National Parks

Texas to Oregon

The sun is still asleep and the room is black. I can see the light coming down the hallway and under the door as I feel Alana move into consciousness next to me. Check my phone: 4:45 am. My eyes squint as I look around trying to make out their shapes. The boys, no longer on the floor next to our mattress, are both already up and moving - no surprises there.

I'm not sure why we decided to all sleep in the same room that night. It wasn't a discussion really; it was just the way it unfolded as the evening went on. One by one as the sleepiness set in we each retired to the room at the back of the house. Maybe it was kindness thing, to avoid making our send off party feel like they had to go before they were ready. Maybe it was a closure thing, needing to physically shut the door to bring our time in Austin to an end. Or maybe it was a comfort thing, hoping that waking up to our last Austin morning would be easier together.

Because the truth is that we did do it together - both physically and emotionally. They say there is strength in numbers and I think this was the case for us. Some people didn’t understand the desire to move across the country with three other people, but we didn’t need them to. Maybe we could have done it alone, maybe not, but either way it didn’t really matter. We each had our own reasons for going, and looking around there was a sense that we understood each others need for movement from this place that had given our souls so much rest.

It wasn’t easy to leave a city where we all felt so rooted and surrounded by community. A community that cared deeply and took care of us, that taught us that we aren’t alone and we aren’t weak. Austin had taken each of us and built us into new humans. The city pulled and stretched and molded me into someone almost unrecognizable from the person I was when I showed up all alone four years prior. It was our home and it was our comfort.

But the truth is that too much comfort can lead to being content, and being too content can quickly lead to becoming stagnant. We loved our comfort but we feared becoming stagnant. As humans, I think it is when our fears begin to overlap that we realize we aren’t alone. We were together in our fears and together in our comforts, which made it easier to take the leap

So with three cars and a U-haul we went. The days that followed were long but full. 3,000 miles of laughs through Walkie Talkies, pick-up truck tears in the middle of the desert, and late night mountain talks about our new soon-to-be home. Finding a new place to breathe was something that we each wanted for ourselves, but as we each sought that out there was no shame in admitting that we were stronger together. 

Mt. Rainier National Park

Venturing into a thick morning fog and drizzle we headed north from Portland on our way to Mt. Rainier. Within twenty minutes we had already crossed into Washington state, if you've spent any time living in Texas crossing a state border is no small task so this was a foreign experience. 

After driving alongside rivers and through forests like I hadn't seen since living in New Hampshire I was already in love with the landscape of the Pacific Northwest. As we walked out of the gift shop at the entrance to the park I heard my friends yelling my name and pointing for me to turn around. I swung around and there through the clearing clouds I saw the peak of Mt. Rainier. My face lit up like a child's on Christmas morning. What stood before me was impressively massive and I probably would have been just as excited if it was visible as soon as we rolled in, but the slow reveal was the icing on the cake. 

We went on a few little hikes, a couple miles here and there, and drove through the park stopping at the easy accesbile waterfalls to snap some photos and make snide comments about how nothing in Texas even comes close to what you can see from a parking lot in Washington. But what we did with the majority of our time was just sit. Even writing that sentence has me scratching my own head; "Really? You just sat? Surrounded by trails and mountains you've never stepped foot on, in a state that you'd never been to before, and you chose to sit?" But there we were hanging out under a canopy of trees, something we could have done anywhere, and yet it somehow felt like exactly what we were supposed to be doing in that moment.

The reason this was possible was because of the group of people that came together for this trip. I've camped with large groups before, but something about this weekend seemed different. I knew everyone that made the trip to Rainier; girlfriend, best friends, friends from almost a decade ago, to folks who I met my very first night in Austin. Somehow all these people getting together made this "thing" that I didn't know. These nine people created something larger than just each individual person, the group took on it's own persona and it was a truly beautiful thing to experience. Everyone brought a unique perspective and personality to the table and no one held that in, which isn't always easy to do, especially considering some of these folks were meeting each other for the first time. 

