Ten Thousand Miles

On February 6, 2016 — a cool but sunny winter day — I set off on a cross-country trip. I figured the 7,000-mile round trip would take about three months, but because of zig-zagging through different states and going further north than I had planned, I have now been on the road for almost four and a half months, and I have driven over 10,000 miles. I am still 1,300 miles and perhaps two weeks from returning to my starting point, a small city in the high desert of California.

The most shocking revelation to me is that I won’t be returning to cool winter desert temperatures but to intense summer heat. Funny how the mind works — somehow I thought that I would be looping back to the beginning, that no time would have passed. It’s not that I expected nothing to have changed — in fact, I am a bit worried about returning to dance class knowing how far behind I will be — it’s more that this has seemed such a timeless journey. Wherever I have gone, there I was, living in the ever-present moment. But the world has kept turning and the seasons have kept churning without any regard to me and my travels.

It’s an amazing thing, all those hundreds of hours spent driving. Thoughts and emotions drifted tbrough my mind the way the scenery drifted through my body as I drove. (Scenery seems to be out there somewhere, something apart from us, and yet we are a part of it. Vibrations of light impinge on our retinas, allowing us to see. Sound waves reverberate in our ear drums, allowing us to hear. Particles flow through our nose, allowing us to smell. The fabric of the scene — the air — swirls around our body and through it, allowing us to feel our surroundings, to breathe it, to become it.)

It’s all very zen-like, this driving. It became a thing in itself, not just a means of getting to my various destinations, but a separate reality. Just . . . driving. Feeling the passing scenery, watching the passing thoughts.

So what did I think during all those miles? Not much. If you let thoughts drift in, note them at the moment, then leave them in the dust as you continue driving down the road, they obviously don’t remain with you.

I wanted a lot from this journey — wonder, joy, change, wisdom, focus, direction, all of which I have found. Particularly direction. Ever since the death of my life mate, soul mate, constant companion, I have been adrift, looking for a bedrock upon which to build a new life. And in the midst of all the drifting thoughts, it came to me. The three w’s. That’s where to begin.

Before I got a computer and the internet, during a time of great upheaval in my life (the first unacknowledged sense that Jeff was pulling away from life and me, along with a growing numbness to the coming death of “us”), I kept to the discipline of those three w’s — walking, writing, weight lifting. I’d gotten away from these three daily activities for various reasons, though they had been a comforting (but not always comfortable) part of my life.

I’d hope that on this trip I would get back into walking and writing, but both have pretty much dropped by the wayside. I would like to try to get back to those three w’s, though it’s easy to make such a determination when there is little opportunity for any of them. But maybe, this summer . . .

I have come to another realization — there is no need to choose between a settled or a nomadic life. During this trip, I have often stayed in one place for a while, sometimes a week or two, sometimes a few days, and once for three weeks. So finding a place to stay in the high desert for the summer will be just a longer hiatus in my continued journey.

Although 10,000 miles seems like a lot, there is so much I haven’t seen, so much I haven’t done. It would take a year to experience what any one state has to offer, and on this trip I caught mere glimpses of 21 of the states. I didn’t see many of the greatest tourist attractions and passed by probably thousands of little-known attractions. I also didn’t camp or hike much, didn’t get an intimate feel of many wilderness areas. All joys still to come.

Currently I am in Wellington, a small town in southern Kansas, visiting in real life a friend I met on Gather, that fabled but extinct social networking site. Then . . . who knows?

One of the many things I wanted from this journey was to become more spontaneous, and that I have done, following whatever whim and invitation that has come my way, so perhaps I will do as I have planned — scooting the rest of the way back to the desert to settle in for the summer with my 3 w’s.

Or . . . perhaps not.

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(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

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Connecting the Dots

When I talk about how meeting people on my cross-country trip affects me, a friend tells me that I shouldn’t underestimate how my contacts with others affects them.

