Sometimes the roads we travel take us back to crossroads that were pivotal in our past. Sometimes they show us the way forward.
Both happened on our recent trip through the Southwest. Ray and I spent most of our time in the Tucson area, a place that has lingered, dreamlike, in a cranny of my memory for decades. Though I've made a couple of quick visits to Tucson in recent years, I hadn't spent any wandering-around time there since an unforgettable visit in my twenties.
It was 1976, and I was on a meandering road trip with my boyfriend. We'd driven from northern California to Los Angeles to visit his parents, then struck out across Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas before heading north to Oklahoma to see my family, venturing on to Kansas, and returning to California by way of Colorado. The stated purpose of the trip was to check out graduate schools in Arizona, Texas, and Kansas, but we planned the route to take in as many national parks, monuments and other nature-y points of interest as possible: Joshua Tree National Park, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Saguaro National Park, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Mount Lemmon, Chiricahua National Monument, Cave Creek Canyon, White Sands National Monument, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Big Bend National Park, Oklahoma's Great Salt Plains State Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Dinosaur National Monument.
We spent our days hiking through cactus forests, bizarre rock formations, lush oases, meadows and more, stopping to raise binoculars or crawl on the ground in search of unusual insects. The assortment of critters boggled my mind—from the javelina that trotted across our campsite to the jewel-like cuckoo wasps and furry velvet ants that flitted and scurried around us.
We slept out in the open—no tent—where we could watch the moon and stars and hear the night creatures. (Lucky for us, it wasn't the height of monsoon season.) Enthralled with the writings of Carlos Castaneda, I saw our surroundings as steeped in mystical power. As I contemplated the future I was heading into, I was sure it would include frequent visits to these enchanted places—as a scientist studying the flora and fauna, but also as a spiritual seeker.
Somehow, life took me in other directions. Or I should say, I made decisions that took me in other directions. And though I often thought of those places and their hold on me, I never found my way back. Until last month.
On this latest trip, Ray and I trekked through some of the places that had made such an impression on me more than forty years ago: Saguaro National Park, the Desert Museum, and Chiricahua National Monument, in addition to visiting sites where neither of us had been before--Sabino Canyon and Bisbee, to name a couple.
I expected to be wowed again by the landscape, with its unique array of plants and animals, and I was. What I didn't expect was the flash flood of memories and emotions that swept through me. I remembered the connection I'd once felt to the desert and how firmly I'd believed it would be an ongoing part of my life. I thought about the decisions I'd made that took me away from that vision, the places I wound up instead, and how easy it is for years to slip by while you're thinking, "Someday, I'll . . . "
My musings could have been an exercise in regret; instead I made a conscious decision to use those memories as a tool to explore my feelings about the paths I've traveled, where they've led me, and where I still want to go. (I'm not just talking about geography here, you understand.)
Putting myself back in my twenty-seven-year-old mind, I asked myself what excited me about the prospects ahead. What did I value in my vision of the future? Returning to my sixty-nine-year-old mind, I asked myself how much of that excitement and those values I still possess—even though I took a different route to them—and what I might still make space for in my life.
My conclusions: At twenty-six, I prized my freedom: freedom to explore whatever captured my interest, freedom to live where I wanted, freedom to spend my days doing something rewarding. I took it as a given that my explorations would keep me close to nature. That's the part I lost for a time, when I spent long days cooped up in an office, in a big city.
Now I'm living a close-to-nature existence again—not in the desert, but in another place that teems with wildlife, wildflowers, and woods—and I have my freedom back. When I think about where I want to go next, it's out to discover more wondrous places, not just to see and photograph them (though you can bet I'll do that), but also to linger long enough to experience the mystery of these places and let my spirit connect with theirs.
Photos: Nan Pokerwinski & friends
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.