Several weeks ago Wanda, Riley, and I went wandering again, three years after I moved to Darwin and almost two years since the pandemic began and I quit writing. Oh, I’ve begun several blogs in my head, even started to type a couple on my MacBook Pro, and attempted to write a mini-novela with a writer friend for a couple of months, but I could never quite figure out what I wanted to say. My simple life in a tiny former mining town of the remote high desert in California–and my mind chatter– seemed so insignificant compared to the much larger and more important events in the world. I simply could not come up with a message that I thought would heal the divides in our country, soothe the heartaches of so many losses from death, nor solve the impacts of a society living in fear and economically on hold.
How could I effectively entertain or inspire people who lived in isolation, could no longer hug or even shake hands or look at a smiling face because they were all hidden behind masks? I watched businesses struggle, debated with and listened to good friends with polarized perspectives about what was really going on, and struggled with my own uncertainty about how to react to what seemed an impossible social and health crisis. I certainly didn’t feel much like wandering around the countryside taking chances on bringing Covid to tiny Darwin, a town of mostly older folks—some with compromised immune systems.
In addition to living in a pandemic, I spent the past two years remodeling an older house that was in great need of improvements. While refinishing my rustic bedroom floor, I tripped over an air hose and nail gun, fell across my vacuum and shattered my left humerus one and a half years ago, which required two surgeries to place a rod and several screws inside my arm to hold my bone fragments together long enough to mend. As I was just starting to be able to use my left arm again, I developed severe arthritis in my right wrist, which practically stopped me from continuing work on my own house projects, and required paying others to do work I knew I could do myself—and had been looking forward to doing.
The biggest remodeling projects are now done—building a new metal roof on top of my old leaky, somewhat flat roof, and creating a two bedroom air bnb unit on the second story. Guests visit regularly, and finally the money has begun to flow toward my bank account instead of away from it. Though I love watching spaces transform and pouring my TLC into a home, managing all the different workers I hired and making big financial decisions felt draining and scary at times. Topping that off with having two injuries that made me super dependent on others has taken some of the wind out of my sails. Maybe that’s why it feels especially good to be out in the middle of the desert on a dark, moonless night, listening to nothing but the gentle breeze against Wanda’s canvas poptop, the soft hum of my Engel refrigerator, my ringing ears, and the click of my keyboard as my fingers choose each letter to type. So refreshing to leave behind what has become a very busy life for me—even in the tiny town of Darwin, California.
A sense of flow, a spark of creativity, ideas of cool photos to tell the story of this adventure begin to weave into my awareness, after I open myself to let it in. I’m here with my dear friend, Kathy, the wildlife photographer I so love to go camping with. She had to pry me away from my home, almost kicking and screaming, but the minute we parked our rigs, drove onto our leveling blocks, and stepped outside to look at the gorgeous desert stretching out in all directions around us, I felt the weight lift, and my spirit began to soar. I want to write again! I want to go deeper into myself to see what’s there, remind myself who I am, which is very different from who I was before I began this journey, leaving a home I’d lived in longer than any other, leaving a job I’d worked at for almost 20 years, and leaving a community of friends I’d made through 40 years of living in Santa Cruz.
I feel like an old woman now, with a light pink scar dividing my entire upper left arm in two, with limitations from my knee replacement two and a half years ago, and an admonition from the surgeon who did my arm surgery, who said, “You’re healed!! But don’t fall down!” My hair has wider bands of gray streaks peaking through the golden brown. I yelp when I try to do some things. I have a lump in my throat from something that’s grown on my thyroid, and I’m facing another surgery soon—this time on my wrist to prevent nerve loss in my hand. And I’m a grandma now, one who is worried I won’t be able to hold my quickly growing grandson because of my sore wrist and lack of strength in that hand. My vulnerability is more obvious than ever—as I struggle to raise Wanda’s pop top, cringe when I have to push down on the gear shifter to go in reverse, use two hands to lift my favorite blue tea mug to my mouth, and know I just can’t turn a screwdriver or even unscrew a jar lid like I used to.
So this wander is a true blessing. To have a friend who’s willing to go with me, to sit in silence and reflect on our lives as we scan the changing light that highlights Death Valley’s magnificent landscape, and to meander slowly across the rocky alluvial plains and soft rippled sand dunes across from our camp. Our temporary home takes shape seamlessly, as we set up our individual camp tables, pull out our comfy chairs, lay out a carpet to keep dust outside our rigs, and sit for a snack and a drink while we reconnect in that deep way—deeper than what is ever possible when I’m constantly distracted by projects waiting to be done at home. Our familiarity and a loving acceptance and knowing of each other make it all so easy.