Smoke from our campfire filled the air all weekend, and so did laughter. We shared jokes and ghost stories, took naps, cooked amazing meals, practiced our wood chopping skills, ate more hot dogs than anyone should ever eat, and for once didn't get in trouble with park rangers. 

On our last morning in Rainier we all stood around in a circle and made toasts to our time spent under the pines. The words that stuck with me the most were those about how all these people from all these places came together to make the most memorable weekend. How sometimes there are personalities in a group that need babysitting, and how that wasn't the case at all the past few days.

If you know me at all you know that I have a real problem sitting still, it's the reason why I travel the way I do. Franticly moving from one location to another, never spending quite enough time in any one place, but always seeming to satisfying my urge to see as much as I can during my weekends or short vacations. Even when I'm "doing nothing" I always seem to be fidgeting around with something, editing photos, checking my phone, getting up to poke around my house not looking for anything in particular. It's also the reason why it's taken me four weeks to write the few paragraphs you see above. My time in Mt. Rainier was the antithesis of my standard, I did not worry about seeing or doing as much as I could, I sat still, I enjoyed. Looking back if someone asks me what we did in Rainier I would probably answer, "Nothing, and it was glorious."

New Mexico Part Two

It was Friday at 2:00 pm and we were both still at work. Memorial Day weekend had finally arrived, yet here we were being forced to sit on our hands and watch the freedom time-bomb count down. It was unbearable. 

Eventually, 5:00 pm and the weekend came. The first Friday in months Jeremy had been required to stay that late and it felt like the worst thing ever. As I walk through his front door, I can tell he feels bad for being the one that held us up. He starts to apologize and I cut him off "don't be stressed, no bad vibes, this weekend is ours." Ice down the cooler, load the truck, grab Piper's leash, don't forget anything, did we grab the pillows? (we always forget the pillows), open the Topo Chicos, and hit the road.

Three hours down the road and it's time for a pit stop. We walk into the truck stop and Jeremy immediately hands me a bumper sticker "Cowboy Butts Drive Me Nuts." It's funny because I grew up in a little country town. I hand one back, "Monica Lewinsky's Ex-Boyfriend's Wife For President." It's funny because Hillary Clinton. 

Use the bathroom, joke about buying cheese curds, and back out to the gas pump we go. Already 10 pm and still two hours to go until we get to Fort Stockton. We're used to driving long and late, moving fast to not waste time, but this time is different. Don't be stressed, no bad vibes, this weekend is ours. We sit in the truck for a bit, check out a giant mural of running horses on the side of the building, I pretend I'm one of those running horses, Jeremy records it. It's getting late and we're getting goofy.

Back on the dark highway the quietness within the truck tells us we are getting tired. We listen to an episode of The Dirt Bag Diaries and agree that in some bizarre way it sounds as if the girl in the podcast is talking directly to me. Jeremy puts on the new Lumineers album. I crank it up, roll down the window, and throw my face and arms out into the cool air. I usually do this when I'm tired in some sort of attempt to let the fresh air bring me back from the dead. But in this moment I feel rooted in my alive-ness, in my being. It was if the night was dancing around me in celebration and nothing could stop us racing down that highway. The wind running through my lungs whispering sacred secrets only I was meant to know, while the Lumineers were screaming back with affirmation, "I was not born to drown."

Finally at midnight we make it to the campsite. Jeremy grabs our information and we throw up our tent by the light of our headlamps. I try not to disturb the sleeping tent next to us, but sometimes peeing in the dark is really funny.

It's hard for us to sleep past daybreak when we camp. 6:00 am the sun comes alive and so do we. We hung around this little campsite just long enough to watch the world wake up and let Piper pee on a fire hydrant - then its back in the truck and back on the road.

