Silence. But not exactly quiet. With arms crossed and my focus towards the window, I can’t actually see anything because my mind is beating through the words we just exchanged. Flung back and forth like vicious blows leaving us both angry and frustrated…bringing its own noise, even in the stillness.
I don’t know if being stubborn is a little gift from birth or something picked up along the way, but Colin and I have both been infected and no one wants to speak first. The only thing stronger than the will of keeping the silence is the will of not wanting to be mad at each other. Sprite shifts around in the back, picking at her blanket to achieve the exact amount of fluff in order to plop down, so I swing around to check if she gets it right. I catch Colin’s eyes in the process. Even though his head is forward, focused on the road, his eyes roll to the side and get a glimpse of mine. The result is a smile, trying with every face muscle not to smile, smiling harder, and then laughter.
An hour later and we are right back to hurling fighting words and then right back to silence. Sprite decides it may be best to stay put in her spot, no need for any movement in this heated truck. We move through the day’s miles with irrational behavior resulting from nothing working out. Where every effort sinks, every road is wrong, patience has vanished, and the level of annoyance is in the red. I know I am speaking to everyone who has ever had one of these days. My friend Catie would demand, “Where in the hell is the reset button!” We look for that button, but sometimes all you can do is pray for a new day or hope for a twist in the right direction.
We finally get to our destination and reach Hierve el Agua (hot springs) in Oaxaca, Mexico. Murky greenish-blue pools among the mountain’s rim looking as if you could float to the edge and sit suspended like a bird. Layers of mountains peel back in the distance. Instead of marveling at the view, we crawl into the camper, open a book and try to contain the bad vibes by closing the door. We hear the gravel crunching around us and peek out from the screen windows to see a Dodge truck carrying an XP camper. The doors opened and a couple hops out. They stretch while checking out the view and then begin moving in our direction. Sprite has been on alert since the sound of the truck triggered her senses. Tail wagging, nose to the screen and a growl rumbling low in her gut. Tossing our books aside and forcing a body up that does not want to move, we meet Sissi and Gunter.
As we learn about the people behind the faces, our mood starts to break. We are engaged and laughing and going back through the steps that got all of us here. Those roads where we started (Alaska to California for them, Virginia for us) that carve around the landscape to intersect at this point. Before all of that there was a common idea: Let’s go see what’s out there. Let’s drive/cycle/ride beyond what we know, over the line of comfort, through the landscapes we can’t even name.
We spend the next day with Sissi and Gunter camping side-by-side, taking separate walks, coming back to say hello, catching more details beyond what we can see. Sissi was born in Austria, ten miles from Gunter who was born in Germany. They have spent the last 42 summers in Juneau and the rest of the year back home. Sissi stands tall with straight hair reaching just above her shoulders, bangs cut to her brows and wisp to the side. She has a gentle demeanor but after a few stories I realize how incredibly funny she is, witty and smart. Gunter is also tall, athletic (enjoys head stands near amazing views) with really short gray hair, bright eyes and also hilarious. (Such as the morning we camped together in Costa Rica. I open our camper door and there’s Gunter popped out of the hatch on the top of their XP camper, shirtless and checking the roof. He spots me and shouts with his arms reaching up towards the sky “Good Morning!”) Packing up to leave, we shake things out and wonder where all that toxic energy went. Maybe the sweet air and energy from our new friends swept it all away.
We part ways and take a southern route through the mezcal land of Mexico. Black dirt fields holding spiky blue agave plants in measured rows. It is the Mexican Napa Valley, with vines replaced by agave, fancy homes and modern facilities replaced by open stucco walls and a mule with stone wheel to smash the plants. But just like Napa the number of places to taste and purchase are plentiful. The smokey smell of agave on coals. The burn of the liquid hits the nose and then traces a path you can feel all the way down. Colin loves it. For me, that path wants to return and come back up.
Crossing More Lines, Connecting with More Travelers
We keep moving south, then back tracking slightly north up the Oaxacan coast, then returning south pushing towards Chiapas. Our next camping destination happens to be at a school, which is also a farm, and a home – for kids who had a tough life before they came here. There were four camping spots, but we were the only ones camping until later that day when Colin and I are passing the volleyball and trying to balance a slack line with the kids when an Iveco drives around our truck and sets up a few spots down. The side door flings open and two kids come running towards us. The adults follow in a slower manner. With quick greetings there is no time to waste because the slack line needs to be lowered, a little closer to the ground, so when the kids decide to use the line as a launching pad they won’t catch as much air. It’s stuck, and while Colin tries to pry the clamp open, about 10 kids circle him and wait anxiously while offering several suggestions. Not long after the slack line is lowered, the kids are over it and scatter on to something else. We finally get a chance to talk to the new group of travelers. Just when Colin and I thought how much ground we have covered, we can’t even touch these two…or four.
From France, they shipped their home on wheels to Argentina and made it across the entire continent of South America, shipped around the Darien Gap, drove through Central America and now Chiappas. At almost two years out, along with two kids, they have seen a lot, to say the least. By the time the kids are called in for dinner and night surrounds us, we accept an invitation to their camper for a drink and comparing notes. At this point Colin and I are still thinking we will make it to South America so having the opportunity to pick their brains is a chance we are excited to accept.
