Some days you just have to laugh.
Like one day earlier this week, in my case.
I pulled into a gas station after some 4-banger motorhome “off-roading” in the rain somewhere outside of Kalispell, MT. The back rung of my ugly old DIY kayak rack was hanging sadly askew, leaving my 100-pound kayak resting on my kitchen vent and a ridiculous piece of conduit sleeved with PVC, cushioned with foam pipe insulator and wrapped in duct tape dangling recklessly from the bent angle iron attached to my tiny, ancient Toyota camper.
This wasn’t on the agenda.
I had managed to make it only maybe a thousand miles or so in a little more than two weeks of exploring weird, lonely places in Eastern Oregon and Idaho and Montana since I’d picked the rig up to continue a trip I started 11 months earlier in Anchorage, Alaska. In that eleven months, I had crossed the Atlantic twice (by air and sea,) gone back and forth along the Panama Canal at least four times too many, spent three months during the holidays with family in the Deep South, and six in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, being a hermit by the sea, developing an over-fondness for tequila, and complaining about the heat and the incessant, barking dogs.
My truck, the Dolphin, had spent the eleven months parked in some dude’s yard in Vancouver, WA.
My parking plans had fallen through at the last possible moment, you see, and this guy just so happened to have a big yard and an ad on Craigslist offering parking at an absurdly low rate compared to the highway robbery being attempted at most commercial long-term parking lots. I had to risk it. I gave the little truck a kiss, unsure I’d ever see her again, as my Uber pulled up to take me to the airport. We’d already been through so much! A couple thousand miles down the Alcan just me and her, and me learning to drive a stick for the first time, no less. I hoped for the best but expected the worse. In this case, I found it necessary to manage my expectations.
So, eleven months later I arrive in Portland with my dog and my backpack and my fingers crossed. The old man has aired up my tires and made sure she started, checked the oil and everything. I could have hugged him. I felt so relieved and optimistic—bulletproof almost—and set out that first afternoon with high hopes.
Hopes that were abruptly dashed a mere ten miles down the road at our grocery stock-up location.
Turns out the idle was off and she kept dying on me every time I stopped, and finally…nothing. Dead silence when I went to start her back up at the main parking lot exit with a row of angry Trader Joe shoppers lined up behind me. Wouldn’t even burp a response when I turned the key.
A couple of construction workers were sitting in their truck nearby, enjoying their lunch and, apparently, the spectacle of angered soccer moms and be-spectacled academic looking professor-types that like to take care of their bodies. (This is a very specific type.) They helped me push the oversized paperweight into a parking spot and I got on the phone. Found a mobile mechanic right up the road, thinking I needed a new battery and it would be easiest to call on someone with tools and working transportation to correct this issue. A few hours later, he showed up, tested the batteries (both were good,) and wound up sprucing up the battery cables and connections, adjusting the idle, fixing some vacuum hose issues and generally getting us ready to go.
That first night in the Dolphin I parked between a bar and a feed store on the Willamette River in West Portland and had a minor panic attack.
I didn’t know how to drive this thing or fix it when it broke. I didn’t even know where I was going. To the coast? Down Highway 101? Turn East to escape the fires and start meandering back towards Memphis?
A few shots of tequila and a beer that night decided it. Everyone went on and on about Oregon, but it was always the part West of the Cascades. The foggy coast, the big dewy mountains, the verdant forests full of big trees dripping with…nature.
As much as I love the sea, I turned East and found myself following the Columbia River. It was an interesting thing to do, it turned out. I had read a lot about water conflicts in the West and was curious about this dry side of the state and all these dammed rivers, the Columbia being the most famous according to my knowledge-base. I checked out Cascade Falls and Celilo and felt sad at the things that had been lost and awed by what had been created and wholly conflicted by the place of man in the natural world.
I found Maryhill Stonehenge and marveled at how nice it must be to be rich and eccentric and visionary…but how sad it must be to die before any of your vision is recognized. That night on Maryhill set the tone. I’d never heard of this thing, this big concrete recreation fabricated to mimic what the real Stonehenge must have looked like before it got all jacked up with the ravages of time, etc. He was a Quaker, this Sam Hill fellow that built it all, owned it all. A conscientious objector and this was his monument of objection. It was dedicated to the fourteen soldiers lost from Goldendale County in “The Great War”.
I found it to be a soul-shaking place to sit and watch the sunset and watch the stars trace and shoot as the Perseids began to spit.
I wanted more of this. Every day I wanted that, for the whole trip I wanted THAT. That aloneness and that big open sky and that feeling that I had found something special. I wanted that freedom, and that accounting to nobody but myself and Porkchop. (The dog.)
Sure, this is all about finding all of that, but this last week? Instead of that awe and that gut-wrenching love affair with the world around me I had to rock back on my heels a bit and laugh. Life falls apart. You wake up with your keys lost and your kayak hanging off the roof of a jalopy that’s older than you are that you are driving across the entire North American continent with zero mechanical knowledge (and no tools, it turns out,) and the dog jumps through the window screen of the camper to follow you into the store and you check your bank account to discover all your clients thought they could quit paying you since you weren’t in an office anymore and hitch-hiking mice are slowly gnawing away at both some unknown roll of toilet paper and your fragile sanity.
You wonder WTF you’re actually doing with your life.
So a girl and a dog get into a Dolphin.
(And we’re still writing the punchline.)