End of the Trail
*Author's Note: Some extras and maybe an epilogue still to come.
"Somewhere ages and ages hence: two roads diverged in a wood and I- I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference." - Robert Frost
The next morning I was laying in the Urgent Care ward in the Flagstaff Medical Center. One nurse on my left was taking my blood pressure. Another stood at the foot of my cot telling me the arthropod bite on my right index finger didn't even come close to justifying my presence here. I'd made the mistake of mentioning it to Mom when the week-old swell failed to go down. That combined with the anecdote of my tarantula roomie and the fact that I'd been sleeping an unnatural amount since she arrived led Mom to the conclusion that I was slowly succumbing to a deadly venom.
"Well, it's not necrotic," the nurse with the clipboard assured me as she examined my finger, "and you haven't had any fever or vomiting..." I got the feeling she was looking for the best way to tell me I was fine and should vacate my cot for the people in the ER who really needed it. "It could be any number of things," she shrugged finally, "but I've seen some nasty poisonous spider bites from South America, and this is not one of them." She wrote a prescription for a mild antihistamine and told the technician to prepare my discharge form.
"Well," suddenly Mom was all cheer as she addressed the nurse, "now that's taken care of, can you recommend any fun cowboy bars on the way to Sedona?"
It wouldn't have been a real adventure if I hadn't ended up in the hospital at least once. Being kicked out of said hospital by a hefty nurse with a glare like daggers only added to the drama.
Scottsdale is great, Flagstaff is better, and Sedona is best. We knew we were getting close when the sandstone spires jutting out of the Ponderosas turned rust-coloured with iron deposits. I remember seeing them for the first time seven years ago, when we'd arrived in the town for a jeep tour. It was daybreak, when the sun hits the rocks in just the right way, lighting them up to a blazing burnt orange. I remember thinking if there were a paint shade called 'Sedona Sunrise', it would be my favourite colour in the world.
The main strip appeared out of nowhere, an oasis of wood-beam Wild West shops secluded in the mountains. Those that weren't selling red dirt shirts or turquoise jewellery were marketing crystals and medicine stones. Besides being voted the most beautiful place in America, Sedona is renowned as a center of spiritual energy. New Age fanatics flock from all over the world to experience its special healing and meditation vibes. We passed no less than six psychic offices on the way to the Super 8 Motel.
When we got there, we finally opened the bottle of Visanto I'd been saving since Santorini. We toasted the unreal beauty of where we were and relaxed for a while in the immortal sunlight (the weather girl on the radio forecasted sun "tomorrow and the next day and the next day and the next day and the next day" and so on and so forth). We watched the sunset from the rooftop patio of the Olde Town Sedona Bar and Grill, a locals-only watering hole with surprisingly good food and peopled with an even better cast of characters. At nine o'clock a talented band of cowboys broke out electric guitars and performed uncanny Classic Rock renditions. Two wiry old men sat at the bar adjacent us. One was crumpled with arthritis and in a wheelchair. He was bald except for a halo of white hair that grazed his bony shoulders. His equally skinny buddy had hair like steel wool that stuck out Einstein-style from beneath his baseball cap. He sat on a stool stringing a fishing reel with a focused concentration most surgeons didn't display.
Our waiter was a transfer from England, and during the entertainment we met a rhinestone cowgirl as hardcore as she was gorgeous. With her blond ringlets, black stetson and white sleeveless blouse, she could have been a contender for Miss Arizona. Once we got talking about the ranch she lived and worked on and the sunset rides she enjoyed on the trusty mare she'd had since childhood, I realized she was much more than rodeo queen material. She was everything I wished I could be.
I smiled, half-amused-half-admiring, when the white-haired man started dancing in his wheelchair, spinning around and jigging back and forth on the bar floor. My smile ruptured to amazed and touched laughter, however, when a girl in her early twenties stood up and joined hands with him. They rocked out to the electrifying music and strobe lights for as long as we stayed to watch. I couldn't decide whether this edged out the Grand Canyon as the best thing I'd seen on this trip.
Getting out of the car in the motel parking lot, I suddenly laid an arresting hand on Mom's elbow. She followed my gaze heavenward, and the breath left our bodies in unison. "Over here," Mom dragged me to the edge of the parking lot, where she sat down between two prickly pear cacti, staining her brand new white jeans with red dust. The view was even better than Peru. Up until now I didn't know it was possible to actually see stars twinkle. Big stars and little stars. Bright and dim stars. Near and far stars. So many stars they threatened to crowd out the blackness of the sky around them, otherwise interrupted only by the clear brushstrokes of galaxies. In their orchestral complexity, the stars reminded me of the bells of Giotto's Campanile in Florence. I remembered what Caileigh told me about riding out into a meadow and looking up at the stars: that it was the most inspiring sight in Arizona.
