Time for Reflection

The air is crisp and a chill settles over my bones. As I step onto the porch of the small log cabin, the boards beneath me creak with the weight. A tendril of smoke grasps for the sky from the wood burning stove that warms the cabin. I look out in the distance over the wheat fields and tall silos, empty except for the local colony of blackbirds. It’s a bluebird sky with cirrus clouds reaching across the horizon. Fresh snow crunches under my boots as I walk towards the river. It’s become a daily routine, this returning to the water, past the red barn and irrigation pivots. Deer nestle among the tall grasses, occasionally darting away when my footsteps draw too near. The winter air provides a clarity for my thoughts, while the toasty warmth of the fire inside serves as a balm for my soul. I’m still heavy with the grief of lost travels, the last four months of a year abroad whisked away with the blundering of COVID 19. But as I rock back and forth in the rocking chair, mesmerized by the flames licking the walls of the stove, I feel my grief tempered with acceptance and grace. The silence of the rural cabin in Montana allows my mind to wander, making space for reflection and gratitude. The stillness is a bed for my creativity to blossom.

We booked a last minute flight home, as countries shuttered their borders one by one. We arrived to Montana late at night, the air brisk with a flurry of snow. Whitney’s parents stocked the cabin with enough food and water for us to last two weeks, a suitable duration for quarantine. They left my car in the airport parking lot and waved from a distance, as we exited the building. It took us an hour to drive to the cabin, the night pitch black with little moonlight. We stamped out the snow on our boots as we unlocked the door. It was a shivering 3° Fahrenheit, with a perpetual flurry of snowflakes. We quickly tended to a fire in the stove, the best source of heat for the small cabin. As we hunkered down for the night in a tiny twin bed, we shook our heads in disbelief. So much had changed so quickly.

I wrote this about the first few weeks back home at the end of March when we emergently returned home from Egypt. We were in Cairo two days before a group tour started and enjoyed a few city tours on our own. On the day our group tour started, Whitney’s mom texted saying she was concerned about us getting stranded due to COVID border closures. We felt similarly and canceled our tour within hours of it starting. We booked plane tickets home, leaving that night. Within 24 hours of our flight, Egypt closed their borders, both in and out of the country. We would have been stranded for who knows how long if we had stayed just one more day.

We were stunned and confused, and really at a loss of what to do. We naively thought we would get back to our travels within a few months once it all blew over, pressing pause on any plans in Montana in hopes to return abroad. The last 8 months have gone anything but as planned. We are still in Montana and haven’t been on an airplane since the day we landed from Egypt. But these last 8 months have been anything but ordinary, and a true blessing despite its hardships.

We stayed in the cabin for a month, a retreat of sorts where days were spent tending the fire, walking to the river, reading, and writing. There were puzzles completed and barns painted, brush cleared and firewood stacked. And most importantly, there was stillness, something I had craved for so long yet never seemed to make time for. After our quarantine, we began driving into Helena a few times a week to see family and help watch our nephew, giving our sister-in-law a well deserved, albeit brief break from the toddler madness. After a month of sleeping in the spider infested twin bed of the cabin, freezing, and surrounded by howling winds, we caved and moved in with Whitney’s brother. We spent a month hanging out with Brian, Blair, and little Reece. Hearing Reece scream “Aunties!” on a daily basis was honestly the highlight of the entire year. If COVID hadn’t happened, I doubt we would have ever formed such a close bond with the little nugget. Between playing with trains and great conversations with Brian and Blair, we saw any hope of potential travel extinguished. Although it was such a treat to stay with them, (and we will be forever thankful for their generosity) it was one of the lowest points of the year for both of us mentally. We felt stagnant and the loss of control over our lives took a toll. It was the first time that we had nowhere to go and nothing to do, and the lack of purpose was exhausting. The negativity compounded when sellers of a house we loved ultimately backed out of the deal. By the end of April, we started looking for an apartment in Missoula instead, where we had already signed contracts for jobs that started in December. Ironically, we signed our contracts a few weeks before COVID hit, not knowing that we would be home earlier than expected. At the beginning of May, we moved to Missoula, thankful to start a new chapter and explore our new home.