Our trip continued on past this night. It took us to places and things that most would consider bigger and better than a Friday on the road and a night in a tent. Sure, almost falling over at the vastness of Carlsbad Caverns, camping in Bluff Springs, and running wild in White Sands are things I'll never forget.  But it's these little moments of my man and me celebrating our freedom and taking all the damn time we please that make up the memory highlight reel from this trip. Don't be stressed, no bad vibes, this weekend was ours.

Big Bend National Park

I've been here before. This long desolate drive is familiar and I use ranches and distant mountains as markers to tell me how much further we have to go. WELCOME HUNTERS, a huge banner says strung across two light posts on the main street of a sleepy town. It's the kind of place that always makes me wonder what people here do for fun. Ten in the morning and there are a few old farm trucks parked in front of the one place that seems to still be in business; a bar. I guess that's what they do for fun. "Six more hours" I think to myself. The stops are few and far between so when something comes up on the horizon it's easy to remember it, "I've bought coffee at that gas station, four more hours". The smell of oil starts to permeate the air. The first time the scent that is so familiar to Texans entered my car years ago I actually pulled over because I assumed it was leaking out of my own engine; now it gives me the feeling that I am going somewhere. "Two more hours." We pass a tilted brown road sign that reads Sierra Madera Astrobleme, my friend Jake and I both yell "astrobleme". We pronounce it incorrectly because it is more fun to say the wrong way. We're almost there. 

My face probably doesn't show it as I spit my thousandth sunflower seed shell out of the window of a truck that is loaded down with tents, sleeping bags, camp stoves, propane, coolers and three of the most genuine people I have ever met in my life; but I am excited. Excited to share this place with the people who mean the most to me, excited to experience it through the eyes of those that I love, I'm excited for their excitement. 

There is a sign on the ranger station instructing us to pay the entrance fee inside the visitors center. We walk in and scribbled on a white board I see the words, Rio Grande Village Full, Chisos Basin Full, Cottonwood Full; all of the campsites are full. My heart sinks as I walk up to the grey haired volunteer leaning against the desk. I badger her a little bit, "Nothing? Really? Not even a primitive site?" She doesn't seem amused, but i'm sure a hundred other people have already asked her the same thing today. She informs us of a private ranch eight miles outside of the park where we could camp, it's our only option at this point.

I walk outside feeling defeated, I had an idea in my head as to how this weekend would go, step by step it was all planned out up there. Jake seems to take it all in stride, I have been in this position with him before and it turned out to be one of the best nights of camping i've ever had. But still i'm thinking back to being here in the past and how much those trips transformed me. I'm frustrated because I want Jake, Lindsey and especially Lauren to feel what i've felt here before.

We turn around and head back towards the entrance of Big Bend and start making our way towards the ranch, I can tell that Jake is trying to convince me that everything is going to work out but i'm being stubborn and only quietly mutter a few words. As we walk into the ranch office, which also serves as a general store, conversation is immediately struck up with the man behind the counter. He is telling us all about his life, travels, and the secrets hidden within the park. Lauren pulls a six pack of cheap beer out of the cooler and places it on the counter. We find out that it is actually fourteen dollars, not cheap, but still money well spent after being on the road since sunrise. Before we push the screen door open and head back out into the desert Lauren asks the man "What's your favorite place that you've been too?" without hesitation he answers, "Well Big Bend of course."

This is what it's all about I thought to myself. Yes I have been here before, but I have not been here. As i've touched on a previous time in my writing, it is not about the place it's about the people. I could visit the same place a handful of times and every time would be different because of who i'm with or who I strike up a conversation with. Maybe I had forgotten this on the drive to the park, but Lauren's interaction with the man overcharging us for Tecate was surely a reminder.

The gals in the back seat, Jake and I looked at each other while driving down a dirt road looking for the perfect campsite. Without speaking a word we knew that the park campgrounds being full was actually a blessing in disguise. The gravel crunched beneath our tires as I let my hand ride the wave of wind out of a wide open window while we pulled up to a spot that looked ideal to pitch our tents. 