This time we decided to head toward Panamint Valley, a little over 30 miles from my home down a steep, windy, and scenic road, then up a rutted and rocky dirt road that transects a wide alluvial plain, until we find what looks like a driveway to the perfect remote campsite. We are surrounded by the Panamint Range, the Argus Range, and the Inyo Mountains, with Panamint Valley stretching out to the south.
As we walk around we look for signs of wildlife, which are easy to see in the softer sand. Kathy points out tiny lizard tracks and what might be rabbit tracks, but very little else. Nothing moves unless a breeze picks up to rustle the creosote leaves, and the only sounds are our boots crunching on the crusty top layer of earth. The silence is a soothing balm, even though it’s also very quiet in Darwin. Being away from home allows my own mind chatter to die down, and instead get curious about the unusual formations in the rocks we see with deep rust coloring scored by parallel bands of dark black stripes. We call it Tiger Pass. Riley tells us if any critters are living in the little burrows we see—he sniffs when I ask him to check, then looks away without interest.
Somehow, being out here in Wanda, living simply in Nature, brings out the peaceful, confident side of myself. My aches and pains become less noticeable, the meaning of my life more obvious. I become a goddess to myself, integrated, beautiful, and connected to all that is—inside myself as well as the outer world. I remember the importance of these wanderings for my being, and at the same time I know there will be a time that I can no longer do them. Wanda will break down too often (she has twice this past year), I will feel less able to do things on my own and less comfortable taking the risks I’ve taken in my younger days, and I won’t feel able to do the continued maintenance to keep her going—financially as well as physically—and it will be time to let her go, but right now I can’t imagine giving her up.
She fits me like a glove, and though I fantasize about a newer fixed up Sprinter van conversion, when I sit in Wanda I appreciate her clever, compact design, and how she holds precious memories of past romances, trips with my children as they grew up, and driving across this country two times, as well as from south to north and back several times. She’s saved me the cost of many nights in hotels, as well as provided a free bed twice a week during the year I attended grad school near Monterey and didn’t want to drive home each night. She represents freedom and independence—when I bought her I rationalized her cost by saying that I would never be homeless if I had Wanda. I sometimes wonder if it’s healthy to be so in love with an old vehicle!
On our last morning we decide to do a shapeshifting ceremony, which we have done several times in the past. This time we have a special reason: Kathy just put her 13 year-old dog, Viva, down before she came to visit me, and she wants to connect with Viva spirit to see what lessons or messages or insights she can take away from their long and loving relationship. Kathy was not away from Viva her whole life, except for one short trip to Hawaii. They constantly watched each other for clues of what was important to pay attention to, and Viva helped Kathy find bobcats, coyotes, and kit foxes for photographing, knowing she wasn’t allowed to chase–just to whine to let Kathy know there was someone exciting nearby.
In our shapeshifting journeys we learn everything we can about our animal guides. We meditate and imagine how they walk or move, what they see as they traverse the landscape, what their fur or ears or wings feel like when the wind blows against them, and what special characteristics they have that make them unique. We gradually feel our bodies become theirs as we move through a tunnel to descend deep into the earth and into ourselves. Then we ask for guidance and see what happens. Kathy communes with her beloved Viva, while I become an agile cloud leopard this time, with a goal of leaping over my demons, attaining adult wisdom and vision for my life, and appreciating my grand appearance and sexy tail. What follows is a keen awareness of how my fear of aging has depleted my energy lately–a sense that life as I’ve known it is over and I still haven’t found my way to express my gifts fully. Several ideas flow in and out of my psyche, suggesting ways to find vitality again, to say no to what no longer works for me, to celebrate what I CAN do, and to trust in my ability to overcome my obstacles instead of shriveling up from being trapped inside a body that has limitations. As our timer chimes a half hour of journeying has passed, I emerge with a sense of being grounded and peaceful, and turn to Kathy with a wide smile and sparkling eyes as we share our experiences.
I still don’t feel like I know what I want to say, but at least I’m writing again. Wandering in nature helps me wander inside myself, and then magic happens! Feeling my body move across a rugged landscape, climbing up smooth rock walls that look like pink marble, letting the rise in elevation assure me I’m alive and capable, then snuggling into my familiar and cozy Wanda cocoon, I am at peace.