shores captured by Terry Tempest Williams in her book Refuge. She simultaneously describes the loss of the wild bird sanctuary she studies while juxtaposing that narrative with the story of her mother’s slow demise by breast cancer. Every woman in Williams’ family died of some form of cancer, a cruel casualty of the nuclear testing conducted within range of Salt Lake City.

We only stopped briefly in the Mormon city nestled between the lake and mountains, but coming in off the highway I got a single glimpse of it and caught my breath at the beauty of the curvatures in its design. In those brief seconds I took in arching roads and the metallic gleam of the dome of the Mormon Temple, all posed against the gray-blue of the sky-scraping mountain backdrop.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Thus began our ascent into the Rockies: deep green, tree-choked ravines, soaring peaks, alpine grasslands nestled with sheep, and bare red, yellow, and gray rock. Over a short stretch three deer lay dead by the road in tragic repose, unmourned by few perhaps except us and their mountain home. Picturesque alpine towns could almost have passed for Swiss villages, but for their slightly more contemporary architecture.

We swept by a murky lake with red shores, reed-filled mud flats, several anti-abortion billboards, and even a shiny graveyard of rusting, abandoned cars. The mountains morphed into majestic spires of heavy red rock, the color that characterizes Utah in my imagination. Millennia of rain and river water had carved these magnificent features from wild, solid, stubborn rock. Although my definition of this is constantly changing, these rouge mountains seem to represent something of the American spirit, an adventurous resistance, slow to change yet also a nearly imperceptible flexibility that reshapes into new forms.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

As we crossed into Wyoming the landscape shifted to a dusty gray, as though the low-hanging mist in the air was sucking the color from the earth. Rock eventually gave way to grassland, where once the buffalo roamed, 60 million of them before the US Army slaughtered them all to attempt to drive into extinction the Native Americans who depended upon the buffalo.

The steel gray of storm clouds gathered on the horizon, and before long jagged bolts of lightning rent open the sky. The first rain splattered the windshield as the Grateful Dead serenaded us with “Box of Rain.” A heavy downpour and more lightning, sometimes as bolts sometimes as an electric sheet, made us realize we would not be camping this night. As the winds picked up we pulled into the tiny town of Sidney, Nebraska and booked into a motel. By morning the sky was clear, and the humid air was rapidly rising to 100°.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

The landscape has remained relatively the same on this third day of our trip as we passed through Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas. Corn and potato fields rolled on and on, divided by deciduous trees, small bodies of water, and lush bulrush marshes. I tried to imagine what it might look like frozen over with snow. A completely different world from the one we were seeing today.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Each person we encountered, whether at the coffee shop or gas station, I liked to remind myself was another soul whose path was crossing with mine, even if just for a few moments. I asked the woman at the gas station how she was doing, and she sighed while saying, “Oh, I’m here.” When I wished her a good day, she responded with “I’ll try.” I found myself hoping it would be a good one for her.

In Lincoln, Nebraska we left our faithful companion, the I-80, to head south on NE-2 toward Kansas City. After an accidental detour through Nebraska City, we unexpectedly passed into the “cornerstone” of Iowa, right after crossing the Missouri River. Soon we were wending our way through the trees of Missouri itself, driving along the border of Kansas until we reached the river again, and at last crossed into our destination state.

After meeting my aunt and uncle, who we are staying with, for dinner, they led us back to their beautiful home on Lake Quivira where we went out on their pontoon boat for a moonrise cruise with a glass of wine while hearing the details of the community who live in the surrounding homes.

Tomorrow we rest. It is July 4th, a day perhaps better spent in America’s heartland than the rebellious coastal city of San Francisco, to swim in the lake, eat chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, and watch fireworks over the lake.

Through the Desert

The salt flats that lie on Utah’s border are illuminated by the glowing orb of the waxing moon, hanging heavy in the periwinkle, cloud-streaked sky. In a single day our little turquoise car carried us a total of 647 miles from the drizzling mist of San Francisco to this dusty campsite in West Wendover on the border of Nevada and Utah. Although I’ve spent a little time in the Nevada desert, today offered a new perspective on the vast expanses of seemingly endless desert that stretch as far as the eye can see, bordered on the edge sight by lonely mountains and hills.

This morning, at about 10:30 am, Matt and I loaded up the car with our minimal luggage and drove toward the Bay Bridge through a heavy fog: a classic San Francisco summer farewell. Once across the Bay we merged onto I-80 which would be the only road under our wheels for the rest of the day. During the first several hours we listened to two lectures by Terrence McKenna, one entitled “New and Old Maps of Hyperspace” given in November 1982 in Berkeley, and the other from Esalen given in March 1996 called “Complexity and Meaning.” As the Bay Area clouds dissolved into an open blue sky, Northern California’s signature golden hills rolled by, occupied by thick clusters of live oaks so dark green they look black. Meanwhile, McKenna spoke of the imagination and how it may be the portal through which we are able to access other realms.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

As we neared Sacramento a brilliant green marshland lined the side of the road, but in such an orderly fashion it appeared we were passing rice paddies. Two Vs of birds passed directly overhead, to then flutter down among the water-logged grasses. We quickly sped by, entering the urban outskirts of the state capitol.