We spent the following morning wandering the shopping strip. We had lunch and prickly pear ice cream and then browsed some more. I had to keep stopping to admire the life-size statues of horses guarding storefronts and gracing the plaza centers. Bronze dogs were sometimes part of the ensemble as well.
I knew I had a past life in the Wild West. That much was obvious, but it wasn't until we visited an Indian Trading Post that it occurred to me to wonder if I'd been a cowgirl or a Native American. The seven-room shop was filled wall-to-wall with an eclectic mixture of animal skins and skulls, massive buffalo heads, tasselled jackets, dilapidated Western saddles, beaded jewellery, woven blankets, rainsticks, talking sticks, totems, hats, boots and so much more. I bought a postcard with a black-and-white photo of Frontierswoman Calamity Jane (born Martha Jane Canary Burke, 1852-1903). "Expert with a horse and rifle," the back of the postcard read, "and often clad in men's clothes. Jane warned that to offend her was to court calamity. She was associated with the 7th Cavalry and scouted for Lt. Col. George Custer. During the 1800's Jane travelled with several Wild West Shows. She enjoyed men and alcohol and led a rip-roaring life from Kansas to Montana." I also bought a pair of leather pigtail wraps, like the daughter of a Sioux chief might have worn.
Mom wanted to hike along one of the many stunning creekside trails in the woods surrounding Sedona. There was a Pro Rodeo going on in Flagstaff (the first in five years, we were told) and I made her drop me off there first. Watching the events from the bleachers with kettle corn and an Arnold Palmer, there was no longer a doubt in my mind that I'd been born in the wrong part of North America. I was in heaven.
The show opened with Mutton Bustin', a hilarious and adorable contest involving six- and seven-year-olds (some even younger) trying to stay on bucking sheep. Then it moved on to the more serious bareback and saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling and calf roping. I particularly loved the mounted shooting, the women in their tight jeans and belt buckles firing Colt 45 revolvers at an obstacle course of balloons from the backs of charging buckskins. Real women, I thought. Young kids competed in the mounted shooting, too, but they carried air rifles and water pistols. The final contestant was a seventy-two-year-old world-champion shooter named Jim Rogers (no really, that was his name) who blasted in to steal the show.
The barrel racing was my favourite. Like the mounted shooting, it was an individual contest between single horse-and-rider teams racing against the clock, without the torturous involvement of another animal (during one intermission, every child in the audience under twelve was invited into the ring to try and capture a ribbon tied to a calf's tail, for entertainment's sake. I swear I saw the poor creature's eyes double in size when the gun went off and close to a hundred kids charged toward it).
There was something about the way the barrel racers leaned into the turns with reckless abandon, nearly laying their horses on their sides, and then floated over the saddle, legs seemingly detached as they streaked across the finish line in the final unchecked gallop. That last blast of speed was when they threw it all to the wind, opened the throttle and just ran free. Suddenly dressage seemed painfully tame, Fur Elise compared to heavy metal. I made a mental note to learn barrel racing at some point in my life.
The grand finale was bull riding. Although I tried to be open-minded, it was one event I still hadn't fully been able to make peace with. Instead of feeling sorry for the animals, Mom and I (she'd finished her hike and had joined me by now) made the decision to look at it as men with overinflated egos and an excess of testosterone repeatedly getting tossed on their asses. It was one extreme sport I'd never had any desire to try, unless you count the mechanical bull in my hometown's one phony country and western bar. As much as I loved the rodeo, I thought you had to be truly 'loco' to climb on the back of a bull, let alone with the express goal of getting thrown off it. Did I mention no helmets were worn in this entire competition? Men.
The next morning I got up to watch the sunrise. My last sunrise in Sedona, in Arizona, in the States, in any place apart from home. I slipped out from beneath the covers at 6AM and tiptoed into the hall, careful not to wake Mom as I closed the door gently behind me. The mountain air was clean and young and slipped easily through my system. I sat in the parking lot in my pajamas and watched the light grow on the horizon, watched the rocks catch fire. It was every bit as glorious as I remembered, the best sunrise I'd seen yet.
Mom and I packed our bags and checked out of the hotel. The thought of going home was scarier to me now than leaving had been. As we loaded our suitcases in the trunk of the rental car, I confided this to Mom for the thousandth time. "You are completely, one hundred percent in control," she reminded me, also for the thousandth time. "Your only responsibility is to yourself. You don't have to do anything you don't want to do." You'd think I would have learned this by now, but it was reassuring to hear it from an outside source.
