This past week, I drove the winding road that hugs the curves of the Lochsa River, nearly to the Montana border. It's been a long time since I spent so much time in a car. Years, really. Living on an island with fourteen miles of road does that to you. I have much more kayak hours logged in than road miles. Since I've been back in "America", I have nestled down into my mountain valley, barely leaving the county in twelve months. I'm a far cry from the girl who drove barefoot across the country every six months, chasing summer from California to the Everglades, unable to commit to a person or a place.
On a long road trip, with nothing to do but search through fuzzy radio stations and keep the wheels on a narrow strip of pavement, my thoughts turn to what was, and what is now. It was, unbelievably, twenty years ago that I first came west to live, my belongings stuffed in a yellow Chevette with an iffy timing belt and a Smokey Bear sticker on the back. Back then each new national park or forest job was a chance to reinvent myself. I became a firefighter when I worked in Olympic National Park. A cave guide in Great Basin. A wilderness ranger in Idaho. As the snow dusted the peaks and I was "terminated" for the season, I drove east reluctantly, watching the country turn tame.
Last week on Highway 12, I pulled over at a campground where my life changed last year. The man who had come from Alaska to be with me had decided to go back. The pull of Baranof Island was too much for him; I could not compete. The campground was empty then and my heart was too. A lot of water had passed down the Lochsa since then.
Everything changes; the mountains I see now have been shaped by fire and flood, by loggers and time. In Alaska wild windstorms toppled the Sitka spruce and avalanches scoured Mount Bassie. Often Carolyn and I would kayak to a beach only to find it changed, no longer a good camping option. In the rearview mirror, I can tell I have changed too.
You think about things like this on road trips. Memories burn their way into your consciousness, things long forgotten. The time Jack and I huddled in a shared space blanket while lightning bracketed us just shy of Red Ridge. Chimneying above a deep pit in a cave in the Grey Cliffs. Watching smokejumpers fly through a smoky sky. All of these things make up the woman I am now, a dizzying patchwork of mountains, rivers, stars.
After a few minutes I pulled away from the campground on Highway 12. There was no oracle in the river, no voice in the mountains. Nothing to tell me that the path I was on was the right one. Each leap I have made has been without a net. Each time I could easily have taken a different road--stayed in Stanley to caretake a cabin and eke out a writing existence; married a blue-eyed man; fought one more fire instead of mostly giving it up. I had no way of knowing what could have happened.
As I drove, water and trees blurred to one thing, merged together. I headed on down the memory road.