© Copyright 2003 by Kelly Quayle
As the “Welcome to Virginia” sign became visible in our headlights, I had to fight the urge to do a U-turn and race the approaching daylight away from my homeland. Never before had I experienced this sensation; usually, it is with a deep and familiar comfort that I cross the border into Virginia. For some reason, this time was different. Even now, two days back in Charlottesville (in my completely biased estimation, the greatest place on earth), I still find myself yearning to be elsewhere. Though my physical body is sitting at a desk typing away, my heart is still out there on the road.
It is hard to believe that it was just over two weeks ago that my best male friend, Andrew, and I were packing the car with an overabundance of unneeded items - items that contradicted, even laughed at our plans “to really rough it” out there “in the Wilderness.” It is even harder to imagine that, two weeks ago, our trip was unrealized, an idea not yet ready to leave the drawing boards, a bundle of expectations and loose ends. However, if it is possible for an event to exceed the expectation - for reality to exceed the idea - I think, for us, it did.
We headed west on Interstate 64 early in the morning, with enough CDs, we thought, to keep us singing and tapping through the countless miles. (It must have been sometime during our sixth hour staring at the “majestic Kansas” plains that I was officially sick of every single song I’d ever heard, and even those I hadn’t). The first day felt great, and the hours passed like minutes. It was still daylight when we arrived in St. Louis, where my brother and his girlfriend were waiting to take us out and show us the town. As much as we enjoyed the company and the place, we were all too ready to fall into our beds that night, a strange combination of exhaustion and restlessness tugging at our eyelids.
The second day didn’t fly by quite as quickly as the first. The hours crept by so slowly, in fact, that during our ten hours in the aforementioned “majestic Kansas” we seriously considered stopping to witness the much-advertised “Largest Prairie Dog in the World” located in the proud town of Logan, KS, population 300. We put off “roughing it” for one more night and bunked at a friend’s place in Colorado Springs. We couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the Rockies; the mountains loomed as if on a movie screen and served as a most picturesque backdrop to a charming little town turned big city.
The following day presented two firsts for us. In the morning we embarked on our first rigorous hiking trip and then in the late afternoon, as early evening crept up on us, we headed out into the wilderness - and our first camping experience. While Andrew set up the tent, I cooked our slightly too-expensive food on our too-nice grill, relished our lovely meal, and retired. As comfortable as I was in my rather small sleeping bag in a cramped tent, I nonetheless announced - with emphasis - that we would be spending the following night at a Best Western. It was, after all, my birthday.
The Rocky Mountain National Forest welcomed us for a day of hiking, and deciding on a moderate-to-strenuous trail, we were off. Two hours later and 6,000 feet higher, we re-read our map and discovered that not only was the path we had taken the most strenuous, we had also veered off course quite a bit. It was only after 80-year-old Harvey from Iowa passed us as we sat panting on a rock that we gave up our complaining and continued to the top. Despite the rigor, it was an amazing hike, and the perfect justification for our deluxe meal that night in Boulder.
Our next destination was Sun Valley, more beautiful than either of us expected - and as it turned out, we arrived at the perfect time. Little did we know we would be spending the next couple of days enjoying the company of old friends from Charlottesville. A wedding had beckoned a myriad of Charlottesvillians across the plains and badlands and mountains to the small town of Ketchum, Idaho. And it was there that I experienced one of the most surreal moments of my life - walking into Grumpy’s Bar and Burger Joint, two time zones away from Charlottesville, and recognizing 90 percent of the people there.
But it was our second day in Sun Valley that proved astonishing, both for the beauty we saw and the tragedy we endured. My brother recommended that we hike at Kane Lake. After trekking through a forest, wiping the heat away in the cool waters of a waterfall, climbing a most intimidating mountain of boulders, we arrived in Paradise. Like Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie The Beach, we walked right up to heaven and dipped our legs in her waters. Andrew, having finished his roll of film, set off exploring, leaving me to capture the beauty on my camera. After taking the seven most important photographs of my life, each one a truly concentrated attempt to capture the bright blue tint of the water, its glittering surface, the immense cliff behind it and the waterfalls dancing down its side, I placed the camera on the rock beside me. And then followed a sequence of events I’ve tried to forget; simply put, I dropped the camera into the water - and it wasn’t waterproof. Like the old fisherman who catches the largest fish in the sea but without a witness, we are destined to spend the rest of our lives telling our story to anyone who will listen, who will nod their head in affected belief at our tale of The One That Got Away.
