by Ruth Neuwald Falcon
Day One: Leaving — Seattle to Spokane
October 6, 2021
I’ve been anticipating for many months what it would feel like to drive my silver Soul out of Seattle, passing through downtown; doing that unnerving merge from I-5 onto 90 for the last time; pulling down my sunglasses so I can see in the tunnels (there’s one that gets uncomfortably narrow at a certain point, which is also the point that someone always is riding on my tail); crossing the last stretch of Lake Washington to Bellevue, and on to Issaquah and Sammamish and Snoqualmie.
The sun was shining but ahead of me the skies were gray. The higher I climbed, the closer the gray got and then I got to experience what it’s like to be inside a cloud. Wet. I’ve crossed the pass before but never alone, and never with my backseat filled with Christmas cactuses and jade plants and my grandson’s tiny baobab tree.
The rain slowed and then stopped as I began the long descent to the flat gold of the Eastern side of the mountains. At my first pitstop, there was a phalanx of parked trucks and a couple of odd artifacts on a picnic table.
A friend called while I was at a rest stop. I had thought I was fine until I heard her voice. “Just checking in,” she said. “How’s it going?” Her voice cracked me open and I could feel, instead of just knowing in my head, what a big wrench this is.
I know this is the right move. I am driving towards loving family who have set up an air mattress and other supplies that I’ll need before my furniture and boxes arrive. And it’s more challenging than I had anticipated.
Day Two: Awe—Spokane to Bozeman, MT
October 7, 2021
It seems like a long time ago that I had breakfast in a long sunny room in Spokane Valley. All the diners had gray hair, or would, if they weren’t bald. No one, except the staff (and me) even seemed to have a mask with them.
I was wrong. As they exited, the other diners pulled masks out of their pockets. I have to be careful of coastal arrogance. As a New Yorker, I come by it naturally.
Tonight, I’m sitting in a rather dismal, but clean, room in Bozeman, Montana. While I was wrong this morning about people’s relationship to their masks, Montana is another story. With the exception of a few perfunctory signs about keeping your distance, it is as if there is no virus, no reason to mask.
Today was a day of staggering beauty, with the landscape constantly changing around me, transforming from green and gold mountains to flat open expanses that undulated endlessly toward the horizon. I don’t know if I’m more tired from the six-plus hours of driving or from the intensity of the experience.
At one of the rest stops today, near Butte, I felt like my soul was being held and enlivened by the dynamic ever-changing sky and land, and I ached with thankfulness for the privilege of having this experience, so grateful my body and brain and finances are still able to do it.
Then, I realized that I had an hour and a half left of driving. What is the expression? After the ecstasy, the laundry? After the sublime crack my heart open moment, pull the brain particles out of the ether and focus on driving.
Day Three: Hump Day—Bozeman to Gillette, WY
October 8, 2021
I’m up before the alarm even though somewhere along the way yesterday I lost an hour, so it’s an hour later here than it is “at home.” I haven’t adjusted my relationship to where home is, what state it’s in, much less which time zone, which I guess makes sense because I am in traveling limbo.
I left Bozeman a little after ten. The first stretch was through low-hanging clouds again, thicker here than in the Cascades. The landscape kept changing, while, at the same time, it seemed to go on forever. At a certain point, the land seemed to become softer somehow, more rolling. A few miles later, I crossed into Wyoming. It’s clearly a different state.
As I drove this afternoon, I thought, I will still be me when I reach the end of this drive, but I’ll be me having done it. I wonder what that will mean.
Day Four: Badlands—Gillette to Mitchell, SD
October 9, 2021
This morning, the sky was low and ominous. I was on the road by ten. The rain came a little over an hour later, thick and heavy, and I dropped my speed to a manageable seventy (my relationship to speed has changed in four days).
I was grateful when it stopped after less than an hour and the skies began to clear. I made my first stop of the day at a beautifully designed rest stop. The air was soft, the sun was warm. Expansive was the word that came as I walked in the gentleness I felt all around me. I wished I had time to stay there and really soak it in. This was not what I expected to feel in South Dakota.
With the exception of some industrial eyesores I passed along the way, I don’t think there is anything I’ve seen that hasn’t had its own wondrous beauty. But nothing compared to today’s 30-mile loop through the Badlands.
If I’d thought I wanted to spend more time at the rest stop, well, multiply that many times over to get a sense of how much I wanted to linger in the Badlands. But the sky was growing threatening again, so I acted the part of the grownup and made myself stop stopping.
Tomorrow is my last day on the road. I confess to having mixed feelings about this trip ending. Yes, I am very tired. Yes, many of the hours behind the wheel have had their challenges. But I have loved the emptiness all around me, an emptiness that felt full with an invisible life force, a thrumming underneath that I could feel if not hear.
Day Five: Badlands—Mitchell to Minneapolis
October 10, 2021
The weather turned cold overnight with a strong wind blowing. It’s a gray 54 degrees when I check out of the Kelly Inn, but it feels a lot colder. “Not ready for this, I can tell you,” says the woman who invites me to sign the guest book at the World’s Only Corn Palace a few minutes later. In the space for “State,” I put, “WA/MN.” I’m still neither here nor there, though wherever I am, it is now two hours later than my body thinks it should be.
The original purpose of the Corn Palace was to “prove to the world that South Dakota had a healthy agricultural climate.” Judging by what I saw around me as I drove across the state, the point has been proven.
The decorating motif of the interior is unremittingly corn(y), but it was fascinating to get some insight into the history of this region.
Nonetheless, I was not tempted by the signs inviting me to move there.
An hour and a half out of Mitchell, I make my first stop. According to the signage and the flag waving beside the Stars and Stripes, I am in Minnesota.
There are notices when I enter the small building about awards won as best rest area. Neat rows of tourist brochures. Maps. Flowers in the ladies room. “That was me,” says the woman at the desk. “I used to put them in the men’s too, but they kept dumping the flowers in the sink and taking the vases.”
The country I’m driving through, as I head east and north in Minnesota, looks right to me. I love the evergreens of the Pacific Northwest, but I am seeing now very clearly why it never felt like home to me. This is not the Northeast, but not only is it geographically closer to where I come from, but there’s something in its essence that feels deeply familiar. Crossing the mountains and the plains, watching the land transform into farmland, I can feel myself starting to rest into it.
Now that I have arrived, a different part of the journey is beginning. In some ways, I suspect that the drive will not be the most challenging part of this transition. While doing it, all that was required of me was to keep gas in the car, feed myself at regular intervals, send occasional “I’m fine” texts to my friends, and drive safely, so it gave me space to take an inward journey as well as an outward one.
Once again, thank you for keeping me company.
Ruth Neuwald Falcon is an Emmy Award-winning editor, writer, producer, and blogger. She is also NWCCA’s Associate Director. The complete version of her travels is on her website, where you can see more of her photographs and subscribe for further installments.