I watch Sam’s face as I hit the high note of my rendition of Third Eye Blind, watching for a reaction as he narrows his eyes on the road. We’ve entered into Wyoming territory and there’s a massive dark blue cloud looming in the distance. We’re two weeks into our summer road trip at this point and have arrived at the “lets try and see how much we can annoy each other” phase. I’m not sure why we like to play this game but I’m thankful we’re far from anyone we know when I’m squealing mid tickle attack or growling at him with a verbal snap when I get tired of the millionth “nerd” joke I’ve heard this trip (yes, I like to read, I get it). Married life is fun when you’re trapped together in a metal box for weeks at a time. It’s the poor man’s couples therapy.
We reach Jackson Hole just in time for Sam’s birthday. We find ourselves at Mad River, a rafting outfitter in town, where we squeeze into wet suits and meet our fearless raft captain. His name is John Wayne. I wonder if that’s his real name or his boat name but I don’t ask. A part of me wouldn’t want to know the truth if it wasn’t. We wade awkwardly through the water as we climb into the 8-man boat and begin making our way down Snake River. John Wayne talks to us about his aversion to desk jobs and his dreams of life on the raging waters after becoming enchanted with the 1960’s film, Wild River. The psychologist in me begins to wonder what all is beyond his bro-ish exterior but my thought gets cut off midway as we get blindsided by a wall of water. I see the good Lord in a wave capable of smacking us into yesterday only to swallow us and spit us out again.
We are drenched and tired from laughter and the thrill. We take a break for a hot trout dinner where we shiver in our wet suits and the rest room is a tree. We talk through chattering teeth with a fellow Houstonian who happened to be on our raft. He recently experienced a layoff and had headed to the airport on a YOLO whim. Now here we are. I’m already shaking my head up and down uncontrollably from the cold but I go ahead and share my enthusiastic support for this life decision. Sam and I are away from our respective businesses for a total of three weeks. It was particularly hard for me to pull away from my work since I had only started my private practice a few months prior. When life ceases to slow down there never seems to be a good time to head out on the road for an extended period of time. Now that we’re in the middle of it I can clearly see that this was the right call to make. We get off the boat after a final glory ride and I laugh full heartedly as these three very cold Houstonians lead the pack on what feels like a mile long run back to our bus.
We decide to take John Wayne’s advice for tonight’s camping spot and head out toward Curtis Canyon. I’m still trying to get the warmth of the Land Cruiser’s heater to reach my core. I’m ready to call off nature for the rest of the evening but then Wyoming happens. We kick up gravel and dust on a lonely road as we make our way back out to nothingness. Rolling hills surround us in a mossy green and the sky lights up in pink and blue. I’m suckered right back into the overland life in one fell swoop. It’s growing darker by the minute, which feels sort of scary when you’re venturing off on your own with only headlights to guide you. We soon find ourselves completely alone on a hill with an expansive view so epic it’s impossible to capture in a photograph.I put the camera down and take a deep breath in admiration.
I think of the cramped camping spot we paid for earlier in the day at Yellowstone and wonder when we’re going to give up on car camping in the National Park for good. By this point we have found our overland flow as we setup camp and seamlessly divide our work tasks without a word. Sam starts the fire with locally bought wood, old park maps, and a butane torch because we’re rugged like that. I pull on work gloves that I purchased for $5 from the gas station and get to work unpacking the rooftop tent. This is not the easiest feat for my 5 foot 1 frame and soft writer fingers. Luckily, my yoga helps me compensate as I stretch and climb all over the truck and set up our home. We complete the night by pulling our folding chairs as close to the campfire as we dare and roast marshmallows over the flame. This is the kind of primitive escape that makes the overland life a good one for us. We have this secret key that grants us access to the less reachable places that get you in touch with a truly unique experience in nature. I experience a deeply soulful satisfaction in this moment with the sporadic intrusive thought of a bear lurching out of the absolute dark to eat us. I like to think I’m just neurotic enough for it to be cute but I won’t ask Sam to confirm that one for me. Every overland adventure we have I am reminded that the most fulfilling moments in my existence are found right at the edge of comfort. Sam and I sleep like bears that night.
