The Big Country

“Unexpected” is the word that comes to mind when I remember our visit to the Grand Canyon’s north rim. We left hot, dry Springdale in the morning, drove through a tunnel under a mountain on our way out of Zion Canyon, and wound our way through patterned mesas of Navajo sandstone to a flatter, high desert landscape. It began to rain, and the rest of our drive became progressively less and less hot and dry. Heading into Arizona, this is the opposite of what we expected. We entered the Kaibab National Forest and were soon cruising through endless misty groves of fir and spruce, broken only by barren, ghostly patches that fire had consumed, broken stumps scarred dark with soot and char.  As we approached the border of the park, the temperature dropped into the 40s and stands of aspen lined wide green meadows alongside the road. This was so not where we pictured the Grand Canyon being.

 

As the alpine landscape continued, signs telling us to watch for buffalo in the road were amusing and surprising (we were very disappointed not to see any). By the time we reached the park, we were over 8000 feet above sea level. No wonder it was so cold. The rain let up when we walked along the rim, and we even saw a rainbow. The delicate flora lining the canyon captivated my eye and the immense void before us was magnetic. Words really fail to describe what my pictures cannot even do justice. All we could do was laugh at the absurdity of this chasm and the unlikelihood of it being so deep in the cold, rainy forest.

 

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Blue Sky

Springdale, Utah is aptly named. Entering Zion Canyon and seeing the Virgin River, clear and blue with cottonwoods lining its banks, was a sight for sore eyes after spending two days in Moab and driving over the San Rafael Swell and across the Wasatch Plateau. Although we fueled up before beginning the climb, we nearly ran out of gas in the mountains. I remember coasting down every hill and using our flashers a LOT, and distracting ourselves with downloaded episodes of Criminal, our favorite podcast–there was no cell service. We rolled into Salina with approximately 10 more miles of gas in our tank. I practically had to pry my fingers from the wheel.

 

I later found out that this 110 mile stretch of road is the longest in the Interstate system without any motorist services, which somewhat explained our dilemma. It more than makes up for the lack of human landmarks by providing a multitude of natural ones. The rock formations are colossal and unlike anything we had seen so far–the former geology student in me was drooling. This was one of the most spectacular sections of driving, but it was a little eerie feeling so small in the landscape and knowing if we had trouble with the car, we would be stranded.  As we approached Springdale, the landscape opened up. Zion Canyon was like an oasis after all this desert. It was still oppressively hot and dry, but dipping into the Virgin River was the ultimate thirst quencher. It helped that we hadn’t showered since we left Colorado.

 

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Hot Rocks

Driving into Utah from western Colorado was pretty unimpressive. Steep canyons and rocky mesas gave way to flat, barren land devoid of life. But as we drove further, huge buttes rose up in the distance, and as we turned south, we traveled through more canyons into Moab. A dusty brown and red palette was the backdrop to this hub of rangy, leathery people, adrenaline-pumping tour companies, and too many outdoor outfitters to choose from.

 

We drove up highway 313 that afternoon towards Dead Horse Point State Park and made camp at a jump-off point for a network of mountain bike trails, on the edge of a mesa. This was one of my favorite boondocking spots, and the heat lightning storm we got to see in wide-screen that evening was otherworldly. Also otherworldly was the drive through Arches National Park the next day to our campsite in the Devil’s Garden. It felt like we were on Mars. As bizarre as this setting was, I can’t wait to go back.

 

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See All of America The Beautiful

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In late May of last year, right around our 2 year anniversary, Colin and I signed the bill of sale for a 1977 13-foot Trillium camper. Tilly, as we came to call her, popped up on the craigslist feed one evening on our couch in Winooski, Vermont, and less than 24 hours later, we were driving to New Hampshire to buy her before someone else beat us to it. She was everything we were looking for and more, and after searching for a home on wheels for several months, I was astonished at how quickly she became ours.

