Alone but not lonely: 7,000 miles on the road

In S.O.L.O. Travel by Christine Kenyon

Christine Kenyon is a professional photographer living in Utah with her Labs Tuffy and Aspen. Her Father, Lowell Anson Kenyon, who passed away in 2011, was the Head of Photography at the Smithsonian and her inspiration for her first cross-country road trip. 

“What’s happening?!!!” I could barely think – the wind was howling, the thunder crackling as large drops rained down on my tent like drumming fingers on an old desk. The tent I had pitched three hours earlier pressed in against me with each growling gust. Groggy from several thousand miles of travel and little sleep, I groped around the tent floor in search of my flashlight. My watch glowed 4:00 a.m.

I remembered pitching camp rather close to the edge of the canyon rim, perfect for a good sunrise view, but now I was fearful the gusts could blow me over the edge. I neglected to stake or guy-out my tent, because it was only five hours until sunrise and the weather had been balmy and quiet.

📷: Christine Kenyon

But now I was scared and angry at the same time. What was I even doing here, was I nuts? Would I survive my stupidity?

Since I was the only object keeping my tent from becoming airborne, I apprehensively resigned myself to the situation, and allowed my mind to wander in an attempt to sooth my nerves.

Sure, I knew what brought me here to Monument Valley, Utah from my home 2,000 miles away in Frederick, Maryland. I was separated from my husband for quite some time, and was heading for certain divorce. The initial anxiety and raw emotion was beginning to heal, but now I felt the call to take a trip, to renew, to reflect. I wanted to know who I was, what I was made of, and what I was all about.

I had my sites set on a road trip to the western United States, a place my Dad made special to me as a young teenager when he invited me to tag along on his Wilderness Workshops in Photography. My Father had been the Chief of the Office of Photography at the Smithsonian, and was now a fine art photographer, writer, teacher, lecturer, and founder of the Latent Image Workshop.

Hanging with the adults, camping and visiting some of the most iconic landscapes in the world was exhilarating and inspiring. I vowed then as a 13 year old to someday return.

📷: Christine Kenyon

More than two decades later, that day had come. It was September 1st, 2004, and while every fiber of my being wanted to pull out of the driveway, there was an apprehension that kept me idling in park. What if I choked? What if I got too scared or insecure on this cross country road trip?

I wasn’t exactly sure how well I would hold up by myself. I was always around people, as is the case for most of us. And I like to talk, some say a wee bit too much, so while I’m independent minded, the idea of going S.O.L.O. felt equal parts exciting and frightening.

Since I’m rather type-A, the trip was over-extensively-preplanned, leaving no detail to chance. I even packed a dust buster to keep the truck clean since my two Labrador Retrievers, Honey and Alta, would be riding shotgun. My truck was a rolling pictograph of, “everything but the kitchen sink.” So I was really, really ready, but emotionally really rather challenged.

Then suddenly it dawned on me, I could leave on my trip, and if things became too stressful, or lonely, I could simply turn around and return home. So with that revelation, I hit the road!

My cross country journey began by criss-crossing the south so that I could visit dear friends in South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. It was then onto Phoenix, Arizona, where my brother had recently moved with my very pregnant sister-in-law. Little Ava, my first niece, was born in July, and I arrived in September. She was so tiny and perfect. It was such an amazing reunion.

After a several day visit, it was time to begin the hardcore S.O.L.O portion of the trip. There would be no more overnights with friends, no visiting swank restaurants, nor reminiscing about the good times. It was time to break out the DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteers and find the coolest roads to travel. Game on!

📷: Christine Kenyon

At this point I was feeling pretty good. I had made it through the first week unscathed. Up to now, my only misstep (quite literally) were the fire ants in Texas that seemed intent on making lunch of my right foot. Otherwise, my spirits were high.

From Phoenix I travelled north to retrace the steps of my Dad’s photographic workshops. I called him periodically throughout the trip to give him updates on my travels, calls that clearly brought him great joy.

The Grand Canyon was of course, grand, the high dessert blistering hot, and strong winds pushed the truck around on several long stretches of endlessly straight two-lane highways.

My destination that night was Monument Valley, but I didn’t budget my time very well, so I arrived at the campground at 1:00 a.m., and nearly out of gas.

Setting up camp in the inky darkness was somewhat challenging, with my headlamp darting about to gauge the distance to the canyon’s edge. If it all went as planned, I would simply unzip my tent in the morning to reveal a beautiful sunrise over a jaw dropping vista.

No need to secure the tent, why do that, it’s quiet, calm, warm . . . fuzzy . . . besides, what could go wrong? I was such a zombie after a super long day on the road, that it was lights out before my head hit the sleeping bag.

So that brings us back to the beginning. Back inside my tent, waiting out the mother-of-all- storms. Back to my thoughts of why I was in a tent that was behaving more like a bounce house rapidly losing air.

Were my reasons for this trip valid or vapid? After an hour, the thunder and rain were beginning to fade into the distance, I said a short prayer and faded to sleep.

The sunrise on that morning in Monument Valley has never been matched. It was supremely stunning. Colorful bands of rain cascading down to the valley floor, dramatic clouds stretched and bunched in purples and pinks. All of this backlit by the soon-to-emerge sun that would suddenly appear from behind right mitten, a legendary rock formation in the legendary Monument Valley.

All of the angst that I experienced in the night was a distant memory. Now, only the beauty of the moment, the joy of being alive, and the feeling of conquering my fears was apparent.

I was keenly aware that I was alone, yet not lonely. I felt strong and capable, not at all wanting to turn tail and head for home. Mine was a change of perspective, recognizing another side of me I had never actually met.

📷: Christine Kenyon

The rest of the trip was amazing, I rescued a starving dog, I would later name Hunter, visited another friend in Boulder, Colorado, and met the breeder of my yellow Lab Honey in Missouri. It was delightful to see Honey play with her Mom and Dad.

As I pulled into the driveway of my home back in Maryland, I had travelled a little over 7,000 miles, visiting 20 states, in 30 days. I departed with two dogs and returned with three.

I left wondering who I really was, and what I was made of, and I got my answers. Most importantly that S.O.L.O trip changed the course of my life. I grew up on that trip, faced the fear of my divorce, prayed for my future, and breathed in the beauty that God has graced upon this nation.

Sharing time with old friends and making new ones in towns thousands of miles away pulled the coasts closer, making the country seem almost quaint.

As a result of my experience, I built a home in the mountains of Utah and moved in 2007, my parents deciding to take up residence in the spacious lower level apartment. My Dad had first brought me to experience the west, and I was returning the favor.

In the past 18 months I have returned to my creative roots in photography, and as a singer/ songwriter. I regularly ride the backroads with my Labrador Retrievers, except now it’s Tuffy and Aspen. My mission is looking for creative landscape and nightscape compositions.

My photographic travels are extensively S.O.L.O. I’ve come to love it. It allows me the flexibility to run on my own schedule, to immerse myself in every environment, and it encourages me to engage individuals in some fascinating conversations.

Follow Christine Kenyon on Instagram @ChristineKenyonPhoto and on Facebook at Christine Kenyon Photography.

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