I do think about it at times, especially the chance encounters — the tow truck driver in Port Richey who took a picture of “Herbie’s brother” for his Love Bug loving little boy. The men who get joy of changing the oil and doing other maintenance on such a work of art. The older women who remember the fun they had in a similar vehicle and the young ones who dream of owning such a cute car.

I saw a billboard for an automobile museum that said, “They are not cars. They are time machines.” This never seemed as true as the day I visited a VW dealer — my car looked as if it had driven straight out of the 1970s into a 2016 showroom.

And what about the girl I met in the woods? There she was, sitting by herself in sorrow, and a woman appears and offers her a hug.

But mostly I know the story from my side, at least I think I do. It seems as if we live multiple lives at once — our everday life, our spiritual life, our intellectual life, our emotional life, our mythic life. It’s the mythic aspect of my journey that I am thinking of today.

When I left Hocking Hills and drove back through Columbus, I tried following US 33 through town, thinking that despite traffic, it would be the easiest way to get out of town and on my way to Marshall, Michigan to see the Honolulu House.

I got lost in the labyrinth of detours around construction zones, not just geographically lost, but mythically lost. Afterward, I seemed to be driving to no purpose, just futilely racking up the miles, with no sense of adventure or direction.

I finally found the road that cuts diagonally through to Fort Wayne, but it turned out I was on the wrong road. I had intended visit a special candy store someone had told me about, and by the time I realized I was going in the wrong direction, I was too tired to turn around. So I kept driving and almost ran out of gas because I couldn’t see a gas station anywhere on the road.

I made it all the way to Battle Creek Michigan when I belatedly discovered a message from a woman in Ohio, who wanted to meet me as I did her. I felt terrible because it was too far to turn back, but then I thought, “Why not? Who said I always had to keep moving forward?”

So I backtracked and discovered I was still moving forward. The road was always before me, my eyes focused on the path in front of me with only occasional glances behind to keep me centered. There was not even a sense of repetition since I saw everything from a completely different viewpoint. In Indiana, bright pinkish-purple redbuds lined the road in broad swathes, trees that had not at all been visible when I went the opposite direction.

And I realized that so it is with life — even if we feel as if we are backtracking, we are always moving forward, always changing, often seeing the same things with a different perspective.

I must admit that a good part of my decision to go back to Ohio had to do with having a second chance at visiting the Coons homemade candy store. Coons Candy is a five-generation store preparing to celebrate its 100th anniversary. They make much of their own candy, toffee and fudge being specialties and, as the person who recommended it said, Coons Candy was definitely worth a visit.

I roamed the store, exchanged stories with a few members of the family, bought a sampling of their wares, and took a photo of them.

I left feeling as if I’d found the self I had lost during my previous sojourn in Ohio, as if somehow I was supposed to go to that store, as if it were a connection I needed to make like those connect-the-dot puzzles I used to like in childhood. If you missed a dot or didn’t connect them properly, the picture didn’t make sense.

And that turned out to be the case here. As soon as I connected that particular dot, the next steps of my journey appeared. I was invited to stay at an ex-sort-of-sister-in-law’s place for a few days, and a friend asked me to housesit later in the month.

And so it goes, this mythic life of mine.

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

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Driving into the Distant Past

My night camping at Davis Bayou worked out so well, the next day I headed for Pensacola, hoping to get a campsight at Fort Pickens in the Forida part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, but that campground was full. I did get a chance to see Pensacola Beach with its white sand and dark turquoise waters, which was nice. I felt cold on the beach, but there were hundreds of people in meager swimsuits playing in the water, sunning themselves, or walking around. Ah, youth.

I might not have been lucky in finding a campsite for the night, but I was lucky to meet someone I have admired for six years — Mike Pettit, writer and promoter extraordinaire. We had a fabulous seafood lunch at an oyster bar near the beach, and an even more fabulous conversation.

But even good friends must part, so eventually I headed down the road.

Not finding another campsite, I continued driving. But even that part of my day was spectacular. For many miles, the moon rose in the middle of the road directly in front of me while the sun set in the middle of the road directly behind me. Truly a unique sight.

