Follow the rivers and red, rutted roads

I always knew that there were some things about me no one could understand without seeing the places where I grew up. What I didn’t know was that there were some things about me not even I could understand without going back to the places where I grew up.


In Japanese gardens, including the Portland Japanese Garden, where I stroll regularly, pathways are by design winding and uneven to slow down your pace and help you become immersed in the landscape. A few wide and flat paths allow for a faster pace and a sweeping view of the garden as you make your way to hidden habitats. The narrow, uneven paths of rough and rounded stones and packed earth require your attention and a slower pace. Carefully placing each foot, you mentally focus on the path, easing slowly through the garden, pausing to take in the scene and appreciate it. You might even sit on a bench, kneel on a rock, or stand on an old bridge and be with the place. It is a more personal, even private, experience than the wide, flat paths.


A stroll through a Japanese garden is like the perfect road trip. It’s what I created, discovered, and enjoyed in May of last year when I drove my dog Dixie and me across the country in a Subaru Crosstrek from my home in Oregon to my childhood home in Ohio and back. The trip was from May 17 to June 1, 2019. I hadn’t been back to Ohio in 40 years. With a comfortable pace, route adjustments to visit places I never thought of, plenty of room for unexpected turns, and capacity to explore the “I wonder what’s over there” moments, I made memories.


I sought slow-paced scenic byways with the elements of stream, river, lake; rock, gravel, stone; sand, mud, swamp; tree, shrub, flower; field, forest, hill; mountain, wood, and wildlife. I sought the colors, sounds, smells, and life of natural scenery and pathways. I sought symbols of longevity and health, beauty and peace, earth and sky, lines carved in wood, and deep tracks carved into earth. I sought isolated groves, parks, paths, and narrow passages that had some degree of unpredictability and adventure, inspiring exploration and contemplation. I trusted my boots. Like the Dixie Chicks sing in the song that not only defined their first album, Wide Open Spaces, but also defined my road trip, I needed wide open spaces.


I borrowed each place for a morning, an afternoon, an evening, or a night and made it my home away from home. The halfway point included a four-day farm stay with dear friends since childhood, friends who welcomed me into their home with love, kindness, generosity, and warmth and shared the beauty and wonder of their century-old Ohio family farm. We spent precious time together, talking, walking weathered pathways, smiling at the lines carved in our faces, sharing stories, and gently honoring the deepest tracks recently carved into our lives. They are brave and tough, kind and generous people.


By the numbers, the Cheryl and Dixie Road Dogs: Ohio Bound 2019 road trip spanned 16 days, 15 states (Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Washington), 5,550 miles in the Subaru, at least 26 rivers and lakes, 3 time zone changes, 51 songs on a Spotify list, 40 rocks collected, 1,530 photos saved, 13 slices of pie consumed, and 49 members of a Road Dog Facebook group who came along for the virtual ride.


By following scenic byways and highways along rivers and lakes across the country, I saw many places I had never seen before. When I wanted to make good time, I drove the fast-paced national and state highways and took my place in line with a cavalcade of eighteen-wheelers pulling food and goods across the country. The interstate system was built for quick, efficient farm-and-factory-to-market movement. There’s something to be said for sameness when you’re just intent upon getting through a place. When I was wrangling with sustained and significant severe weather, I stayed on the reliable multi-lane, concrete roadways with off-ramps to convenient 24-hour services, cell phone reception, Wi-Fi, and pie.


I’m old-fashioned: I’m the country gentleman from a century or more ago who rode horseback for hours just to have a cup of tea with a woman. Or perhaps more accurately, I’m the cowgirl who openly wore trousers and rode horseback for hours just to mingle with the natural world. When I was a little girl, a neighbor called our home regularly to alert my mother that, “Ginny, one of the twins is out by herself, walking and talking with a stranger again.” Now, some 57 years later, I still like a good conversation with a fellow traveler. I get in my car every weekend and drive three hours roundtrip, give or take, to hike in a forest, sit on a rock by a river, amble along a lake, gaze at a mountain, stroll on a wetland boardwalk, pick fruit in an orchard, or walk the dusty pathways on a pumpkin farm.


Unlike the borrowed scenery of scenic byways and country routes on my road trip, the 80-mile-per-hour-speed-zone highways were neither personal nor private. They were, however, often adventurous as I adjusted to stay ahead of, behind, above, or below tornadoes, strong thunderstorms, wind, hail, snow, and ice. Driving involved attention to weather reports, smart and lucky route planning, and a good paper road atlas (I recommend National Geographic Road Atlas: Adventure Edition). It also helped to have Trucker Ron lead me across Wyoming and through the Rocky Mountains in a snowstorm, during which Interstate 80 electronic message boards flashed warnings of more severe snow and ice over the next 48 hours. I took chances.


