In Part Two of the Great American Parks we meet some of the characters on board the bus with Zara. Check out Part One here.
I wanted to introduce to you some of the people who drove, camped, cooked and laughed with me on my trip. There were 12 of us with a leader, assigned to us by the company, Trek America. Each of us signed up from our respective places of origin online, and meet in the summer of 2014 to drive from New York City to Los Angeles together.
I was the only one who would stay on in the United States, as there was nothing left for me in England. I had graduated from university and the person I thought was The One had literally left me standing in the pouring rain with nothing but my very broken heart rattling around in my chest. Unsure what my future would be like in England, I hopped into a van alongside a group of strangers, some of whom would, in the course of the trip, help me re-discover the goodness in myself.
The One – who turned out to be Not The One – had left me with the words: “I tried to love you for who you are, and I could not.” These words chased themselves around my head and it was not until this trip that I started to feel some freedom from my old self. I had been so deeply entrenched in what I thought was the love of my life, I’d lost sight of who I was without him.
My little van was made up of a mix of mostly of young people hailing from all over England, with one beautiful German videographer who loved to travel and the nicest, most stylish Korean boy I’ve ever met. We had a road trip song, American Pie, by Don McLean, and the words seemed to sum up the experiences we had: ‘I can still remember how that music used to make me smile.’
LeAnne came from the north of England, and was on the road trip for the same reason as me. We’d both just had our hearts smashed and were unsure what to do with ourselves. Neither of us really knew how to be people, but what we shared was that we both loved ardently and were hurting more than words could express. To her core she was incredibly funny, sweet and lovely. We shared a tent, and there was not a night I didn’t fall asleep laughing with her or wake up swearing at the earliness of the hour.
The process of living in a tent is at times arduous. You learn where to place your things so they won’t get wet in case condensation seeps in, exactly how much room there is in your sleeping bag (as someone who is a restless sleeper, this was important). Over time pitching and collapsing becomes second nature if you stay in it long enough. LeAnne was usually in charge of arranging the inside of our home and carrying the metal poles I tended to get frustrated with.
Amy and Lara (below left) were travelling together simply to see some of America. They were best friends and were always laughing, both from Birmingham, England. Whilst on the road we were split into groups of three and took turns cooking dinner for everyone. Lara was on my team, and would always helm the meal choices. We would cook using a re-fillable gas canister, metal pans and cheap(ish) plates/ silver wear. Amy hated the sound of a knife and fork touching. The campsites usually had facilities to wash up after our troop ravenously devoured whatever we ate, even if the site itself didn’t always have showers.
Lara thought I was an enigma and Amy patted my hand reassuringly when I would break a little. Once, I was crying in the middle of the night in the centre of the campsite we were in. They came across me sobbing, questioning my life once again, and were especially kind.
It would be okay, I would be okay, they said.
Cat, the fearless leader, showing us one of the paths in Wyoming. Photo credit: Zara Treharne
Cat was our leader, our tour guide and American connoisseur. She drank small amounts of whiskey out of a coffee mug by the fire and had the impeccable music taste of a girl who had spent hours beyond hours on the road. Cat was a sort of inspiration to me, her job was to live on the road and to be constantly moving, which is something I wanted so badly- to always be moving after having stayed still for so long. She was full of facts, and knew a little about a lot. A fan of road-side oddities, she allowed us to experience the Spam Museum- yes, exactly what it sounds like, The Corn Palace that housed huge murals on it’s walls made entirely of different colors of corn and Wall Drug, which is a roadside mecca holding everything from a stuffed Bison to cowboy boots to weapons to a chapel.
One night, after a long hike at Yellowstone, everyone met back at the campsite as usual. On the table we were going to cook on was a very large, very real cow skull. It had been left by who we assumed was another young-people based group who were also journeying across the parks. I’m not sure if it was meant to spook us, but I seized it and insisted that it was to be the mascot for our trip.
Tonight Ollie had commandeered the stove. Oliver was the resident comedian in our little van and would often help me when I got stuck in my 1994 Pokemon Red game. He was making his favourite food for everyone this particular evening. An Englishman till the end, he ran a tight ship. We watched him protectively dancing around those helping him create his masterpiece.
At last, he donned the skull, climbed on top of one of the tables, spread his arms and cried ‘CHILLI CHEESE NACHOES.’ They were amazing.
This is a picture of Ben and I. I’ve already told you about Ben- who was my first boy best friend after The One Who Wasn’t The One. Ben and I read comic books, played Pokemon and ate gravy covered fries in Vancouver. He teased me about being from southern England, and I matched his comments about his northern-ness. I sat by him and bothered him into talking to me, I asked question after question till he swore at me in frustration. We exchanged short words, he lost a bet and ended up buying a creepy wooden rabbit in an Amish town we stopped in. After that we were in friend-love.
He wrote me a note post-one too many beers and told me to write, take photos, draw, listen to people and that I was awesome, and bossy as hell. He ended it with “You’re a pain in the arse, I love you.”
While I was with these people I was nothing but my messy, unsure self of the moment. I am quite sure that a couple of them loved me, just for who I was, and I loved them back.
Oh, and there we were all in one place, A generation lost in space, With no time left to start again
Redwoods National Park, California
We had a tradition to stop at each state line and to look at the sign. When we reached California, it sank in that I was there. I felt like Dorothy arriving in Oz.
Originally, I was supposed to drive across America with the boy I loved. After I had come out of the shock of what felt like my whole soul cracking in half, I knew I must still go.
