5,000 miles • 30 days • 8 states
September 2016 has been a month of catching up on the hugs, conversations, coffee dates, and nights around the campfire with the friends and family who I’ve missed in the past six months of nearly non-stop working overseas. September also marks the two year anniversary of my departure from stability and community in Portland for what was supposed to have been a season or so backpacking. Two years later, I’m grateful and surprised to still be maintaining this “vagabond” lifestyle that’s so far balanced seasonal work, international travel, and volunteering. This month has been an opportunity to reflect on my past, my community, my future goals, the privilege of being able to live like this, and to check in on my growing desire to settle down a bit and nest.
September has had moments of feeling paralyzed by the stress of making life decisions, sleeping under the arc of the Milky Way in Utah, serene picnics at alpine lakes in Colorado, soul-baring conversations in Portland’s hipster coffee shops, hours of podcasts and Arabic practice, lonely nights of looking for a safe place to sleep in remote spots, and feeling grounded in the conviction that I am loved by some of the greatest people in the world. I named a cardboard box in my trunk “my pantry,” my backpack became “my office” and my duffel bag “my bedroom.” I made french press coffee at rest stops, slept on a series of couches, and laughed over local IPAs with close friends who I haven’t seen in too long. I hardly took my camera out of its case during this journey.
Two days of driving from San Diego put me in Colorado, where I had a week of nightly slumber parties with my grad student sister in Fort Collins and spent my days researching potential masters programs. In Boulder, I drank local beer and listened to my Alaskan friend’s guitar under the stars in his backyard, heard wild stories from a photojournalist friend about a recent Filipino embed project, and reconnected with a few Jesuit Volunteer community friends over breakfast burritos and mimosas in downtown Denver. One night, I sat in an outdoor hot tub in the mountains and watched a movie projected onto a sheet slung between pine trees with a gal who had once stayed in my Talkeetna Hostel and her friends. In my first two days in Colorado, I was the first responder at a traumatic accident and rescue on a cliff face, and later found a sweet, lost, Mexican abuela on a trail and spent the next hour chatting in Spanglish on our way back to the parking lot. I spent a fun night catching up over sushi with two climbing girl friends from college, and sometimes spent hours driving alone through the conservative backroads of rural Colorado, listening to the local radio stations and trying to comprehend the mindset behind the plethora of Trump political signs. I drove out to visit the place where our friend Eunjey had been killed three years ago as he cycled across the country by someone driving under the influence.One morning, while eating oatmeal beside a quiet alpine stream, I watched a family of elk graze together on a steep mountainside, and understood again why so many people love this state.
I spent two fantastic weeks in Colorado, then drove north towards Boise. Through the dramatic cumulus clouds, herds of cattle, and quaint towns of Wyoming, the dry mountains of northern Utah, and the familiar highway 84 through Idaho’s Snake River Valley.
After a summer in crowded China, I felt surges of patriotism marveling at these huge expanses of untamed space, and watching real cowboys drive herds of cattle across dusty hillsides at dusk. The West has this stark beauty that seems to just roll on and on and only hesitantly allow cities to grow in contained pockets.
Boise, one of these, is an underrated spot that I always pull into with a sigh of relief. My aunt and uncle, who I’m close with, live this incredible life I’ve always aspired to- full of travel, community, art, nature, and great food, always welcome me into their home with wine and traded stories of vagabonding. I just stayed for a night this time, but maybe someday I’ll spend more time in Idaho.
Oregon pulled me back across the border by my heartstrings, and I actually had a silly moment alone in my car of literally screaming with happiness at being back inside of Oregon. Every time I come back I get this same flooding warm feeling of a happy welcome that I haven’t found anywhere else. When I came to Oregon the very first time to visit nearly eight years ago, I immediately felt this unique sensation of coming home to a place I’d never been before. After living there for about five years, even while working in the ‘ugly underbelly’ of urban homelessness, that feeling of home hasn’t changed. I was happy to be back. And happy to pull into my friend’s comfortable, rustic ranch, perched above the Crooked River with views out to the Three Sisters mountains. The ranch is an easy place to get sucked into- with limited phone service, big friendly dogs, dramatic sunsets, heavy ceramic mugs, and the pervasive, intoxicating smells of sage and juniper. We grilled salmon, hiked through Smith Rock, rafted the Deschutes, and caught a few gorgeous rainbow trout. My overburdened soul is craving that kind of life right now, and it was hard to leave after a few days in the high desert.
I drove over the shoulder of Mount Hood on a beautiful sunny day, appreciative of the sheer size of the coniferous trees and expansive volume of the forests. The deciduous undergrowth were already turning fiery orange, and I thought of all of the gorgeous hikes I’ve been lucky to get to do in the Hood area. (Have I mentioned how much I love this state?)
I’m not going to do my Portland visit justice here because it’s late and I’m tired, and apparently I took NO photos in the city, but Portland is where my heart is. Before I even stopped to drop off my bags where I was staying at my close friend Katie’s, I’d already visited the Edwards family and Mike- once homeless folks I worked with while at JOIN and have continued to keep up wonderful relationships with. Portland became a series of coffee dates by day and beer dates by night. I have these amazing people in my life- former supervisors, old climbing partners, guys I once dated, couples getting married, friends from the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest- everyone I love that turns this city into home. I felt inspired, supported, and really caffeinated after all of these meetings, and regret not having time to get together with everyone I know (or having any photographic evidence). Sometimes my face hurt from smiling, which is really the best problem to have.
I sorted through my pile of stuff stored in another close friend, Jenna’s, basement, spent a lovely night at some local hot springs, went to my favorite brewery, Basecamp, and favorite restaurant, the Tin Shed, and then had to head south.
Francesca, a close friend from college, welcomed me to her house in Santa Clara- a city that feels at once familiar and totally foreign after having gone to college there but rarely visited since. I volunteered to recruit for Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest at a career fair, and spent most of the time marveling at how much I’d changed in the six years since I was one of those students dressed in business casual, nervously handing my skeletal resume to potential employers. I wish I could tell my college self to relax. To study abroad. To actually get involved with the service organizations on campus and not to date the same guy all the way through college. While it’s hard to have any regrets in life when I’m so happy with where I am, being back on campus forced me to reflect on who I was then, and how much more I should have taken advantage of my time at that university. I caught up with an inspiring Jesuit priest, Father Jack Treacy, and my Creative Writing professor, Claudia McIsaac. Santa Clara University campus looks like a Catholic country club…from the future…with self-driving golf carts.
After a long day on the very straight, very boring I-5 I’m back at my parent’s house in Escondido, California. Tomorrow is going to be a rushed unpack-repack day before taking off on my next adventure, but for now I’m grateful to be here and grateful to have had such an amazing month to get to reflect on. I realize that after two years of vagabonding, a big part of me is craving the stability and the ability to contribute meaningfully to my community that nesting offers.
Huge thank you to the following folks for listening to my stories and stressors, offering life advice and connections, meeting up for coffee, letting me stay on their couch, making dinner with me, and keeping me grounded in the best way possible: Katherine, Emily, Matt, Mom, Dad, Jenna, Amanda & Jose, Zack, Jason, Katie, Sarah, Clara, Cassandra, Elinor, John & Abbie, Tim & Carol, Charlie, Doug, Kevin & Linda, Mike, Linda, Richard, Kevyn & Tatiana, Katie, Israel, Will, Quinn, Chris, Paolo & Rachel, Jenna, Sam, Christie, Matt, Elena, Brian, Sarah, Angela, Chris, Lisa, Erin, Ben, Danielle, Francesca.
When your family are friends and your friends are family, life is good.