Where did we leave off? Oh yeah, July. I spent most of July at the Grünewald Guild, which is also a story for another blog post. And then in August I was in Portland and Eugene and Tillamook and the Seattle area.
In Portland I went to a wedding reception I'd promised to attend, where I had a swing-dancing lesson from a very tall man, and found out that some of my friends had more kids than I thought they did.
I tried to do all the responsible adult things in Portland, like taking my car to my favorite mechanics, and replacing my absent-minded property manager. I did not see Trek in the Park. I did not visit the new IPRC or print up more calling cards on the antique letterpress. I did not call up half the people I intended to call up (sorry if I missed you that time around. I'll be back). But I did help assemble a sparkler bomb.
In Eugene I celebrated my mom's and aunt's birthdays with a family BBQ. I visited some friends, hugged a lot of people, and told a lot of stories.
In Tillamook, I hung out with my uncle and aunt. We talked about travel and cancer and real estate and walked on the beach and watched a bad movie in a good home theater.
Heading north, I went to the Olalla Bluegrass Festival, where there were cloggers and parading children and homemade pie. I hung out with my very small friends Willa and Ellie and their parents, and I had time to write a blog post about Stehekin, and I had time to repack my car, and I had time to make plans.
The planning was important, because the places I intended to go in September, in the San Juan islands of western Washington, didn't work out on the timeline I was hoping for. Okay, so I'll head east ahead of schedule, no problem, I thought. But I hadn't planned the heading-east part, just conceived a vague idea of leapfrogging in the general direction of Chicago, stopping in interesting places along the way. Now the planning part suddenly became urgent. I had a lot of people to e-mail, a lot of distances to measure on Google Maps, a lot of decisions to make. I am always incredulous at how much time all of this planning business takes.
In Seattle I stayed at the home of friends who were, unfortunately, out of town. Their cats kept me company though, particularly Lark, a scrawny longhaired calico with a summer haircut that made her look like a bobble-head doll. Another Seattle friend made me a delicious dinner, and with yet another local friend I took a tour of the Seattle Underground, which makes up for what it lacks in visual impact with its lively, witty tour guides and the outlandish (yet probably 99% true) stories they tell.
(I realize that image contradicts what I just said, but that was the coolest-looking part of the tour, and there weren't even any stories about it.)
In Seattle, also, I met up with Liz, a woman in her late 50s who has spent a lot of time visiting intentional communities, and who now hopes to get one started in the Seattle area. Her ideal is an interfaith monastery, where life centers around the spiritual, but is not restricted to any one system of beliefs. We talked about communities we'd visited, and shared recommendations of places to visit, and then she gave me a book and a flashlight and said she wished she could come along too.
After that, on August 27th, my eastward trajectory began in earnest.
I stop in Chelan, WA whenever I get the chance, and I have had quite a few chances this year. Over the course of several visits, the hosts I first stayed with in February on my way to Holden Village have become good friends, and visiting them is always a treat. I met them through the miraculous global hospitality network known as Couchsurfing.
Couchsurfing is for travelers who want to find friends wherever they go, and for people who want to show hospitality to travelers passing through. You sign up and you fill out a profile and you build up a pool of references and then, wherever you go, people will have room for you to stay, and maybe time to show you around, and when you're not traveling, you can have travelers come to visit you and have interesting conversations. It's all done on a "pay it forward" basis, fueled by a huge amount of trust and goodwill and generosity, and it's been hugely successful. Like anything else involving travel and/or the internet, you have to be smart to be safe. But all things considered, I feel a lot safer staying at the home of someone with a good hosting history than I would checking into a hotel where I don't know a soul.
I freely admit there are certain kinds of Couchsurfing hosts I gravitate toward. The college students who will invite you to wild parties and lay out a camping mattress for you on their dorm room floor: yeah, not so much. Given the option, I almost always pick the retired couple with the guest room. My Chelan friends fit this profile, and are as genial, relaxed, and good at hosting as that implies... but then they take it several steps farther by having a home that's designed to someday serve as a bed & breakfast, and naturally warm and welcoming personalities, and a passion for cooking amazing food, and a lot of incredible stories, and layers of interesting talents and hobbies to discuss, and the sweetest dog (and another dog too, who will probably be sweet when she's no longer a feisty nippy pup), and and and. So I didn't technically need to stop in Chelan, but obviously, given the opportunity, I was going to anyway.
In Spokane, WA I got to visit with a friend from Holden Village, the chatty pastor who made me so welcome before I'd even gotten off the bus. We had dinner together, and then I helped her pack, because she was moving in the morning and we weren't done talking yet.
I stayed with a new friend from the Grünewald Guild, musician Cheryl Branz, and her husband and beagle. I had time there to pause and make more travel plans (with Prufrock ringing in my head: ...time yet for a hundred indecisions, and for a hundred visions and revisions...). The Branzes shared music and conversation and food with me, and Cheryl took me to see Riblet Mansion, which offers a brilliant view of Spokane.
