By Deborah Griffin
I pressed the bumper sticker onto my dashboard. Good Girls Go to Heaven, Bad Girls Go Everywhere. It was my mantra for the trip I was about to take. For the first time in my life I would be on the road with no destination. Every other trip I’d taken was charted to within an inch of its life, mapped and reserved ahead with a quota of miles per day. Not this one. Part spiritual quest, part art journey, this would be a trip with time to think, to make decisions about the rest of my life. On the passenger seat lay a new journal, its smooth pages ready to record with words and sketches the adventures that lay before me.
As I drove west toward the unknown, the idea of â€˜bad girls’ kept playing in my brain. Bad girls, as opposed to good girls who never got dirty, never quit their jobs or left their husbands; who raised good little girls just like Mommy, and worked hard to get into heaven. But what if bad girls really do go everywhere, including heaven? I was about to find out.
My first stop was a buffalo preserve in Medicine Park, Oklahoma. I set up my tent and tried to sleep despite the calls of wild turkeys and the wailing of a fellow camper’s violin that out-screeched the birds. Outside my tent the raccoons provided percussion, creating a sloshy rattle of ice against the inside of the cooler they couldn’t quite break into or drag away. I sat up in the cocoon of my sleeping bag and by the light of a flashlight wrote the first words on my fresh new pages. What in the name of heaven am I doing? Hunched over my journal, I wrote until my hand cramped, then spent the rest of the night rolling from rock to rock.
Blurry eyed over coffee the next morning, I made a decision. If I was going to spend weeks in my tent, I was going to have a comfortable bed. I broke camp and headed to the nearest shopping center. A friend would one day christen the little pavilion I put together that day The Taj. I purchased a blowup mattress, foldable cot, table and chair, a Persian design rug, luxurious comforters and linens in jewel colors. My lantern wasn’t pierced tin and amber, but it provided sufficient light for reading and journaling. I hit the road again, wallowing in my luxury and in the glory of having no agenda or schedule, no friends, husband, or family with needs to satisfy. I had only to satisfy myself. I stopped at gila monster museums, Route 66 diners, wigwam curio stands, and natural wonders. I visited caves.
I loved the caves best. I loved the coolness, the thrusting stalagmites and the clinging stalactites. For me the caves were a physical metaphor for the emotional place I occupied — a going-inside place with a view to the world from the entrance. My favorite caves were the ones I could hang out in alone. In one I sat and traced the name of a former occupant. Margaret Marion had written her name in pencil on the surface in 1912. Years of limestone deposits had slowly covered it over until it lay sealed beneath transparent layers, unerasable. Was that what I sought? Some way to leave my mark?
One morning at dawn I sought spiritual enlightenment in the mouth of a cave above the campground at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. The valley below was filled with a plethora of purple, lime and scarlet tents, which the early morning mist and campfire smoke obscured then revealed at the whim of the wind. The veil of time seemed to thin, the colors faded and the encampment below could have been this century or during the time of the Anasazi, a thousand years before. I closed my eyes, sat crosslegged and heard a raven cry and a mother calling her child. I smelled food cooking, breathed in juniper, sagebrush and the cool, damp smell of time that permeates all caves.
Here in this holy place, where people had come through the ages to seek answers, I was ready for the Spirits to speak to me. I tried to concentrate, then tried to just be. And I found, not sustenance, light or counsel, but a sudden realization. I was done with caves. I was ready to go back and deal with my life: end my relationship, find a job, move out of stasis and do the next thing. I wasn’t empty-handed, though. I would take with me pages and pages of observations and sketches and forty days of experiences that would take me years to assimilate.
I made that trip in my thirty-fifth year, and even now in my fifties I sometimes go back to those journals. I find insights, or maybe a descriptive memory — birdshadow dancing on peach canyon walls, the giggly sound of white throated swifts, the tinkle of goat bells rising 1000 feet to crenellated cliff edges. I smile at the story of the woman who brought me leftover cake and anecdotes about her artistic granddaughter. I see again the conference-bound executive who shipped his suit ahead and rode his motorcycle across the desert, telling me his life history late at night while sand dunes leaned close.
Mainly I go there for the memory of days and days without agendas or plans, for the joy of simply being, with nothing to do but whatever shows up. Today, with every hour filled to the brim, that is my current version of heaven.
Deborah Griffin is an artist and writer living in Alameda. She exhibits regularly at the Alameda Art Center and the Frank Bette Art Center and has been published in Goddess Magazine and Skirt! Magazine, and will be included in the upcoming Hot Flashes II in 2006.