As if the lost camera wasn’t trial enough for one day, the gods of Cruelty had to throw in a broken alternator. Heading back into town, my heart sore but healing, the car stalled out. As in the most difficult moments in my life, I knew the only way to avoid tears was to laugh. I wasn’t laughing, however, when we had to fork over $300 for a new alternator the following day.
We spent the next two days hiking and camping in Sun Valley before heading east towards Jackson Hole, Wyoming - a place swarming with tourists paying top dollar for a lousy view. Andrew and I paid absolutely nothing for a million dollar view of the Grand Teton Mountains.
When a friend of mine told me she was living in Jackson for the summer and that we were welcome to stay at her place, I had visions of a drabby closet of an apartment in an equally unappealing corner of town. Instead, we spent the next two nights in a “guest cottage”, big enough for a family of five, and most of the following two days in a constant fog of disbelief at the panoramic view of one of the most breathtaking mountain ranges in the world. Staying with locals, we were able to escape the whirlwind of tourists and really live the experience, instead of watching from an overcrowded tour bus. We woke early to catch the pinks and oranges of daybreak spreading wide across snow sprinkled ridges and spend our mornings basking in serenity and fine companionship on the back porch. The afternoons took us to relatively deserted hiking trails recommended by our hosts. At night we fit comfortably into the local scene - finding ourselves once again in the company of Charlottesville friends who were also spending their summer half a continent away from home. Leaving Jackson, we reminisced with an already aching nostalgia on our last few days and the magic of the place, the people and, of course, the view. (Our only complaint was for Jackson’s apparent mysterious black hole, which we concluded, was responsible for a lost credit card. )
Over the next three days we drove - and then drove some more. Both of us were exhausted by our voyage but at the same time reluctant to end it. We cherished, with a kind of childhood attachment, every last mountain range, truck stop and street sign as we made our way across Montana and into the Black Hills of South Dakota. But it was in Montana where we pulled off the road to take pictures of the most spectacular sunset I’ve ever witnessed. Never before has a sky brought me to the verge of tears with its beauty, its meaning, its inexplicable but absolute ability to capture everything I felt. We sacrificed speed to take scenic routes and lingered at gas stations to chat with bikers who had traveled to the small town of Sturgis, South Dakota for the world’s largest motorcycling event. We spent hours shaking our heads in disbelief at the Badlands, disbelieving that such an awesome and out-of-this-world landform existed on this earth, and that no person we encountered on our trip had taken us by the shoulders and shouted, “You must see the Badlands!” We even succumbed to one of the oldest and tackiest of all tourist attractions, Wall Drug, an imitation Old Western town warehouse of cheap souvenirs. And even though it took seven hours to get through South Dakota, it was with great reluctance and deflation that we crossed the border into Iowa - the geographic point indicating we had officially left the West.
Our final two days on the road were a blur, as time seemed to stop, turn back and repeat itself in a long continuous cycle. In some ways I will value that last 30-plus hours in the car most of all - for the time shared with Andrew, laughing and reflecting, filling the time with endless games of “what if” and “would you rather” (example: “Would you rather have three legs or a disease that made you smell bad all the time?”). Even the rare stretches of silence seemed heavy with shared understanding.
At one point during the final day of travel, after an extended period of reflection, Andrew said, “You know, in a way, we never really left Charlottesville.” Even though neither of us could explain it, I knew he was right; I felt it, and I knew that I had felt it before. Yesterday, as I sat on my porch watching the Blue Ridge Mountains reappear in the aftermath of a great and terrifying storm, it all started to make sense. Sometimes it takes mountains 2,000 miles away to appreciate the beauty in your own backyard. And I knew why the feeling was so familiar. It was during my first semester away at college that I truly fell in love with Charlottesville - the people, the community, the familiar places and ways, the omnipresent comfort of truly belonging. Snuggling up to the warmth of this insight, I turned over an old saying in my head and added a line for myself: home is where the heart is. Even if it takes leaving to realize it.
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