Weather ranged from freezing temperatures across Wyoming to the mid-80s in northern Idaho; from cold, windy, and wet in Nebraska to warm, breezy, and sunny in North Dakota; from misty and gray in southern Idaho to crisp and blue in eastern Oregon; from snow and ice in Wyoming to hail, lightning, and rain in Iowa. Fortunately, I packed for the cold and wet – layers of clothing, waterproof jacket and pants, hiking boots, walking shoes, rain hat, wool hat, gloves, and warm pajamas because motels can be cool and drafty in the off-season. I also packed shirts, sweaters, and a rain jacket for Dixie. She’s an 11-pound, almost three-year-old Miniature Pinscher/Chihuahua mix whom I adopted from Oregon Humane Society on July 29, 2018. What a brave adventurer she is! Together, we breathed through the rough spots, and I sang songs to relax both of us.


Each state offered a different ambience and experience, and I found something worth stopping for in every state. Signs for odd-sounding towns and weird tourist attractions guided me to memorable places like the hauntingly beautiful City of Rocks in Idaho; Point of Rocks Stage Station on the Overland Route in Wyoming; a giant log bridge and pioneer museum called The Great Platte River Road Archway Monument in Nebraska; Penny’s train car diner in Nebraska, advertised as “Step into a time capsule,” that offered traditional American dishes and desserts in a 1950s-themed interior; Trapper’s Kettle in North Dakota that served tasty local grub and a liqueur called North Dakota Sweet Crude; and a town heralded “Prairie Chicken Capital of Minnesota” that featured a giant statue of a prairie chicken to remind people of the beauty to be found on native prairie grasslands.


Other billboard messages I saw across the country, however, were not good guides. They were like memes one sees on social media: mean, mocking, ignorant, and poorly constructed. Designed to shock, suck people in, and provoke a reaction at an innocent person’s expense, they did not represent the best of America. How frightening it must be to recognize yourself as the target of their hatred and the object of their indifference to your vulnerability, pain, and suffering. I did not agree with the ideas expressed on those signs, but they did make me think about why I believe the fact-based things I do, why I have the democratic and ethical lifestance I do, and why I have the attitudes about human beings and the natural world I do.


Fortunately, regardless of the billboard nonsense, what I found across America was a benevolent landscape and people who welcomed me, treated me with kindness and generosity, took an interest, and shared stories. I felt free to explore and discover, safe and secure wherever I went during this shoulder (or off-season in some places) travel season. I was creative with my time and choices.


An adventure road atlas, visitor centers, friends, and my own instinct and curiosity guided me to beautiful, charming, and wondrous places and attractions like the Wallowa Mountains and Imnaha River Canyon in eastern Oregon; Castle Rocks State Park and Coeur d’Alene Mineral Ridge Scenic Trail in Idaho; painted barns and barn quilts in Iowa; the Krendl-Dardio family farm in Ohio with its woods and painted barns; straightforward diners in Indiana, Ohio, Minnesota, and Montana; the SS Badger passenger and vehicle ferry in Michigan; a Gouda cheese farm in Wisconsin; Sweetbriar Lake and Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota; Clark Fork River Trail and Natural Pier Bridge in Montana; and places that once upon a time made up the landscape of my childhood in Ohio and Michigan. For the most part, I stayed present – being right here, right now – in each place; although, it might have been too much to ask of myself in Wapakoneta, Ohio.


What I found when I returned home to Portland, Oregon, however, was confusion and lonesomeness. After traveling 16 days and driving 5,550 miles, I was home, but I was still focused on a place 2,340 miles away. I didn’t know how to come back. I hadn’t really confronted the deepest emotions and realizations of what my road trip was to me internally by the time it ended. I was too close to it. The protective membrane was too thin between my emotions and thoughts and my experience. I didn’t want it to break. So, I took space. Lots of it. I preferred to keep myself busy rather than think too deeply about things.


Other than a haiku about Hunter’s Moon, this road trip reflection is the first personal writing I have done since early May. I needed a break from writing. The challenging personal writing assignment for my friend Miya, which occupied me last winter and spring when she was sick and after she died, had exhausted me. When my road trip ended, I needed time to sleep, to confront important matters at work, to go for long walks; time to tend to my balcony garden, to sort my travel photos, to support my twin sister on her 325-mile Camino Portugues and Finisterre walks; time to reset, to integrate my experience, and to grieve.


When I attempted to write about my road trip, I felt a sudden, overwhelming panic. I wanted to produce something meaningful and coherent that would capture the deepest truths of my trip home to Ohio and Michigan and provide a faithful accounting of the wonder I had experienced and my discovery as a result. It took six months for enough clarity to surface to motivate me to write again. I peeled back the protective membrane I had created and heard a message loud and clear: It’s okay. You’re okay.


This road trip reflection includes and continues with the following:

  • Road Trip 2019 Part I: Follow the rivers and red-rutted roads
  • Road Trip 2019 Part II: Ohio-bound weather and wayfinding
  • Road Trip 2019 Part III: Oregon-bound weather and wayfinding
  • Road Trip 2019 Part IV: Going home again
  • Road Trip 2019 Part V: Purpose and discovery
  • Road Trip 2019 Part VI: A log on rivers and lakes


Composed in December 2019 and early January 2020 – seven months after my dog Dixie and I took a road trip in mid-to-late-May across the United States from Oregon to Ohio and back. I visited the childhood home where I grew up and had not been in 40 years. Photos by me, except where noted.