Whipping south on Highway 1, I can barely keep the Mustang below 80. Still, it feels like slow motion. I chug along in the center lane with a streaked concrete divider to my left and ivy-covered retaining walls to the right. Because this is California, a cavalcade of BMWs, Audis, and Mercedes flock in and around scores of Pintos, Tercels and El Dorados doing 90 or 100.
My speed demon self feels like a wuss for not keeping up.
It’s like a slo-mo scene from The Matrix when a beat-up white Honda Civic joins traffic from the on-ramp at my right. My instinct predicts what the driver will do before he does it. Like Trinity without the leather catsuit, I deftly back off the gas as he careens into my lane, nearly clipping my front bumper.
I lay on my horn, but he doesn’t give a wave of apology or even tap his brakes. Judging from the rusty dents on each of his quarter panels, he must do this often.
* * *
Around Castroville where the road straightens out, I punch it. Hard. I’m in a fucking Mustang, after all. The lead-foot Detroit girl in me –lover of the underdog, the hard-scrabble Midwest chick who secretly enjoyed Eminem’s Chrysler ad with the iron fist pulsing against a hip-hop beat– feels patriotic.
I’m not just grinding Motown metal, but unabashedly guzzling gas from Texas and Alaska, tearing up Federal Aid Road Act highways as I pass lush fields that subsidize our country’s hunger for garlic, artichokes and lettuce while locals go hungry.
If this road trip ain’t all-American, I don’t know what is.
* * *
Traffic slows for no reason outside of Salinas. Dust Bowl fields turn green and loamy, bringing to mind scenes from Of Mice and Men. I picture Lenny and George camped on the outskirts of a farm, plotting to turn themselves in for work the next day, hoping that the farmer won’t question their identity or purpose.
Counter to every childhood memory of Southern California, life in the Central Coast feels desolate in spite of the burgeoning crops. Housing –even a shack, a lean-to, a drainage pipe– is as transitory as the weather and a day’s pay. It’s every man for himself, and women like me are treacherous.
* * *
I feel jealous and sad and heart-warmed to watch the man in the convertible ahead of me put his arm around his wife. She snuggles over as far as her seat belt will let her. When we slow to a stop, he kisses her on the crown of her head. The sweet taste of her hair products lingers in my mouth.
It’s a saccharine scene — one that I’ve participated in enough to begrudge the sensation. I feel the super-poly-weave of his Arc’teryx jacket on my cheek as I rest my head on his shoulder, watching the yellow and white lines unravel ahead of us, hoping that it takes hours to get to where we’re going. I enjoy the luxury of being a passenger and the silence that the rushing air makes when the car moves again. I love that it’s impossible to hold a conversation. I can think my thoughts and still be me, yet feel his warmth.
She pulls away when we come to a halt again, looking out at the ocean to her right. Faraway clouds lurk on the horizon, suggesting that the sun will soon disappear. Adele’s cries strain tinnily out of their vehicle into mine as we inch ahead. I wonder if there’s any way that my story will end like theirs — and if I’m brave enough to let it.
* * *
Beginning with the moment I emerged from the parking garage at San Francisco International Airport, I have felt nothing but ease and optimism on this road trip.
My fingers flex pleasurably against the solid rubber grip of the black steering wheel, which turns like warm butter. My windows are rolled down to let in the salty breeze; I inhale it deeply like O2. Even though the concrete blackout of the parking garage has stymied my GPS unit, I am not concerned about getting lost. I head south and call it good. I’ll work out the details once I make it to Santa Cruz, to Monterey, to Big Sur.
Go South, young woman. It’s as simple as that.
The trips that I’ve taken since Cannon Beach in March have made a difference in how I explore the world. Air travel feels claustrophobic and rote: remove your shoes and jacket, sit in this seat, line up at this gate, eat this pre-packaged food. Someone else has been thinking for me. Six months later, I am more comfortable in the driver’s seat of a car where there’s room for error and adventure.
Then again, I’ve always been good at moving.
The story of my life to date is a series of promising beginnings punctuated by bursts of progress and unforeseen bailouts made with the hopes of improving my circumstance. It’s not that I don’t complete things; it’s just that, when the road becomes arduous, I begin to believe that I’m on the wrong road. In terms of staying power and patience, I’m a lightweight. If I were a runner, the 45-yard dash would be my sport. It’s really no surprise that I’m nearing middle age as a single woman.
I was married, though. We met just before I turned 22, and we were together for ten years. I’m proud of it, actually, as if our marriage refutes my overall track record as a leaver, an abandoner, a soldier slipping away without leave. And, of course, in the end, I did leave. I do leave.
As I move down the coast from one vantage point to the next, I question where this drive to drive comes from. It feels distinctly American, like it was bred into my bones. I’m all for mass transit and a low-carbon lifestyle, but when it comes to freedom and movement, I’m the first to get in my car — and it doesn’t stop there. A natural planner, I’m always contemplating my next five moves in life, career, home, relationships… especially when things turn rocky.
This is why I’ve always gravitated to writing. Setting down one’s thoughts is a means of fixing moments in time, especially in an age where we move so quickly. Since we emerged from the primordial goo and found our opposable thumbs, writing has been a human means of bonding, first through symbols and cave paintings, today with memoirs and essays. To read these letters and journals gives us an intimate view into other minds that mirror our own.
