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Wonder, Road Trips and Wide-Open Spaces


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I have seen Shiprock.

I recently had the opportunity to go on a road trip from Seattle to Austin, Texas (2,314 miles!). It was wonderful in many ways, and it was wonder-full.

Some of the wonder was generated by the many and varied sights; some was generated by people-watching, some by time spent with family. There is a lot of wide-open space between Seattle and Austin, and something dawned on me as we navigated that wide-open space:

Wonder requires space.

Wonder also creates space, a hallowed space where gnomes and demons and monsters and The Committee get agoraphobia and decline to step out. Or if they do, they shed their skins and are transformed as they step through the door from the house into Oz.

Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park, Utah

What do I mean? Well, as my sister and I followed the first leg of our journey, armed with travel kits prepared by our aunt, cousin and mother that included goodies ranging from vitamin drinks to magazines, homemade caramels, travel mugs with instant coffee, and “Thelma and Louise” mini-bottles of Wild Turkey (they went great with chocolate cake, but that’s another story), and fortified with a Dick’s Deluxe, fries, a real strawberry milkshake and a rootbeer float from our favorite Seattle drive-in, the sights became increasingly less familiar. Somewhere in southeastern Washington, as we passed through a rural farm town, I looked at the low buildings of the town surrounded by the wide open spaces and hills of the high country and thought about how it would feel to look at that every day. And suddenly a tightness in my chest I didn’t know existed loosened and fell away, and the wide-open spaces crept inside.

Our combined CD collections provided the sound track for our Road Trip Through Wonderland: Linda Ronstadt, Yo-Yo Ma, Bela Fleck, Chet Atkins, and more. We appreciatively commented on the scenery and the road signs; as we began to climb up into the Blue Hills of northeastern Oregon, we passed a sign for Poverty Flat, OR. What an evocative name! Not long after that, we passed a sign for Dead Man Road. “Oh dear,” I said, “It just gets worse, and we’ve only just started!” We soon passed another sign for the Dead Man Road rest area, and I asked, “Shouldn’t that be the ‘Dead Man Road Eternal Rest Area’?”

“No,” my sister said, “then no one would stop there.” As the Eagles said in “Hotel California,” You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave…

At mile 370 (out of 2,314) we passed a sign marking the 45th parallel, halfway between the equator and the North Pole. It was our first major milestone!

They say it’s bad luck if a black cat crosses your path… we saw no black cats, but many things did cross our path:

  • The bright green lizard that ran across the road in front of us then paused to watch us pass…
  • The pair of cranes that flew across our path – my first cranes! – was distinguishable from herons by their size, their long legs and their long necks; they looked like beautiful flying sticks literally winging their way across the sky.
  • The tumbleweeds that blew across our path on the high plains of southern Colorado.

We wondered about many things:

  • As night began to fall while we climbed through the hills of northeastern Oregon, I was reminded of how snow seems to glow in the dark – something I hadn’t seen since moving to California from Minnesota. It was a strange sensation to see the snow-covered feet of the mountains around us out of the corners of my eyes, yet when I looked directly at them they would disappear in the darkness.
  • We traversed southern Idaho, marveling at the high plateaus that rose around us. The Snake River is mighty, but it didn’t seem nearly large enough, even with spring runoff, to have carved this. We read and talked about the Missoula and Bonneville floods caused by the breaking of ice-age ice dams and how the great flash flood carved out the valleys between the plateaus all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
  • We wondered at the names of towns in southern Idaho, so different from northeastern Oregon: Paradise Valley, Bliss, Miracle Springs, and Eden.
  • We soaked up the quiet between the mountains of northern Utah, where the only exits from the Interstate were for ranch access.
  • We wondered whether the residents of Salt Lake City ever stop noticing the amazing mountain views that surround them on all sides, seemingly rising right out of their back yards.
  • We marveled as the geology changed from mesas and rounded blue mountains to deep red cliffs and green stone the color of tarnished copper.
  • We pulled into Moab, Utah with our mouths hanging open. Our tour guide in Salt Lake City had told us Moab was pretty, but “pretty” doesn’t begin to come close. Moab sits on the Colorado River in a valley with amazing red rock walls rising on two sides and with snow covered mountains in the distance on a third side. We visited Arches National Park and it was the first time since visiting Yosemite that I was in danger of driving off the road on multiple occasions simply because the scenery was so amazing.
  • We were hit by a tumbleweed as we crossed southwestern Colorado, and I wondered out loud, “We’ve been hit by a tumbleweed. I wonder what effect that will have?” That night we discovered that a branch had lodged itself in the rim of the headlight. We agreed to leave it there for the duration, our way of tipping our hats to adventure.
  • As we headed toward the Four Corners in the southwest, we began to descend into a wide valley surrounded by high mesas. I could see rocky outcroppings arising from the valley floor, and it was then that I first glimpsed Shiprock. Backlit by the late afternoon sun descending through a layer of clouds, it was still small in the distance. Yet it loomed above the desert floor, calling, whispering – dark, mysterious, beautiful, proud.
  • We marveled that there could be so many miles of flat land at high altitude – mile after mile above 5,000 feet, 6,000 feet, 7,000 feet. Previously when I thought of altitudes like that, I pictured mountain peaks!
  • As we descended into Texas, we wondered at the wind farms with their slowly spinning turbines, and at the oil fields with their slowly pumping wells.
  • We marveled at the red clay and the red stalks of last year’s cotton fields with a few stray cotton bolls still attached.
  • We wondered at the giant storm cloud that turned into a wall with lightning flashing at its base and we wondered if we would get into our hotel before the severe thunderstorm hit. (We did, and we picnicked in our room while we watched the light show.)
  • We wondered at the antelope, the deer, the cranes, and the hawks; the cattle, the horses, the llamas, the sheep, and the goats; the sage brush and desert juniper and twisted pinon trees, the yucca and the prickly pear and the mystery (to us) bushes that popped up in the cattle fields along the highway.
  • We were in awe of the hoodoos, the fins, and the arches, the mesas and the dry washes.
  • We were blown away by the reds, the greens, the browns, the blues, the blacks, and the greys.

