Six weeks ago I left Austin, where I live, to drive to Alaska, where my heart lives. I didn’t know how long I’d be gone or what would happen once I got there. I didn’t know what it would feel like to be in my home state after being gone a year, what it would be like to drive more than 10,000 miles in a truck with just my dog for company, or what obstacles and adventures lay in between me and the end of the journey. I just knew that there would be all these things and that the trip would change me in fundamental ways.
Now the trip is almost over. I’m back in Texas, only 350 miles from Austin. I’ll be back “home” tomorrow — in my Texas home. Driving south and east has felt so profoundly different from driving north and west. I used to think this was all in my head, a built-in bias from childhood. And of course partly it is; we all have preferences for where we like to be. But part of it, I’ve come to realize, is the pull of the earth herself. Crossing latitudes and time zones going west, traveling with the sun, I feel younger. I gain time. I chase light. Coming back over the same latitudes, I lose time, lose light, lose altitude. Aging mile by mile, I squint into the sun’s harsh rays. I think, alternately, We are all burning up; and, Maybe this is how it’s supposed to be.
I came down the west coast out of Canada. Mom came with me as far as Seattle. She would not hear of me driving alone through B.C. after what happened on the way up. Not that she would have been much protection, and by then the killers were dead. But I was more jittery than I had expected. Her presence was comforting, and in the vast stretches without cellphone service, I pointed out every place I remembered from my route up the highway after seeing the bodies of the young couple who’d come to visit my dreams ever since. We talked about it some. About how I’d felt something, someone, come to rest in the truck with me, whispering guidance: stop here, not there; rest now; keep going; you can do this. Mom and I have differing opinions on who or what it was. It’s alright not to agree.
We passed the place where they died. There was an Australian flag, an American flag, a cairn and some plastic flowers. I pulled over, shaking. I had a stone with me that I’d picked up from a special place, one I’d planned to keep, but I knew it was for them. Mom stayed in the car while I went and placed it at the cairn.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t help you,” I said. “Please rest.” It sounded lame, but it was true. I was sorry. Am sorry.
I dropped Mom off in Seattle and then wandered on down the coast. Having lived on the west coast so many years, it felt like a second homecoming, a weirder, sadder one. Truck after enormous truck chugged past me, carrying dead giants. We’d been seeing them all the way down through B.C., and the clear-cuts gave silent testimony: old-growth forest obliterated, “managed” to extinction. The trees that dragged past me on the highway were enormous, some as old as this country.
I began to question everything. Where am I going? Why am I doing this — adding more carbon to the atmosphere? Every rest stop, it seemed, incurred some sort of single-use plastic, some other paper product. I tried to stem the tide, using my water bottle and kleen canteen, avoiding fast food and going for fresh fruit. It didn’t salve my conscience. These magnificent beings had been part of a vast ecosystem, supporting and sustaining myriad types of life, giving out oxygen and storing carbon for hundreds of years, and now I was wiping my butt with them in a gas station bathroom.
There is serious karma coming to us for this.
I strayed on down to northern California and stayed in Santa Cruz five days. Boyfriend was there, and it felt good to stop driving; even better to reconnect with him and let the dog romp on the beach with mad joy. It would be Benson’s last view of the sea, and cool weather, for a long time. For me, it was a brief respite. I walked into stands of coastal redwoods and talked silently with them.
“I’m sorry I can’t save you,” I said. “I’m too small, and too late. I’m sorry for your brothers and sisters in the Amazon. I love you.” It sounded lame, but I meant it.
I said the same thing to every tree I could reach, all the way back to Texas. I stopped in Arizona’s Coconino national forest, hiking a little way up an abandoned trail. The trees stood quietly and did not reply. I said it again to an oak tree at a rest stop in New Mexico, whose generous shade gave me time in the midst of eternal noon to stop and stare at its distinctive blonde-streaked trunk. Where, I wondered, did it find the water to grow so massive?
In the midst of this I began to weaken. I developed flu-like symptoms: body aches, nausea, clammy sweat. I wondered if I’d picked up a bug in one of the many disgusting gas station restrooms. Driving became painful. I knew already that this was my last epic road trip; knew that driving, with all its carbon emissions, is bad for the planet; but I did want to make it back to Austin. By the time I limped into Albuquerque, though, I was in very real pain. My abdomen and mid-back were screaming. I checked into a motel, fed and walked Benson, and fell into bed.
