When I prepared to come to London to dine in a palace with the Archbishop of Canterbury, I knew that my experience would be meaningful. All the signs had pointed my way toward this evening. Just two weeks before, I had received disturbing news from a friend about my ex-husband, news that should not have been a surprise, but would drastically alter my life. Out of devastation and fear, I ran in silent terror to my car and drove off in the late afternoon as far as I could travel that day. I told my son I was going to find Mount Rushmore. I read on the Internet that Mount Rushmore was a 22 hour drive from Seattle. I needed the drive. I had not taken a trip alone since my junior year of college, and then only for a long weekend to Cape Cod from Boston. I needed the silence of being alone with no phone, connection to friends on the Internet, or even the comfort of the music that I constantly let flood through my head. I wanted to have silence to contemplate. I needed to be alone in order to pray for relief from the fear of being alone. I did not know what my future would be. I drove for eight hours, until midnight, when I reached Missoula, Montana. It was the first time I had checked into a motel alone since that college trip. This was a trip of firsts for me.
The next day the fear pushed me on. I had traveled I 90 this far before, driving through Montana and Wyoming to paint with my teacher and friend Ned. Ned loves the beauty of the west. He was born in Bozeman, and knows every scenic view as only a great artist can. He was afraid for me and on the phone directed my travels from that first afternoon. He would call at least twice a day, under the auspices that I not miss a single vista. He was really calling to make sure I was safe. Alice called. Jane called. Morgan called. Annette and Kathy called. They were afraid for me too. Ned insisted that I drive south from I 90 through the Paradise Valley to Chico Hot Springs. We had shared a small log cabin on the Yellowstone River with fellow painter two years before and painted the Gallatin Mountains. Ned wanted me to go back and see the valley. You can’t say no to your teacher. I turned south.
As I drove through a valley so appropriately named, I began to feel better. I knew the Lord was with me. I had known from the day before when I fled Seattle that I was driving with the Lord, but in silence. I prayed for his voice to be loud and large again. As the valley stretched out before me, the road continued straight for miles. The Yellowstone was to the left, the mountains and ranches bordered either side of the road, the sky was clear, and calm settled over my heart. With a horn blast from a truck that had been following me, I pulled off the road beside a small white chapel at the intersection to turn to the hot springs. I thanked God for being in the Paradise Valley and lucky to be living in a country so beautiful. I felt blessed to be on my journey. I looked up and saw that the sign which marked the intersection was for the town of Pray, Montana. Yes, this was my first sign. This was indeed a large one. I said a prayer of thanks, turned back north to I 90, promised to end my journey in Pray. From now on, my travels would take me to places along the highway that I had yet to see. Every experience I would have from now on would be new. I continued to think, pray and watch.
Sunsets seemed significant. The sunset of my first full day was at the Little Big Horn. I shared it with my darling nephew Todd. He was struggling with the problems of his young life, and we sat there together on the telephone, as I described the beauty of the expansive rolling hills that surrounded me, the 360 degree sunset that was forming, and the spirits of all the souls who had died on that hill. No one was right at The Big Horn. I wanted to believe that the Indians were to be glorified, that Custer deserved to die, and that there was some meaning in the deaths that had occurred there. The Indians were cruel. Custer was cruel. What remains is a beautiful landscape that endured through it all. Todd and I reflected on our lives, what our purposes might me, and that our love for ourselves would give us the strength to love those closest to us. I heard a crow caw just before I left. I thought of the Crow tribe. The spirits were there, and would stay there as I left. A prairie dog stood in the road behind my car watching me drive away, ready to claim what was his when the tourists had gone. I said another prayer of thanksgiving, and I drove until midnight, reaching Rapid City, South Dakota.
Mount Rushmore is an incredible American experience. The flags fly from every state, patriotic music plays, and bus loads of senior citizens wander the site. It is a wonderful marketing tool. To carve a mountain into the giant heads of presidents, and one merely because he was the friend of the carver, is an amazing sight for an artist who loves to hike mountains. I promised to come back to see the four giants lit at night. I drove to the recreated western town at the base of Rushmore to have my photograph taken as a sexy saloon girl. I was the only customer at that moment, and my personal photographer cooed his reminder to point my toes as he wrapped a bull’s whip around my foot and stuffed a Derringer in my garter. I am 58 years old, and I felt sexy and strong as I perched on top of the bar recreation, and stood pretending to pour Jack Daniels for a watching cowboy. This would be my new Facebook photo. A stronger Tula had to emerge, a Tula of many dimensions. An armed and dangerous Tula was just one of the new attributes that I needed to embrace. I laughed at how much humor the Lord has when you stand back and laugh with him.