As lovely as the celestial evening was, that was not the highlight of my drive. The highlight was the revelation that came as I continued to drive the tree-lined highway. Ever since I left central Texas, the highways have been forested. Trees, mile after mile of trees for hundreds of miles. And today I realized the awesomeness of what I was seeing.

Although in many cases, the trees didn’t extend very far off the road, they were thick enough to appear endless. As if the highway were cut through an eternal forest.

Once upon a time, a forest did cover almost the whole of the United States. And as I was driving, it suddenly felt as if the highway were like a path to the past, and I could see that primordial forest all around me, millions upon millions of acres, and because of those hundreds of miles I’d driven, I could sense the forest’s magnitude and magnificence. What an experience!

I thought I was spinning my wheels, just driving, driving, driving, when all along I was preparing for the great revelation. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, though I don’t know what.

I do know that in the future, when I look back on this adventure, one of my fondest and most inspiring memories will be my long and seemingly unending drive into the distant past.

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

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Weathering the Weather in Weatherford

Before I left Austin, I had lunch with a fellow author who agreed to be photographed next to my car. (I am sure you are getting tired of seeing the poor old vehicle, but it’s become a symbol of this trip.) Despite his glowing accounts of all the beautiful places to see in Texas, I ignored his advice and took a side road through the town of Bertram instead . . . just because. Then I continued to Stephenville, where I got a motel room that looked like a leftover from the nineteen fifties. (I seem to have more of an affinity for the old single story motels than I do the modern ones.) I’d planned to check out the dinosaur footprints in Dinosaur Valley State Park, but rain and heavy fog kept me on the main road.

I arrived at Weatherford, Texas in the early afternoon. I met my friend, a delightful woman and a gracious (and generous) hostess. Her place is in the city, but seems more like a country retreat. Deer frequent her wooded areas, and cardinals stop to snack at her feeders. (I’d never seen a cardinal before. Such a lovely bird!) We talked for a while to get acquainted (we’d met online because of my grief book and blogs), and then took a drive around town.

For a town this size, there seems to be an inordinate number of historic homes, though my research has yet to tell me why so many wealthy folk congregated here. Similar houses in Denver had often been built by newly rich miners and robber barons, but why in Weatherford? Another oddity is that there is an echo in the back of my head, as if I once knew something about the town, but I can’t think of any book I could have read that took place here.

I will be here a few more days, visiting my friend and waiting out the rainstorms, so maybe I will solve this little mystery. If not, the town will probably slip into the recesses of memory where all the other things I have seen but not recorded reside. (Much of a journey like this is ephemeral. Scenes pass out of sight quickly, even when one drives at a relatively sedate 55 mph, so they don’t have a chance to filter down to long-term memory.)

I hope you are managing to weather your weather as comfortably as I am weathering the weather in Weatherford.

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

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Painted Fields of Texas

I am in Austin, Texas, visiting a dear friend I hadn’t yet met. We’ve been online friends for almost six years, but this is the first time we met in person. As with all my online-now-offline friends, there wasn’t even a blip of hesitation when we met — we just seamlessly continued our friendship, though with an added filip of joy.

I will be meeting someone else I know for lunch, a fellow author from Indigo Sea Press, Norm Brown, whose book Carpet Ride was inspired by a road trip he once took. I sure hope I don’t find any dead bodies during this great adventure of mine!

Then I will head north to meet another online-soon-to-be-offline friend. I’m looking forward to getting back on the road, though I will be taking it easy. Rain storms are expected, but I am not planning on driving in the rain. (Though things have a way of working out differently than I had planned.) It seems as if Texas has been working hard to paint its fields for me, as if to make up for the drabness of my first Texas days, and I will be interested to see what it rolls out before me today.

