going west

I am a woman born of the West; a Robert Redford kind of girl, if that means anything to you. As a product of pioneers driven by visions, men who wandered deserts at dawn, and unlucky miners and the women who followed them, I understand the visceral language of red rock, mountain ranges, and coastal highways. I seek comfort in space and distance, healing in the wild places of the West.

-An excerpt from my notebook written as we drove across the vast Salt Flats.

Brian and I were able to slip away for a week at the beginning of June to celebrate our anniversary and to catch a bit of rest and healing. We decided on California's central coast: Carmel, Big Sur, and a day trip in San Fransisco.

Carmel is beautiful, walkable, and quiet. We spent days just wandering around the charming neighborhoods, holding hands and talking about what we hoped our future would hold (Brian: registering a personal Scottish coat of arms and an office/library space of his very own. Me: becoming a lady farmer midwife chef who writes about women and travels the world). We spent our evenings searching tide pools and people watching, and then would eventually end up at Dametra Cafe, tucked into a cozy, dark corner surrounded by Italian families and Brazilian women. The food was beautiful, and the owners are warm, generous people. There was a lot of kissing and general all-over touching at the end of each meal, which I loved and Brian tried to politely avoid. What can I say? That boy just doesn't appreciate a good rub down by strange dudes with long, curly hair. I, on the other hand love watching him squirm and always enjoy a good hug and smooch from gorgeous strangers.

We spent a lot of  time wandering in and out of shops and art galleries, gathering gifts for the children and admiring the unique architecture of this coastal town. We rode the trolley, enjoyed picnics in the park, and took afternoon naps. It was just so good to be together, to laugh and joke and love each other.

My favorite part of our trip was Big Sur. It has this crazy, dark energy that I've only ever felt in the sleepy fishing villages of Mexico. It is a place for visionaries and poets. It is a place of deep emotion and contradiction:

ancient redwoods. cacti. rivers. ferns. soft beaches. cliffs. hidden canyons. 

It is the perfect balance of dark and light, of beauty and brutality. It was here that I found healing.

In the month following Briana's death,  I spent my days moving and breathing slowly, conserving energy for the heavy, hard work of grief. I stayed home, processing my loss and withdrawing my trust from life and its brutal processes. I was scared of the dark and terrified of being alone. It would take me the better part of a day to recover from a short car ride. Grief felt exactly like fear in those first few weeks, and I was convinced that everything and everybody I knew and loved would be swept out from under me, regardless of statistics, religious belief, or blind luck. With my fractured faith, sorrow, and betrayal I built a sort of quiet non-life, keeping my children close, reaching for Brian in the early morning hours just to feel the reassuring rhythm of his breath, and searching out old friends, silently pleading for them to stay alive and to find happiness wherever they are.

It was a shaky, difficult time. There were bouts of anger, confusion, and hours of pleading and bargaining for understanding and relief.  I felt nothing in the way of reprieve, and it was with a heavy body and soul that I traveled West.

I've always felt an affinity with the artists, poets, and musicians who loved and celebrated the western landscape: Stegner, Guthrie, Kerouac, Williams, Steinbeck, O'Keeffe, Waller, Adams, and Abbey are men and women well acquainted with grief, longing, and sadness, and they each sought the vast, austere quality of the American West to help them understand the complexity of the human experience.

Some of us require the desolate hugeness of the western wilderness to hold and carry our sadness for a while. I think all of us spend our days in search of an outward manifestation of our inner psyches, a vibrational match for our own longing. Big Sur was this for me. As I stretched and scrambled over rocks and trails, I allowed myself to trust in the strength and ability of my body. I found a quiet cliff overlooking the Pacific, and meditated on my greatest fears, deepest sorrows, and biggest regrets, examining each one carefully before laying it before me, and I allowed myself to trust in the strength of my spirit and the complicated, messy stories of our lives.

 I now see that loving and knowing another person so completely that you feel pure heartbreak and unspeakable sorrow at having lost them is a beautiful, sacred thing. It is an equally awful and unfair thing, but it has taught me much about my capacity for love and my desire for meaningful connections. It's a startling discovery to learn that we all mean the world to each other, and the only thing that truly matters is how well we love the people who stumble into and out of our crazy lives.

Leaving Big Sur feels kind of like crawling out of the center of the earth, or at least it did for me. I was a bit teary as we traveled north, leaving the darkness, magic, and wildness of Big Sur far behind us.

The last stop of our trip was in San Fransisco, and it was so rainy and miserable that after one hour in the Ferry Building we looked at each other and said, "Let's go home."

And so we did.


liz stika said...

wow. beautiful, rachel.

Belle Clair said...

Thank you for such a beautiful, moving post. Your words will be with me today.

Emily said...

You possess so much insight Rachel. I hope that as you journey you recognize this about yourself; that even during the hardship you remain internally in-tune in such a way that you are really able to not only acknowledge but also to articulate beautifully--that is a gift, my friend. The photos and words are gorgeous. I too feel immensely drawn to the landscape of the West which is why I am running in the opposite direction. I'm not ready for roots, for settling, and if I go back there will be no leaving--so I adventure onward! Also wanted to mention that at the very beginning of your post I thought to myself that you need to read Terry Tempest Williams' "RED"

Emily said...

if you haven't already. I saw "Williams" on your list of authors and assume that is whom you are referring to as I read on so it's possible you have already indulged. She speaks at the U often, you should see her if you get a chance. I am still emailed regularly about who is lecturing there. I will be sure to forward.. I think you and she might be soul mates :). Other books I recommend dealing with relationships to the landscape by authors not mentioned are Land of Little Rain - Mary Austin and The Anthropology of Turquoise by Ellen Melloy. Would love to continue this landscape literature conversation. xo

Rachel Swan said...

Em: Have I not told you about my love for Terry Tempest Williams? I kind of follow her all around Utah, trying to attend as many of her readings as possible. Needless to say, I have 2 signed copies of RED sitting on my shelves. I may also try and find her every single time I'm in Moab. I think that the two of us are soul sisters, but what stalker doesn't believe that to some degree?!?

Thanks for your kind words, and just for the record, I can't wait until you come west again. XO

Tree Peeps said...

I love your photos. I have never been to Big Sur, but it looks great. I'm so glad you had a good anniversary. I loved seeing you in Utah a few weeks ago :)

Rachel Swan said...

Tess, it was so good to see you too. I love spending time with you and baby belly! XO

Lane & Kelly Snider said...

Beautiful post, Rachel. Thank you for sharing it.