I continued on to my next sunset in the Badlands of South Dakota. I was overcome with the beauty of an area so inappropriately named. The expanse of the canyons which extended to the mountains at the horizon was overwhelming. The color of the rock, layered in reds, greens, yellows, pinks and white, was a feast to a painter. The sun was low, and the shadows turned the plateaus into monuments. I sat by the road and talked with a friend on the phone about a life in college and missed opportunities. I made a promise to myself to stop missing opportunities. The vastness of the Badlands at sunset had soul restoring powers. I wished my friend had been there to see it with me. I drove the loop around the Badlands twice. I did not want to leave. I was watching for signs. Tonight’s sign would be in color.
On the drive west back to Rushmore, the setting sun was magnificent, as beautiful as a Tahitian sunset. The vivid pink rays of the sun stretched upward in huge triangular blocks from the low red ball of the sun itself against the blue sky. It looked as stylized as an advertisement appropriate for a morning coffee. It stretched for 180 degrees across the western landscape. I thanked God again for being allowed to see the beauty of our land. I drove wrapped in pinks and purple through the sunset and into the night’s darkness to see the fours stone mountain sculptures light up to “America the Beautiful.” We sang our country’s song, and I headed back to my motel, alone and happy.
The next day would be a long one. I paid my respects to the Crazy Horse Memorial, grossly underfunded, too stylized for my tastes, and still magnificent. I bought a horse hair bracelet from a Lakota Indian who told me how to preserve it for a lifetime. May the spirit of the Lakota remain with me for my lifetime. I drove through the Custer State Park and marveled at the rock formations. This is a place to which I will return to hike and paint.
I veered north of I 90 to Devil’s Tower. I felt drawn to this mountain of rock, chiseled with columns of vertical lines. I knew if a “Close Encounter” were to happen, it would be at this place. Watching it grow taller through the Wyoming ranch land added to the excitement. Lines of campers and motorcycles followed my Prius as we processed to the tower. I walked around the base, photographing the prayer bundles left in the trees. This was a place to pray for all faiths. Whether a scarf or written note was left as a physical reminder of prayer, or the prayer took the form of a climb on the rocks or a walk beneath the trees, all the visitors at Devil’s Tower were in thankful meditation for the beauty that surrounded them. I found no devils there that day.
I drove to Buffalo, Wyoming and turned south to follow the Big Horn National Park into Cody. My next sunset would be in a wilderness as beautiful as Yellowstone without the people. Cliffs and canyons lined the narrow road, and hairpin turns punctuated the drama. As the sun lowered in the sky and the turns became blue and cool in the shadows, I realized that I had made a serious mistake. Having missed the first turn into Buffalo, I had not filled my gas tank. Without a map, following my GPS, I had no concept of the vastness of the Big Horn. I watched the gas gage continue to go down.
The two gas stations in the park were closed for the season. I was the only car traveling the road that afternoon. All campgrounds were closed. I had forgotten the warnings that Wyoming was sparsely populated and to take necessary precautions. I prayed again, this time to find a filling station. When that prayer did not come to pass and my gage reached empty, I found myself coasting down a 13 mile incline. The signs warned trucks to check their brakes. There were no pull offs, the narrow turns were constant, and there was no cell phone service. I decided that if I found a place to park off the road, I would sleep in the car and hike out for help in the morning. I hoped that all the animals had gone to bed early. If I was found in the night by an unfriendly stranger, I told the Lord that this would be a beautiful place to die. I was feeling dramatic and nervous. I was no longer enjoying the magnificence of the sharp rocks, sheer drop offs, or the sunset that was now happening. I was angry at myself for running out of gas in a Prius. I laughed that I would never be asked to participate in a Prius commercial!
At the end of the incline in a darkening canyon, I spotted a ranch. I coasted through the open gate, into the Circle J Ranch. I stopped beneath a large instruction sign. When I read the words before me in my shining headlights, I was amazed. God had answered my prayers, and again in large block letters. This would be my best sunset. The Circle J Ranch is a church retreat dedicated to Jesus. The sign read to remember to keep Jesus in the forefront of our lives. Yes Lord, I see the words. If I had not run out of gas, I would have missed your second and largest sign.
A woman came out of a cabin, and I explained that I was a traveler in need of assistance. She told me of her church retreat at the Circle J Ranch, invited me to stay and spend the night. When I declined, she drove me to the nearest town for gas. I told her my story, and she told me hers. She wanted me to move to her small town in Wyoming. For an artist and hiker, searching for a place to be, she knew I would find peace and happiness there. She ran a school for handicapped children and offered me a job. There in the wilderness of Wyoming, stranded and alone, I found myself surrounded with the love of a stranger. I knew this was not my mission. Although I did not know where my road would lead, I felt the peace of knowing that God was watching and whispering that things would work out. I exchanged contact information with my new friend, and I continued through the night to Cody. The stars shone brightly in the sky. There were no clouds, cars, houses, and few towns to diminish their light. I was traveling alone in the starlight. I was happy.