Later we chased the last remaining bit of light through the park so we could sit in the hot springs situated on the border. I relaxed in a corner spot, taking it all in as a couple of guys jumped into the river and swam across just so they could say they went to Mexico. With the sun setting in the background I took a sip of wine from a cup I had carried down with me. Jake is asking me if I want to take the plunge into the Rio Grande when I see two National Park Rangers walking up to us. I know what's about to happen. 

"What's in those cups?" one of them asks me.

"Wine" I say without hesitation

"Okay pour it out and come with us."

The four of us get out of the springs and gather our shoes, clothes, backpacks and cameras as everyone just gawks at what's happening. We start to make the walk of shame back to the truck as the rangers shine their flashlights behind us, lighting up the short dusty trail ahead. The rangers give us the standard run down of questions and take our licenses, one of them calls our info in to make sure we "aren't hardened criminals", as the other searches the truck. 

They call Jake over and I watch him take a sobriety test; we've only had a drink or two so I know he'll be fine. We're sitting in a dirt parking lot in wet bathing suits as Jake follows the finger of one of the rangers. "Okay you guys are fine." They let us know that the springs are the one place where you can't have alcohol in the park, but of course we already knew that. 

Service is spotty in the park but the next day an Instagram notification comes through on my phone. I open it up, it's from the ranger who had talked to us at the hot springs. We all lose it, it's an unbelievably a small world. I converse with him a bit and apologize for making him go through the hassle of last night. This is just another reminder that i've been to Big Bend before but I have not been here.

The rest of our days in the park were filled with hiking, a lot of laughter, and even a seafood dinner (yes we brought seafood to the desert and lived to tell tale). Everything about this weekend was a reminder of why I like to revisit places I have been before.

After our run in with the law we're back at the ranch with a roaring fire, one we wouldn't have been able to have if we stayed in the park. Now i'm sitting by the crackle and warmth of one as I watch my friends dance in the in the glow of headlights from a truck that was blasting Justin Beiber (or maybe Taylor Swift, I can't remember). I questioned why I even thought things had to be like they were when I had come here in the past. Big Bend was not the same this time around, and it wasn't supposed to be. I had been here before but this time was different. Different, but better. 

New years road trip - joshua tree

in the middle of the desert, miles from any big city, lies joshua tree national park. a place that, honestly, doesn't make much sense. yucca trees for miles and giant rock formations that seem to have somehow landed in the middle of nowhere, for no reason at all, other than to provide a grown-up play ground for you and me. 

hiking, playing, and walking around this place brought so many questions. how did these rocks get here? how do they all seem to have nature-made staircases that allow us to get to the top so easily? what are these cactus things that fade in color? and how on earth does that giant rock look like a skull? again and again, i kept asking Jeremy and myself, how is all of this possible? so many questions, not a lot of answers.

next thing i know new years eve rolled around and i suddenly realized, all these questions about joshua tree and not a single one about 2016 and what i wanted it to be. a whole new year to be whoever i wanted. but what did i want exactly? how could i prepare myself for the hard times 2016 would bring? how could i be a better human? and how could i possibly make these little dreams of mine come true? sitting in the quiet and reflecting on these questions i felt myself turn into a ball of panic, paralyzed by the fear of not having any answers for myself.

america yall jeremy pawlowski lauren simpson joshua tree national park california vsco camping truck

but what i came to realize sitting in this place that couldn't provide answers to my questions, was that maybe life's the same way. maybe we aren't supposed to be given the answers. maybe knowing the answers right now isn't the point. maybe the point now is to simply have patience for these questions. to have patience for ourselves while our soul seeks out the answers. 


"make yourself proud"

my friend uttered these words to me a while back in regards to making it through the summer and they've stuck with me for the past three months. acting as a guiding light, they've helped me take a step back and do my best to live intentionally, and more importantly own up to it when i haven't. 

i've spent hours trying to write more related to his quote, but there is so much power and beauty in the simplicity of those words that not much else needs to be said.