And of course, we enjoyed the people:

  • The friends who kindly opened their home, cooked us dinner, and enjoyed a quiet reunion;
  • The Park Ranger in Utah who, when I said I wanted her job, told me how she got it;
  • The nice young man who pumped gas for us in Oregon and washed our windshield;
  • The shopkeeper in Santa Fe who told us his name was Mager (he joked he was “The Mayor”) and he would give us a prize if we could guess in less than three minutes where he was from (Egypt, and we took longer than three minutes);
  • The short-order cook in the hotel dining room who cooked omelets and egg dishes to order and gave everyone a sunny-side-up morning;
  • The ladies on the Apache Reservation who bid us a gentle “Good Morning” when we stopped to stretch our legs;
  • Omar, who made guacamole at our table and blushed when we applauded;
  • The shopkeepers everywhere who were genuinely interested in hearing where we were from and told us their stories;
  • The women at the restaurant in Moab who, when I told them (as I was taking its picture) the mannequin next to their table looked just like my late husband, moved to another table;
  • And, of course, the family that sent us off and welcomed us home.

This is how I learned – or I was reminded – that wonder both requires and creates space. It requires space to take root, and to grow, and it creates space in the mind and heart. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing: Which came first, the wonder or the space? I don’t know.

But I do know this: I consciously chose (repeatedly) not to worry about what might be happening at home, about the projects I could be working on, about what was waiting for me.

I remember a moment when I was driving along a canyon that a river was carving, thinking, “This is how the Grand Canyon began. We think it will always be this way, but it is not permanent at all.” Which reminded me of a recent trip to Muir Woods, where I walked through the giant redwoods that are hundreds and thousands of years old. Those trees reminded me that I am temporary, and my problems are even more temporary.

I chose to be where I was, to surrender to the wonder, and to create a worry-free space that the wonder could move into. And it ended up creating a bigger space within me than I anticipated.

Wide-Open Spaces

And when I allowed that worry-free space to grow, new ideas starting popping into my head.

When I remember to create a space for Wonder, and I remember to be present and curious, I also create a space for new perspectives.

Which came first, wonder or space? I don’t know. The wide-open spaces certainly triggered wonder in me, and that wonder became a wide-open space of its own.

Wonder requires space, and wonder creates space. Like many things, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I have been hit by a tumbleweed. And I have seen Shiprock.

I will never be the same. And I am glad.

Create space for wonder. Invite it in, and see what happens!

13 Responses to Wonder, Road Trips and Wide-Open Spaces

  1. Michael Broom March 29, 2011 at 7:38 am #

    Nice! And, I hope you will tell more of the stories that you’ve alluded to.

  2. Susan March 29, 2011 at 9:18 am #

    Thanks Michael! I have plenty – I just have to figure out how to apply them. 🙂

  3. Casey March 29, 2011 at 10:20 am #

    Every word of it is true, and reading this gives me goosebumps remembering. You didn’t mention the Georgia O’Keefe museum, another wonder. Are you saving her for another blog?

  4. Casey March 29, 2011 at 11:18 am #

    PS, I just googled the direct route between Seattle and Austin and it’s 2,101 miles. Another Wonder: all of our “must sees” and detours only added 213 miles to our trip. Just goes to show how much Wonder there is to be found along any regular path, if we are open to seeing it.

  5. Susan March 29, 2011 at 6:03 pm #

    Goodness! I forgot all about the Georgia O’Keefe Museum! She made it into the first draft (3,272 words) but didn’t make the cut on this one. I guess will have to write more about that!

  6. Susan March 29, 2011 at 6:04 pm #

    Casey, I’m standing up and applauding! Just goes to show, indeed!

  7. Square-Peg Karen March 30, 2011 at 6:47 pm #

    I wasn’t on the trip (like Casey), but reading this gave me goosebumps too (and tears in my eyes – which next-to-never happens for me when I read travel writing — sometimes just a mild wish-i-could-see-that).

    I’m thinking it’s the wonder you infused in this, Susan – it’s like I can FEEL it with you! Gorgeous writing about what sounds like an incredible trip! Thanks for sharing and giving me a booster shot of Wonder!!

  8. Susan March 30, 2011 at 7:09 pm #

    Wow, thank you Karen! I’m touched and honored!

  9. Oh, I know what you mean about Arches! 🙂
    Such beauty in the stones!

    Thank you for sharing this wondrous tale of more than one Journey taken. :>

  10. Susan April 2, 2011 at 10:22 am #

    Hi Birdy,

    “More than one journey taken…” Quite true. I love that, thank you!

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