For the time it takes to ingest each other’s thoughts, we are close. We bend the struggles of others into questions for ourselves: Is the same true of me? What would I do differently? What would it be like to go through that?
In life, these touch points are difficult to make — and difficult to make last. When we consider the number of people we’re truly intimate with, not so much in body as in mind, it’s really very few. That’s why literature will always be important to us as a species; it lets us explore what we feel deeply inside — and often don’t communicate because it is too revealing. In someone else’s tale, we can privately empathize with both the lover and the thief, the hero and the coward.
* * *
On the way to Big Sur, the road is awfully twisty. I’m uncomfortable and exhilarated at once, which is what I appreciate about life in general today. It wasn’t always so.
I remember throwing a fit when I was twelve; my Aunt Ellen’s car overheated on our way from her home in Redondo Beach to LAX. Though I hated to return home to Phoenix, the idea that I might miss my flight seemed dire. I couldn’t picture what would happen if the plane left without me. I completely freaked out when I could have found joy at the possibility of staying one more night away from home. My nervous parents had raised me with do-or-die circumstances such that missing a flight was grounds for a international crisis.
They hadn’t raised me to be resilient or creative; they raised me to be obedient.
As an adult, I’ve come to embrace that lost-and-found feeling. The catalyst was my first trip to Europe during which I became a newlywed in Gretna Green, Scotland. Those two weeks taught me that nothing is certain or happens on schedules — and that this fluidity of life isn’t a force to fear or control, but something to surf and enjoy. This is the space where magic happens, where living becomes more interesting and there is always something to learn.
* * *
This summer, I read a profile on Bruce Springsteen in The New Yorker in which he shared memories of a tumultuous childhood that ultimately shaped his craft as a songwriter. His words felt so familiar that they could have been mine:
“The wounds stay with you and you turn them into a language and a purpose.”
That’s exactly why I’m a writer. I don’t know how to live any other way. I write for myself –to get it all out, to see my thoughts in physical form, to wrestle with them, not just the thoughts themselves but because writing always takes much longer and many more words than I wish it would– but the real reason I write is to connect. I hope that, by laying myself bare, by trying and failing and trying again to say what it is to be inside my skin, maybe someone else finds the world less lonely or more rich.
“We’re repairmen…” Springsteen says. “If I repair a little of myself, I’ll repair a little of you. That’s the job.”
The Boss is damned right. I don’t bear the conceit of knowing it all, but I do hope that somewhere in this tangle of words, readers discover insight and healing. We’re in it together, after all: an endless two-lane road contorted by switch-backs, obscured by fog and plagued with bad traffic and hard rain. We crash, we pull out, we damage one another beyond all recognition. There are no courts or insurance companies that can repair the mutual destruction of our bodies, our souls, our minds, our selves and each other.
It’s easier to keep moving. When we stop, we become obligated to offer triage. We are ensnared by committing and caring. We attract loss — not just the loss of others, but the loss we feel at their passing. It’s scary, dangerous territory that threatens our species. Survival of the fittest means that we must move or die, not linger and tend to the weak — or mourn them. “When in doubt, bail out,” Michael quipped when we discussed this.
I realize that this has been my unspoken rallying cry.
During my journeys this year, people have envied my freedom and adventures. There’s something to be said for life on the road — and something equally moving about the moments we spend together at home. My friends picture themselves behind the wheel of this red Mustang and I am likewise warmed by thoughts of our evenings together, watching their ruddy-faced cherubs bounce on backyard trampolines, play board games with me and help cook dinner, which we eat together around the kitchen table. We have things to teach one another.
Still, it kills me to see how we’re both rescued and damned. Messy, unpredictable, rewarding and frustrating, our relationships define what it is to be human: every cell instinctually tells us to run, hide and preserve ourselves when what really will save us is working through our feelings for each other.
The most important –and hardest– part is just showing up again and again and again so that can happen.
* * *
It’s six a.m. when I drop the Mustang off in the foggy parking lot at the Monterey airport. Shortly after check-in, the gate attendant tells me that my flight has been canceled due to extreme fog. Because it is the only flight out that day, I have two options: stay another night and attempt to leave first thing tomorrow, or catch a shuttle to San Jose where she can reserve a seat for me on the noon flight to Seattle.
After a deep breath and a smirk (Here we go!, I think) I accept her offer and call the shuttle company as I stride swiftly toward the taxi stand. It’s going to be a long day, but I’ll have more time to write… and perhaps more to write about.
Shivering against the cold that I hadn’t dressed for, I text Michael to say that I might need an airport rescue if my new plan doesn’t come together. There I go, conjuring a series of alternate endings, which is actually not a bad skill to possess in situations like this.
I picture myself as a child in Los Angeles, crying furious, frightened tears next to my aunt’s steaming vehicle, which is pulled over on a stretch Highway 1 far south from this deserted shuttle stand. Though it would make a mess of my business trip to Victoria the next day, this time I find myself thinking that it wouldn’t be so bad if I had to stay in Santa Cruz another night.