From Spokane I headed north into Canada, crossing the southeast corner of BC into Alberta. This part of the continent holds some of the most stunning landscapes I've ever seen. But even when I could find a place to stop my car and take a photo, none of them came close to doing it justice. In Canada I gave up trying to figure out how much I was spending on gas; I couldn't convert both the dollars and the volume in my head, so I just shrugged and handed over my card. But I was very grateful for those little yellow km numbers on my speedometer.
I spent two nights in Lethbridge, Alberta: couchsurfing again, this time at the home of one of the two most highly ranked female karate instructors in the world. I liked her very much. She took the time to show me around Lethbridge, taught me about the coulees that run through the heart of the town, and introduced me to some of her friends, of both the horse and human variety.
When I told her about my exploration of community, she told me that she spent the first eight years of her life in a village in Newfoundland where everyone knew everyone, and everyone got taken care of. Nobody knocked before entering, food was offered automatically, and everyone cooked extra in case of company. Of course, in that part of the world, everyone had to look after each other just to make sure everyone survived the winter. Our conversation left me wondering about the factors that drive us toward community, and those that draw us away from it.
In Medicine Hat, Alberta, famous for "the world's largest tipi" (actually a giant metal monstrosity that vaguely resembles a tipi frame), I had brunch with a writer and software developer who was born and raised in Saskatchewan, my next destination. "The scenery in Saskatchewan is great!" he told me, eyes twinkling. "There's nothing to block the view!" He encouraged me to pay attention to the sky on my drive east, and to keep an eye out for wildlife along the road and in the air, of which there is plenty.
I was dreading the plains, but his advice helped, and ultimately I found the wide open spaces cathartic. On long days of driving with neither scenery nor traffic to distract me, all sorts of unresolved things came tumbling out, heavy things I had been carrying in my brain and body for who knows how long. Out there, with nothing to hide behind, I saw that each was to be reckoned with in the same way: by letting go of it, by letting go of everything but that steering wheel.
I have friends in Saskatchewan I'd never met, two of a handful of friends gained during the years I played an obscure online game and, against the odds, never quite lost touch with. In those days, lacking community in my daily life, I sought it out online, gathering a group of allies around me to keep me connected in ways I had trouble finding in real life. I make a point of meeting members of that handful of people face-to-face whenever possible. I've hung out with three of them in Seattle, but these two live in a very different sort of place, the type of town where no one bothers to lock their doors.
Without ever having met me in person before, they invited me to come stay with them for a week; without having ever met them in person before, I accepted. I thoroughly enjoyed their company IRL. One day we drove an hour into the city of Regina for mini golf and a cheap late-run movie. Another day I went to work with one of them at a day center for developmentally disabled adults. Yet another day, I helped the other one clear out an uninhabited "hoarder house" full of dusty vintage trash, romance and western paperbacks, empty medication packages, thick layers of dust and dried puddles of unknown substances. We donned dust masks and gloves and shoveled the stuff into trash bags, occasionally stopping to exclaim over some unexpected treasure: silk ties, old Tupperware, a box of pocketknives still in their original packaging.
From Saskatchewan I headed south into North Dakota. I was lucky to pass through the Badlands just before sunset.
North Dakota is lovely in its loneliness. Thus my attempt to stop for fuel and food in Williston, which is simultaneously experiencing the effects of an oil boom and extensive road construction on its main streets, was jarring and disorienting: rush hour in a small town was never so inefficient. I continued to the tiny town of Richardton, where I spent a week with the nuns at Sacred Heart Monastery, a visit that is, again, a story for another blog post.
One of the sisters was heading east to a retreat, but her bus stood her up. Thus, the morning of my departure from the monastery, I was asked if I would mind giving her a lift. I didn't mind; in fact, I was delighted for the company. So it was that I had a nun dozing in my passenger's seat on my way to Duluth. She dozed surprisingly little, considering she'd been awake all night trying to get on that bus. Every time she woke up she'd ask, "Are we there yet?" which never failed to amuse me. We had a lot of good conversation that day, and a lot of good silences.
In Duluth I caught an old friend, a travel nurse, on her week off. Together, we explored Duluth, which she hadn't really done yet on her own. There was a lot to see: we drove along the lakeshore, went to museums, ate at a lot of interesting places, and experimented with cooking at home (neither of us are prone to cooking, but we had some good recipes from those friends in Chelan).
The cold in Duluth caught me by surprise: it was only mid-September, and back home in Portland, people were still walking around in shorts. But suddenly autumn seemed like a real thing. I pulled my sweaters out of the back of the trunk and packed my warm-weather clothes there instead... and then proceeded to need warm-weather clothes for the next six weeks. (Not that I can honestly complain about the consistently gorgeous weather almost everywhere I've been.)