While McKenna mused on the millennia of human dialogue with the other beings of this world – angels, demons, fairies, sprites, elves, and others – the landscape seemed to make a sudden shift to thick pine woods and the elevation rose rapidly. McKenna’s words felt more real in this landscape around Grass Valley. The further we climbed the fewer trees accompanied us, giving way instead to granite boulders and high peaks. Rivulets and streams, pools and small waterfalls, wound their way among the rocks. Our descent on the other side of this mountain pass provided a brief glimpse of the placid indigo of Donner Lake, whose sparkling waters gave no hint about the tragic fate of the pioneer family for whom it was named.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Train tracks cut into the mountain sides ran alongside us before diving into dark tunnels whose ends were a mystery. When were these tracks last used? By whom and for what purpose? And who were the toiling workers that laid down every piece of wooden rail?

Once in Nevada the road became lonely, with few cars traveling in either direction, and not a tree in sight. The land to the right became flat as a tabletop and the color of new snow – perhaps an ancient lakebed whose waves lapped these hills millions of years ago. Were we driving underwater in some distant past?

Photo by Becca Tarnas

In Coal Canyon we saw an eery sign informing us, “Prison Area: No Hitchhiking.” The distant prison buildings echoed with desolate isolation. The land was nothing but shrubs and dust, inhospitable to all but the most valiant souls. I began to muse on what a car really is: an insolated climate, a magical bubble that allows one to zoom through the deadliest landscape armored in one’s most comfortable clime. It was as though we had trapped San Francisco air into our own private compartment. Yet all around us was an ecosystem unlike anything our bodies could handle, yet home to many other creatures, flora and fauna who had adapted to this particular realm.

By this point Joseph Campbell was narrating to us in his rich voice about Kundalini Yoga and depth psychology. His mythic storytelling was punctuated by the odd town names we passed by: Winnemucca (whose billboards were bigger than the town), Beverley Hills (not quite so glamorous as California’s), and Deeth Starr Valley (which could only have been named by a Star Wars fan). After a short stop in Elko, I noticed the elevation of the surrounding mountains rose rapidly, and snow even capped the tallest peaks. Perhaps more rain fell here too, because as we neared the Utah border the stunted shrubs that had surrounded us for hundreds of miles were either significantly taller, or giving way to a larger desert tree. Meanwhile, Fritjof Capra spoke to us of consciousness and matter, and how they may co-arise from each other.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

At last, about nine hours after the start of the journey, the road turned toward Wendover, covering a final barren stretch before the salt flats. The scene had the feeling of the lonely crossroads where one might chance to meet the Devil, but no fallen angel have we seen yet. But who knows what tomorrow may bring?

A Long-Expected Journey

So it begins…

This is the first day of a long-awaited journey, one that is two years in planning, and will at last be embarked upon. Two people, a Ford Focus, 18 days, and 6,000 miles (at least!) This morning Matt and I depart upon our cross-country road trip from San Francisco, California to Bennington, Vermont and back. The purpose? To retrieve my belongings that have been languishing peacefully in my dear uncle and aunt’s basement. The true purpose? To have an adventure, a real one, by driving deep into the heart of the American continent, and emerging on the other side to inhale the breeze on the Atlantic coast.

The first leg of the journey may indeed be the longest, as we leave the Bay Area and head east, aiming to arrive in Wendover, Utah by late evening. We will be camping out for our first two nights, before meeting up with family and friends for the remaining overnights of the trip. Our initial plan had been to drive through Colorado, but the wildfires blazing throughout the state have influenced us to reroute north. I am curious if we will see smoke along the way, or if we will be fully out of range. Climate change is indeed doing its damage, from the fires in the West, to the tornadoes in the Midwest and the East, and the 118° temperatures in Kansas. We will be experiencing the rapid changing of our planet first-hand on these travels.

Our planned route for the journey after Utah is to camp again in Cheyenne, Wyoming, then stay with my fraternal family in Kansas City, Kansas, Matt’s family in Cincinnati, Ohio, my paternal family in West Bloomfield, Michigan, before arriving in Bennington, Vermont to stay with more family and pack up my belongings. From the Green Mountain State we’ll drive to the Pioneer Valley, Massachusetts, where I went to school at Mount Holyoke College, and we’ll stay with friends in the area. Our next destination is New York City to stay with another friend, and then we’ll turn our eyes homeward once more. Another pass through Cincinnati and Kansas city, and then a stay with Matt’s aunt in Aspen, Colorado if the pass there is unobstructed by wildfire. If it is, my desire is to turn southwards and see some desert-land before we cruise back into the chilly humidity of our fog-bound San Francisco home.

We are outfitted for the trip with few items of clothing, but a multitude of entertainment: dozens of podcasts of This American LifeFresh AirWait Wait Don’t Tell Me, as well as an obscure Tolkien podcast entitled An Unexpected Podcast. We will also have the treat to listen to Matthew Stelzner’s archetypal astrology podcast Correlations to help us stay attuned to the outer planets as we travel across the surface of our own home planet. Finally, we have the rare privilege of listening to a large collection of audio tapes I salvaged out of my father’s studio: lectures by Joseph Campbell, Rupert Sheldrake, Terrence McKenna, Bruno Barnhart, Robert McDermott, and several others. And lastly, if we can listen to the stereo no more, Matt will have his books on Schelling for his Ph.D. comprehensive exam, and I will have a few books of my own: The Road to Middle Earth by Tom Shippey, On The Road by Jack Kerouac, Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram, and, if a copy stumbles into my hand soon, The Cosmic Game by Stan Grof.

May the stars smile down upon us as we begin this journey, may the unexpected adventures be merry, and the expected ones all the sweeter for occurring,may the road be swift and safe, and may the landscapes be the deep pool from which I’ll fill the cup of my imagination. To quote a great traveller in the wilds of the imaginary, let me conclude:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.