Some people say that all airports are the same. And to a certain extent I can see how that’s true: Starbucks, Hudson News, and McDonalds are staples just about everywhere. But I also think that each airport tries to embody a condensed, often Disney-like, representation of its city, and Austin’s airport is a good example: there’s an independent bookstore, a coffee shop with neon signs, and 10 ft tall Gibson Guitars on the baggage claim carousels. Albuquerque’s Sunport is an even better example. The flat roof, adobe-facade, and muted turquoise blue accents overwhelm you with a Southwestern aura before you get outside. The airport boasts over one hundred pieces of art, but Lincoln Fox’s “Dream of Flight” is undoubtedly the most memorable, with the following inscription:
The dream of flight is born within the heart of man, embracing the desire to be free from the confines of the earth’s surface. Hopefully the dream includes the possibility of freedom from limiting thought and action. As our imagination is freed to receive greater truths, then fear, closed thinking, and poverty of spirit will be left behind … far below.
I’m touched by this and think it’s a fitting prologue to my time with Keri. Moving from one place to the next every few days (instead of spending weeks looking forward to a single trip), I often don’t register what’s about to happen until it does. I don’t process the excitement until the plane actually hits the tarmac. I’m about to see Keri is suddenly I’M ABOUT TO SEE KERI!!! Keri and I lived together in the house in DC for about a year and a half. She was an attorney for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a fierce cyclo-cross competitor, and my partner in crime in for culinary and outdoor adventures. Our desk jobs allowed time for emailing one another recipes from food blogs and plotting our next gustatorial creation, and our weekends were devoted to getting away whenever and however we could--backpacking in Shenandoah and Vermont, hiking in West Virginia, camping on the beach in Assateague. We scoured the surrounding areas for destinations and made it happen, sometimes with others, but usually just the two of us. She drove, I queued up the music, and we were gone.
Five minutes after I pick up my bag, Keri rushes in to greet me. Her hugs are signature. She’s short, so she dives in low, wrapping her arms around my waist for the squeeze. The car is packed with welcomers--Ryland behind the wheel, and Hayduke (Keri’s rhodesian ridgeback puppy) and Arlo (Ry’s dignified yellow lab) in the back. My flight was delayed by several hours so it’s almost midnight.
“What did you think of Austin?” Ry asks me as I get settled in the front seat. “I’ve decided I want to marry a hipster cowboy,” I reply. He laughs and agrees that’s a fitting description of the men there. “Stoic” would be too strong a word to describe Ry; he is comfortingly calm and composed, easy to be around. He is all kind eyes and “darlin”s for Keri. Nonetheless, I’m thrilled to get a chuckle out of him. We talk up the 30 minute drive to his parents’ property where we stay in a cabin behind their house, which is where Ry lived when he was in law school (that’s where he and Keri met). Keri and I stay up for another hour talking, stoking the wood burning stove, and eventually falling asleep around 2am.
We are up early the next morning because Ry has to get back to Aztec to meet with a man about drywall. Keri and Ryland are building their own house. They’ve purchased a beautiful piece of land on the Animas River. When I visited them in October they were preparing to pour the concrete, and worrying about how a harsh winter might impact their plans. Building the house is currently Ry’s full-time job. And aside from a few specialized projects, and help from friends and Keri’s father, he’s doing everything himself. It’s incredible and I can’t wait to see what it looks like now. Keri insists we go to her favorite diner in town for breakfast, where I order the huevos rancheros, pacing myself with the green chilis, but eager to finally experience one of her favorite meals.
