Fear and happiness on the road

Today's prompt had something to do with traveling alone--as in, have you ever done it?

The short answer is 'yes, but not nearly enough.'

I've traveled a bit by myself and if I had more time and money I'd do it more often.

As it is, however, when I do have time to travel I usually want to (and can only afford to) do so with Cory.

Still, if the time and money were of little or no consideration ...

Travel, of course, is an amazing way to see the world in a different way. Or yourself.

In summer 1997 I was still struggling through a separation from my then-husband. We'd been together seven-and-a-half years so even though I think the relationship had burned out long before I actually moved out, there was still plenty of emotional turmoil.

Those first few months in my tiny Midtown apartment were challenging. I learned to live by myself again; to trust myself (long story), to like just being by myself. I loved, loved, loved that apartment. It was a studio but it was huge and sunny and overlooked a courtyard with a bubbling fountain. There, I slept with the windows open, listened to music, read, wrote and spent time with my new cat Sophie. Some of my closest friends lived nearby--Rachel and Tom down the street, Laura just a few apartments over.

I dated, I even had a boyfriend of sorts,  but mostly I hibernated.

Then, Jill asked if I wanted to drive with her to Chicago to visit her family. The plan was to go out together and I'd stay for a few days and see Chicago with her and then drive back alone as Jill wanted to spend several weeks there and was at a point in her life where she could just quit her part-time job between semesters and then pick up again in the fall.

The trip there was amazing; we drove from Northern California through Nevada, Utah and Wyoming and then cut up north to South Dakota so we could visit Mt. Rushmore. Jill took the picture at left somewhere outside of the Mt. Rushmore park. I apologize for the very '90s-ness of it. I am probably wearing Doc Martens and I'm OK with that but wish I could take the overalls and weird haircut back.

Throughout the trip Jill and I bonded like crazy (our friendship was only a few months old at that time). We shared deep, intense stories. We laughed a lot. We cried. We listened to music loudly and sat in the passenger seat with our toes waving out the window. It was perfect trip.

In Chicago the intense fun continued. We went to shows and parties and thrifted. We hung out with her family and stalked ex-boyfriends (hers, obviously).

And then suddenly it was time for me to go home. Alone.

Jill's parents lived in the tiny town of Crete, just south of Chicago. It's a rural/suburban enclave with cornfields and tractors and lots of hoopla about stoplights.

Her family was kind and the house was pretty and quiet but eventulally it was time to leave. Sometime after noon on a hot July afternoon, I hugged Jill goodbye and set out on my own.

I traveled south to Tennessee and stayed the night in Nashville in a crappy motel outside Music Row. The drive down had been beautiful--as I drove into Memphis it was raining but also sunny and I pulled the car over to the side of the road to join other travelers in the chance to snap a picture of a rainbow.

That night, however, I felt very very lonely. I may have cried. I definitely called my mother, seeking a reassuring voice. I heard people outside the door arguing. I felt scared and pushed a chair up against the thin motel door. And then I felt silly and just turned the TV up louder to drown out the noise.

The next morning I got up and had breakfast at a diner near the then-Country Music Hall of Fame. I can't remember if I visited it or not (I've been there since but the memories are blurring); I walked around some of the stores and took photos. Finally, I got back in my car and continued driving.

I stayed in Tulsa with my cousin for a few days and then made my way to Wichita Falls to viist my biological mother, and then Dallas to stay with my grandparents for a day or two. Eventually I continued on to Austin and stayed for a night at a hostel located near the river. There, I talked to a nice guy who saw my California plates and wanted to talk because someone he knew was from Southern California. The next day I went record shopping by myself near the university.

Eventually I got in the car and drove west to El Paso. Somewhere between Austin and El Paso I stopped for gas off of Highway 10. The station was the only point on the Interstate for miles and there a kind, older man warned me to be careful--a young girl out there by myself all alone. I thanked him, truly gratified by his sense of caring, and then jumped back in the car and probably blasted that damn Whiskeytown record for the millionth time. I'm pretty sure I lit up another cigarette; I'm pretty sure that, at least for a few hours, I felt amazingly carefree--all alone in the world but happy for it.

I rolled into El Paso sometime shortly before midnight. I still remember the sense of relief I had pulling off the highway--I still see the glittering city lights. There was, too, a little fear as I tried to navigate my way through El Paso's downtown in the dark, searching for the hostel. Once again I felt all alone in the world, but more afraid than carefree. By the time the sun rose the next morning and I ate my free Continental breakfast and coffee on the patio of this hostel--which was housed in a gorgeous old building--I once again felt alive, happy, happy to be alone.

I think that's the point. There was a lot of fear, but also a lot of happiness. A lot of singing in the car, a lot of where-the-hell-am-I? moments. The time I thought my car might wash away in a flash flood s I tried to make my way to Flagstaff--several hikers had died that way the week before--I felt oddly at once terrified but also at peace.

After Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon and then a 12-hour-drive home to Sacramento, I arrived home sometime after midnight on a Saturday.

The next morning Laura called me. "I saw your car, you're home!"

She sounded happy about this. I felt incredibly happy that she knew I was home. That she cared.

That trip changed me in ways I can't describe (I've tried; someday I'll archive that attempt here) and it also gave me the desire to travel again by myself. I've done it a few more time since then, most recently on a train trip to Fort Worth and back. The train's not quite the same experience as hitting the road by yourself but even surrounded by people, you find yourself very alone. Often in the best way possible.



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