How do you possibly write the saga of a six week, seven thousand mile, twelve state journey in a way that could explain the life-altering experience that it was? I don’t think I can. My talents as a writer are not that great, and so much of the journey took place intangibly in my mind and in my heart that I could never fully verbalize it to anyone. But it’s important that I try.
I left home with a car full of survival equipment (tent, mace, chocolate) and a divided heart. I was about to undertake the adventure of my lifetime, seeing some of the most beautiful parts of the country, visiting dear friends unseen for years, and expanding my life by pursuing new passions. At the same time, in a single week, my heart had been completely captured by a kind, handsome Cowboy who, for reasons I couldn’t figure out, couldn’t seem to keep his mind or his hands off me. He was telling me to go, that he understood why I needed to and that he’d be there when I got back, but I was terrified to go. And terrified that I had something I cared about enough to be terrified to leave it.
I headed north to St. Louis to stay with my friend R for the first night. We took a dip in the hot tub, catching up about her recent experience like mine to leave her long time job and look for a more fulfilling path. She’d taken a month to go to the UK and refresh her mind before moving home from Nashville, and it was encouraging to hear how much her trip helped her to feel excited about life again. Meanwhile, I was delighted to find that Cowboy was staying in much closer contact than I’d expected. I thought perhaps I’d get a few texts a week and a phone call now and then, but we’d fallen into a lovely ongoing rhythm throughout the day, and I absolutely loved hearing from him first thing in the morning as he rose before dark to feed the cattle. “Good morning beautiful” – those quickly became my three favorite words on earth.
I moved on up the Iowa/Nebraska border and across South Dakota in the next two days to reach my dear friend M in Spearfish, SD – which by the way turned out to be one of the most gorgeous places you’d ever hope to see! Nestled right outside the Black Hills National Forest, it is the perfect combination of big green valleys and timber-topped mountains. Her family could not have been more lovely and welcoming, and the weather was spectacular. I was especially happy to meet her boyfriend B, whom she had been raving about on the phone for months. They were madly in love and wouldn’t you know it, he was a cowboy too. His family trains horses, and we spent some lovely time at their ranch watching him work. It was so great to see M so happy. I’ve known her for years, and seen her through a few boyfriends and even an engagement, but I’d never seen her so comfortable in her own skin with anyone she’d been with.We talked for hours about our cowboys and how lucky we were to be in the small fraction of women in the world who would ever get to date a real cowboy and understand just how overwhelming it is to be adored by these strong, rare men. One look from them can get your heart racing faster a million roses from a lesser man.
Unfortunately, some problems in their relationship surfaced while I was visiting, and I found myself in a semi-couples-counseling moment the night before I left. And here surfaces the other side of the coin when dating these rugged, tough guys. All men like their independence, but no one likes it more (or is more used to having it) than a cowboy. They spend their lives at the mercy of their work, the weather, and the seasons, spending hours at a time alone on horseback or in a tractor. Even when they find a woman they really love, as B did in my girl M, it may not quiet that voice in a cowboy’s head that says “Don’t reign me in.” It was painful to watch, but such a gracious blessing to be exposed to the lessons they were learning and admit that I might easily find myself in the same struggle. Of course, Cowboy and I were deep in infatuation phase, being only 2-3 weeks in, so it was hard to believe we’d ever have a fight at all. We spoke about it later that night on the phone – one of our first truly deep conversations, actually – and I was elated to hear him say how important communication and honesty was to him, and that he’d always say what he needed to say, so that we never made assumptions about each other. I’d told him from day one that I was going to be only and completely myself, and if he chose to love me or leave me, at least it would be me at my most genuine.