When we get to Aztec, Ry drops us off at the house where they are staying, across the street from Keri’s parents. Their neighbors are selling their house, and offered it to Ry and Keri until it’s sold. There we meet Ry’s sister, Jessa, and her boyfriend, Jonathan, and his dog, who arrived the night before from Steamboat and are visiting for the week also. Then the four of us, dogs in tow, meet Ry down at the property Keri gives us a tour, describing her vision: a library with a rolling ladder, a bar with two beers on tap, a vegetable garden out back. They’ll have two guest rooms and we playfully start claiming the ones we want. I imagine going back to help her start her garden. In fact, I imagine a life in which I could just visit friends and help them with cooking or gardening or babysitting, or whatever would make their lives a little easier, or give them more time to themselves. In exchange for a place to sleep and a few hours to write, being a vagabond domestic assistant sounds like a lovely way to spend a few months, or years. And at this point it’s all feasible. The future now seems to me a veritable playground of possibilities. I fantasize about all the options, each scenario coming together like tetris blocks, before disappearing, and new pieces manifest to replace them.
Ryland still has some business to finish so we take the dogs for a walk on a piece of BLM land a short 5 minute drive away. It is gorgeous, like having a national park in your backyard. No one else is around and the sun is starting to set as we park, walk down a stretch of dirt road before veering off to hop from boulder to boulder. Jessa and Jonathan asked me more about my plans and we talk about travelling and places we’ve been. After an hour or so we start to get hungry and Keri and I contrive dinner, something delicious but not too labor intensive: fajitas. We meet Ry back at the road and he gives us a lift in his truck back to Keri’s car, the dogs delightfully bounding behind. That evening we drink Tecate and I happily zen out chopping and sauteing vegetables as Ryland grills avocados, mangos and venison that he shot himself. It’s a true feast. Afterward we get into the hot tub and Ryland plays Biggie. I am winding down, getting quiet, blissfully content. Shower, pajamas, tea, bed before 10pm. After a full, fun day, I read until I fall asleep.
The next day Keri and I are driving to Rifle, Colorado, where she has to work tomorrow. Then my sister, Amy, will drive down from Boulder to collect me. We make paleo pumpkin waffles for everybody, say our goodbyes, load up her car with our stuff and Hayduke, and we’re off. Per routine I man the ipod and start with one of our favorites, the Avett Brothers’ “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise”--a song that has kicked off many of our road trips together.
There was a dream and one day I could see it
Like a bird in a cage I broke in and demanded that somebody free it
And there was a kid with a head full of doubt
So I'll scream til I die and the last of those bad thoughts are finally out
The drive is beautiful and for the first three hours it is perfectly sunny and warm. When I think of my friendship with Keri, these are the moments that seem to define it: in the car going somewhere. Keri and I were great housemates and we loved being homebodies together-- testing new vegan, gluten-free, protein-rich recipes in the kitchen, snuggled on the couch with a glass of wine and a book, feasting on NOOCH drenched popcorn and ogling over a Ryan Gosling or Harrison Ford movie-- but we really lived for these trips. And especially since she moved back to New Mexico, we’ve crafted our visits around specific adventures together (in October we spent three days backpacking and playing in slot canyons in Utah). I save my real questions, the real “catching up” for these long drives, the space in between things.
We talk about money and how they impact relationships. She and Ry have a true partnership. I can think of no better word to describe what I see. They’ve created roles for themselves that work to build the life they want. She’s working a lawyer job and he’s building their home, but she still gets dirty and he still brings home the bacon--or venison, as the case may be. This is a huge undertaking, which will, of course, put more pressure on any relationship, but it also makes it stronger. It gives the grit. “My relationship with Ry just gets better and better,” she tells me. I’ve never seen her happier.
We talk about her upcoming wedding and what she wants and doesn’t want--specifically the challenges of creating a meaningful, beautiful day without going broke. I love weddings. And I’m lucky because, so far, I’ve never been to a bad wedding. Though I still hold some reservations about marriage as an institution and I’m not invested in the prospect of getting married myself, I unabashedly love basking in the joy and happiness that these events create. I always cry. I always drink a little too much. I always get sentimental and a little dopey.
