by Beth Camp

For the first time in my life, the alarm clock doesn’t ring in the morning. I don’t commute to work. I don’t work 70-hour weeks.

Instead, I begin most mornings with my laptop, writing. The rest of the day is spent with my best friend — my husband of 32 years, a philosopher and map man extraordinaire.

We are currently in the midst of a 14-month journey around the country. After leaving Oregon in August, our first goal was to arrive in Philadelphia by Dec. 15 to celebrate my mother-in-law’s 87th birthday (we made it). From there we headed south on a cold January morning, traveling 1,300 miles to Ft. Myers, Fla., where we’ve rented a condo for one month amid the palm trees.

Up until now, we’re followed a meandering path — several days in one place, up to a week in another.

We spent the first five months wandering through places in the United States we’ve never had time to see, from a tour of national parks in the great Pacific Northwest — including Washington, Oregon and Idaho — to hiking through desert terrain in the wild and wooly Southwest. We visited Pueblo cultures in Nevada, Utah and Arizona. We stopped in Texas to stare in awe at new skyscraper styles in Dallas and Atlanta that have changed skylines irrevocably with shaped steel and glass megaliths.

We keep no calendars, eat when we’re hungry, and sleep where we please. If it’s cold or rainy, or we feel like watching TV, we check out coupons and stay in a motel; otherwise, we tent.

We’re traveling light — one week of clothing (both summer and winter) and a box of books for each of us. Add art supplies, journal and laptop for me. Add camping and cooking and rain gear.  Add camera and cell phone. Add folding chairs. Add cooler and road food. Add photos of family. And, in a moment of weakness, add a featherweight sewing machine and fabric box. Our innocuous beige Toyota Camry is full.

I’ve been surprised by the sheer beauty of our country. We’ve camped in mountains and the desert. We’ve awakened with our tent next to sandstone hoodoos, colored red by the rising sun, and marveled at Native American petroglyphs that mark earlier histories and stories in stone.

Once, close to the Canadian border as we set up our tent, I turned around to see a small herd of elk browsing right through our campsite. They were gone in five minutes, but for those five minutes, we stood still, savoring these wonderful animals who seemed completely unafraid of humans and completely free, following their own rhythms into the deeper woods.

I’ve seen bears roaming the hillside for food, preparing for winter’s hibernation. I watched a mother black bear (see photo; click for larger image) with her two cubs simply plop down in the midst of a berry bush, feeding.

I’ve hiked trails that tested my fear of heights and looked out over valleys from hundreds of feet high where people once lived and hunted.

In Great Basin National Park in Nevada, we stood in awe before stunted bristlecone pines that live at elevations between 9,500 and 11,000 feet above sea level and that have somehow survived those high mountain winters for thousands of years. One tree was dated at 4,950 years old, though scientists cut it down to verify its age.

The U.S. wilderness areas are changing before our eyes. Global warming doesn’t seem so far away as we count the diminishing glaciers at Glacier National Park or see the red haze covering the hills, created by dying trees as pine beetles — their larvae once controlled by cold winters –voraciously munch on hundreds of thousands of acres of pine forests here and in Canada. In rural upland Texas, cows grazed next to pumping oil rigs, and the smell of oil hung on the back of my throat.

I’ve watched restaurant signs change along with landscapes in different regions of the country.  In Louisiana, signs for Cajun restaurants are balanced by graceful trees hung with Spanish moss. “Bubba’s Southern Bar-B-Que” beckoned us in Georgia, and by the time we reached Philadelphia, “authentic Philly cheese-steaks” were promoted amid alternating neighborhoods of stone houses and rowhomes.

Not all of my friends understand this wanderlust I share with my husband. I am exhilarated by the experience of living for a time in a different place and a different culture. I can see for myself the reality behind history books and headlines.

And, far from the structure of a working day, I can finally write.

This morning, I’m sitting in the lanai (a screened-in patio) of our Florida condo. It’s a balmy 78 today. Once in a while the breeze gently brushes through the palm trees around the lanai. I’ve had hot tea and bagels and later will walk out to pick up a morning paper.

Yesterday we drove along Cape Coral to admire the mansions facing canals that lead to the sea.  Even here, in what many call paradise, political and economic realities are apparent. Two or three “For Sale” signs mushroom on every block, for Florida is one of the states hardest hit by the current subprime mortgage crisis. Many here are losing their homes.

We’re hoping to explore the rest of Florida in February, and we will head to New Orleans in March, where a dear friend still lives in a FEMA trailer.

How could we give up our home to renters? I must confess it took courage. For 25 years, we lived in a small college town of 50,000. This being Oregon, it was rainy and cold during the winter, but never really hot in the summers. Nestled in the heart of the Willamette Valley, we felt blessed by friends of a lifetime, our town arranged on proverbial tree-lined streets.

Our daughter grew up in one place, went to college, and is now established in her own life with an adoring husband. Music, gardening, quilting and friends once filled each of my days, with the challenge of full-time teaching a constant focus.

We could have stayed happily in one place, living quietly, playing Scrabble and bridge with friends, expanding our volunteer work. But we both wanted to see more of the world while we could. So we let go.

Now, after five months on the road and seven months of retirement, I feel a sense of appreciation and transformation. I wake up each morning not quite sure where we will end up — but after decades of schedules and commitments, we are truly comfortable that each day and each place offers new experiences and new understandings.

At present, I have no home; my books and paintings are in storage. But my laptop is always with me, my head is full of stories to write, and I have an excuse to visit every used book store I see.

And at 64, I’m now what I want to be — a writer.

Beth Camp retired in 2007 from Linn-Benton Community College, where she was recognized as Distinguished Faculty after 22 years of teaching English, writing and other subjects. Long interested in poetry, she has written a textbook (“Effective Workplace Writing,” 1996, Irwin/McGraw-Hill), and is currently working on a collection of short stories. Her story “The Gates Are Closing” was published in Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal (November 2007). Visit her travel blog and photos at http://bethcamp.blogspot.com

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  • Anne Caselle January 24, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story. Your road trip is an inspiration for many of us who complain about going to get the mail! (I count myself among the guilty). I’m going to get the maps out today and decide where to go this summer. Happy travels!

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