Raluca Barbu American Vacation

 

Special Thanks

For M.

 

On this journey, not only did I receive M.’s love and dedication, but I learned from him that a genuine bond between two people goes beyond money, time, and expectations. During this adventure, I came to recognize that to appreciate and love nature truly, there must be someone to share its experience. It was a privilege for me to be the one person M. chose.

Being with him on the trails of the Wild West, helped me to discover a new side to myself. I started to understand nature’s energy, appreciate its camouflage, and feel its pulse. In many ways, I became wild.

During the entire vacation, whether we were at the coast, traveling in a car, or staying in a tent or hotel, M. devoted his time to me generously. We shared precious moments on top of mountains, in the middle of deserts, and on ridges of volcanoes. When there were times I couldn’t keep up with him, he always respected my pace and encouraged me to move forward and step beyond. I don’t know anyone else who genuinely and whole-heartedly puts other individuals first, all the time and without exception.

On our vacation, M. was always finding new ways to arouse my interest in nature, and I became infected by his enthusiasm and reverence for it. He helped me understand my natural surroundings and make them more familiar to me.

Our paths tangled at a stage of life when unpredictable means a surprise twist to a Marvel movie and when plans for the future are inevitably predictable. If truth be told, this is the exact age when the most fantastic events can happen. However, at the age of seasoned memories, when habits are etched into muscle, something powerful and extraordinary would have to happen to uproot us from our ingrained beliefs and ways of thinking. This uprooting happened to M. and me.

Although very different people, living in very different corners of the world and despite having carried our personal spiritual baggage with us for many years, we have been lucky enough to start from a clean slate and discover new worlds in each other. In M’s world, there are mountains, deserts, woods, and oceans bound together by an insatiable yearning to be among them.

 

Prologue

 

”We do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”[1]

A regular vacation does not typically last a month and a half. For most people, a holiday of that length is a pipe-dream, for M. and me it became our summer reality in 2018. I discovered, after a few failed attempts, that to cram the story of 45 days of wonder and life-changing experiences into a travel blog or a conversation with friends is impossible. A vacation this length of time accumulates more than tourist attractions, travel miles, hotels, and restaurants.

After subtracting everything that can be measured, I am left with memories such as the people I met on top of a mountain in California or admiring a spectacular waterfall in Wyoming. I experienced an entire array of indescribable feelings while discovering the fascination of nature, everything that it has bestowed on us, and how amazing, ingenious, creative, and surprising it is. However, in the end, it’s me and my personal discoveries that are left, the obstacles that I overcame, and the knowledge and understanding no one could ever have taught me.

I came to the obvious conclusion that a celebration of my journey, covering a third of America’s stunning territory, deserves well-crafted paragraphs, detailing the people and animals I encountered along the way and highlighting places that took hundreds of millions of years to transform into the flawless beauty they exhibit today.

Whenever you find me staring out into space with the corners of my mouth forming a perfect smile, my mind is off to a patch of desert where a chipmunk, standing on its hind legs, is begging for a piece of my apple. This day-dreaming often happens to me when I try to recollect the sequence of my vacation in North America, first of all, because I still find it impossible to believe that it actually happened and secondly how many things and life-time experiences we managed to squeeze into 45 days. In my mind, I revisit each place again and again, until the time invested in the process starts to dilute the concentration of the vacation. I gather together all the notes I penned in my logbook, about the people, the animals, the plants, the weather, the landforms, the food, the highs, the lows, the enthusiasm, the exhaustion, and of M. and me, as we were together along the United States of America and I start to create a travel book that has never been written before.

You have just started to read a story about a summertime journey through the nature of the Wild West. Just so you know what’s in store for you, there are no chapters about shopping in New York, hotels in Las Vegas, or Michelin star restaurants in Miami. Although we stroll along most of the Pacific coast, we don’t get to Los Angeles and sadly don’t run into any movie stars. This is not our subject matter. Instead, we reach the northernmost point of the USA, Cape Flattery, where the Makah tribe still live and where, at least in theory, you can see Canadian ground – if the fog didn’t have the consistency of buttermilk.

Technically, M. and I are the lead characters in this tale, but in reality, we are merely the beneficiaries of the experiences we walk into either on purpose or more often by accident. The main protagonists in the story, are the people we exchange a few words with, the animals peacefully foraging as we pass by their dwellings and the landforms, some of which I didn’t even know existed before making their personal acquaintance, with their exotic names such as canyon, arch, gulch, tufa, and hoodoo.

The apparel is casual/hiking/sportswear, washed weekly at the laundromat of whatever hotel we happen to spend the night at. The shoes are dusty, directly proportional to the hundreds of hiked miles. At one point I start to believe that I have outgrown mine or that my feet have swollen because of the heat, but in fact, half of a size of my shoes is just sand of various colors. Their original color can only be seen in the first photos we took.

The sunglasses have become part of our faces as together we can count less than a dozen days when the intense heat of the sun isn’t zealously beating off our heads and we don’t have to take shelter under tinted lenses. The facial tan now has a strap pattern traversing towards the temples and only between eyebrow and cheekbone does the skin have its natural tone.