I ask Keri about her job. She works for ConocoPhilips, which might be surprising since she’s an Edward Abbey-loving environmentalist. But, she explains, working for them actually gives her the power to make meaningful change from the inside--perhaps more direct change than working for an environmental non-profit. For example, at the moment she’s working to save the habitat of the Greater Sage Grouse, a threatened species where ConocoPhillips drills. They have an interest in protecting them because if the species thrives and it doesn’t need to be listed as endangered, then regulations on that land won’t be necessary. Everyone wins and Keri gets to be a key figure in doing what she loves most: protecting the natural world and fostering respect for it.
She also meets with the people who own the surface land under which ConocoPhillips drills. Keri explains to me how, when the West was settled by homesteaders unders the Homestead Act, they were given the option of purchasing the Surface Estate with or without the Mineral Estate. Since oil/gas hadn’t been discovered yet and finding gold there was unlikely, most just bought the surface at a lower cost. Therefore these properties are “split estates,” and the federal government owns most of the minerals, leasing these properties to oil/gas companies who then develop the minerals. The mineral estate takes legal precedent over the surface estate, thus leading to some potentially nasty conflicts when the landowners have to relinquish control to companies like ConocoPhillips. And she understands better than anyone because her parents confronted this situation on their homestead, a cherished piece of land that has supported four generations of her family. Unfortunately, they were treated terribly and the land was egregiously abused: placing the oil well near their drinking water well, using the land for recreational use of four wheelers on the weekends, poaching deer and elk, spilling oil and even defecating. But Keri insists that it doesn’t have to be that way and her job gives her the power to make sure others don’t have to endure what her family did. That’s what she’ll be doing tomorrow near Rifle--meeting with landowners and making sure they’re treated justly.
I tell her that she reminds me of the character Walter in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, who also works for an oil company in order to save an endangered species of bird. I appreciate Keri’s position because it illustrates how complex our environmental/energy situation is right now. And I’m very compelled by her reasoning. She has identified the change she wants to see and put herself in a position to realistically, tangibly induce that change (more so, arguably, than suing people and creating more federal regulations). It’s hard for me to not vilify big oil and gas, but I’m also increasingly skeptical of “simple” or all/nothing solutions, as in simply shutting down all oil and gas production, which just isn’t going to happen. And I resent the way conversations like this are cast in two-sided reliefs that are either “for” or “against” and ignore the complexity of reality. I think we do need people everywhere: environmental non-profits, activists, and people working within energy companies that really give a shit about the land. People like Keri.
We stop in Telluride for lunch. It’s an obscenely adorable (i.e. obscenely wealthy) town in the San Juan Mountains. We walk Hayduke up and down the street, perusing each menu before deciding on La Cocina de Luz, a restaurant featuring “Whole Foods Taqueria-Style Mexican Cuisine” with a vegan platter including pesole, salsa bar, and homemade coconut ice cream we can’t refuse. I stop in Between the Covers Bookstore and buy Into the Wild for Keri (they didn’t have Freedom, and this was another book that came up in our car conversation) and Lonesome Dove for myself (Keri and Ry sold me a convincing recommendation of the book on our drive from Albuquerque to Aztec, and despite its nearly 900 pages I’m dying to read something rich in characters that captures the West as they promise). As we carry on through the mountains, the sky becomes grayer, and the air gets colder. By the time we reach Rifle, it is 7pm and dark. We check in to our Hampton Inn (courtesy of ConocoPhillips) and Keri runs Hayduke. We pick up questionable seaweed salads and sushi rolls from an empty Thai restaurant downtown. We start watching TV (a novelty/luxury to both of us), but the cable cuts in and out so we read instead. MY bed is incredibly plush and I sleep well.
