Shifting Gears

Maybe it was turning thirty that pushed me over the edge. Maybe being overworked and underpaid felt less forgivable than when I was in my twenties, brazen and broke. Perhaps I felt like the world had humored the trail of cities and jobs and love interests left in my wake before but was now requiring something more age appropriate. But thirty found me single, on a month-to-month lease, and with ovaries that were in no way aching to perform. My job had been the only thing tethering me to one spot and leaving it meant starting over, yet again. I could remember what that had looked like in my early twenties- the drunken celebrations and packing parties and Ikea furniture left out on the curb- but what’s enchanting at twenty-three often appears tragic at thirty-plus. I had to physically distance myself from all the choking expectation if I were to have any chance of deciphering what I actually wanted next. That was as far as the plan had progressed by the time I found myself driving away from Baltimore, alone and with no destination. At best, I was leaving behind options I didn’t like; at worst, this was the most pointless and self-indulgent thing I had done to date. An invisible pull kept my foot on the gas as the silence settled around me. A trunk filled with peanut butter, a few weeks’ worth of canned tuna and only several outfits was tangible proof that something was indeed underway. I scanned the radio then quickly turned it off to focus on my breathing, my eyes set on the road stretching out ahead.

The first night out on the road pummeled my bohemian wanderlust like a sledgehammer. Monsoon-like rain drowned out the flashing hazards of surrounding cars as the wind battered and shoved me at will over the rumble strip. I persisted for an hour before surrendering my pride, and one hundred dollars, to the only “budget” motel within miles in a town called Bethlehem (an irony I would only appreciate in hindsight). I attempted to stay positive, hoarding all of the toiletries and resolving that I would fill my backpack with the contents of next morning’s continental breakfast. Too tired and defeated to even enjoy the hundreds of brain-rotting channels, I drifted to sleep with only one thought in my head: What in the fuck was I doing?

With any semblance of an agenda gone I devoted my time to covering ground, and lots of it. Clueless to the fact that this directionless drive would eventually take me across the country, I first headed north. Through a festival of toll booths I made my way from weathered waterfront towns of Connecticut, across saturated green hills into the bluest skies of Vermont. I didn’t know what I was searching for, but I knew that I had time on my hands, and would maybe figure it out along the way. I dissected my first lobster in Maine and biked through the streets of Salem at night, the wind carrying souls of the wrongfully accused underneath the glow of street lamps. I inhaled familiar scents and sights in places foreign to me: bedraggled mannequins in stale thrift store windows, dusty book shops crammed with wisdom aching to be uncovered, dimly lit bars packed with fishermen slugging beers and talking in loud, salty voices. I was enchanted by what I saw and who I could so suddenly become some few hundred miles from home: a stranger; a visitor; a student of new realities. I wandered into unfamiliar towns knowing no one, crumpled maps and visitor center pamphlets my reliable tour guides. As I talked to people there was little foundation of shared experience, and no supposed goal of building a friendship; it was likely that we would never meet again, and the moments felt authentic if fleeting. When asked what I was doing on this trip, my answer varied slightly each time. The only answer that seemed to resonate with what I was actually feeling was, “I don’t really know.”

The initial loss of purpose was palpable and seeped into my decision making whether I wanted it to or not. I had never enjoyed following a schedule but it was somehow ingrained in me. “What did you DO today?” and even more troubling, “What will you do when this is all over?” The nagging questions waded around in my subconscious. I made unspoken to-do lists: See the Grand Canyon. Have coffee at Café Allegro. Hike the Tetons. My baffling sense of direction ensured that I got hopelessly lost with some regularity, only it didn’t matter. After all, when you have nowhere to be, you’re never late. A few weeks in, one of my couchsurfing hosts in a tiny Massachusetts town gifted me an old GPS. It was slow, and often wrong, but as my direction up until then had consisted of google maps routes scrawled on the backs of old receipts, this marked a crucial moment in my trip.

As I meandered south down the east coast before beginning the drive cross-country, I started to get my rhythm. Until then I had relied on the kindness of strangers to settle down for the night, but the freedom of spontaneity quickly took precedence. I grew accustomed to sleeping in the car, driver’s seat reclined, under the glow of streetlamps and 24-hour neon signs.  Broken sleeping bag as a blanket and legs propped up above the steering wheel, my setup left something to be desired, but much repetition convinced my body that this was just the way a person sleeps. I woke with the sun, put on some ten-times-worn shirt, and went out into the world. The simplicity was exhilarating. I brushed my teeth in parking lots; applied eyeliner in the rear view mirror after fourteen hours of driving before stopping for a beer; flew through sprawling deserts with the gas light on hoping like fucking hell to encounter a rest stop. I slipped in through hotel lobbies to swim in their pools, then washed my hair in their bathroom sinks. Free shit and the freedom to make rash decisions were my hard drugs, and I was living a Kerouacian dream.

