Roots of Aimless Travel

This trip had its genesis some four years ago, when I was flying back from San Jose on a nearly empty flight to Boston. Looking down, I saw the usual mountains, canyons and rugged terrain of the southwest: there were no jeep trails. In most parts of the West, jeep trails are everywhere, snaking across deserts, scaling mountains, and leaving their scars behind for decades even if the area is declared off limits to vehicular travel.


When I landed, I pulled out a map and saw that it was Nevada I had been traveling over: the state that's easy to forget, because there is so little there (quick -- name five things in Nevada. Odds are you couldn't -- unless you’re from Nevada). It is one of the largest and emptiest states in the country, with areas as large as some eastern states without a single town, and more than 100 miles between gas stations more often not.


I’m a big fan of the west. I grew up in the east, camping, fishing and hiking, but always following trails to get to wherever the person that laid out the trail thought I should go. Out west, you don’t have that problem. I distinctly remember when that revelation struck me, on a three-week driving/camping trip that I took with my brother the year I graduated from high school. We flew to Denver, and then roamed around Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and California, stopping to camp and hike wherever we pleased.


Partway through the trip, we were crossing the panhandle of Idaho, driving across the Sawtooth Mountains, and following the Clearwater River to the Pacific (as Lewis and Clark had done long before, although we didn’t know it at the time). I thought it was the most extravagantly beautiful place I’d ever seen: tall trees, cascading, impossibly clear water, and even more pristine air — a world in natural Technicolor. Of course, we stopped for the night.


The next day, we took a dirt road up into the mountains that the Clearwater divided, coming out eventually above the tree line, and stopped when we reached the ridge top. Everywhere we looked, the mountains rose and fell into the infinite distance. Around us, it was like a Japanese garden: glacier-scoured granite; moss and wild flowers; spectral, wind and snow-sculpted trunks of twisted trees, bleached to a clean, pure white by decades of winter ice and wind following the forest fire that had wiped the mountain tops clean. That was when it hit me that I could take my pack and walk for a week if I wished, anywhere I wanted to go, each direction as eligible as the next.


I promised myself that I would come back there one day, and thirty years later I did. But the scene had vanished: in thirty years, the forests had grown back, and the endless alpine garden was gone.


By then, though, I had discovered the same reality existed throughout the southwest, and had already taken dozens of vacations, short and long, each with no itinerary or destination to constrain me, but always with endless vistas of mountains, deserts, buttes and canyons to explore, making my own trails as I walked.