The next day, Keri has to work and I’m determined to finish my application for Ashoka University. I meant to do it before leaving DC so I didn’t have to worry about it while I was travelling, but of course I didn’t and now I have two days to get it in. I don’t know much about the job yet, except that it’s a new university outside New Delhi scheduled to open in the fall of 2014, and one of my favorite graduate professors at AU is helping to build their English department. She’s encouraged me to apply as a tutor at their writing center. I don’t know if I even want the job, but I do want options. Several inches of snow have accumulated during the night and it’s still coming down so I’m resigned to stay inside anyway. I force myself to sweat a little on my yoga mat in the room for an hour, take a bath, and then set up in the lounge downstairs with my laptop and a cup of tea. When I’ve completed drafts of my materials (and reached the limits of my sanity) I email them to my mother for her feedback and put it away for the day. Back in the room, I post up on my bed with more tea, curtains drawn so I can watch the falling flurries outside, and open Lonesome Dove. It’s already funny and the characters immediately suck me in.
While I love watching the snow fall, I wonder what this means for traveling tomorrow, and so does my sister, Amy, with whom I’ve been texting throughout the day. She has to come through Vail pass to get me, and at this rate we don’t know if that will be open or even that her VW bug can make it without snow tires. Normally, she says, she might try anyway, but she can’t afford to get stuck since she teaches a metalsmithing class early Saturday morning back in Boulder. It makes more sense for me to just go to her; however, a Greyhound bus might not fare any better. But a train might. So I buy a ticket on an afternoon Amtrak out of Glenwood Springs, the next town east.
When Keri returns we venture out in search of dinner. But our options are limited, since we’re not keen to eat at Rib City Grill or Shooters Grill or WingNutz Bar & Grill. So we opt for an Italian restaurant, with at least two other customers. They pour us huge glasses of wine (I don’t think the waitress knows you’re supposed to stop at the glass’ widest point--but I’m not complaining) and I enjoy a lentil soup and broccoli-laden special. I hate to think it’s my last night with Keri. Our friendship hasn’t suffered from the distance, but it’s still hard to leave her. I’m comforted to know I’ll be back in June for her bachelorette party--a weekend canoe trip in Utah. The next morning I’m up by 7am, and downstairs making the final revisions to my application materials before pressing “send” and being done with it. Keri drives me up to Glenwood Springs and deposits me at the Amtrak station. We are all hugs and thank you’s and, “See you in June!”
The train is delayed an hour, but I couldn’t be happier with the weather that forced me to get on it. I’ve never taken a train this far and the scenery is phenomenal-- sitting in the lounge car, the windows extend up and overhead, so it’s like being stuck inside a snowglobe. We follow the Colorado River where only small patches of water try to run, the rest is frozen over. In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard states, “Appealing workplace are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.” I love Annie Dillard, but I disagree. A room with a view invites me to imagine possibilities, stokes my courage, diminishes limitations. Even better if that room is slowly weaving through a panoramic winter wonderland. There’s no wi-fi, but I’m better off staring out the window anyway.
The conductor, Brad, is walking through the lounge explaining how the area we are passing through was almost flooded, but President Roosevelt, an avid hunter, somehow stopped the plan and saved the railroad. An Amish family behind me playing Boggle strikes up a conversation with him about his family history. Brad’s wife is from Austria and his family is Pennsylvania Dutch. Two women sitting across from me ask him how fast we were going. “About 28mph at that moment,” he replies. This leads into an hour long conversation about the train routes and where he’s from and where their children are thinking about going to college. There’s something really refreshing about the conductor taking the time to talk to passengers like this, and I happily eavesdrop.
A wave of gratitude mixed with awe mixed with excitement tickles me. Every morning I wake up so excited for the day ahead. I know one day I will settle into a routine again. I actually like routine, but some days it will feel mundane. I’ll feel trapped. Landlocked. Static. Bored. The challenge of traveling, then, will take place long after I’ve come home. It’s easy to see the novelty in new things; it’s retaining that sense of wonder and freedom and promise without the open road. And my time with Keri, though brief, has given me a glimpse of that. She and Ry, in literally building a life together, haven’t abandoned adventure. It is the adventure. I stop writing and gaze, mesmerized, out the window, recounting the aphorisms that have gotten me this far.
Life starts with a question.
Decide what to be. And go be it.