 

In this photo, I’m holding the title and registration, and the exhilaration of the adventure to come is written in my smile. The picture was taken by one of the previous owners, who  explained what kind of hitch to get for our car, how to charge the battery, and not much else. I wonder if they could tell how clueless we were about owning a camper. What I think they did pick up on is that they were passing their treasure on to the right people. From the custom honeycomb mirrors to the quaint upholstery, I was clearly in love at first sight, and when we told them about the trip we were planning, their smiles were knowing and genuine. What you can’t see in the picture is the large decal on the camper’s side that reads “See All of America, The Beautiful”. I know that destiny, or the law of attraction, or whatever you believe in, brought her to us for that reason.

 

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Pulling away for the first time, Manchester, New Hampshire

When we returned a couple weeks later to pick her up, we took our best guess at attaching the hitch, and I spent the drive home on the edge of my seat, eyes glued to the sideview mirror, convinced that the camper would detach and kill some unwitting motorists behind us. Since that day, I’ve had a reluctant respect for Colin’s mechanical instinct, despite my frequent and offensive skepticism. The beautiful thing about Tilly, and all vintage campers, though, is their elegant simplicity. Lightweight and streamlined, with no water heater, no refrigerator, and no cable TV, she didn’t even have a bathroom to clean. For two kids with a Subaru wagon and a wanderlust the size of America, Tilly was the perfect first camper.

 

It’s hard to believe that 6 months ago, we had just brought Tilly home and were putting thumbtacks in a United States map and reserving a campsite on recreation.gov for the Grand Canyon. The trip we would embark on in August did not yet feel real. It wasn’t real when we were packing up our apartment and carrying boxes into our friend’s garage. It wasn’t real when Colin had his last day of work, and I had mine, or when we took Tilly on a maiden voyage to a remote northern Vermont lake to “test her out.” In fact, it didn’t feel real until our families and friends were in the rearview mirror, waving us off, blurred through our tears.

 

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Saying goodbye to my parents at my childhood home (Marylene Altieri)

Even then, we told each other that we could always come home again, but I knew that wasn’t the purpose of the trip. Yes, we were beginning an epic cross country journey, but it wasn’t going to end back at home. We were leaving Vermont with the intention of relocating to the West Coast, and you don’t do something like that for just a year. We would be establishing a new home for ourselves, and just where, well, we didn’t know yet. It was exhilarating, and more than a little scary, to be driving away from everything we knew and loved into the great unknown.

 

What people kept saying to me when I told them about our plans, and what they say to me now when I tell the story, is always “Wow! That sounds like the trip of a lifetime.” And this has always rung a little funny in my ears. That was certainly what we intended the trip to be when we first dreamed it up in a dark, cold Vermont January that was proving to be one too many for me. The manifest-destiny vision was bolstered by our lack of inhibition: we were both working jobs we weren’t married to, we didn’t own property, have kids, or feel like we were too old to get away with such an endeavor. But somewhere in the planning process, my ambition and zeal for the freedom of the open road got taken down a notch by the nitty gritty realities of miles, dollars, days, and our beloved dog, Louie.

 

When we realized we couldn’t explore a city with a dog in tow any more than we could leave him in a camper or car in summer heat, what begun in our minds as a tour of America’s greatest cities and a string of reunions with long-lost friends became, on paper, a trail tying together a series of state and national parks and outdoor attractions. New Orleans, Austin, Denver, LA, San Francisco and Nashville would have to wait for another time. The route we eventually agreed on would take us more or less through the middle of the country, and then north along the Pacific coast.

 

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While I was excited about many of the stops along the way, including three world-famous parks, I was upset about the fact that dogs were banned from all trails in these parks, and that we wouldn’t be able to go anywhere we couldn’t bring Louie (bars, restaurants, museums…). I wanted our route to take us to more beautiful places off the beaten path, but that would add days and tanks of gas, and we had a limited budget. I felt frustrated that we were having to compromise, and it was tempting to think that maybe if we had a little more money, or time, or a little less responsibility, it would be the trip of a lifetime I wanted it to be.

 

Now, it just felt like a random drive to some places that were probably overrated and overrun with tourists and where we wouldn’t know anybody. Colin, ever the realist and pragmatist, and I, a perpetual fantasizer and procrastinator, were butting heads and struggling to plan the trip together, and I was feeling scared that the whole thing would be a let-down. I was leaving my job and my world for this, and I desperately needed to feel like it was worth it.