An older man in Nashville quizzed me on my knowledge of the band performing in the bar one particular night. The lead singer was one of the Allman brothers, and no, I definitely hadn’t known that. When he asked how I wound up there and I told him of my trip, he commended me for taking the excursion alone, something that “too few people do anymore.” On his way out of the bar he shook my hand and slipped me a “small contribution to the road trip fund” which I tried politely to refuse, and looked at only after he had gone: two crisp, hundred dollar bills. I designated the small fortune as beer money, having gone too far down the rabbit hole of “roughing it” to turn my sights towards hostels now. Later that week in Little Rock, Arkansas I pitched a two-person tent on my own for the first time ever. Sweat pouring down my neck in the 90-degree heat, I set up my accommodation for the night: a sleeping bag sprawled atop a yoga mat, and a recently acquired bottle of Nashville bourbon within arm’s reach. The comfort of my air conditioned car sat just yards away, but I hunkered down in the still air of my tent in an act of defiance; against whom, I am not certain. But at the time crews of imaginary men, laughing arrogantly in the back of my mind and doubting my survival skills, kept me perspiring in the woods until morning.

I shot my first bow and arrow outside Santa Fe, with some guys attending what turned out to be a group camping trip for Alcoholics Anonymous. It was a bull’s-eye. “Holy shit, do it again!” they screamed, at which I misfired straight up in the air and lost their arrow in the Rio Grande. I decided the next night to make the seven hour drive to the Grand Canyon, so that I could witness it for the very first time at sunrise. I barreled through a lightning storm in the flat sprawl of Arizona, my car the tallest object for miles. Scared shitless and hunched over the wheel, I made peace with the idea of a bolt through the windshield rendering me brain dead.

The southwest had me crawling through eerie ghost towns to find the single operational gas station, prices jacked up two dollars a gallon higher than the rest of the country. None of the restroom doors closed properly, and the mirrors above the sinks had been pried off their mountings as if to discourage patrons from lingering. Not an issue, folks. The watercolor sunset over the Mojave Desert darkened to an inky night sky, the blackness so menacing it threatened to suck me in from the dimly lit two-lane highway. Nobody even knew I was there, and the thought at once terrified and liberated me.

All of the time spent alone with nature was changing something chemically inside me, and my brazenness swelled with each test of my physical and mental stamina. I skidded down paths into the Grand Canyon in shoes whose traction was but a distant memory. I took wrong turns on trails in Zion National Park and turned a hike of five miles into eleven. Dangerously low on water I staggered back in the blistering sun, singing to myself “You’re thirsty, but you’re fine!” to quell the panic. I took in views from the peaks of Yosemite that I felt pretty sure I was unworthy of witnessing. The Oregon coast felt like a magical kingdom that I am fairly certain, if I were to return, would have vanished into thin air leaving only a glimmering breeze behind. Majestic mountain ranges in Wyoming still drift through the back of my mind like long lost friends.

I felt like the absolute monarch of my own existence. My chariot: a Nissan Sentra with cigarette holes in the upholstery and a partial rear hubcap. My domain: the potholed back roads and sprawling black interstates where fast food signs kept time to the slowly stretching hours. My sense of self-empowerment was inversely related to my appearance, a confidence bubbling up from within with each outfit repeated and shower skipped. My lack of smart phone had me snapping photos with a disposable camera which, upon discovering its 2006 expiration date halfway through my trip, left me feeling like some gross exaggeration of a hipster. There were no photos to exhibit most of what I had taken in, and my eyes twinkled with the delicious secrets of memories that saturated my brain.

On one particular drive through Utah I was hit with a feeling of completeness so overwhelming that I started to cry. Not a pretty, single tear rolling down a rosy cheek sort of crying, but a heavy sobbing grasping me from the gut. I cried out of a sense of sheer joy and fulfillment, and feeling so humbled and grateful for all that is out there to embrace. Sitting in the midst of scenes so grandiose and powerful, just a speck of matter rendered speechless by what I was taking in, I suddenly found the search for answers so irrelevant. I suppose I had set out hoping for some glimmer of inspiration on what to do next with my life, but I was instead discovering all that I didn’t need in order to live. What to “do next” became an invigorating riddle; the vastness of what I was seeing made me feel ashamed for ever having doubted what lies out there for anyone willing to go find it. As I have never been able to meditate for long without falling asleep, I was as of yet unfamiliar with the sensation of Nirvana…but this felt like transcendence.

If my months of solitude on the open road were like floating through a daydream, then returning to the clamor of a city was like being awakened with a taser. The old comforts hardly felt comfortable- the upheaval begged to continue. Back in my original setting, the inclination to begin filling time with all the “should’s” flashed like a warning signal in my mind. Something had expanded inside of me, and it was refusing to be ignored- nagged at me as I bought my coffee or texted about weekend plans.  In place of answers I had been left with an even bigger question than I had ever allowed myself to ask; a wondrous, insatiable curiosity for the world that defied obedience to any one path. I still had no idea what was next; all I did know was that my world view had permanently shifted, and falling back on the familiar felt like a betrayal of what I had just glimpsed. There was only room for more exploration. My mental checklist of elements to compose a fulfilling life had been upended, or maybe dissolved altogether. My desire for answers gave way to a thirst for more questions; a gnawing hunger for what I had yet to learn, to realize, to perceive. What exactly that meant for my future, I had yet to decipher. But then again, at least in my experience, that’s how something truly remarkable begins.

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