I spent the evening down on the valley floor by the Merced River and Tenaya Creek, past the lingering tourists snapping pictures in the last remaining hours of daylight.
I can’t say what I was looking for–maybe something extraordinary, since extraordinary was all that I had seen so far, and I had little indication that anything about that would change.
The sun faded from view, leaving the sky cast in a pink-purple glow.The air had cooled quickly, and I heard the sounds of the river somewhere through the trees.
I approached a small tunnel where footprints led through to the other end.It was actually more like a pile of rocks, and it formed what looked like a cave at first glance. Maybe it was my imagination running away with me, or some childlike adventurous impulse breaking free that I made no effort to resist.
I crawled through it like some lost boy in his bedroom fort, made from chairs and bedsheets. Only this was the genuine article, made from boulders and chunks of earth that had probably fallen many years ago.
I reached the other end and heard the sounds of the river growing louder. I could see it flowing in between the trees. I glanced up and noticed two birds flying playfully overhead. I followed them to the water, flowing gently northeast.I sat there on the bank, quietly upon the rocks and I listened.The ‘river’ was actually Tenaya Creek, which had broken off from the Merced River at Curry Village.
I sat there for a while and wrote about the creek whispering secrets, dispatches from the rest of the world with news on where we were all going from here. The river seemed to know it all.The river, swift and wise, the great shaper of mountainsides and treacherous canyons–shaping even the grandest and most mammoth caves in America.
The last rays of daylight had gone down as I left the valley and made my way out the west entrance of the park toward El Portal.I camped for the night at an RV park, perched on a cliff overlooking the Merced River.
This site was a cool alternative to camping in the park where campsites had been booked for months in advance. I slept in something that wasn’t quite a tent, but not quite a cabin either.It was a wide canvas tent the size of a small bedroom, equipped with a bed and nightstand and even a ceiling fan. I guess it could qualify as ‘glamping,’ though I hadn’t heard that word at the time. It didn’t have an AC or heating system, but I didn’t need one. In those first days of August, the air outside was perfect.
I enjoyed all the sounds of nature I would have enjoyed in a conventional tent, as well as most of the comforts of a cabin. And I fell asleep to the sound of the river rushing below and the many creatures of the night, unknown and unseen.
I saw windmills in the distance obscured by thick morning fog, looking like ominous giants way out there watching me every step of the way. Dinosaurs on the move, born again and rising out of the Texas swamps.
But then I was still in the plains. This was West Texas, just outside of Amarillo. I had music playing that morning. Elvis Presley. He was crooning one of my favorite songs. Milky White Way.
I stopped at a cafe about 80 miles to the south. The place was nearly deserted except for the lady and gentleman who ran the place. I think they ran it anyway. I think they were a married couple too. I only assumed these things by the way they carried themselves around the shop, and the way they spoke to each other, not in any good or bad way but one that seemed like they’d been doing it for many years.
They asked where I was coming from, and where I was going. I’ve had so many conversations like this over the years, it’s crazy. I don’t mind it though.
I like meeting people from across the country. It makes me feel closer to it in a way that I guess few are able to experience as often. So I count myself lucky.
I’m coming from California, I told them. “I’m headed toward Shreveport.”
“Ah well,” the lady said. “That’s a long way from here. I think you’re gonna need some coffee.”
She smiled then winked at me. The man strode in from the back room to say hello. He rested his hands onto countertop and then took a long look out the window.
“Yes please,” I said to the lady.
She went into the back room to roast me a cup. I asked for a medium since I knew that I did indeed have a longer drive ahead of me. The truth was that I hoped to make it a little farther past Shreveport if I could. The car I was driving was actually a lease, one that needed to be returned in Florida because the back seats were still there. I needed to get back to Florida before the deadline, with enough time in between to get it cleaned and in good shape before I turned it in.
The sooner I arrived, the better; but I didn’t want to push myself to the point of exhaustion either. The last thing I needed to was to get all run down and suddenly become twice as vulnerable to Señor Corona.
The lady came back from the office with a medium cup of coffee. I thanked them both very much and wished them a nice rest of the week.
“You too,” said the man. “Be safe out there and enjoy Shreveport.”
I tipped my hat to him and went out toward the door as two girls walked in, saying hello to me and to the man and woman at the counter. The four of them repeated a different version of the conversation we’d just had. The girls walked over to the coffee table by the window and signed what looked like a visitor’s log, where they likely wrote down their information and where they were traveling from and their email address and all those details.
At the front door I noticed a sign I hadn’t noticed before, or rather about twelve different signs each pointing in different directions from a wooden plank. Each sign had a different town or city, some in the United States and a few others throughout the world, from Amarillo and Santa Fe to Rome, London and Cairo, each with the corresponding number of miles between the city and this coffee shop.
I smiled and walked out the door. I started the car and continued south by southwest, heading toward Shreveport.