I stopped in Minneapolis for lunch with my erstwhile Holden Village roommate, then headed for the Wisconsin border. I have a lot of friends in Wisconsin. I started in the Eau Claire area, where a friend from my summers counseling at Wisconsin Christian Youth Camp has been inviting me to come visit for years. Now I have finally had a tour of the Bittersweet Ranch, and met Biscuit the dog, and also my friend's wife, whom he always refers to as "Ma." She bakes a mean pie. My friend is a real old-school cowboy, and he took me out to the grave of his favorite horse, Gandy Dancer, with whom he had "the longest relationship I've had in my life, aside from Ma." We spent the greater part of a Saturday splitting firewood and moving it into the woodshed, and friends came over to help us, which made both the time and the work go faster.
Next it was east to the Stevens Point area, the home of two very good friends of mine from college and the aforementioned youth camp. Their house was full of life and chaos, emanating primarily from preschoolers and dogs, though things were a little more off-kilter than usual because they all had colds. The three-year-old wasn't sure about me until I taught him the Hot Lava game, where you try to make your way around the entire room without touching the floor. I should maybe apologize to his parents for that at some point.
In Osh Kosh I visited more summer camp friends, writer Deb Cleveland and her pastor husband, Gary. We talked at length about my travels, and Deb gave me a lot of useful information about the publishing industry; she is a goldmine of guidance, and I was grateful for her input.
South to Madison next, where I visited a friend who's pushing the boundaries of suburban sustainability. He talked about the economics of sustainable farming, about how it makes sense to produce renewable energy sources in tandem with farms, and about this year's weather, which he described as "sobering." A warm March, when everything budded out just in time to be killed by frost, was followed by summer drought and, as that began to ease, an early autumn frost. "A hundred years ago, this would've been a famine year. People would've died," he told me. "I'm still thinking through the lessons of this year."
(I suppose I can say the same. Different lessons, though.)
I also spoke with four of the founding members of the now-defunct Emmaus Fellowship, curious about their efforts to create Christian community in Madison by planting a house church. They lived (at first) within a mile of each other and tried to keep their lives and homes open, not only to one another, but to others interested in joining them. It didn't last; the demands of full-time work and raising children left little time for building church and community, and after a few years, they had to abandon the project.
While hearing this story, I was reminded of something Liz said during our conversation in Seattle: that communities have a natural life cycle, that a community's end is not a failure, but a sign of a need for change. "If it disintegrates, so what?" she said, shrugging. I can see the sense of this, even as I think of how hard it can be to lay a project like this to rest.
On my way from Madison to Chicago, I stopped by Caledonia, Illinois for a tour of Angelic Organics, the farm made famous by a documentary called The Real Dirt on Farmer John. I hadn't seen the documentary in years, but I thought I recalled something about the farm having communal roots. When I asked my tour guide about this, she said that wasn't quite accurate; Farmer John housed some artist friends there in the '60s, but it was never an intentional community, even by my loose definition.
No matter. After having volunteered at a couple of farms which were struggling to find their economic footing, I was delighted to tour an organic farm which, despite the obstacles, has found a way to thrive and connect to customers and supporters. It's easy to find examples of sustainable agriculture, less easy to find examples which have proven to be economically sustainable for decades. And I was delighted to hear about the weird machines and biodynamic fertilizers they use, to taste carrots fresh from the dirt, to stand in a green field under a blue sky and feel the sun on my face and think: I love my life.
Chicago was dirty and all the buildings were beige and the traffic was absurd, and it was all extremely exciting. I stayed with an old friend and adventure buddy, and we went to a poetry slam hosted, I kid you not, by the dude who founded slam poetry. It was mesmerizing and enlightening. At dusk on another day, I drew sea creatures on the sidewalk with another one of those internet gaming friends, and with random children who wandered by.
I thought I'd be in Chicago for a month or more. There are several intentional communities there I want to check out, and a lot of city left to explore. But plans changed, as my plans tend to, and so on October 6th, my old friend and I got in my car and drove south to Nashville.
And... what happened next is a story for another blog post.
* * *
Traveling this way was both exhilarating and draining. I was never bored, not for a second, not with so many adventures packed into so little time. But the pace of a-few-days-here, a-few-days-there made it hard to write, or process, or truly rest. Even when I was enjoying myself the most, I felt a steadily growing need to just stop a while and catch up with myself, and make plans that extended more than a week out, and write something besides just catching up on journal entries.
There were other things I struggled with, too: two doses of news heavy enough to leave me staggering, sad stories I can't write here because they are not mine to tell. Each time, it was as though a compass point had shifted, and all my navigational assumptions were thrown impossibly askew. I felt not only a sense of loss, but of lostness, and a heaviness of heart that made it hard at times to breathe in the new air of the places where I found myself.
Yet I also felt, on even the saddest day, a sense of wonder at each new place I discovered, at my continuation of these unlikely journeys (inner and outer), and at how, even as I have flung myself across the country, there have been so many hands reaching out to catch me, to care for me and welcome me in. I have felt the terrified clutch of loneliness in my chest, but my empty hands have been filled, over and over again, with evidence that I am not alone: the handclasp of friends, old and new. To all you generous souls, mentioned and unmentioned here, I offer my most heartfelt thanks. May you always find as warm a welcome as the one you have offered me.