Cody is an artist’s dream. I spent an entire day in the museum, in awe of the talented painters who could capture the magnificence of the American west. I photographed every painting in the collection, and was proud to see my friend Ned’s paintings on display. His oil of a mountain stream, “The Source”, is holy as the image of an annunciation. I returned to my tiny log cabin and wrote a children’s story of a bunny that leaves to find her place in the big world. With work, perhaps that bunny will inspire children one day.
My trip was winding down. I needed to return to Pray, Montana. I traveled through the Chief Joseph Highway, and wrote a poem of love by the side of an Aspen lined viewpoint. Almost every moment was filled with songs of praise in my head. I hummed the Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts”, and followed the Beartooth Highway to the Top of the World. I purchased bunny socks to remind me of my bunny’s quest. This is the highest point one can drive in our country. I had been there before to paint the snow and the lakes in June two years before. The snow was gone and the fields now yellow. The leaves were turning. Time continues, the seasons change, and the Beartooth is always beautiful.
I came to Yellowstone National Park. I wandered by campsites along the river, enjoyed the buffalo crossing the Yellowstone in the Lamar Valley, and hiked through the hot springs at Mammoth. I returned to the Paradise Valley for my last night. This time in Pray, Montana, I was strong enough to give back to the people I met there. I met a new artist friend, whose son was leaving the next day for a two month Marine training program, and then would then be shipped to Afghanistan. She was waiting for his arrival for dinner and terrified for him. Justin is 19 years old, too young to go to the bar at Chico Hot Springs but old enough to give his life willingly for his country. I have not learned to eat alone, and she did not want to dine alone with her son who was now bravely withdrawing from his mother. We spent the evening together, me asking Justin questions, and his mom eagerly listening to his responses. I try to write them both frequently, and I pray for Justin’s safe return. We were also joined by a handsome man, ten years my younger. He had come to fill his soul in the Paradise Valley. He was lonely, and wanted to talk. I am a good listener. His attention was too strong, and he was too young, but I learned there in a hot spring, that I am attractive, another facet of Tula to emerge and blossom.
The next day I had the pleasure of declining to stay and travel through Yellowstone with a young stranger. This was not my mission. I photographed the river for one last time, and had Ned’s friend, a famous western landscape painter, invite me back to paint with him the next time I was in the valley. I will return, to be replenished and rejuvenated. Maybe one day I will have a small cabin in Paradise.
I drove west. It would be a long twelve hours, to take Ned to a late dinner to thank him for his guidance along my way. I now played my music and let the landscape wash over me with the sounds of Van Morrison and Jacob Dillon on the stereo. I talked to my other darling nephew. Clay had spent the past week on an outward bound retreat to find himself. Together we had been searching at the same time in different places for the same truths. He had learned a lot about himself in the silence of a wilderness within a six foot circle drawn to confine him. I had learned through the silence in the unlimited space of the western wilderness. As the sun set on the last day of my journey, I said a loud pray through tears, that God still give me the signs. I read the ones he had posted throughout my travels. I needed more. I wanted a bigger sign. I needed my messages big, loud and demanded that God comply. I was bold.
The next day, I received a cryptic message from my friend Marshal. He asked me to call him immediately. It was Tuesday. Marshal’s date had been unable to attend a dinner scheduled for Wednesday night, a week away. The dinner was in London with the Archbishop of Canterbury. He knew how difficult my past two years had been, and he wanted to do something special for me. Would I be able to join him? Now that’s a big sign, Lord. After scrambling for air miles, and locating a reasonably priced hotel, I would be off to London to meet the head of the Anglican Communion. This was not a dinner. This was the end of my quest. It had begun in fear, turned to giving, and would end now in blessing. I knew, as I always have, that if you ask loudly enough and listen in silence, the answers will come. They might not be what you expect or what you plan. If our role is to touch others in a large way, then blessing will be overflowing. If we touch others simply, by those people who enter our lives each day, then our blessing will be unmatched. I did my laundry and repacked my suitcase. After a brief and fun trip to Las Vegas with my girlfriend for the weekend, I flew alone to London to have dinner with His Grace, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the impressive Compass Rose Society, and my friend, Marshal.
These are the words according to the Archbishop from September 30, 2009, paraphrased by me: “It is not our job to save the world. That was done by someone who came before us. All we can do is to take one step at a time, and let me quote the Beatles, with a little help from our friends.”
Before the dinner in Lambeth Palace, together with Marshal, a bishop, and me, the Archbishop of Canterbury said a prayer to bless Marshall’s cross, a gift to a retiring choirmaster. It was a gift of prayer for the three of us present in that small circle.
And my favorite quote from the Archbishop…one that you may feel free to quote yourself: “I am a Christian, Damn it!”
Tula’s ending message: Peace be with you always! And may we all find our mission…and if not, then may we enjoy each step and every step we take, and hopefully, be sustained in our journeys with a little help from our friends.