The wistful west


There’s a slow train 
Pulling through the desert 
The colored cars pass quietly from sight 
Between the highway and the long horizon 
Precious dreams wind away with the light.

As Albuquerque fades into the rearview, we are making steady progress toward the border between New Mexico and Arizona. The hot afternoon sun drenches the landscape with a flood of bleached light and the colorless field grasses lean and bow in the strength of the wind gusts.

The I-40 straightaway we remember from Oklahoma has given way to snaking maneuvers, up in elevation and back down again, twisting around vast sedimentary mesas, over mountain gaps, and  down into the following valleys below. Each bend brings a new desert vista into view, and as beautiful as it all is, an uncomfortable melancholy overcomes me.

The American west is a wistful, lonely place. The expanse of profound nothingness dwarfs the empires of vocations, goals, and accomplishments I strive to build. Ancient pillars of creation itself stare me down, a reminder of how small I am, how short life is, and how quickly any legacy I manage to forge will fade when I pass on.

I am driving, and my three year old son is asleep in the back seat. My wife chooses the afternoon tunes and selects Breaking of the Dawn, by Fernando Ortega. A sensitive singer-songwriter who resides in the west, Ortega’s music is a touch flowery, a little fruity — and I have to admit that I do not listen often.

The lyrics of the current track tell the story of his overnight ride home to see his mother one last time before she passes away. As the song concludes, I glance left and catch a view of four burnt-orange Santa Fe diesels pulling a winding line of container trucks through the sienna field adjacent to the freeway. I consider the conductor’s story. What are his hours? How far does he have to travel today? When is the next time he will see his family? Does he lay his head in a new city every night?

My thoughts wander to those driving vehicles around me. Then to the gas clerks. The waitress at the previous town’s Tex-Mex stand. The maintenance worker at last night’s campground. Each has a story, maybe peaceful, maybe painful. What brought them here? Why do they stay? Have they found love? Are they heartbroken? Do they have family? Are they lonely?

And then I turn to my own story. I crave adventure and I love the open road. But that is not why I have traveled over 3,000 miles with my family, towing — and sleeping in — a travel trailer that could double as a posh dog kennel. I have come because time is like the flow of water, slipping through the fingers of my cupped hands. I am here to cherish my wife while we are still healthy, enjoy my son while he is still young, savor time together while everything is still good.

The demands of business, the energy required to build a non-profit organization, the endless list of commitments on the calendar, and the resources spent keeping and fixing house are the pickpockets of home life, stealing time and energy from the most important relationships I have. As we near the other coast, I am aware that this trip is only a temporary escape from these pressures, and that one day soon, we will indeed return to all of it.

When that day comes, I only hope that the lessons I learn along the way will give me courage enough to choose the right priorities when I return.

The sage and Joshua tree remind me 
Of the miles to go, 
The journey that we’re on 
In the still, sweet air of the desert 
We will ride 
Through the breaking of the dawn


My family is currently traveling around the USA in a 10 foot Shasta Compact travel trailer from 1969. We are currently camped near Flagstaff, Arizona and headed toward Phoenix. Keep it right here for tales from the journey, and please also join us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Nothing keeps us motivated more than the encouragement of hearing from our readers, so please keep in touch by commenting below. Thanks!

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