The means of transportation is an all-wheel-drive SUV rental. M. specifically chose this to deal with the windy roads he recorded on a spreadsheet charting our vacation. The car is comfortable and roomy enough to carry both of us in the front, a cooler in the back, filled to the brim with fruit, ice, water, and beer, and in the trunk, a tent, sleeping bags, a folding chair, two suitcases with our all clothes for the season and of course some tasty crunchable snacks.

Ninety-nine percent of the 12,250 miles we have traveled on so far have been somewhere between sea-level and 6,000 feet. They have been well paved and effectively sign-posted, with interstates and highways clearly marked, and each route attractively maintained – no need for manual driving here. However, going forward, the all-wheel-drive (AWD) is going to be vital for us. Two wheels won’t be enough when we travel on the deep sandy trails of the Vermilion Cliffs on our way to White Pocket, Arizona, or on the 9,000 feet remote pass towards Mount White in California.

Distances accumulate in miles and as a European, my mind has to do the math multiplying one mile by 1.6 to understand how many kilometers we’ve traveled. It makes no difference while we’re driving because I just sit in the passenger seat, admiring the scenery, reading or writing down in detail what we do each day, but while on the trail, it’s not the same – psychologically every increment matters – if there are three to seven miles left, that is five to eleven kilometers – doable but on Mount White when nineteen miles to go equates to thirty kilometers it is a different story.

Time passes the same here as it does back home. I constantly have to add between seven and ten hours to the clock, depending on where we are, to ensure it is still a reasonable hour to call home. It is easiest to remember on the Pacific coast, as my family will just be waking up as we are going to bed.

Most of my undocumented ideas turn out to be preconceived. This is not a surprise as my only sources of information are American movies and TV shows. None of the things I’ve imagined America would represent turn out to be true and the examples are disgracefully many.

Ever since M. started planning this vacation, almost a year ago, he’s been enthusiastically telling me about the Sonora desert and how excited he is for me to see it. All I can imagine are dunes, drought, and unbearable heat. When we get there, we end up traversing it entirely. I discover that it is at altitude and not flat as I had imagined. We climb The Enchanted Rock, TX, an ancient Tonkawa, Apache, and Comanche worship place. I also realize that the Colorado river waters its thirsty land (we meet the river at Horseshoe Bend in Navajo Land, at Dead Horse State Park, Canyonlands National Park, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and Lake Powell) and for me, the most unbelievable factoid is that it can actually snow in the desert during winter.

By now I know that halfway through our vacation we will reach the Pacific coast and, as a tourist I can already see sunny days, swimsuits on hot sandy beaches. I can virtually feel the cold and invigorating waves, and envy at the Baywatch tans. But M. warned me not to be surprised if I won’t find any of my fantasies to be true.

In reality, my idealist view turned out to be slightly amiss. I never imagined shivering on the beaches of California, Oregon, and Washington, or being covered head-to-toe with a windbreaker, and instead of wearing a bathing suit with a scarf draped around me I was wearing one tightly wrapped around my neck instead.

On the western shore of the United States the cold, the wind, and the fog coexist in perfect harmony with the blue hue of the sky and the ocean. My fantasies about tanning and drinking rainbow-colored cocktails with little stick umbrellas must happen in Florida and Hawaii. It is definitely not happening here.

Another unexpected fact I come across while traveling through the dusty small towns of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, with their commanding names like Van Horn, El Paso, and Las Cruces, places where English is barely spoken, is that at one point in history this entire area was Mexican territory. To be more precise, the entire states of California, Nevada, and Utah, most of Arizona, half of New Mexico, and a quarter of Colorado (and a tiny bit of Wyoming) once belonged to Mexico.

So not to be misunderstood, I feel I should leave an explanation for mentioning these random facts. Clearly, I could have learned them via Google, but I chose to wait for the trip to happen before learning them because, to be honest, I did not believe the vacation would actually materialize until the plane bound for Chicago took off from London and I was on it. To be even more honest, there are quite a few moments in the middle of M.’s thoroughly crafted itinerary, when I don’t believe I am the one living it. Anyway, we all have our own fears and anxieties that prevent us from believing that we deserve beautiful things to happen to us. In this sense, the thought that we are all united in this gives me a lot of relief.

I was born and bred in Romania. Most of my experiences have occurred on Romanian soil and in Romanian tradition and obviously when I experience something or somewhere new I automatically compare it to what’s familiar to me. The bigger the difference or contradiction, the more complex my emotions are likely to be. Visiting the Western continental states was one of those empirical trials, elaborate and profoundly different to anything I’ve seen before in Romania or indeed Europe. The awe and appreciation I gain for the states are exactly what makes this trip so memorable, it is radically different from Romania.

In this book, it is not my intention to ask questions that to answer require digging deep into the nation’s history and mentality. I aim to open your eyes to a different world, unlike the one we presume it is. I talk about people and the way they relate to one another, about places where nature has provided dizzying beauty, about the wilderness, and about respect, locals have for their heritage and the care they, and most tourists, give to it.

[1] John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley in Search of America: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition), 1986. Part ONE, pg. 8