I let out a low growl as Sam tries to poke at me to get moving. The sunlight is pouring in but the comforter does an excellent job of blacking it out so I indulge for a few more minutes in my flannel cave. I eventually drag myself to my boots with squinty eyes and my lion head of hair to ready myself for the day’s adventure. We decide to take to the Bridger-Tetons with only “this way” or “left or right” to lead us. We reach a peaceful quiet and solitude that I’m thankful for after the previous days in bustling Yellowstone. We crawl through the dense woods in the Land Cruiser and reach the heart of grizzly country in Wyoming. We look around at the tree and brush through our lowered windows and reach a rare moment where Sam gets paranoid. “I can feel them watching us”, he says in a whisper. For once I’m not the neurotic one and I smile with great enthusiasm as though I’ve accomplished something. We stop the car in the middle of the thick forest and countless acreage of wilderness as we listen for any rustling of leaves. Nothing comes so we venture on with a suspicious eye gazing out our respective windows.
We come to a random opening and it appears we have stumbled upon a ranch. “Dinner 7-9” is written on a chalkboard as we slowly drive by this small group of cottages. I radiate in joy that I might be out of the job of playing chef tonight and Sam scoffs that it better not be $100 a plate knowing our luck and my taste. I laugh at his ridiculous paranoia until we sit down for dinner and drool at the menu that will certainly result in a $100 meal. Now I am really laughing. We have stumbled upon this gem in the middle of the woods with the Tetons as our landscape. It’s called Turpin Meadow Ranch and I’m trying to keep my salivation in check as we drum up an order of BBQ braised pork cheek to start. Sam would complain but he’s too busy falling under a food hypnosis as he reads over their farm-to-table offerings of fried chicken and salmon. I’m suddenly very aware of our overland appearance as I admire the luxurious ranch décor. I whisper to Sam with a cocked eyebrow: “do we look like we just came off the street?” “Umm, yeah”, he says, not taking his eyes off the menu. I give my hair a little fluff and drape my muddy coat around my shoulders with a grin that says, no big deal, we belong here in my heart. I notice that they have horseback riding so I get Sam to sign up with me while he’s mid fatty food-intoxication. Maybe it was all the food, I’m still not quiet sure, but we take the gal’s advice at the front desk and decide to sleep under the dark starry night by the creek. “Grizzlies are stupid” she assures us. “They don’t get near the water.” I think about the many images I’ve seen of grizzlies clawing salmon out of the water on NatGeo. I wave off any intrusive thoughts and set up our canvas tent like a happy little fool
We don’t get eaten that night but I’m not sure I would have cared if we were after such a lovely meal and the sound of trickling water to sweep me away into Teton dreams. We walk to the horse stable where we meet Claire. She helps us on our horses like the newbies we are. Sam doesn’t quite understand my explosion of joy but he smiles at my excitement anyway as I live every southern girl’s dream. Claire leads us up through the valley and surrounding mountains on what turns out to be one of the best days of my life. The horses are on a farting frenzy as they trek up the hill and I laugh because it’s funny and I don’t care how old I am. Claire is working the ranch as her summer job. She’s a college student from Portland and I wonder why I never thought of this brilliant plan to escape to Wyoming on break when I was her age. She looks back at us from her saddle with her cowboy hat tilted slightly as we make our way up the range. You can see the light drain from her bright eyes as she imagines her life as an engineer in a traditional 9-5. We reach the top of the mountain and her cheery tone comes back as we enter the lush, almost rainforest like section of the trail.
The ranch is full of people like Claire. Our ears get filled by young folks escaping to this beautiful part of the country as they seek their heart’s content. They tell us of their struggles as parents and friends warn them to get back to the paved road they came from. We recognize the fire in their chests and sunken expression as they battle life between two worlds; yet choose the path that speaks to them. Sam and I finish the day with a cold brew raised to these young, courageous pups that are wiser than they know. I smile wildly because I know it in that moment. The life scale won in Wyoming today.