I did get to see a bit of Austin, but I find that cities, especially young, hip cities, do not speak to me. I thought I wanted to visit San Antonio’s Riverwalk, but now that I am so close, it holds no appeal. I’m more interested in wild landscapes and intamed waterways. Most waterways, anyway. I do have to admit to a bit of trepidation about woman-eating mosquitoes as I near the swampy portion of my trip, but I am holding fast to my belief in the magic of this journey, which gives me some comfort. That belief sure kept me calm during a hugely windy night on Padre Island, when my tent kept being blown down on top of me! Luckily, each time the tent righted itself. The only damage was some rust on a couple of poles. (Rust? In only four days? Yikes.)

Before I leave Austin, I want to send a virtual wave to dance friend Jan Blondet’s relatives. ~~~ (Can’t find a symbol for waving, so that will have to do.)

Also a virtual wave and a “come on, let’s go” gesture to all of you who are following my adventure.

Let’s find out what’s in store for us!

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(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

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Spontaneously Charging Across the Country

Well, I did it again — drove all day. I’d have stopped if anything caught my attention (besides an empty gas tank or a full bladder), but all those hundreds of miles looked alike with only small variations. (The most exciting parts were seeing a group of javelina by the side of the road and crossing the Pecos River.) I’d been afraid of such a drive, it seemed way too much stress on me and my car, but I had no other choice.

And now it’s done. I spent the night in Alice, forty miles west of Corpus Christi. Today, if everything goes okay (and if I don’t get it into my head to do another of those drive-all-day marathons), I will get the oil changed in my car and check out Padre Island.

Friends in Texas have been sending me information of great places to check out between here and Austin (a friend and I have a hotel reservation in Austin for March 6), I’m sure there will be something in the area to capture my interest.

Sometimes I think I’ve lost the reason for taking this trip — it never was supposed to be about insanely charging across country — but it is supposed to be about being more spontaneous, and that is what I have been doing — spontaneously charging across the country.

I suppose I should have made more of an effort to stick to my few plans, such as spending a couple of nights at Big Bend to see the stars, but I still remember how uneasy the campground made me feel. And I have to listen to my instincts even if they come from nothing but exhaustion.

Luckily, that Austin date in March will slow me down. I have almost a week before I have to be there, and getting there early gains me nothing.

So let’s see if today I do a better job of finding adventure.

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(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

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Countdown to Adventure

I will be leaving in exactly six days to make the journey I’ve talked about so often, and I have a confession to make. I’m . . . well, I’m not exactly afraid, but I am apprehensive. I have never done anything like what I am going to be undertaking. I only camped once as a child, and certainly never by myself. I have never driven cross-country by myself, and definitely not in an aged car, no matter how well restored. (And there is a matter of a mysterious leak onto my leg when it rains that no one can seem to find.) I’ve hiked by myself, but always with others or close to where I was staying. I’ve never slept under dark skies where the stars are so brilliant and numerous, you feel as if you are falling into the void. I’ve never backpacked and still don’t know if I can. And, I have never found joy in the discomforts of travel.

But, despite my trepidation, and maybe even because of it, I am starting to feel excited about my adventure. So many “never have”s to be done! So many wondrous sights to see. (I just corrected a typo. I wrote “many wondrous sites to see,” which makes me realize how important this trip is. Even with my data being severely limited, I still spend too much time online. Now it’s time to explore offline territory!)

I am as ready as I will ever be. Despite the age of my VW bug, it’s as reliable as possible, with a new engine and transmission, new paint, new brakes. (As a test, I took a couple of drives “down the hill,” over an often foggy pass to the more populous area of the county along a congested five-lane highway riddled with road construction detours and delays, and the bug sailed along as if that treacherous road were a lazy river.) I have a carload of equipment, some of which I hope never to have to use because those items fall under the category of “emergency.” I have clothes for both winter and summer, insulated sleeping pads and camping quilts rated for a much more frigid climate than any I plan to travel. (I sleep cold, or rather, I don’t sleep cold. If I’m cold, I shiver all night.) If I can’t get warm, I have a nalgene bottle to use as a hot water bottle and hand warmers to tuck around my long-underwear-insulated body. I have at least a week’s worth of food. (Which reminds, me, I need to get several more days worth of water.) I have hiking poles and even a bear canister to protect my food if I spend the night away from my car in bear country. I have lanterns — solar lanterns and small battery-powered lanterns as well as a head lamp. I have word puzzles and pencils, paper and a printout of my WIP. I have maps and guidebooks, a binder full of notes, a head full of research. And I have a solar charger and an external battery for my phone, so as long as I have any sort of signal, I will be prepared.

