Field Notes Entry 4: The Great Midwest Escape

Part 1: to Fossil Butte National Monument 

I shifted uncomfortably, regretting my choice to wear shorts. The retro-patterned cover on the passenger seat made the underside of my thighs itch.

I turned around to look at Liv. She wore a soft yellow flannel and jeans with her hair pulled easily back in a braid. She had kicked off her Birkenstocks and tucked her feet under her in her seat. A journal in one hand and a pen in the other, it seemed to be her most natural state of being.

She smiled at me wearily. A mountain of food and gear threatened to topple over onto her. She then gazed humorously out the window, most likely afraid to look back at me for the fear of cracking up in the middle of Nick’s very complicated monologue about living off the land.

God forbid we ever have a normal adventure.

This week is supposed to be full of self-discovery, I let myself think. Watercoloring, and catching up on the Enneagram journey. It is going to be quiet. It is going to be full of mellow music. It will consist of angsty staring out the window at the passing mountainous scenery. This is week is going to be within the safe reaches of our introverted boundaries and expectations.

“Madi, give us a controversial topic to discuss.” My little mental pep talk had been interrupted. Nick turned to me eagerly, bright-eyed and energetic. He pushed his long, almost-dreaded hair out of his face, and played with a green climbing tool-turned necklace he wore around his neck. For some reason, his ripped Carhartt pants annoyed me, or maybe worried me? I wanted to give him my extra pair for the sake of being clean and patched up where pants should be patched.

But I had spoken too soon. Only five hours into this road trip and we were already bordering on the verge of someone getting kicked out of the car. Or at least my highly conflict-attuned personality shrank at the word “controversial” and felt the calm waters of my persona being aggravated. What felt like seriously conflicted ground was probably only a disagreement waiting to happen and I still wasn’t sure why I could not be okay with that.

I tugged at the hem of my own yellow flannel (Liv and I didn’t mean to match) nervously. I would have been more than content to stare out the window the whole ten hours of the drive.

But real life is what tends to happen when you’re busy thinking away your feelings.

“I’d rather not,” I tried to talk my way out of this.

“Don’t be afraid,” he retorted quickly, and I suddenly felt more irritated. But not with him---with myself, for backing out so quickly of the conversation. Why was I so afraid to have an opinion, to speak up?

I had no idea that question would be answered for me much later on in this excursion. I will also spare you the conversation that ensued after that because it zigzagged in so many directions and would put me severely off topic.

The rest of the drive to Fossil Butte National Monument was in and out of silence. Driving through Wyoming seemed to invoke this new appreciation of mine for the Wild West, and I had more than enough time to be enthralling lost to it out the car window. It truly was wild in a flat-nothingness kind of way. It was a little unsettling to stare out on the horizon from my itchy passenger seat, and squint my eyes, and see nothing resembling a mountain, a hill, or even a bump in the perfectly still meeting place of sky and land.

Maybe there was more to Wyoming’s state motto of “Equal Rights” than being the first state to grant women’s suffrage. Was the land supposed to be this equally, and perfectly distributed, without a single ripple in its miles of grass and dirt?

All I knew was that I was more content with the flatness of the land than I thought I would be. But, then again, I still hadn’t experienced some gnarly lightning storm out on the plains yet, like we would in just a few days.

We pulled into Fossil Butte National Monument.

Praise God, I thought.

The campground led up into sudden rolling hills and rocky outlines of mini peaks. We were perched on a ridge overlooking the monument, and I couldn’t help feeling like a bird who had just scored the best real estate for a nest.

Nick was very keen on fossil hunting, so we left him to his devices as we set up our new home for the night.

There’s something very methodical and comforting about putting together one’s campsite. I am the kind of person that wants to put the whole tent together, tarp and all, to get the full experience. It was comforting to know that this little patch of ground, with our little green tent standing proudly upon it, was ours for the night. It was a sense of grounding after being on the road for a long time.

Liv and I took our time setting things out and made ourselves comfortable on the tarp that acted as a doormat to our tent. We spread out with books and some pre-dinner cookies, happy for the silence. Golden hour was on the verge of beginning and I adored the feeling of the late afternoon sun on my skin.

It was an evening that I felt we deserved after a long day of driving. We all settled down for some dinner made in Nick’s makeshift kitchen out of the back of his Subaru: beans and potatoes, which made me think we really had adapted that drifting cowboy spirit in the heart of Wyoming.

Since coming to the midwest, it felt like the first time I’d had to reflect and keep to myself. No deadlines pending in my inbox or interviews to schedule.

I read through The Fellowship of the Ring, as I have done almost every summer since I was in high school because I loved how terrified Frodo is when he leaves The Shire. I loved and hated how much I could relate.

Book of adventure in hand, I thought about how, with crazy car companions aside, we were out there. THERE where the bison actually roam and what I would consider the distance I gaze at when I look out the safe confines of my apartment. THERE as it is talked about so apprehensively by Frodo and his fellow hobbits. And out THERE where I knew I belonged.

We weren’t the most organized, the most fancily geared up, or even the most knowledgeable about what we’d gotten ourselves into. In fact, we were probably the least prepared bunch of ragamuffin nomads Wyoming had ever seen. All I knew is that we wanted to get out there and see it all for ourselves.