From South Dakota, I headed to my favorite state – MONTANA!! I was to spend the next week working on the small organic farm at a hot springs retreat outside of Bozeman. I pitched my tent and settled into a lovely routine of a few hours of early morning gardening, exploring and adventuring in the afternoons, and soaking in the hot springs and enjoying the cafe and music in the evenings. The first night’s sunset was 360 degrees of WOW. If you’ve never seen a Montana sunset, you haven’t lived. There’s a reason they call it Big Sky country, and it’s a good one. But nothing, I repeat, NOTHING, will prepare you for the planets and galaxies you will see in rural Montana in the middle of the night. The sky is simply white with stars, more than you can understand. It changes you. We all need to feel that small sometimes. I think it would make the world a gentler place if we were all required to go look that sky at least once a year. Also, did you know it gets cold at night in Montana, even in July? Snuggled deep into my sleeping bag listening to Cowboy’s sweet voice talking me to sleep under those stars was heaven on earth. We talked about anything, everything, nothing. This is was the first time in my life someone couldn’t get enough of me, and it was intoxicating.
As fun as my week at the retreat was, the highlight of the entire journey was coming next. GLACIER! It is my favorite national park, and it was the spark of inspiration for the entire plan. I’d been as a teenager and was desperate to go back and see if the epic landscapes in my memory were true. Oh my. Were they ever. The thing about Glacier is that you can’t actually take it in. Every view you try to look at is too big, too tall, too grand to actually see at once. Pictures even fail it. It is mile after mile of awe-inspiring beauty, and the truth is, that’s why I went on this crazy roadtrip in the first place. I needed to feel awe, feel wonder, feel joy again. When you feel overwhelmed with your life or your sadness or your confusion, seek beauty. Put yourself in a place to be overwhelmed by better things. God has surrounded us with remarkable splendor, and if you choose to go and sit in it, you will find yourself comforted and changed. Cell service was non-existent in the park, so Cowboy and had to resort to arranged conversation times once a day when I could drive up the mountain out of the park or find a payphone at the campground. Yes, you read that right, a payphone. If that doesn’t show you how mad were about each other, I don’t know what will.
It was good that our communication was limited, however. It was time to reflect, and I had night after night of campfires and wine and great Anne Lamott books and prayer. There was a youth group in the campsites next to mine for a couple of evenings, and listening to their worship while enjoying all the previously mentioned items moved me to tears more than once. I couldn’t believe God’s kindess and joy in pouring out blessings on me. I had asked Him to cultivate happiness in my life, and He was bringing my dreams to life. First, God had delivered me from a “failed” life of busyness, anxiety, and loneliness, and brought me into a messy pile of bravery, joy, and vulnerability. Next, He provided me the means, opportunity, and courage to spend nearly two months exploring Western country I’d been dreaming about for years, but never had the time to see. Also, my life had been filled with friends of the richest quality. I couldn’t believe the unconditional and patient love I was receiving from so many amazing people who simply wanted me to succeed at being a person I could be proud of. And lastly, I had a man that had walked straight out my dreams. He was perfect for me in ways I’d always FELT but couldn’t quite describe before I met him.
Somehow, I’d found someone who finally SAW me. Do you know what I mean? When I think of the men I’ve dated before, even the lovely ones, I always felt like they saw me incompletely, through some kind of fog. Maybe they could see something nice things about me that they liked, but then they’d miss parts of who I was that I knew to be so foundational and special. But now there was Cowboy, who was looking at me, looking right at all of me. He saw my smile and my kindess and my laugh and my faith and my dorkiness, and yet all he wanted was more. He couldn’t get me back home soon enough. It made it more than difficult to not get in the car and race home to his warm arms (again, have I mentioned how cold it was?). But I knew I was on an important journey to better myself, for myself. Which would in turn make me better for him. My last night in the park I was in a new campground on the West side and was lucky enough to have service, even when a massive thunderstorm came through. Have you ever been in a thunderstorm in a tent? It is awesome/terrifying. Cowboy kept me company on the phone, even though I was occasionally drowned out by thunder so loud he could hear it. As I lay in the dark, I imagined all the storms we’d watch together in times to come. As I told him often, ” So lucky. So, so lucky.”