Because of itchy feet, we decided to take a large National Park road trip leaving the day after we moved. I needed a reset button and being on the road did just that. We spent over three weeks on the road, sleeping in the back of my Jeep and bringing all of our food to minimize any exposure to other people. There was basically no one at the parks, which made them all the more special and safe. We headed east from Missoula to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, where we awoke to foggy breath and freezing temperatures. We then headed to South Dakota and visited Badlands National Park, which was so surreal and magical. We continued on to Wind Cave National Park, Mount Rushmore, and Crazy Horse, driving through the scenic Black Hills along the way. We spent hours among cornfields in Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma and took a detour to southeastern Colorado for Great Sand Dunes National Park before seeing my family in Texas. I hadn’t seen anyone in my family for almost six months and needed a sense of the familiar. From Texas, we headed west to Saguaro National Park in Arizona before heading north through California to see Joshua Tree National Park, Channel Islands National Park, and Pinnacles National Park. We stopped in the bay area to see my brother’s family for a few days before heading further north to Lassen Volcanic National Park and Redwoods National Park. We drove the coastal highway 101 along the Oregon Coast and up to Olympic National Park. Driving east back to Montana, we stopped at Mount Rainier National Park and my favorite, North Cascades National Park. The trip was amazing all around and the sense of accomplishment helped boost our spirits.

Once settled back home, we spent a few weeks exploring Missoula and trying to find temporary jobs. Because of COVID, there were no locums positions available because most clinics were already seeing fewer patients than usual. We found an opportunity to do virtual visits for Medicare patients, which seemed perfect. We spent weeks applying and getting credentialed. We were warned the process could take up to a month, so we did what we do best: we left again. This time, we headed to the eastern part of the country. We drove to northern Michigan to visit Isle Royal National Park, where we didn’t see a single person other than the park ranger and a cute fox. After a rainy night along the coast, we drove to Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota. It was stormy and windy when we started our first hike in the park, a short loop to a scenic overlook. We were maybe a mile into the hike when we heard an odd creaking noise that sounded like a car door shutting. We kept walking and heard it again. As I looked up, I saw a tall tree falling down not five feet in front of Whitney. I screamed and we ran all the way back to the trailhead. It was terrifying. We spent the rest of the day cautiously seeing the park before heading onwards around the Great Lakes. We stopped at Friends of the Apostles National Lakeshore in Wisconsin, along Lake Superior for a freezing dip before encountering the worst weather I’ve ever experienced. Think mix of tornado and flash flooding. At one point I was having a panic attack in the passenger seat and crying, while Whitney was trying to decide whether we should stay put and wait out the storm or keep going. The drive to Madison was dark and windy with fallen trees blocking the street and flash flooding along country roads. When we finally reached Madison, we stuffed our faces with Culver’s. The greasy food and milkshakes calmed my nerves and we both debated whether we should just go home. Unfortunately, the horrid weather continued on our way to Indiana Dunes National Park. During a brief break in the rain, we ran to the beach to see the dunes before heading on to Ohio for Cuyahoga Valley National Park. While hiking to a waterfall, a snake slithered across the path, causing me to lose my sh*t. Thankfully, things started heading up when we drove south to Shenandoah National Park. The Skyline Drive was beautiful and we stopped at a winery nearby for a special treat (outdoors and socially distanced, of course). The following day was my 30th birthday. I thought I would be in a café in Budapest for my 30th, relishing the accomplishment of visiting over 90 countries together. But alas, I was stateside and with far fewer than 90 countries under my belt. But Asheville was a great place to be for my birthday. We had a mimosa brunch and toured the grounds of the Biltmore Estate before heading to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After buying some Tennessee moonshine and whiskey, we crossed into Kentucky to see Mammoth Cave National Park and buy some bourbon. To finish our road trip, we drove south through Alabama and Mississippi to see a few Civil Rights monuments before hitting up Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas.

