Setting Forth in the Universe

Be it no concern, point of no return
Go forward in reverse
This I will recall
Every time I fall

– Eddie Vedder, Into the Wild Soundrack

There’s been so much preparation involved in getting me to this point that I haven’t even had time to blog all about it. I have three days on the train, so I’ll have some time to clabber all my notes into something more like posts. I never doubted I’d be ready when the time came, and I never underestimated how much work it would take to get there. I kept thinking about those unlucky souls on The Oregon Trail…

Don’t buy enough bullets, or shoot poorly at the game when you’re lucky enough to find it, everyone starves. Don’t buy enough oxen, you don’t beat the winter in the Rockies and the oxen starve, leaving all the people to freeze to death. Don’t buy enough medicine and poor little John dies of dysentery. Buy too many supplies, your oxen can’t pull the cart and you get raided, then captured or killed.

What I learned from playing that game as a kid (besides how to hit a space bar really fast to shoot a deer) was that, in life, you have to think through what your real needs are before you take the next step forward.

On a practical level, going away for a month meant I had to think through the essentials, which aren’t much different today than they were for the folks on The Oregon Trail: shelter, water, food, clothing, medicine, personal safety, and fire.

They never mentioned books or any other leisure items on The Oregon Trail, but there was probably some sort of distraction. I’ve driven a lot of the Oregon Trail through Nebraska and Wyoming. It took me days instead of weeks/months, so I can’t imagine that they didn’t have at least some kind of game. I’ve got a mini laptop and a couple of books.

It can be really easy to stay focused on those physical needs, and in my case, the creative needs of my journal and computer. After all, we do need nutrition, a warm and dry place to sleep, and our bodies to stay healthy to make the journey. And humans tend to go stir crazy without some sort of distraction.

The fact that I’d be going away from my family for a month was just a sentence in my mouth for so long into the planning process. I go away to write on a regular basis for 3, 4, sometimes 7, days at a time. The longest was 4 years ago, when I went to San Francisco for 10 days.

Another phrase that tumbled out many times over the past few months was that I’d be primitive camping for 30 days. Primitive camping. I’ve slept in tents so many times in my life (some posh, some not), I’ve slept out in the open world on the ground or a picnic table, I’ve car camped, I’ve camper camped in our hipster hideaway, I’ve been backpacking several times and carried all I needed for long weekends in the back country. But 30 days in a tent? Nothing even remotely close to that.

Instead of dwelling on all of the reasons that I might not go, or that I might not be able to do it, I focused on preparing myself for the physical things that I would need first and foremost. Then, I would be a lot more likely to make the full journey instead of falling down somewhere along the way. But behind all of the visible things that I was doing—buying gear, drying food, and talking a lot about tanning and buffalo hearts—there were gears turning constantly in my mind.

In my mind, I weighed the pros and the cons of going, asking myself if it was fair to my family for me to leave them behind for a full month while I pursued the passion that I have for writing and, more specifically living the truth of what I’m writing about. I’ve never been as passionate about any writing as I am this novel; I feel like this is “the one” that will help me realize the dreams that I’ve had for my life as long as I can remember.

It can be hard to quiet the inner (and outer) critics who call the type of thing that I’m doing selfish, who question that, as a mother, I can leave my child behind for an extended time while I do something as superfluous as research for creative writing. After all, no one really needs books; it’s just something we write and read to enjoy a good story. Couldn’t I just read some books, maybe visit a local bison farm? How much do I really need to know? As a method writer, my answer is everything.

I had to fight these voices with everything I had, to reassure myself that it is not selfish to pursue your dreams, or to spend time doing things that inspire you to be your best self. Life is too short to make concessions based on others’ opinions or my own opinions that have been influenced by a lifetime of people downplaying the importance of the need to feed my creative life. To write, to tell a story, is as vital to me as food and shelter. I may not die without it, but I will face spiritual starvation and my body will decay in an imperceptible way.

As I set forth, I feel like a pioneer, equally excited, hopeful, and terrified at the road ahead. Like those early pioneers who set out into the unknown around 200 years ago, I’ll be traveling over 2,200 miles (2,335 for me); they didn’t know what they’d find at any point in the journey or at its end, and neither do I. And like the Oregon Trailblazers, I also have never met the tribe that I’ll become a part of when I get there.

As I move from this life of comfort and familiarity into the unknown, I am also going in reverse, in that I will be living a lifestyle that is much closer to the earth, both literally and figuratively. And I will be moving spiritually into a relationship with nature that we have lost as a culture, coming face to face with the animals who gave their lives to feed us, clothe us, and sustain us in so many ways. Something we can’t get from the plastic or paper-wrapped meats at the grocery or butcher. And a life that honors these animals’ sacrifice by showing that we appreciate each and every part of them.

I’m at the point of no return now, and I know that this experience will forever change me in ways that people might or might not perceive. And when I return to “reality,” where my life feels much less grounded, I can always return in my memories and in the stories that I create, both real and unreal, nonfiction and fiction, and all the mythologies that make the stories worth reliving and retelling.

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