When I was 17, I threw my bags into the beat-up 1987 Chrysler LeBaron I had inherited from my grandmother, drove it into the mountains, and parked it at the end of an old dirt road. I spent the summer living in a borrowed tent, eating ramen every night, wandering the Sierras, just another dirtbag cliche. I haven’t stopped running since.
At 15, I collapsed in the middle of cross-country practice and my dad hugged me tightly on the side of a trail in Rancho San Antonio as I broke down into tears for reasons I couldn’t articulate. We went to doctor’s appointment after doctor’s appointment, searching for explanations. “Anemia,” they said. I started taking iron supplements; it didn’t help. When I read Thoreau’s Walden in the shadows of a small patch of aspens in the Sierra, I saw myself. His fears were my fears, articulated in the famous declaration of wanting to live deliberately and not face his death with the realization that he had not lived. Profoundly moved, I copied his words into my notebook, reading them over and over.
Once I hit the road, I discovered that chasing adventure inspired me with a joy that made me feel normal again, and I became addicted to movement. I developed an insatiable appetite for new things, people, adventures. In Joshua Tree, I learned to climb. I took up whitewater kayaking in Humboldt County, bought my first road bike in France, learned to backcountry ski in Switzerland, dug the pick of my ice axe into Alaska’s Chugach Range, explored the jungles of Uganda on the back of a dirt bike with a chicken under each arm, and roamed the deserts of Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, sinking deep into the sand, staring at the moon.
I moved from one country to the next, one job to another, relationship after relationship, waiting for something that would occupy my restless energy and inspire me to stay. But nothing ever did. Lots of people think the nomadic life cannot be sustained, that if you’re running, you must be running from something, and that eventually you will have to stop, grow up, settle down, sacrifice freedom for security, and work it all out. I accepted this as true, forcing myself into the conventional life I thought I was supposed to want–but moving on when it didn’t work.
Exasperated, I swept the debris of my half-hearted attempts onto the floor, flicking out a clean white tablecloth over the mess of the last place, the previous disaster, wondering how long before I ran out of places and chances. On a move to Colorado, I suffered a panic attack in the cab of a U-Haul truck as I crossed the state line. My best friend talked me through it — I could always move on if it didn’t work out, he reasoned.
But I was determined to stay.
For three years now I’ve lived close to the Front Range, watching the sun slip behind the Flatirons, illuminating the clouds, causing them to glow like red, hot embers. I forced myself to unpack, obtain furniture, sit still long enough to listen to my darkest corners and deepest doubts. When I felt trapped by apartment leases, student loans, and permanent addresses, when I felt overwhelmed by daily life and the fear rising up in the back of my throat that I wasn’t living deliberately, that I was missing out, I resisted the temptation to run. “Stay,” I told myself as if I were talking to a disobedient dog, “just stay.”
For so long I had latched onto the idea that if I found the right place, my depression would grow quiet and manageable and I would be content. But even in a place as perfectly suited to me as Boulder, I have no interest in settling down. I have no interest in a house or belonging to anything but the road. After trying so hard to stay, I have come to see my addiction in a different light: I am chasing after the life I want, rather than running from the one I don’t.
And the life I want is on the side of an old Forest Service road watching the sun filter through Oregon’s sweeping forests, it’s counting stars on BLM land in Wyoming while listening to the coyote’s call, it’s leaning against Utah’s sun-baked rocks watching the red dust settle onto my battered, Chaco-clad feet.
In the last few months, I’ve given in to this truth, giving away most of my belongings and the few sticks of furniture I had accumulated over the last three years. I bought a truck that doubles as a home and a crash pad that doubles as a mattress. Most everything I own is within reach, and I am relieved. After three years of standing still, I howled when I crossed into Utah on my first solo road trip in years.
My life once again looks as if someone threw a handful of darts at a map while blindfolded. Last weekend, I sat on my tailgate in the middle of Rifle Mountain Park, barefoot and sweaty with chalk-covered hands and scraped-up knuckles. This weekend, I will be sitting in the Abajos, watching the last light break through the aspens before making my way to Oregon and then Washington via Montana and Idaho. My depression will linger, a filter that turns the world grey, but motion is the best coping mechanism I can find.
In Wyoming, I pulled off the road to watch a herd of mustangs run. A lifetime around horses has impressed upon me the futility of reining in those wild souls and the importance of finding ways to channel that spirit instead of fighting it. I thought I was searching for a place to stay, a place where I could heal, but the road itself is both. My joy is in wandering and the only thing I’ll settle for is the possibility that I might someday catch up with the woman I want to be.
Photo by Al_HikesAZ