“I don’t want to go home,” I said to my husband on the last morning of our nine-state road trip. I loved sleeping in the tent, most of the time, really I did. And swimming in a cold lake in lieu of a shower. And hadn’t I gotten so much better at not caring when there was no cell signal?
We had logged 4,733 miles. But I was not over my pandemic cabin fever.
Usually, after such a long trip, I would be eager to get home. But this time was different. And the reason, so simple I’d been blind to it, was this: after so many months of not crossing a state line, it was downright exhilarating to be seeing places I’d never seen. I was insatiable. The painted hills of the John Day Fossil Beds? Stunning! The Sawtooth Mountains, Craters of the Moon, the Mountain Man Museum? Give me more!
I had not realized how much I had missed newness.
Like most of us, I appreciated how the confines of the pandemic had sharpened my powers of close observation. Look at those warblers with the orange heads, fluttering in the tree outside my window. Look at those new leaves sprouting on my Dr. Seussian Jade plant. But all my life, I have loved the excitement of arriving in a place I’ve never been, whether it was one whose name I’d long known—Ketchum; East Glacier—or one whose name I’d never heard until we got there: Priest Hole; Popo Agie.
Arriving. Getting out of the car. Smelling the air: pine, sagebrush, dust. Feeling the heat or the shade. Hearing the aspens whisper and the spring snowmelt roar down the river running next to our tent site. Tasting a cold beer from the cooler.
And having all those mini-conversations with campground hosts and other friendly strangers. About the landscape they love and live in, the weather, the best places to camp and hike, the restaurants in town. Not so much about, say, the infrastructure bill.
I’d been in our urban bubble too long and wow, it was good to break out of it.
We hit the road right about the time the CDC announced that fully vaccinated people did not need to wear masks, except in crowded indoor places. Though I feel obligated to sound the current cautionary notes—the troubling variants; the not knowing who is vaccinated and who is not, especially in Trump-friendly places—I have to tell you that one of the greatest joys of this trip was to see faces again. To see smiles again. To smile back.
We mapped our route around some family research I’d long planned to do. I wanted to see some of the places where some of my ancestors started out, and I wanted to work from east (St. Croix County, Wisconsin) to west (homestead farms in North Dakota and Montana). We did much of our hiking and camping on the eastbound leg, in parts of Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and South Dakota we had not previously visited. After a lovely three-day stay at an Air BnB in St. Paul (within easy reach of St. Croix County), we headed west again, via a more northerly route.
The family history part of the story was poignant, and I’ll write more about it on another day. But back to how it felt to arrive home, after declaring that I did not want to arrive home.
When we drove our dirt-coated Subaru into Seattle, we found our city well on its way to a heat wave so strange and unprecedented that it couldn’t even be called a wave. Instead it was called a dome. A heat dome.
Fresh from Tent Life, I pictured a dome-shaped tent stretched across the Pacific Northwest, slowly filling with hotter and hotter air. And it was like that, as those of you who live here can attest. On Monday, June 28, the high was 108 degrees Fahrenheit in Seattle, breaking the records set on the two previous days, of 102 and 104.
Like most Seattle homes, ours is not air-conditioned, so three days in a row, by mid-afternoon at the latest, we packed up our chairs, books and cold beverages and headed for Lake Washington, where we set up camp in deep shade. On the worst day, June 28, we took five dips in the lake. In Seattle, to go for a swim and then sit in the shade is considered a strange thing to do. Let alone five times. But not during the Heat Dome.
Between swims, I was reading Elizabeth Rush’s powerful book, Rising: Dispatches from the American Shore, which chronicles how rising sea levels are, either slowly or all at once, flooding many towns and neighborhoods to the point where rebuilding is no longer tenable. The stories she tells will break your heart. But sitting there in our precious patch of shade, under the Dome, reading them one after another, I forgot all about how I had not wanted to come home. Instead, I looked up from my book at the kids and dogs splashing and the grownups blowing up the floaties and the paddle boards, and I thought about how fragile my own habitat is. And how much I love it. And how closely stitched our usually wet, green, temperate corner of the country is to the dry, windswept inland West. Where my ancestors, and maybe yours too, tried to make a go of it. Where the ancestors of the Coast Salish people traded with the ancestors of Chief Joseph and Sitting Bull, whose trails we crisscrossed a dozen times on our trip.
“When people love a place, it can change in shape and we can adapt our love to its transformed state,” Rush writes, in a chapter about the residents of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, which is being slowly swallowed by the sea. To save what they can of their beloved island, they must leave it.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, the challenges are, and will be, different. I do not know how we will meet them. But admitting how much home means feels like a first step.