Modern Nomad

It Isn't All Wilderness and Instagram Sunsets

Finding possibility and gratitude in the grim days and in-between experiences

  • You can’t always control what’s coming or where you will land. And the truth is, you shouldn’t.  Photo: JJAG Media

  • But what’s a desolate, unappealing stopping point in one light might be stark, powerful, sacred land in another.  Photo: JJAG Media

We rolled into Crownpoint, a dusty town of washboard roads and squat houses in remote northwestern New Mexico, late in the afternoon. My wife, Jen, had a two-day photo assignment in the village, and we’d been given the go-ahead to stay the night on the Navajo Nation by special advance permission. We’d known that we weren’t likely to get the most idyllic campsite, but I hadn’t envisioned the reality. In the compact parking lot out front of Diné College, we wedged our Airstream, which we call Artemis, up against a curb and set out our chairs in a scrubby field of sage overlooking more parking lots, the community school, a Baptist church, and the state highway.

“What’s the likelihood of you finishing tonight and getting out of here?” I wondered aloud. Jen continued unhitching the trailer and handed me the drill to drop the stabilizers.

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In the six or so months of our nomadic life, we’ve stayed in some magnificent places, from the floor of the Grand Canyon to sites with alpenglow views at 12,000 feet in Colorado. But we’ve also, by time and schedule and circumstance, occasionally ended up in funny, even unpleasant spots. Church parking lots, the sides of highways, busy rest stops with semis coming and going all night, and, yep, the occasional Walmart.

You can’t always control what’s coming or where you will land. And the truth is, you shouldn’t. Part of travel—part of life, really—is not knowing what’s ahead and being open to whatever circumstance brings. Usually, it works out differently than you imagine, more often than not for the better.

I was reminded of this in September when I took the Airstream up to the New Mexico–Colorado border for a week of elk hunting while Jen was away in Canada. I had visions of crisp fall days, golden aspens, and blessed quiet. But the monsoon was open like a faucet: I could barely get the trailer off the highway because of mud, and when I did, thanks to more rain, I was pretty much stuck there, road noise and all. It stormed every day, even in the mornings—a rarity in this part of the world—which had the mud deeper and thicker and the elk silent, bedded down, and impossible to find. I very nearly abandoned Artemis and took refuge in a hotel.

Good thing I didn’t. Though the hunting was brutal—cold, wet days of slogging ten to 15 miles in the mud—it actually made me appreciate the Airstream and the experience even more. Yes, it was a pain to get home late every night and spend an hour cleaning my gear and Artemis just so I could do it all again the next morning. And yes, I lost battery power pretty early on because there was no solar to replenish from. But I realized how lucky I was to be out in the woods every day and have a trailer to come back to, to get out of the cold, and to keep up with work in the process. The tough conditions made me hunt even harder, and I eventually found plenty of elk, had some outrageous encounters with big herds and huge bulls, and walked away replenished from ten days in the woods. Sometimes we learn more from the things we don’t want than from getting the things we do.

It happened again last week while we were camped in the northwest corner of New Mexico. More rain brought more mud, and through a series of coincidences, some acquaintances ended up crashing our campsite, complete with three more trucks and two fifth-wheels. We were put off at first: We’d found a quiet spot with a grand view and were thrilled for a solitary, backcountry unplug. Suddenly, we had a circle of wagons, several families buzzing around camp, generators, lights, noise—not what I had in mind.

But the experience disarmed me. The friends had traveled the area for years and introduced us to some amazing backcountry spots we didn’t know. They were excellent outdoorsmen and taught us a few things about moving through the woods. And the families at camp meant there was always hot food and good conversation. It wasn’t the week I’d expected, but in some ways, it was better. We drove away with not only a restful week in the woods but also some hilarious memories and tight new friendships.

Crownpoint was better than imagined, too. The silence there was revitalizing—all that empty land made for dark skies and a restful night’s sleep. At dawn, we woke to a fiery sunrise on the red rock fingers and buttes to the west. And when Diné College opened, I went to an exhibition of native artwork and met a friendly receptionist, and I gained a greater appreciation for the land and people around us.

Sure, Crownpoint is still a poky place, and that parking lot is not my favorite campsite. But what’s a desolate, unappealing stopping point in one light might be stark, powerful, sacred land in another. You’ll never know without embracing those unscheduled, imperfect stops.

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