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.