We walk into their camper and the first thing I see is art, lots of art on the cabinets, a few pieces on the wall and near the table – kids morphing their experiences onto colorful pages. The lights are low and Lionel is reading a story to Anna. The youngest, Nils, is lying in bed with his head resting on the wall but leaning out to hear the story. We sit at the table and listen. Once the kids climb into their beds the books are replaced by huge maps. South America takes up enough map space to cover the table and spill over the edge. For hours we talk about travel. Traveling with kids, traveling with pets, the joy of this trip and of course the challenges. They describe days, similar to ours, filled with “hit the reset button.” Even though we started in completely different countries under completely different circumstances their feelings from this journey mirror our own. Without asking the obvious question, Why do this? We already know the answer.
We all pack up in the morning. Lionel, Nelly, Anna and Nils head north and we head south. The chances that we see them again are pretty unlikely, but even if many years pass and we happened to stumble upon them, the greeting would be of a thrilling surprise. Like digging through basement boxes to find a keepsake that you were sure was lost. The keepsake doesn’t hold much monetary value but it was something special from a slice of time in life.
The Epiphany Bolt – Reflections
Coin, Sprite and I make it down to the Darien Gap in Panama. We stop at the end of the road and take it all in. Then we turn around to make the journey back. We decided in Guatemala (on the way down) that we would not be able to cross over to South America due to timing and money. We only budgeted for one year. So we headed back to the States, drove across our country twice more before stopping. The last long loop, we called it. Circling up towards North Dakota and reaching my goal of visiting all 50 states (Colin still has Vermont). Then to Michigan to see friends and family and to Virginia to see Colin’s family and more friends…and this hopscotch continued until we saw all the people we don’t get to see very often. Our year on the road came and went. December 5th we found ourselves in Grand Junction, Colorado and it was time to make a place home – our Base Camp. We stopped.
We rented a small stone house and set up camp…inside. Sleeping bags on the floor, camp table in the dining room, popped open the camp chairs and sat next to a fireless fireplace. We tried to make sense of this process – transitioning from one life to the next. Slowly. And wondered what everyone else was doing. The people we met on the road. The ones we passed several times, the ones who are still going, others who have stopped. We glided over our route, from our camp chairs in the stone house, which brought up these characters, these travelers. The first couple who were headed down the same route as us, Gregor and Janice, we met at a KOA in San Diego.
As Colin and I discuss these two and their van named Lucky, a strange epiphany zings me and shoots over to Colin. Throughout our entire trip we kept in contact. We gave each other advice, checked in and shared words of encouragement. When we saw them for the second time we cheered, we hollered, we hugged – we found lost friends. After that one night outside of Mexico City, we parted ways and never saw them again…but it feels that we did. We must have seen them again, our friendship feels too close not to. Sissi and Gunter. Our paths crossed a few times, and again instant bond. The pattern continues. Again and again. We meet travelers, we share stories, we part, we stay in each other’s minds. A footprint in wet cement. Why do we live next door to people for years, our houses standing forever on a foundation, always neighbors, but some we don’t know and others we never talk to (I must add here that some of our neighbors have become amazing friends, but this came slowly over time). Travelers on the road, we have seen and met all types. People as varied and different as their mode of transportation: beautiful spec’d out ready for anything vehicles, broken down vans, bikes, motorcycles, trucks, big trucks, small trucks, SUVs, tent camping, bed camping. People: plenty of money, coffee can money, asking for money, sponsored, wishing to be sponsored, selling postcards, selling anything, working hard, hardly working, old, young, family of 2, family of 5, includes pets, picked up pets, no kids, some kids, solo.
I will remember every person we met on this trip. I will not always remember their names, but always their faces and the details of their journey. Remember that couple we met on the only beach we didn’t like on the Baja. They were from Canada, they had that shower pump, we talked for hours. And laughed. They drove a GMC van and the guy kept bringing out things to show us. We compared notes and maps. Remember the Flightless Kiwis. We reconnected with them in Oaxaca. They started in New Zealand and drove down from Alaska. Took amazing pictures. This is how our memories play back. The faces, the stories, the instant connection that was felt by everyone. There is something that locks us all together. It’s not the idea. Anyone can dream, and think, and hope. There is something else that pushes and propels the energy to get there in the first place. A pulse that beats through the people who find themselves traveling on the road. It’s the question we each answer in our own way…
Why Do This?
A dust covered 70 series Land Cruiser comes to a stop and out jumps Hans. A button down shirt, sleeves rolled to his elbows, wrinkled jeans and unlaced Chuck Taylor shoes. He is older and gruff and we like him instantly. Is he traveling alone? Not if you count the mouse that has hitched a ride and made itself comfortable – doesn’t seem to mind and enjoys the company. Not many things impress this guy, including where we are camping. He likes to talk and we like to listen. He’s been everywhere and has an opinion about everything. He pulls out a map and gives us his thoughts on Central America. “All this here, this is all bullshit. And this, don’t bother going there. Borring. If you have seen this then you have seen that.” People will tell you things. People, they love to tell things. I love to travel, but life is more than just that.
We have nothing in common, except for the reason why we are all standing in this random spot, talking for hours. Enjoying his stories, the places he has seen, his way of being. All bullshit of course.
We wake up to the sound of his horn. Rolling over to glance through the camper screen, we can see his arm rise up and out of the window. He gives us a wave as he pulls out of camp. Dust circles around the tires and then he’s gone. Leaving only tracks in the dirt, but forever an impression on our lives.