We weren’t home a week before we headed out again, this time to Idaho. We met up with some friends from Utah for a long weekend of hiking and camping in the Sawtooths. The views were incredible and the long, intense hikes were a catharsis for our restlessness. It felt so good to see friends we missed dearly and feel some semblance of normalcy. The next weekend, we drove back to Idaho to meet two other friends from Utah at Swan Valley. We made a bomb diggedy camp breakfast and hiked nearly 15 miles the first day, much to our friends’ dismay. With our now free summer, we tried to jampack our time full of camping and backpacking.

We spent a weekend with Whitney’s parents seeing more of Montana by driving over the Skalkaho Pass to Georgetown Lake and Phillipsburg, and spent a weekend backpacking in Sluice Boxes State Park with a couple we met in Missoula. Given our lack of jobs and moving to a new town during a pandemic, it was hard to meet new friends. Luckily, Whitney went to high school with a woman who now lives in Missoula with her husband. They have become great friends and such a light during these weird times.

At the end of August, Whitney and I backpacked in the Wind River Range in Wyoming, something that has been on my bucket list for a long time. We backpacked in to Seneca Lake and camped for two nights, taking a long day hike on the second day to both Island Lake and Titcomb Basin. We hiked nearly 40 miles in 3 days. The scenery was stunning and it was the longest we had ever backpacked. The sense of accomplishment fueled further backpacking that summer in Grand Teton National Park with two friends from Utah, when we backpacked 30 miles over 3 days along the Teton Crest Trail. The Tetons were much steeper, but seeing the sunrise over the peaks was a sweet reward.

Not long after our backpacking trip, we went on another road trip with Whitney’s parents. We drove to Chico Hot Springs and through Yellowstone National Park, where we saw two wolves and a coyote. From there, we drove the stunning and scenic Beartooth Highway along the Montana/Wyoming border. It was around this time that we were finally credentialed to work by doing the Medicare virtual visits. Unfortunately, the week we were supposed to start seeing patients, Medicare changed their rules, no longer reimbursing for virtual annual wellness visits. This left us stranded because we still only had Utah medical licenses, meaning we would have to see patients in Utah, which was obviously impossible. We started the process of applying for our Montana medical licenses, which could take 4-6 weeks. So, we were stuck again.

At the end of September, Whitney and I celebrated our four year wedding anniversary at Flathead Lake near Glacier National Park. She booked a surprise getaway to a cabin overlooking the water and we spent the night drinking wine and reading the book I’d been writing. After some leaf peeping the next day, we returned home to Missoula.

The rest of September was reserved for Whitney to study for her Geriatrics Board Exam on October 1st. As she studied, I worked on my book. We drove to Salt Lake City for her exam and spent a few days frequenting our old haunts and catching up with friends. We drove our favorite autumn drive along the Alpine Scenic Loop and hiked in the Wasatch. From Salt Lake, we drove west to California again, where we stopped at Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Park. There was significant smoke in the area due to the wildfires, but we were able to see the giant sequoia trees clearly. From there, we drove to Yosemite National Park, hoping that the smoke would clear long enough for us to glimpse El Capitan. An hour outside the park, the smoke was the thickest we had seen yet and it was difficult to breathe. But as we continued driving through the canyon, it cleared. We had blue skies for our scenic drive and day hikes. We couldn’t believe it. The next morning, we woke to the faint haze of incoming smoke. We hiked that morning but decided it wasn’t worth staying longer as the smoke settled in. We headed north to Crater Lake National Park before seeing Whitney’s aunt and uncle in their hometown of Chiloquin. We kayaked the river with them and toured their amazing farm.

