The morning light shines on a thin layer of fog atop the Golden Gate Bridge as I leave San Francisco. I will go back home. Somehow. That provokes a strange feeling in me. But I still have a month to go.
A month in the wild nature I hope to find in the northern regions of the USA. Blue lakes, snow, dark evergreen trees, hot springs. A month in which I will try to live without motels. A month in which I hope to spend many nights more privately. I signed up for Couchsurfing.
There is a red shimmer to the bark covering huge, ancient trees in the Muir Woods, a US National Monument just north of San Francisco. A stream ripples, and then throws up foam. Moss hangs from bare branches like tinsel on a Christmas tree. I run from chattering tourists on a path less traveled and then hike almost alone for two hours among the magnificent California Redwoods.
That afternoon I meet my very first Couchsurfing hosts in Vallejo, a very warm and welcoming older couple. We end the evening with a delicious, homemade salad on their terrace.
The next day we tour together through the Napa Valley, a valley famous for its wine production. There are tasting rooms everywhere. Grape vines rise up and cover the golden hills. It is almost like a the Rhine region and I feel like I am back in Germany.
We visit some cute western-like towns and wind up in a park where we have a picnic with bread, olives and wine. My idea about exploring the wild, not so well-known north with local people turns out to be a wonderful experience.
Oh well, maybe not so good. My next stop is in Carson City in Nevada, on the incredibly clear, blue Lake Tahoe. I again stayed with a Couchsurfing host. But the next morning I am shoved out the door at seven in the morning because the host does not allow guests in his apartment while he is working. He failed to mention this beforehand. I am - as we diplomatically say in Germany "irritated".
But as always, everything in life has more than one consequence. As a result of this “problem,” I meet the Dunford family at the lake. They are from Salt Lake City. We spend the day together kayaking. As evening nears, they invite me to Salt Lake City since I will be there in just a few days.
And in case you were wondering, I spent my second Carson City night in a motel. I was just too irritated to spend another night with the host.
The trip to Salt Lake City seems almost like a vision. The outlines of black and red mountains are reflected on white salt surfaces. The heat tries to suggest a surface of water that is not there. Or is it?
Mile after mile, the highway runs this landscape that appears to have been created in the Apocalypse. Occasionally there are transmission towers or the outlines of glistening buildings that almost seem as they could be UFO landing sites.
My reception at the Dunford's is simply wonderful. The family is Mormon, so I go with them to a performance of the famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir on the very first morning. Afterwards I go on a tour of the extraordinary Temple Square where I am able to talk with people about faith and life after death. No one is pushy. The interchange of ideas is exciting.
In the evening I take a walk into the sunset with the father, the son and their two dogs. I hear an owl for the first time in my life.
The next day we start early and climb for two hours into the mountains to reach some hot springs. These are natural sources of warm water. You can actually swim in the pools. There s a cold waterfall right next to the hot spring. Dozens of large yellow Swallowtail butterflies that seem to fly up from the surface whenever a splash drops in their midst.
In the afternoon, the temperature rises to over 104F. As for the Great Salt Lake, it stinks. And the water quality? It seems to be set to a level we could call, “rash.”
In the evening it gets cooler. Claire - the family’s 18-year-old daughter - and I drive downtown to watch the sun set over the State Capitol building. It is dark as we hike across a car park overlooking the city lights below. It is pleasantly warm, and everything here has an infinite feeling about it. We have a late meal in a hipster sandwich bar, and we chat. We talk as if it is something we do every evening. My restless travel heart suddenly begins to beat in a new level of comfort.
On my last day, we drive to Park City, which is a resort area for winter sports. We hike up to a mountain lake at an altitude of almost 10,000 feet. There is a rope hanging from a tree. You use the rope to swing yourself over the water and let go.
I hesitate. Is the water cold? Aren’t there rocks under the surface? Claire jumps.
“Just do it!” she calls as she laughs brightly.
“You only live once,” I think. So, I grab the rope, start running and jump.
Let go of everything! I have so many things planned for this trip, and now - in the end - I feel the threads slip out of my hand. No plan. Everything is possible. As I emerge from the water unhurt, I begin to grin. The water was not cold. The rocks were far away.
In the evening I go with Claire to my first yoga class. There are two weeks left on my way to Chicago. Two weeks to do as many things as possible for the first time in my life. In the wild north.