I took a long unwinding bus ride home from San Francisco to Boston traveling over much of the route that I had walked.
As soon as I walked into my old house, my journey unhappily took the status of a faded dream. It was as if it had occurred 50 years before, a distant memory. But some part of me refused to let it be over. For a full two weeks, I almost unconsciously kept changing into my trail clothes. Despite complete cessation of exercise my appetite continued to soar unchecked as I consumed enough food for six people. And my body rebelled and protested the trip's ending by developing dozens of psychosomatic complaints from headaches to rashes. I became accident prone, poking myself in the eye and walking into things.
The New England landscape that had carried me through deserts as a vision of heaven now looked cluttered and dirty and closed in. The people with whom I had wanted to share my deepest experiences asked politely, "Did you have a nice trip?" and clearly had time and energy only for a polite superficial answer. Naively I pressed with urgency my revolutionary message, ''Hey! We don't have to be so afraid; there's a benevolent world out there and we all can feel free to pursue any of our wildest dreams.'' An unbridgeable gulf, a separation would open between me and others so that the response was either a tolerant blank stare or a faint but firm hostility, "Well, it's nice for you that you can believe in such things;'' (putting me and my trip into the perspective realm of the tooth fairy), "I think you were very, very luck.” (Stern finger wagging.) “The truth is that you can't even walk across a parking lot these days safely." Not knowing when to retire my mouth, I respond, "But surely six months walking alone on the highways can be regarded as more than a fluke and maybe even indication of the way it really is out there."
Some of my relatives assumed the attitude that they would overlook my six month indiscretion and do me a favor by just not mentioning it. When I spoke before groups, however, the rapport became as intensely dynamic as it was dead on a one to one meeting. I would look at my audience and find tears in eyes as I would relate stories of exceptional kindness from strangers.
One night I had a vivid dream. Melinda and David (the two National Geographic photographers who became my friends) and I were standing on a huge pier in balmy brilliant sunlight. We were euphoric basking and gazing out on an exciting creation, the world. Regretfully but with firm decision I said goodbye and walked off the pier and along the shore upstream where I entered the water out of sight. I was sucked into the current and swept past Melinda and David. I was swept out to sea and pulled down deep into the gray depths. The people back east at home were working down on the murky gray bottom. I joined them and began telling them about sunshine and light and heaven way, way up above the surface of the water. "But there really is sunshine and breezes up there," pointing, "I've been there." But they wouldn't listen or even lift their heads to look up. The cloudy water pulled heavily at my arms and legs and I sensed that we were more dead than alive. I strained and strained to deliver my story to the people but they were dead to my futile entreaties. And then I realized that perhaps I was trapped down there with them forever unless we all would go up together. I woke up and wrote down the dream.
As the weeks and months slipped by I grew to doubt even my own memories and perceptions of my Donner journey. While speaking before a group one evening, I impulsively decided to redrive the route, and with in a week, I was gone leaving behind a family more resigned than surprised at my erratic behavior. I was frightened. It would be a test of my fragile and precious memories and convictions. Were people really as nice as I remembered? Had I somehow idealized the whole journey? Would I be received as warmly the second time through, this time arriving unannounced in a truck and traveling with a friend instead of limping in pulling a cart alone?
Reverend Ashmore in Gardner, Kansas, answered my first brave but frightened knock. It was a crucial moment for me. Maybe he wouldn't even remember me. “Barbara!!!” he shouted through a grin as wide as the west, and my joy was too big to be contained. And that was the way it was throughout the second journey. Not only were my memories of America reaffirmed they were strengthened. The country is as vast and magnificent; the people ARE as warm and supportive and indeed our pioneer heritage is- alive and well.
During the interim between my two trips, three of my favorite old people had died and three new babies were born. I returned home this time confident and sure and above all, free; free of doubts, free of popular convention, free of fear and caution and suspicion, free and knowing.