Friday, November 19, 2010

U Turn

The death of my horse, Maxx, had a profound impact on my life. Coupled with the knowledge I had recently gained that I would probably never be able to have children, I found myself lost...unable to identify who I was or even what I liked to do. I had no dreams or ambitions, how could I? Horseback riding was the one thing I could say, with confidence, I was really good at. Now that was gone and I felt 'marked', unlucky, and I couldn't bear to take the chance that I would have to go through another devastating loss like I had with Maxx. There would be no more horses for me.

Several years later, divorced, remarried and with many more heart breaks under my belt, I had my second BIG life changing event. This one was not nearly as depressing, and was, in fact, one of those moments of enlightenment people write about. I took a trip to Death Valley in 2007.

But this was not ordinary was a Green Tortoise Adventure. At the time, I had been married to my second husband who had full custody of his 10 year old son for about 5 years. We were married only 6 months after meeting, partly because I felt that I was getting the best of both worlds...a husband and a son...the child I could never have, and party because of my severely damaged self-esteem. But first a little background. Shortly after New Years 2005, my husband decided he couldn't 'do it anymore'. We had never argued much so I was very confused. He left me that day with no real explanation. Five months later he moved back...and I let him. Obviously my self-esteem was still shot and I continued to walk on egg-shells in my own house. After all, he couldn't give me a reason why he left in the first place so I was afraid that anything I did might make him leave again.

I had recently joined a Book Club group and met a fantastic couple who introduced me to The Green Tortoise ( Now, this is an adventure group and I have always been up for a good adventure. In the past, during my single days, I had no probelm signing up for a rafting trip, baseball games, football games, or a trip to Emerald Bay to learn how to kayak while camping out in one of the most beautiful spots on earth. So, when I saw how inexpensive the Green Tortoise trips were I was game to try one. My husband didn't want to join me and encouraged me to go by myself...funny, he was always trying to get me to just go away without him. I found a short trip that would only mean taking 2 days off from work since it went through a weekend. It was an October trip to Death Valley.

The Green Tortoise trips are these amazing jaunts to all kinds of places...Yosemite, Zion, the Grand Canyon, Burning Man, etc. They run these bus trips that pretty much include all of your food and transportation to the various locations they offer. You can sign up as a single or get some friends together...but the buses accommodate up to 30 people and you most likely won't know any of them. My trip to Death Valley was to start at the bus terminal in San Fransisco on a Friday night at about 730pm. My husband was just generous enough to drop me off in Vallejo to catch the ferry...he didn't get out to say good bye because he had an appointment to get tattooed and traffic was bad. Priorities. I didn't realize that I would be walking about 3 miles from the ferry building to the bus terminal with a 70 pound back pack (I had a few bottles of wine I was lugging around...priorities). I was pretty much exhausted when I made it to the meeting point. At least I thought it was the meeting point...there were several scruffy figures sitting in the alley and I began to wonder if this was a good idea...a 'single' lady travelling to Death Valley with people I didn't know, on a bus I'd never been on, with a company I didn't know anything about...this could be the start of a great adventure or a bad horror movie. Either way, I was about to find out...

A few other people started to gather...a shaggy looking kid with a guitar, a tall teen aged boy, a group of 4 English people (oh, one of them was very cute), another older guy with a guitar, a pretty blonde with a thick Swiss accent saying good bye to what I presumed was her host family. Eventually the tortoise pulled up and we all received instruction and loaded up our gear. The bus would be our sleeping quarters for the night...we'd stop in Stockton and convert the seating areas into a big sleeping platform, brush our teeth at the truck stop and when we awoke the next morning we'd be in Tecopa Hot Springs. Once on board we began to form a brother-sisterhood. Where out on the street we had been strangers, afraid to say hi, we now had a reason to get to know each other. We would be on that bus or in a tent, sleeping side by side, preparing meals together, and keeping track of each other with the buddy system for the next 4 days. It was time to bust out the wine and cards.

Even with the wine I found that I was still pretty much a loaner...just observing the others, wishing I was more outgoing and able to form friendships quickly. Instead, I felt that I was intruding on the others while THEY formed friendships and got to know each other. The 2 guys and 2 girls from England quickly befriended the Scottish guy. The two guitars players bonded and the 'teens' were hanging out together. I got to know Nadine, the Swiss girl, as best I could, since there was a slight language barrier. Once she found out I was 36 I was deemed "grandma"...great, I was the old lady, but I guess getting a nickname is a sign that you are liked (as long as that nickname isn't bitch or dickhead). I was starting to get along with everyone...this was fantastic.

After a few hours at the hot springs accompanied by a nice breakfast made by the entire group, we headed into the park to our camping spot. The weather was beautifully warm and the scenery stunning...who knew the desert could look so amazing. I set up my little pup tent, which ended up as a storage unit since we all decided to steal the cushions off of the bus and set up one giant sleeping pad. We slept 2 nights under the stars with nothing between us and the elements but our sleeping bags and anticipations of the next day. It was absolutely glorious.