I left California a few days before the lockdown. I reached Joseph City, AZ by nightfall and parked at a Love’s Truck Station on I-40 where some industrial plant loomed about a half-mile up the road with it’s lights glowing and smoke rising high in the dark of night.
By this time, I was already considering how best to avoid getting sick, since I still had a long drive ahead of me from Arizona to Fort Lauderdale. I’d never been much of a germaphobe, but now here I was wondering how many people I’d have to dodge suddenly in a place that likely saw travelers and truck drivers come and go every day from all corners of the country.
I’d never paid much speculation to these things before, and now I felt a sting of disappointment at how much current circumstances required me having to think twice about every place I might stop, and how many people I might encounter along the way, and whether I should wash my hands again after briefly touching that door handle which might have been grabbed by who knows how many others.
Yea, it sucked.
In Los Angeles, the biggest talking point concerning the virus was the sudden disappearance of toilet paper in all the grocery stores around town. When I left, businesses still hadn’t shut down but the reality was beginning to sink in, at least for me. Maybe it had something to do with the police helicopter that had been flying over my neighborhood everyday for the past week.
Anyway, the next morning I grabbed coffee at the Love’s station. It was delicious. I liked it so much I even bought a souvenir thermos. Of all the truck stops across America, Love’s has come to be my favorite. Maybe it’s the name. Maybe it’s the logo. Or maybe I just bought the thermos as a way to settle down and lighten up.
Sure enough, during each of the four nights I was on the road, I’d stay at a Love’s Truck Station. It provided a reassuring familiarity I’d long come to appreciate over the years on the road; and now as things seemed to be getting more serious everywhere, I appreciated that familiarity even more in everything from the country music and tacky t-shirts to the coffee machines and souvenir shot glasses.
To my added satisfaction, as I set out that next morning I saw another familiar face, a National Park that I’d been meaning to visit for a few years now and that I’d bypassed every time I drove down I-40, because I hadn’t had the time or it was too late at night, or some reason or another. It was Petrified Forest National Park.
Now that it was early in the morning and I wasn’t in any particular rush to get anywhere, and probably because I needed the distraction, I decided that now was as a good a time as any to finally see what it was all about.
National Parks have always served as an escape for Americans looking to reset and decompress, an escape from the mundane, or from the stress and congestion of city life. Yet in the coming weeks, they’d receive a new influx of visitors looking to escape the coronavirus. So many, in fact, that the parks themselves would become congested.
As I read now of park officials at Grand Canyon currently submitting requests to close down as they field up to 600 visitors in a single day, visitors with whom they undoubtedly come into close contact, I think back to just two weeks ago when I arrived at Petrified Forest.
I support that request by the way, though I’ll admit, I’m happy I got to visit beforehand when everything seemed totally normal, to the point that you’d never know anything was going on in the rest of the world.
I parked at the visitor center and watched a quick film about the park and it’s indigenous history.It felt good to do something normal like that.To go in and simply look at souvenirs, or get my park stamps and grab a map like I’d typically do.The rangers were in good spirits and so were the visitors; though again, just like at the Love’s Station, I was suddenly aware of how close I stood next to everybody and felt the same sting of disappointment at the fact.
Then I left the station and set out on the road and into the park, driving alongside the cliffs overlooking the Painted Desert, an endless vista of pink and red rock leading out to the horizon.The weather was great. The sky was still a bit overcast, but the sunlight peeking through the clouds felt wonderful on my face. I could have easily stayed out there all day.
Along the way I stopped at the Painted Desert Inn and thought about all the people of decades past who’d stayed there and stood out on that same balcony to take in the view of the Arizona badlands.
The landscape did remind me of the more famous Dakota Badlands some 1,000 miles to the northeast, which I’d visited nearly two years before.Still while the shades of the green, grey and brown were the dominant colors of that region, here everything was red and pink, and so I might’ve been more inclined to think of Mars, some vast frozen tundra out in space, were it not for that glorious morning breeze and life-giving sunlight.
I closed my eyes like I’d done a million times over the last few years in places like Yellowstone and the Everglades, in New Mexico and the Swiss Alps, along the river Danube or the Mississippi, and on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City.I closed my eyes and stood beneath the sun, allowing my mind to quiet with the surrounding landscape.
As difficult as things are getting lately, I’m grateful that I still have the ability to do this, where I can at least step outside my door and breathe in the air provided to us everyday.
With enough patience, I feel like I can get back to anyone of those places whenever I need.I thought a lot about this, that day at Petrified Forest, and considered the likelihood that I wouldn’t be able to visit again for a while in the days and weeks to come.I opened my eyes and looked out over the Painted Desert.Indeed there was nothing petrified about it.It was in fact teeming with life.
I’d get back there soon.In the meantime, it would still be here.Living and breathing under the same sun, beneath the same stars and moon.And when I consider that, even today, it doesn’t feel too far at all. Just like every other place I know and love.