My whole life, I felt as if I should move to America. Before, during and after him I had always wanted to go to LA. I felt a pull and push against the culture I grew up in and around. I wanted to just go. In my last year of University my life utterly fell apart and I completely lost my will to carry on living there or just about at all. I had always struggled with this, with my will. The last scraps of it put the remaining fibers of who I was onto the plane to the USA. I felt that if I didn’t move there I wouldn’t be able to continue with my life. That was my horse of a different color, my key to the glittering city in my imagination- that I surely felt I had to leave everything behind.
From the sign we drove to Redwoods, we set up camp and went on a small afternoon hike. Since leaving England I had deeply missed the dense forests I loved to get lost in. I lived on the edge of a great forest in Sussex that I often would wonder when I felt wild. Being in the Redwoods made me remember how safe it feels to be in a place that exists because it is deeply loved. All the National Parks were instated because a human being loved them so much they couldn’t bare for it ever to be touched too much by the industrial hand of the future.
When you go there and you know that it has looked the same for hundreds of years- well, how many other places can you say that about?
Frankly, it’s wonderful.
When in a National Park, pick up all of the maps you can. Ask the lovely rangers which one is their favorite hike. Where can you find the tallest tree? Which trail has this type of bird on it?
The hike the next day was the main event. It utterly floored me.
These trees, these embodiments of time, nature and the idea that everything is still yet intensely alive towered above us all. I watched the sun dance through the trees and over the mossy ground. Great trunks and tiny twigs had fallen, becoming part of this incredible ecosystem overflowing with my most basic idea of what nature could look like. This basic idea was transcended with the sheer power of the forest, this truly old and wonderful forest.
These mystical, majestic trees had seen a thousand sunsets and stood through centuries of humanity attempting to tear itself apart. I felt their strength in my step. Almost at the end of my trip, I could feel myself starting to become whole again, loved back to health by the reassurance that life simply carries on, wither I am a human or a bird or a mountain or a lake or a tree. Everything, including me, was constantly growing and changing.
All my favorite stories have very important trees. In Peter Pan, each lost boy has a tree they fit to which takes them down to their underground home. The Little Prince in which the illustrations of the Baobab trees and their power to destroy planets. Even in the most obvious of tree-related stories The Faraway Tree- I felt in my heart the trees of the Redwoods had the same magic as all of those stories. That the trees, the stories and now myself could exist simply because they were deeply loved by at least one person.
Yosemite National Park, California
This national park is most famous in the photography world for the body of work produced by Ansel Adams over his life. I attempted to stalk the various places he would have taken some of his more famous shots as I felt that my degree in Photojouralism required me to, and my lecturers would be horrified if I didn’t. Although the mountains had not changed, the woods were thicker and the grass was sparse. The environment and climate change had worked on Yosemite and the possibility to have a something happen twice was eradicated by time. We had gone in late August, when all the waterfalls had dried up or were mere trickles. California is still suffering from a drought, and with it the Parks suffer too.
At each national park, you can earn your junior ranger badge. This tends to be for children but can be completed at any age. You simply have to ask to do it. Ben and I studied the page of requirements from the Information Point excitedly and thus embarked on a kind of treasure hunt for all the things required to earn the ranger badge. Doing this kind of thing pushes one to be involved in the parks the way a child would. With open eyes and an an adventurous heart, with a willingness to look at and hear everything. One of the requirements was to listen to a talk given by the rangers- I chose to go to Storytelling.
Nestled in the park we sat among other junior rangers (we were the oldest by about 10 years) and listened to the beautiful stories of how men and women have dedicated their lives to preserving Yosemite. One story was told by an older Native American lady, who spoke of how the world was made according to one of their legends:
In the beginning the earth was entirely covered with water. A Great Spirit lived on this water in a beautiful boat, and was companions with all the creatures of the sea. There were creatures that soared above in the sky that could not come down as there was no where to roost, so these two lands of the sky and water were separated. This made the Great Spirit sad so one day asked one of his friends, a small frog, to investigate what was beneath the water. The little frog dove all the way down to the depths of the ocean and found a substance that we’d now call mud. He brought it up to the Great Spirit. The Great Spirit saw that if more mud was brought land could be made. All the animals that could collected this substance from the bottom of the ocean. Once formed, all the creatures that lived in the sky came down to find a home and the Great Spirit could have all that were loved in one place.
She signed our papers, which Ben and I took to a lady who laughed at us as she gave us our badges and we proudly wrote ‘BEN AND ZARA, ENGLAND’ in the register of all the completed junior ranges. We were right underneath a man who was 86. I wish I’d earned my badge at every single one. Maybe someday I will.
The most important things I learnt that summer were these:
– Talk to everyone and eat all the new food you’ve never heard of.
– Pack lightly- in terms of clothes. I picked up most of my bulkier, warmer clothes in little stores and sometimes Walmarts along the way for the colder nights up in the mountains.
– Sometimes you’ll go a few days without showering. Be okay with it.
– Unplug. Be present. If you can, leave technology behind. I had a $15 phone with old-fashioned credit that I used to check in with my parents once a week(ish). I sent post cards and letters to my friends from the road. They survived without me on the end of an internet connection, and as I did without them.
– GOOD WALKING BOOTS.
– Write as much as you can, read as much as you can. Laugh as often as possible. Cry when you need to. Travelling means finding out about people and places, and finding out about you.
What have you done recently that you thought you could never do?
I drove across the United States.
I moved country.
I carried around a bunch of books that were far too heavy.
I mended my very hollow and broken heart with the help of strangers, rivers, roads and the astounding natural beauty that’s all around us if we would only look.