I couldn’t sleep that night, unable to get comfortable in any position. It wasn’t the flu. My entire midsection burned. It felt like someone had blown up a balloon inside my gut and filled it with fire, pressing against my low back, respiratory diaphragm, and belly.
In the morning I couldn’t contemplate eating or drinking. I fed Benson and walked him, then left him in the hotel room. I went to a nearby urgent care clinic. They checked me out but, on noting the level of abdominal pain, sent me to the ER, which fortunately was in the same building. Unfortunately, that building was the University of New Mexico hospital, the largest public ER in the city and full to the gills with every kind of crazy.
I waited for hours in a cavernous room filled with other people in varying shades of desperation, drunkenness, mental instability, and victims of domestic abuse. The man next to me stood up, walked a few steps, peed on himself, turned around and sat back down. A woman across the room moaned and screamed and laughed, ignored by all. I shrank into myself and fought the urge to leave. I worried about Benson. I worried about the planet. I wondered if I’d imagined the pain, decided I had, got up to leave and was stopped by a bolt of fire: nope, not imagined.
I was finally admitted. A tall, broad-shouldered male nurse took me into a room and handed me a gown. Then he stuck heart monitors on my chest. I tried to explain to him that I needed to drive to Austin and that this was seriously delaying me; could he speed up the process at all? He smiled kindly, but he could not. The tubes he attached to me said “disposable.” He wore rubber gloves, also disposable, and the sheets on the bed were plastic, covered with cotton, which had something sticky on it. I gave up and lay down, exhausted. The monitors beeped.
Hours later, drifting in and out of sleep, Doctor Somebody came in. He turned on a brain-numbing fluorescent light. “Nothing wrong with your labs, Miss Uh-Mill. Little blood in the urine. Kidney stone, maybe. Not the appendix.” He poked my abdomen and I nearly puked. “That hurt?” I nodded. “If it was your appendix you’d be screaming, in way worse pain. It’s probably just inflammation. Or gas. You have gas?” I squinted at him. “You pooped? Black poop? Sticky?” I shook my head. Nodded. The nurse stood by, staring at the floor, impassive and gentle as an oak. “Let’s give you a painkiller then,” Doctor Somebody said. “It’ll take care of the symptoms and get you back on the road.”
Once the doctor left, the nurse turned off the fluorescent light in favor of a lower-watt bulb. He asked if I felt okay with what the doctor had said. “I kind of don’t feel okay at all,” I said, and tried not to cry. He gave me a minute. “If you want to have a CT scan, I can get you one,” he said. “It probably won’t tell you very much, except that you have a kidney stone, and if so, there’s not a lot we can do except surgery.” I shook my head no. “Okay then, the next best thing I can do for you is to give you the painkiller. It’s non-drowsy and it’ll last a long time. A week at least. It’s a shot. In the glute. Is that okay?”
He gave me a shot in the butt. Two hours later, dressed and walking out into the slanting sunset of the grimy parking lot where I’d left the truck that morning, I felt weak and tottery, like a newborn. Free. Released from a strange hostage situation I’d stumbled into without understanding why. Nothing about the world had changed. It was still the same fucked-up, murdery, nature-hating, crazy-making place I’d woken up to that morning. But I was reborn into it with new eyes.
I made my way back to the hotel where Benson, who’d been rescued — fed and walked by a friend of Boyfriend who happened to live nearby — waited for me ecstatically. All day I’d received texts, emails and phone calls from people who’d heard I was sick with some weird illness. Just to check up on me. People I didn’t expect. Friends, family, people I barely knew. Just to say,
“I’m sorry you’re in pain. I wish I could help you. I love you.” It didn’t sound lame. It sounded like ultimate compassion. Their words made the interminable wait not only bearable, but blessed.
More than anything, the last 11,000+ miles have shown me that I know less than I ever thought I did. I don’t know where we’re going as a race, what’s going to happen to this planet, how or if we’re going to survive. Sometimes I think the best thing we could do for Gaia is bow out gracefully. We won’t, of course. That’s not human nature. It’s also not in our nature to give up hope.
I’m almost home, and I still have more trees to talk to, and listen to. More people to love and be loved by. More work to do. More days to be grateful for. And more to learn.