 

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Devil’s Garden, Arches National Park, Utah

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Highway 1, Big Sur, California

But the trip was not a let-down. While parts of it were mundane and tedious, it surprised me each day, and along with the places I never wanted to return to, I found beauty and joy in the most unexpected corners of the country. We had our highs, like when we snuck Louie into the Devil’s Garden in Arches National Park at sunrise and had the whole trail, which lead us past the most spectacular arches in the park, to ourselves. We also had our lows, like when we broke down on a remote section of the Blue Ridge Parkway and had to fork over $600 and skip a rendezvous in Asheville with an old friend of mine.

 

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Blue Ridge Parkway at sunrise, Virginia (Colin)

On Labor Day weekend, we got shut out of a campsite we had reserved and paid for months in advance at the last minute, and had to skip Point Reyes. But that night we wound up “boondocking”, which is what RVers call camping by the side of the road, and found ourselves on the slope of Mount Tam, with a gorgeous Pacific sunset right out our door, and a 5 minute drive to the beach in the morning. In Colorado, we messed up our itinerary and concluded that we needed to drive right past Boulder and another planned visit with a friend to stay on our schedule, only to realize we were wrong once we were already more than 200 miles away. But the next day, we had a great first recreational marijuana dispensary experience, saw a double rainbow, and ate a char-grilled buffalo steak under it.

 

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Sunset from Mt. Tamalpais access road, Stinson Beach, CA (Colin)

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Rifle Gap, Colorado

Our first campsite in California was infested with wasps and raccoons, had a campfire ban in effect, and had no running water due to the drought, but when we left to seek a more hospitable place, we found an amazing dog beach in Santa Barbara that was the perfect place to hang out for the day. We couldn’t camp anywhere in Big Sur because of the forest fires raging there in August, but we did camp on the Oregon coast in a place called Otter Rock where a pod off whales just offshore caught us by surprise while we watched the sun set. We had some great camp meals, like french toast with nectarines under the Watchman in Zion National Park, or the scallops and fettuccine we made on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, which made our camper smell like fish for a week.

 

 

There are so many more stories like this, but I think you get the point — the good comes with the bad, and the enduring impression was not bad, but wonderful. The wonder I experienced at so many moments along the way was real, magnetic, and larger than life–larger than the trip, what it was and what it wasn’t. I think that’s what people mean when they say “the trip of a lifetime”.

 

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Another place Louie wasn’t supposed to be. Grand Canyon North Rim, Arizona (Colin)

There was a particularly dark moment that first day in California. We had just finished a long string of spectacular campsites, having left the Grand Canyon the day before, and arrived in the Golden State starry-eyed and enthusiastic. What we found at the campground was less than stellar, and something about reaching the Pacific Ocean symbolized that we were now as far away from our family as we would ever be on the trip.

 

We still had a month to go before we would start work on the farm where we had been promised jobs in Northern California, and we had little officially planned in the way of epic camping destinations for much of the California section of the trip, or the Northwest. I think we both started doubting the whole goal of the trip at that moment. And while we told ourselves we still had Seattle and Portland to visit, the two cities we were hoping to like enough to relocate to, those visits came and went and neither place felt like somewhere we could call home. Yes, we had good friends in both and they’d be fun places to live, but were they right for us and our goals and interests? Would we be happier back on the East coast after all? These were questions to which we would never have answers, and as the pace of the trip slowed and we prepared to park, they haunted us.

 

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Puget Sound ferry with Allie and Alex, Seattle, Washington (Allie Smith)

We bought ourselves some time to digest the trip while working on the marijuana farm for the months of October and November. I never felt further from home than the first few times we woke up there. Here I was, largely cut off from the world, surrounded by people from all over the world who were living in the moment and couldn’t say where they’d be heading when they left. It was a blessing meeting them all and sharing their space, but nothing about that place could have been farther from grounding and comforting for me. I have always loved adventure and travel, so this confused me even more and made me question my priorities.

