When Bravery Runs Dry On The Oregon Trail

I woke up to a rooster crowing. An actual rooster, announcing the rising sun greeted me in the sloped roof upstairs bedroom of a geodesic home on the same property as a winery I’d booked on AirBnB.

I’ve been zig-zagging my way through the Pacific Northwest these last few weeks—my own version of the Oregon trail.

The vistas of wide open oceans and curving highways canopied by old-growth forests continued to take my breath away. And the combination of couch surfing, hostel-dwelling, and how-cheap-can-I-go accommodations I’d been subjecting myself to had been full of colorful characters. But it had also left me feeling raw. Exposed. Aching to feel known.

Staring out at the grey light making silhouettes of the Oregon Hills, I thought through my day. My original plans for winery tours and breezy conversations with the winemakers had been stunted by polite aloofness of my host I’d received the night before. With each interaction giving the vague impression that I was unwanted company, I was awkwardly hiding up in my room.

Rather than walking on her free-range organic eggshells, I decided to spend the day in the quirky Shakespeare-loving town of Ashland. A forty-five minute drive, according to my GPS. I plugged in the address for a coffee shop and hopped in my car. When the blue line of Google Maps led me onto a gravel road, I didn’t think much of it. But as the road kept winding up an increasingly steep hill, concern settled in right behind my solar plexus. I came to a three-pronged fork in the road, and the GPS gave no indication as to which way was right.

I picked the road winding east-ish. Iowa roots going deep, I wasn’t deterred by a few potholes. But this level of washout, wheels practically tightrope walking on the sections of road least eroded had me white-knuckled.

Also—in Iowa, the roads are flat. These sharp drop-offs were menacing, inches away from my passenger side tires. Multiple times when I had to stop to heave large rocks and branches out of the way so my little Ford Focus could get through.

I was muttering a constant string of encouragement to my car—willing her to at least make it to a place where there was cell service if she decided to finally give up the ghost.

I latched onto optimism like a life vest, buckling on buoyant thoughts and breathing prayers like incantations. The path towards metaphor as grooved and well worn as the rutted road I was on, my mind started turning this into a blog post, composing my lostness on the Oregon hills into a great story I’d tell people.

As if on cue, just as I made my way around another hairpin turn switchback, my the fuel meter dipped below an eighth of a tank, a rock scraped the underbelly of my car with a sickening scratch and the sun slid behind a grey cloud and my cell phone flashed “no signal.”

My car hit another pothole and I shouted into the empty car “I don’t want this to be a fucking metaphor! Just get me off this road! Give me pavement!”

(This statement is funny…now. But at the time, my sense of humor had dissipated with my bravery…) Out of the corner of my eye, I’d see wide vistas of the Cascade mountains, magnificently blanketed in pine trees. But their beauty registered as an empirical fact. A fleeting distraction from the not-so-slowly rising panic.

The winding roads left any sense of direction far behind. I could see plumes of dust from the gravel roads from other sides of a valley I assume I’d just crossed. Uphill then down, then up again—my route seemed intentionally illogical. After what was probably only 45 minutes, but what felt like a lifetime, I rediscovered familiar landscapes.

With a half-crazed guffaw of relief, I realized I had effectively circled the mountain, and come nowhere closer to my intended destination. It didn’t matter. I was back on solid and relatively flat ground. Roads that Google Maps at least recognized as being in the road system.

I parked my car back in the driveway of my host. I opened my trunk and pulled out an envelope, tucked inside a box I’d been carrying since September. On the outside of the letter I’d written “To Allie: On the day when you need to be reminded why”

A letter I’d written back in July, for the inevitable hard day when my bravery had run dry and I needed encouragement. There, in my familiar cursive, I wrote kind words, befriending my future self with understanding and gentle reminders of why I decided to take this trip. Why this adventure, in all of its glorious struggle and hard beauty, mattered deeply.

I wrote, “This is a process. This process necessitates pain. Choosing to be fully human is a daily, heart-wrenching, beautiful creative act. Keep choosing it, Allie girl.”

In this letter, Optimistic July Allie reminded me to make peace with uncertainty. To focus only on the very next step. To speak up for what I need and to continue to befriend myself in this process. 

I knew that traveling solo would have an expiration date. And that I might hit that longing to be done before my trip was finished. And almost seven months to the date, I finally came to my end. Finally needed to pull that letter out.

I still have a month to go. 32 days before I’ll be back in Iowa, able to hug my family members and be embraced by familiarity. And in these next 32 days, I will continue to choose vibrant living.

I will keep practicing being fully myself in every conversation with the strangers I meet. I’ll keep waking up at sunrise to walk by the ocean and saying yes to whatever adventures come my way. Will keep my eyes open for the metaphors. I want to keep living life as art.  

I may steer clear of gravel roads for awhile though.   

2 thoughts on “When Bravery Runs Dry On The Oregon Trail

  1. Thank you for showing all of us that even in the worst moments all you have to do is take one step. I love that you wrote that optimistic letter at the beginning of your journey. I have a hunch we could all use that letter when we strike out into the unknown. Thanks for the beautiful example of self care and your evocative, picture painting, emotive words. I felt like I was in the co-pilot’s seat.

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