Since we returned home from our final National Park road trip, we have really settled in. In late June, we found a house we love and signed a buy-sell contract. Unfortunately, the owner is in the process of subdividing the land, so he can’t legally sell until it is approved by the county. Because of COVID, everything has been slowed down tremendously and the process has been moving forward at a snail pace. We are still not in the house yet, five months later. We are hopeful, but thought we could work on furniture projects in the interim, so we would be ready to move in when the time comes. Whitney’s parents have given us a ton of old furniture that we have either painted, re-stained, changed hardware, or refurbished. We also built a lodge pole pine bed frame with Whitney’s dad for one of the bedrooms and I learned to sew so I could recover our couch in new fabric. I’ve covered a ton of old pillows and recovered another couch, as well. We’ve spent a ton of time visiting antique and thrift stores, finding lamps, picture frames, odds, and ends for the house. Whitney and I spent days building 8 foot tall bookshelves out of reclaimed lumber, while still living in our apartment. It was nuts. Without this free time, it would have been so much harder to furnish an entire house with only used and reclaimed pieces. At this point, there will be nothing new in the entire house except a few mattresses and one rug. My low waste self is incredibly pleased.

Like I mentioned earlier, I used this time to begin writing my travel memoir. I had always planned to eventually write this book. The time just came sooner than I expected. I have finished my first draft and multiple rounds of self-edits, and now am sending my manuscript to a developmental editor. Hopefully, I will get her edits back by February and can rework the book a bit before trying to find a literary agent. I figure I should shoot for the moon and if no publisher wants to pick up the book, then I can self-publish.

This time has also provided an atmosphere for my cooking to flourish. I made my own sourdough starter for the first time and finally learned how to make sourdough bread. Whitney and I started our first homemade kombucha and ginger beer, as well. I’ve learned how to make homemade crackers from sourdough discard, salted caramels, rosemary focaccia, and herb butters. We’ve perfected our ravioli making skills and I spent a few mornings improving my homemade donuts and pretzels. With all of this cooking, I’ve worked on my food photography skills for an upcoming project that I’ve always dreamed of: a farm to table style homestead cookbook. It’s a giant, multi-year, work in progress, but it’s been fun.

And we adopted our first baby! Meet Uyuni Pumpkin Shepard Haseman, AKA Yuni Pumpkin 🙂

Clearly COVID rerouted all of our plans. We were supposed to continue traveling through August, reaching our goal of 100 countries together by the end of it. Instead, we left our travels after our 72nd country and spent many months in one place, something we were not used to. Thankfully, we were able to road trip quite a bit and reached National Park #46/61. If we had visited the parks during a different time without a pandemic, we would never have camped in the back of the Jeep for weeks at a time, an adventure in and of itself. We never would have toured the country from coast to coast, driving through nearly every state either. We finally had time to backpack and camp for more than just a weekend and spent more time with family. And the free time allowed us to pursue passion projects outside of work and travel, something I had sorely missed over the last few years. Although there have been some very low moments throughout the last 8 months, there have also been unexpected joys and a new sense of self.

The coronavirus pandemic forced us to stop running and stay put. It wasn’t a welcomed break from travel, but it was a necessary one, not just because of the obvious public health reasons, but also for my soul. I know I didn’t have the courage to back down from a dream and reevaluate what I needed in life. I would have kept blustering my way through, unsustainably and wearily. The pandemic taught me how to love the stillness, how to create a home I want to retreat to and not run from, and the forced pause left me contending with who I was without travel. Future travel will look differently for us, likely at a slower pace with kids in tow. We may never reach 100 countries, but I feel at ease with that notion. The pandemic forced me to break what seemed like an unstoppable rat race and appreciate all of the amazing places I’ve already been, while I reconnected with the parts of me not associated with a life on the go. I am not just a traveler. I am a physician, a daughter, a baker, a wife, and a reader. I’ve realized I can do everything I want in life, just not at the same time. The travel chapter of my life has ended, and I am now free to pursue other dreams and passions. It’s a different type of freedom than life on the road, but just as worthy.

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