 

At this point, it had been almost 2 months since we left home and living in the camper was starting to wear on me. It had been exhilarating waking up each day of our trip and not knowing where we’d be that night or what the day would hold. Now our momentum had slowed, and I wanted to settle in. I had time and space to think about what I wanted and needed in my life. I was craving security, the comforts of a proper living space, the ability to plan, and a purpose that energized and inspired me. I was ready to put a pin in the map and call it home.

 

By the time we left the farm on December 1st, the pin had been pushed into Eugene, Oregon. I think we both surprised ourselves a bit. We had never been to Eugene and didn’t know anyone there. But what we both realized, I think, is that nowhere but New England could ever feel like home to us. Having our families close by meant more to me than I thought it would, and committing to city life in San Francisco, Portland or Seattle, where our friends were living, just didn’t feel right on us either.

 

I realized I needed something to ground me, or I would be incredibly homesick. I was also feeling like I wanted to change directions professionally to concentrate on my passions: writing and photography. I wanted to take them to the next level and get advanced training. I started looking into grad schools, and UO had the perfect program. Oregon had been our favorite state on the trip, and Colin had his own career aspirations in the cannabis industry and was eager to pursue his passion.

 

So when the season ended, we sent it. We drove north, parked at a RV resort next to I5 and after three depressing and difficult weeks, found an apartment. I’m sitting in it now and it’s mostly empty. The rest of the story is yet to be written, as I have yet to be accepted to school or start a new job. But I have my two best friends, the support of my family and those I love, and a world of opportunities. And when I tell people what brought me here, they could not be more warm or welcoming. This may turn out OK, I tell myself.

 

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The fam at Crater Lake, Oregon

This trip has been a massive learning experience for me. I have no regrets about the way it happened or what the outcome was. I know if we had never left, I would be constantly living in my FOMO and feeling dissatisfied with what we had in Vermont. Colin would never have had the professional opportunities that he is getting, and I probably never would have made the decision to go back to school. I have nothing but gratitude for the opportunities it gave me to grow as a person and an American, experience a world outside of the Northeast and explore what gives my life meaning. I wish everyone could do something like what Colin and I did this year.

 

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Tilly in RV storage until the next great adventure (Colin)

 

Maybe it will be the trip of our lifetimes. I would be OK with that. But I know we will take other trips with Tilly. She took a beating on this trip–we put 10,000 miles and 4 months on her, after all. But she’s still going strong, and there’s so much more of America, the Beautiful that remains to be seen.

 

 

Rhubarb Rose Muffins and Equanimity

Rhubarb

 

It all starts with an idea. A wild, buoyant, sparkly idea that dances into view and captivates my imagination. Dreamer that I am, I gravitate towards the motion, the light, the possibility. I picture the idea bearing fruit, imagine myself dancing along with juice dribbling down my chin…And just like that, I’m off!! No time to think or analyze. I initiate with haste, trusting myself to think on my feet, the taste of success propelling me toward the reward. I thrive on possibility.

 

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As preparations turn to actions, there is a moment at the top of an inhale where I pause. A tiny question mark arises. Other outcomes take shape in my mind and what-ifs unconsciously surface. Before I can stop, I am reconsidering everything, testing each assumption and calculating the risks. I miss a beat and my breathing becomes shallow. My pure intention is obscured by the pleasure of a successful outcome and fear of any other result.

 

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In this case, that moment came when I was tinkering with a recipe for Mothers’ Day. The situation was a choice between a safe and confortable version with ingredients I’d rather avoid, or an experimental, risky one using foods that made me excited. Naturally, the excitement got the best of me and I begun to plan my rather unorthodox muffins.

 

Thoughts of inventing a never-before-baked vegan treat and feasting on them innocently, all while achieving genius status with my mom and my audience began to bud and blossom until I firmly told myself I would never become familiar with baking substitutions unless I started swapping. Yes, I knew there was a probability of failure, but the chance of success was enough to motivate me, and my appetite for glory was already whet.

 

Rhubarb Rose Muffin

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roasted rhubarb

When I walk this path in life with an open heart and mind, I allow myself to receive a steady stream of love and wisdom from my teachers, friends and family, and my attitudes and actions shift accordingly. In the last 9 months, I have watched myself stand up straighter, smile brighter, laugh louder, work smarter, be more present with others and believe in myself more than I ever thought possible.