I was so sad to leave Montana, but I’d reached the halfway mark of the trip and I was discovering just how tiring it is to have day after day of emotional transformation, as well as the physical demand of driving hundreds of miles a week. On to a few days on a family vineyard in Washington. Unfortunately, this was the low point of the trip. Between my exhaustion, the third week of terrible cell service, and Cowboy’s escalating request for me to “just come home already”, along with the fact that I didn’t quite click with the host family, I was pretty unhappy. But of course, I should have known God was up to something. When planning my trip, I’d tried to schedule a time to see old college friends in Seattle, M & J, but our dates didn’t overlap and we were so disappointed. But when I knew I needed to leave the vineyard, it allowed me to get to Seattle just before they left, and they even allowed me to stay a few nights longer and watch their dogs and have some MUCH needed time in a house instead of a tent. It also allowed me three days of real cell service to reconnect with Cowboy throughout the day, after weeks of strained scheduling. We had several of our best conversations as I enjoyed rare sunny and 75 weather in the nation’s city of rain. God doesn’t only put us through times of change. He also provides times of rest, and He knew I would need a second wind to carry on being a vulnerable, open wanderer.
After Seattle I spent the next few days camping my way down the breathtaking Washington coastline of Olympic National Park. Finally, the ocean! The ocean AND the mountains! If you know me, you know that is like my peanut butter and jelly of landscape. I spent hour after hour listening to the waves, watching cinematic sunsets, and got lost in long talks with Cowboy sitting on the side of the road wherever service could be found. I’m sure the locals (of which there are few) were a bit suspicious of that little white Honda they kept seeing in the middle of nowhere. But I couldn’t go a day without hearing his voice, learning more about him, even just listening to him breathe on the other end of the line when we didn’t feel like saying words.
Portland followed, and a very special visit with my friend S, along with a very unspecial visit from a kidney stone. Talk about a painful kink in your vacation plans. But it gave us time to stay home and talk all about her new boyfriend – her first serious one actually, which was something I could certainly understand. There were the guys we’d dated, and then there were THESE guys. It was like life had gone from black and white to color. Plus, we went to a Doctor Who themed bar – God Bless Portland. Stay weird, kids.
Finally, it was time to head east again! I was so ready to get home to Cowboy. We’d shared so much now – so many phone calls, endless I miss you texts, and more than a few lonely nights trying to remember each other’s touch. I wanted to get home and GET STARTED. Get started living a life with him in it, seeing his face and holding him close. He’d already asked me to meet his family and friends when I returned and we even started planning our own trip and what the schedule for the holidays might be. I felt like I’d discovered a rare new species – what, a guy who finds what he wants and jumps in with both feet instead of playing it cool and holding back? Thank God – a grown man!!
I worked my way back across the country through Idaho and Utah before stopping to stay with my last friends, C & A, and their perfect toddler, M, in Colorado Springs. We passed the days hiking at Garden of the Gods and eating at 80’s themed breakfast joints and playing Cards Against Humanity. In other words, perfection. Cowboy and I were counting down the days, the hours even, until I’d be home that weekend, and I was sitting on the fact that I’d be home a day early than he thought. It would be tricky to lie my way through the last 48 hours but I couldn’t bring myself to ruin surprise.
I headed home a new woman. I had opened my heart to the possibilities of new happiness, along with all the risk that required. If you allow yourself to want and hope for things, you WILL occasionally get hurt and be disappointed. There’s just no way around that. But I’d seen the other side now, too. Sometimes when you leap, you land safely and see the most magnificent things and meet the most lovely people. And the truth that I drove all those miles to find, to really learn in a way that would stick to my bones, is that it’s worth it. It’s worth the pain and the fear and the sacrifice to feel fully alive. Because even when you have to embrace the bad that comes with the good, there is an honor to it, a strength. We were not made to be numb. It doesn’t distinguish between the good at the bad. You can feel it all, or nothing, but you can’t pick and choose. Yet somehow when pain comes, it doesn’t carry the same weight that it used to. It still hurts as much, even more, but it doesn’t poison and drown you. Instead, it sends you chasing after more joy and purpose and love. Pain and longing now become tools you can use to point your arrow in the right direction, to, as sweet Anne Lamott says, decide “how you are going to spend this one odd and precious life”. For the first time in a long time, I had some clarity about that.
That’s all for tonight, but next time we’ll talk about what it’s like to come home to real life and real people after weeks of living in a heightened reality…