Saturday, August 30, 2014

On the road to Moab

I want to tell you what it was like to be at Mile Marker 37 on Highway 128 to Moab, Utah again.

First of all, a little background. In August 2008, during a cross-country road trip from my old home in Alexandria, Virginia to San Diego to start a new life, following the scenic route a friend had kindly mapped out for me, I was on that same road toward Moab when I suddenly had to stop and pull over – onto a small patch of faded black asphalt at the Mile Marker 37 sign – because I was so overwhelmed by the immensity, vastness, openness, and alone-ness of where I was, unlike anyplace I’d ever been before.

On that long-ago day, I got out of my car and just jumped around for joy. No cars passed; I had the place all to myself, for miles and miles in every direction.

It also hit me in that moment that I was free – free from a nearly 10-year relationship that had been weighing me down and making me old, free from a job that made me feel like a sellout (not that the company itself is bad at all, but when you’re a former newspaper journalist and you find yourself working on things like corporate press releases and conference programs and ghost-written “articles” that are really marketing pieces with a clear sales agenda – you mourn for your soul), free from living in the same state that my ancestors had lived and died in for hundreds of years… free from inertia, free from boringness.

So on that day back in 2008 when I got to that spot, I pulled over and ran into the empty road and jumped around. To me, in my memory and in my self-mythology, it was a moment when I truly realized that I was starting a new life, embarking on a crazy new adventure, doing something gutsy and bold.

This time, I had checked out of my room at a Ramada Inn in Glenwood Springs, Colorado (simply where I happened to be when the sun went down) before dawn, hoping to catch a sunrise over that dramatic landscape. It was an overcast morning, the sun peeking in and out of clouds. I knew that I had to see my old spot when the sun was shining – if I came upon it during a dim and gloomy moment, I worried, it could color my perception of that long-ago ebullient moment, and of the whole rest of my upcoming trip.

A few things happened on my way there.

There was intermittent rain in the region, and a thick, faint rainbow shot down out of the sky and onto the road I was driving on as I headed toward Highway 128. No kidding.

As I neared 128, I suddenly knew exactly what song I wanted to hear – Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s “Storm." It's the song that a friend of mine was listening to in his truck while driving through Wyoming under a red sky to start a new life himself, in Park City, Utah, having just broken up with his girlfriend of five years. Sometimes my loved ones and I pass mythology – and music – back and forth this way, layer upon layer.

The music could not have been more perfect, or more perfectly timed, every mile along the way. There’s the opening, a few tentative notes before trumpets venture sounds of determined resignation; a slow build to a beautiful crescendo; and then a triumphant section accompanied by a marching beat that builds and builds even more, until it breaks – and there’s this sweet section that sounds like… coming home. I can think of no better way to explain that section.

I sped along the wavy little hills of 128 – Mile Marker 40… Mile Marker 39… Mile Marker 38… – racing against the sun as it slid inexorably towards the nearby clouds.  

And no kidding – just as the music hit that sweet section, *just* as it hit… there I was, at Mile Marker 37. There was the green vertical sign, bigger and closer to the road than I remembered, like a welcome-home banner. There was no one else around. The sun shone pearly and bright onto the scene – perfect, so perfect, could not have been more perfect. I pulled over onto that asphalt patch and sat there, the music playing, perfect – and I just started crying.

I can’t remember the last time I felt so much at once.

I felt so full of joy at being back there again, so moved and gratified that it felt just the same as it had that first time; overwhelmed thinking about the hope I’d felt going out there, and all that happened during that time and the despair I felt at going home, but how it had turned out for the best – I have Jonathan now, after all – and how many times I had longed to be back here, right here, in the six years that had passed.

So with my hand pressed to my heart, I looked out onto this scene, more beautiful to me than any other, and cried. Make-up ran in rivulets down my face. I felt a release I hadn’t felt in I don’t know how long.

Finally the music came to a natural stopping point, so I pressed “Pause” on my iPod, put the car in park, took the key out of the ignition, and stepped out of the car.

The wind felt soft and silky, different from the air back East. It was so peaceful – no sound except the wind and a few distant birds. The light was holy.

I took some photos. And then I just stayed there for a long time. I reveled in it; I tried to absorb the scene as much as possible, to imprint it deeply in my memory. I looked around, and I knew, in that moment at least – this was where I wanted my ashes scattered, in this spot on the planet, on this silky wind.

Without really caring whether I looked crazy, I raised my arms up to the sky and let the wind slip through my fingers. I imagined myself – years from now, I hope – as ash blowing on this wind, in this wild place. My hair and skirt blew around me and I thought of myself – all of me: my mind; this weary body that is trying so hard and failing to produce a baby; this resilient body that has had less-than-respectful things done to it by some guys with shallow intentions – all turned to ash and blowing in the wind here. I turned to the sun and felt the full force of it on my face, on my skin.

Before I left, I felt compelled to leave something of mine there. I happened to look into my purse – and somehow, inside my zipped-open camera case, there was a stray pre-natal multi-vitamin that must have escaped my notice after a bottle of them spilled in my purse one time. I thought – last time I came out here, I wanted to start a new life; this time, what I want more than anything is to have a family. So I took the vitamin and slipped it into one of the holes in the Mile Marker 37 aluminum post.

Although I’m not a superstitious person, I am metaphorically oriented in my writerly way, and somehow I felt that I couldn’t leave without leaving something of me there, in a way that wouldn’t disrupt the scene.

I’m on a different journey now.

It was hard to leave. I stood there for a long time, thinking: “Right now, I’m here in the present – as soon as I leave, this becomes the past again.”

I only left when the wind died down and another car appeared at the end of the road, and I remembered – this was never a final destination, but a stopping point along the way to someplace else.

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