 

In many ways, I am still the girl who set an intention to meet herself and her yoga practice on a deeper level almost 2 years ago, and many of my hangups remain unchanged. I notice I still sometimes lose my focus when I allow myself to regard others with envy. I am still terrified of being regarded as stupid. I am no less averse to effort and afraid of failure.

 

I am, however, less likely to get swept up by those moments of self-doubt and back down on myself. I am more likely to accept that I cannot control the outcome; I can only control my willingness to submit to it and to enjoy the experience as it plays out.

 

Just as a yogi returns to the breath to help her through a challenging moment on the mat, knowing that it will pass and she will reconnect with the same steadiness that she felt in a moment of ease, I return to my assuredness that I am capable of self-actualization. At my core, I know I can achieve anything I want, if I am willing to work for it. It’s possible to breeze past clouds of uncertainty and keep my chin up, knowing that in the pursuit of my goals, I will find happiness, regardless of the outcome.

 

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My muffins did not turn out. They did not bake up to the airy, crumbly treat most pastry munchers would expect. They are dense, sticky and decidedly unsexy. But they did in the sense that I relished making them, I love what they are and I enjoyed eating one every morning this week. The process was enjoyable, and therefore the outcome was joy. Whether I created a genius muffin was beside the point. The experience was perfect to me.

 

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I share the recipe with you anyway. I tweaked it in ways that should improve the consistency, while remaining true to my intentions. Be inspired to take a leap of faith and play with it, or take it as it is. It’s a recipe for a karmavore. To my mind, preparing and consuming food is an act of service and devotion to the body and, in turn, the soul, an act intended to nourish the self without necessarily feeding the ego or pleasuring the senses (although deriving sensory pleasure from food is definitely crucial!). If you tend to agree, then you might just love them. Or if, like me, spending time in your kitchen is a form of meditation, you should definitely make them. They don’t take long.

 

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It’s incredibly hard to overcome our habits; they are part of who we are. But the truth is, our habits are not who we are. Each of us is whole, pure, and unchanging. Our experiences form our habits. It’s only by identifying with these habits that we become their prisoners.

 

I find myself breaking free of habit more often since I began studying yoga, because by peeling back the layers of conditioning that obscure my true self, my practice creates space for me to look at my instincts objectively, and recognize that they are not “me”. In those moments, the true self shines through, and I let myself be guided into the light of the spirit.

 


muffin

 

Rhubarb Rose Muffins

adapted from Vegetarian Ventures

 

4 stalks rhubarb, diced and roasted with a sprinkling of coconut sugar

1/2 cup oat flour

1 1/2 cup rye flour

1 tsp baking soda

1/4 tsp salt

1 cup almond milk

1 tsp apple cider vinegar

1 cup lemon-ginger-cardamom-applesauce (see below)

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup maple syrup

1 tsp rosewater

1 tsp vanilla extract

 

for the streusel

1/4 cup oats

1/4 cup pistachios

1 tbsp coconut sugar

1 tbsp coconut oil

1/2 tsp salt

 

 

For the applesauce (Makes 4 cups)
Heat 5 medium apples (diced) the zest and juice of 2 lemons, one 3-inch piece of ginger (grated) and 1 tsp cardamom in a large pot over medium heat. Cook until most of the lumps are gone. Cool and set aside 1 cup.
 
Muffin prep
Prehead oven to 375. Spread the diced rhubarb over a baking sheet covered in parchment paper. Sprinkle with coconut sugar to taste and roast for 20-25 minutes or until soft. While the rhubarb is roasting, combine the almond milk and apple cider vinegar to curdle for 10 minutes or so.
 
Assembly
In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. In a medium bowl, combine the wet ingredients including the milk, and mix wet into dry until just combined. Then fold in the roasted rhubarb. Lower the oven temp to 350.
 
Streusel
In a blender or food processor, pulse the streusel ingredients until you achieve a coarse crumble. Line 12 muffin wells with paper and evenly divide the muffin batter into them. Spoon streusel over the top and bake for 20-25 minutes or until an inserted poker comes out clean. Let cool before attempting to unwrap. Enjoy with an open heart.