Yep. Prepared. For anything. At least, I think I am. And if not, well, I’ll figure it out. (It’s hard to prepare for something if you don’t know exactly what that something is.)

Some people have found my preparations amusing, and I suppose it’s possible I’ve gone overboard, but this is not supposed to be a death march. It’s a journey into life, a quest to find joy in the rubble of my sorrow. And being prepared, even overly prepared, leaves me free to experience whatever comes without the trepidation I currently feel.

Note: I will be heading east across Interstate 10. If it’s warm enough on the return trip several weeks from now, I will be traveling on a more northernly route. If you want to meet for lunch or something, let me know, and I’ll put you on my list. (If you’ve previously expressed an interest, you’re already on my list!)

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(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

Dreaming of a White…Tiger

My untethered life is getting weirder by the day. I thought the last place I stayed was strange, with an incipient serial killer as a roommate, an old folks gated ghetto for a neighborhood, and a Gestapo-like management company that kept track of who was doing what.

I’m being dramatic. It wasn’t that bad. The roommate was just a . . . well, I don’t know what he was, but I don’t think he had killer instincts. Too lazy. And I seem to be the only one who found the neighborhood depressing. (People tell me that I should be careful what I say since I too am old, but I want more for myself than a life full of road bumps, cinder block barriers, and people who have nothing better to do than mind other people’s business.)

tigerI did learn something, though. I am a nester. It didn’t take me long — a day or two of housecleaning and moving things around to make room for me — until I felt at home. (Because, wherever I am, there I am.) Though I have to admit that when I was evicted by the management company and told I had a week to get out, I couldn’t stop smiling. It felt good to be untethered, unnested and stagnation free.

I don’t suppose it will take long before I am used to this new place, but the trouble is the dogs. Well, one of them. One likes me, one wants nothing to do with me, two can take me or leave me, two live in the garage, and one aggressively hates me. Which means either he or I is always segregated behind closed doors. And dare I admit an embarrassing truth? I fell out of the very high, very narrow bed. That sure woke me up in a hurry! Interesting times.

If I can come to an accommodation with the place, I might stay until March. If it continues being uncomfortable, I will leave for my trip at the beginning of February. The later I leave, the better the chances of taking a more northernly route back and might even allow me to bypass some storms. The earlier I leave means the earlier I get to begin my adventure. Either way, I’m ready. Or mostly ready. It turns out I have two carloads of stuff — car camping and backpacking equipment takes up a lot of space in my tiny car. And then there is the stuff for a more civilized life, the original trip I’d planned years ago. Nicer clothes. Computer. My books to sell. Hats for fun and class. So now I have to cut back to a more reasonable level, though it will still seem like a surfeit of stuff.

People keep telling me they admire my courage and my sense of adventure, but the truth is, I am all talk. I still haven’t taken a single step or driven a single mile on this epic adventure. Perhaps I will earn admiration. Maybe I will always be talk. It’s possible that I will get in the car, drive to the other end of the country in a few days and don’t stop to see a darn thing. (That’s how I usually travel.)

But in this case, the destination isn’t the goal. The trip is the goal.

And I am slowly becoming the person who can make such a journey.

Last night I dreamt of a white tiger. (And lots of dogs.) Apparently, a white tiger is an auspicious sign, and means the dreamer has a powerful patron, a friend that always supports her, and also that she has dealt with all her inner doubts and come to a decision.

The tiger didn’t tell me what I decided (the dream ended when I fell out of the damn bed), but since I was walking (the dogs were following along but the white tiger twice passed me going in the opposite direction) I presume the trip is on.

I’m hoping I have the courage everyone seems to think I have.

I certainly have the gear.

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(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)