Everywhere in Arizona they sell these 'End of the Trail' icons. As ubiquitous a symbol as Kokopelli, the hunchback flute player, they come in figurines of every size, material and function, but always depict the same image: a Native American on horseback, both he and his horse bowed forward in the rawest exhaustion, burned out by an inconceivably long journey. End of the Trail reminded me of the words spray-painted on the wall at the end of the pier in Heraklion: "The end". The man is slumped over with his chin to his chest, almost ready to give in to unconsciousness. The horse's head, too, is nearly on the ground, as though he can barely pick his feet up. The first time I came here and saw them, I couldn't imagine ever being so tired. Now, however, I couldn't imagine having the energy to take care of the business I knew I would be swamped in the second I arrived home. Every molecule of my body, mind and soul screamed for recovery time. Already I could sense the pressure of friends and family wanting to get together, and I prayed for just two days grace. Two days to rest, unpack, get settled, get organized and maybe get a haircut. Two days just to take care of the basics.
On the way out of Sedona, Mom wanted to stop and see an energy vortex. "Well, where is it?" She ranted, standing atop a bare outcropping in her skirt and flip-flops.
"It's here," I told her, gesturing to the other hikers gathered on the red rocks. "What did you expect to see?" Apparently Mom had been looking for a spiralled crater or whirlpool of some kind, but Sedona's famed vortexes are just spiritual focal points where energy flow is believed to exist in multiple dimensions, and interacts with a person's inner self. I knew we were there because there was a small group of soul-searchers nearby getting spiritual counselling from a guide who told them to close their eyes and visualize the means to their goals.
"It doesn't have to be some great epiphany," she was saying, "just a feeling. The answers you are looking for are inside. All you have to do is listen."
Standing atop that rock, listening, I took stock of all the experiences I'd had, and everything I'd learned. I'd thrown myself into the lion's den in Rome, terrified and lonely and armed with only a puny pocket knife and crippling naivety. I'd visited the world's smallest country in Vatican City, seen the Coliseum, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. I'd heard the bells of Giotto's Campanile in Florence, looked out over the Arno from the Ponte Vecchio and stood before Botticelli's original "Birth of Venus" in the Uffizi Gallery. I'd laughed in hysterical relief when I somehow arrived successfully in Croatia via a harrowing series of trains, buses and border crossings. I'd toured medieval castles and some of the country's most prominent vineyards (not to mention had some of the best food and wine of my life) in Istria. I'd been hassled endlessly in Athens, seen the remnants of Europe's oldest civilization on Crete and experienced the ancient, unrivalled beauty of Santorini. I'd fought to breathe in the high Inca city of Cusco, and ridden a horse on a multi-day trek through the Andes. I'd visited Machu Picchu, a dream most people never realize in their lifetime. I'd seen the face of God in the Grand Canyon, for the second time.
I'd met a lot of truly beautiful people, and I'd spent a lot of time alone, exploring both the external and internal. I won't pretend to be some great, wise master of balance and self-possession, but I know at least a few things for certain. I know that if you go looking for something, bravely and earnestly, and with complete openness, priority and abandon, you will find it. It's impossible not to.
I know I'm addicted to travel. I thought I would get it out of my system, that I would be ready for the stability and familiarity of home when the time came. Instead I feel as though I just stepped off the most exhilarating roller coaster ride of my life, and want to get right back in the long, hot, taxing line, like a little kid yelling, "let's do it again!" Travel has become a lifestyle. I know I will never stop as long as my mind and body allow, and I know, like after you try a new recipe, how to make the end result even better the next time.
I know the limits (or lack thereof) of my own capabilities. I know I'm still a cowgirl at heart, and someday, when I'm finally finished travelling (if I ever am), I will settle in Arizona. I fit right in here. I belong here.
Most importantly, I know what I want. This small victory is worth far more than all the rest. I won't be returning home to the fear and confusion of life as I left it. I'm secure and comfortable in my own decisions. This is a tool that will make every step, every new venture, every commitment a thousand times easier. Like the guide at the vortex said, most of the time the answers you go searching for are inside you all along. The purpose of the quest is to find out what they are.
The adventure isn't over. Life at home is a different kind of adventure. The prospect of it is new and exciting. All the pain, fear and regret that followed me out, I left it on the trail. It belonged to a different person.
I looked out the window of the plane as we flew out of Phoenix. Beyond the reflection of a healthy girl in jeans and cowboy boots with her ponytail secured in Navajo leather - a girl I knew very well - the same brilliant stars we'd seen in Sedona were coming with us. That's what happens when it gets dark. As we got closer to Detroit, however, the wing of the plane began to gleam with the first morning light. I smiled, glad to be headed into the sunrise.