“What are you looking for?” came a voice from behind me.
“Huh? Oh. Myself, I guess,” I chuckled as I realized I was caught in a daydream in front of a rack of postcards.
“Well, you won’t find that in here,” said the shopkeeper. “I recommend you go out there,” as she pointed out to the Kaniksu National Forest across the highway, her face sincere, but assuring.
Not expecting such a serious response to my jokey one, I immediately realized that I was also being serious, I just didn’t expect to be. That is why I’m out here – to find myself. I grabbed a postcard of your standard fare beautiful wilderness scenery and walked up to the register where the shopkeeper greeted me again.
“So, where ya visiting us from?”
“Well, I live in Virginia. I was here last summer and really enjoyed it, so I knew I had to come back,” I responded.
“Virginia. That’s a long way from here. Where did you fly into, Spokane?”
I laughed. “No, I drove. Same thing I do every summer, just me and the dog.”
“Well, I’ll be. That’s quite the commitment. And you’re out here to find yourself? What does that mean, anyway?”
I must’ve looked at her as if she were crazy, because she sort of withdrew her head back from me and gave something resembling a cross between a frown and disappointment. Registering this, I smiled widely because I didn’t mean to be off-putting, and after all, she was asking a pretty deep question that I wasn’t sure of the answer myself.
“Well, I was kind of joking when I said that, but it’s also kind of true,” I admitted.
“Oh, there’s nothing wrong with that. I guess that’s how I ended up here 30 years ago or so myself. After I dropped out of college I just kind of wandered around and stumbled into this area, and well, I’ve been here ever since. Say, what kind of work do you do that has you looking for yourself?”
Again, I paused and must’ve displayed the same awkward expression as she withdrew her head back again. “Umm, I’m a college professor, actually…”
She laughed and said, “Well, all my college professors thought they knew everything, that’s why I dropped out. Had I had one that admitted he didn’t have it all figured out, I might’ve graduated!”
Having disarmed the situation and its awkwardness, I was thankful, and I made a mental note to be a little less guarded in my interactions. It’s something that has become second nature over the years, and something I’ve made no attempts at curbing. I wouldn’t say I like my acquired disposition, but it’s familiar and comfortable. I also think it keeps me from getting to know others, and no doubt prevents others from knowing me. No wonder I’m out here searching; I’m unknowable even to myself.
That thought must have occupied a few uncomfortable seconds, but the shopkeeper seemed accustomed to my weird ways, perhaps even appreciating them, as she didn’t withdraw her head this time as she waited for me to speak.
I smiled and said, “Don’t get me started. And trust me, I’m sure many of my students think I’m a know-it-all. Thing is, though, the more I read and learn, the less I know. Oftentimes I just need to escape and get away from it all – work, the grind, society, you know, right?”
“Oh, I know,” she remarked. “This is a good place to do that. Though, I live here, and I don’t go much anywhere else, so there’s no escaping for me. I either have to be content here or I’m just stuck. But hey, my job is to help people like you escape. I think I find value in helping people get away.”
“That must be nice,” I quipped. “In my line of work, I, well, I help people get prepared for work – their careers. You know, what they’re going to spend the rest of their lives doing instead of actually enjoying their lives. Wow, that sounds terrible now that I say it.”
The shopkeeper shot me a friendly cringe and said, “Yeah, you do need some time away. Leisure is what you need. Why don’t you go enjoy our land? It’ll set you straight before you know it!”
As soon as she said “leisure,” my ears perked up and the smile on my face was as authentic as they come. “You’re right, and I’m going to do that right now!”
She followed me out to the shop’s porch where my dog, Poet, was waiting patiently in the shade. Seeing my return, she stood up and stretched, then wagged her tail as she looked at me and then the shopkeeper who then said, “Now, who do we have here?”
“This is Poet, she’s about to turn 13, so we’re out here celebrating,” I replied.
“Well, hello, Poet. My what a friendly dog you are! Thirteen, you say? My, but a pup!” said the shopkeeper.
Poet clearly appreciated the attention and kind words as she immediately nuzzled up to the shopkeeper. As I watched my pup get a little love, I noticed her sit down and stare into the eyes of the shopkeeper who then turned to me and asked, “Can she have a treat?”
“Of course. She’s on a birthday vacation after all. Thank you.”
After we’d taken care of our business and Poet was satisfied with the amount of attention she’d received, we dropped our stuff off at the cabin we’d rented and pulled out a trail map. It didn’t take long to settle on which one to do first, our favorite from last year. The trailhead was only a 20-minute drive, and due in part to it being a weekday, coupled with the remoteness of our whereabouts, we were quite happy to see no other cars at the site. This meant we’d have the trail all to ourselves. What better way to start the journey of finding myself?
After the hike, a good four hours and roughly eight miles, we returned to the cabin to relax. Poet immediately curled up on her dog bed on the front porch, and I sat next to her in the rocking chair, and I just gazed out over the curves of the mountain range while she sawed logs. My introspection had died down and now I was simply in a state of tranquility. Maybe this is what I was looking for; nothing else to search for, this is all I need.