Our second morning we went to the salt flats at Badwater Basin and later to the Golden Canyon and Red Cathedral for a hike. I tried to be inconspicuous and follow the group of Brits who were hiking together. I still hadn't "bonded" with anyone and was just sort of tagging along. At some point, after a few bends in the trail and stopping for pictures I got separated from the group. Not a big deal considering there was only one way in and one way out of the canyon. They must have taken one of the little side trails that would eventually lead back to the main trail. I decided I would continue on the 'end' so I could see the view that got the place named the Red Cathedral in the first place.

Soon after I came across Steve (the cute guy) from England...he was returning from the spot I was headed. I guess he decided not to go with the group too. He said it was just up ahead and worth seeing. And it was breath taking. I snapped a few pictures and started to head back to the bus. I found Steve had waited for me. We chatted the whole way back. I had made a friend...we were bonding.

We talked about anything and everything under the sun. I was fascinated by the European perspective on Americans and travel. He had just come from a 3 month safari in Africa and would be headed to Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan after he left the states...but first he would be going to LA, Las Vegas, New Orleans and New York City. He wasn't wealthy but spent his money differently then 'we' do...about half of the people on the trip were foreigners and they all had one thing in common, traveling and seeing the world, experiencing life rather then owning things, was more important to them than most of the Americans I know.

This opened the door to talking about our personal lives...what we did for work and fun, relationships, family, etc. He had been divorced for several years and sold his house affording him the ability to travel for a full year without working. He was searching for happiness in the form of a companion. I talked about my marriage and 'son'. He asked about my dreams and goals...I was at a loss. I had no idea...I felt that I was a happy person, but the more we talked the more evident it became that I wasn't living my life...I was on autopilot and not really living at all. I felt panicked and hopeless.

We spent just about every moment together after this hike. We cooked and cleaned together at the camp. We sat by the fire together, making smores and singing (rather poorly) along with our two on-board guitar players. We hiked to the bottom of the Ubehebe Craters and the top of the Star Wars sand dune to watch the sunset and hiked through Mosaic Canyon sitting for hours in the shade of the cliffs not even needing to speak. We slept side by side (in our own sleeping bags) each night, staring at the billions of stars above that seem to only exist in the middle of the desert. We talked and laughed and shared our fears and eventually I found my dreams. And my dreams did not include my husband and the trepidation I felt every second I was in my house. I wanted MY life back.

The next couple of days were wonderful. Steve and I were having a blast. I was more outgoing, getting to know the other people on the bus...sharing email and facebook information so we could all stay in touch. I still get updates from several people I met on that trip...Andy, one of the guitar players from Canada, spent the following year traveling through South America figuring he'd learn the language by exposure. Anna, from the London area, was just recently surfing in Lisbon, Portugal.... and the other Steve (from Scotland) posted pictures of his apartment in's got a great view. And my Steve recently returned to Bath from another long trip to Taiwan where he had been scuba diving.

Saying goodbye in San Francisco was very hard. Steve went to the Ferry Building with me and waited. Quite a few tears were shed. Upon arriving in Vallejo it became painfully obvious that my marriage was over. My husband wasn't going to be picking me up...he was busy with things more important then picking up his wife who had been gone for 4 days. I called a co-worker's friend to see if she could pick me up and drive me the 45 minutes hour and a half trip for her. She did what my husband was unwilling to do...and I had only met her once.

This trip not only solidified my desire to vacate my marriage for good, but it set me on a healthier that has lead me to get to know myself better. I reconnected with friends and started doing things I vaguely remembered enjoying in the past. I moved into my own apartment and starting taking care of me. More often then not it was difficult and lonely. But I knew that if I just gave myself a chance to sit in that loneliness that it would evolve into something else...contentment, peace and yes, even happiness. It wasn't easy and, at times, it was downright uncomfortable. I adopted a cat, Avi, to keep me grounded. Without him I would have probably spent little or no time at 'home'. I would have kept myself too busy to face the demons I had created. Why is it that one of the scariest things in the world is being alone...especially for women?? Let me tell you, once you face that fear there is not much that can stop you. Your outlook on relationships change...where before I was terrified of having someone leave me, I soon found myself no longer afraid. I was free and able to express myself in a more confident way. I was able to enter and exist relationships without being a clingy, possessive, damaged girlfriend. And without feeling like if things went bad it was the end of the world. I would look at Avi and tell him, "we've been here before and we survived". Some how it worked. Because no matter what, I would always have ME to fall back on. I wish I could explain better how I got to that point and what it feels like. All I can tell you is that you will know it when it happens.
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