Excerpts from the memoir ‘Dear Road.’
I don’t know when the running began, but I know when I realized what I was doing, what I had been doing for years, that all these travels were catalysts for escape.
You run, he said.
There’s comfort in movement, as if it brings the illusion of moving forward.
THE ROOF OVER MY HEAD
With every heartache comes the road. I’ll take the nearest one and let it lead me wherever it wants — drive in circles, if nothing else.
This time, I need a long road. I want to build a shrine to it — feathers and bone and shells from the ocean. I want to go from one end of America to the other, collect its dust on my car and clothes.
I was traveling again last night in my sleep. I awoke in the night and caught a glimpse of a sloped ceiling above, made of rectangular tiles, and I wondered what strange motel in the desert I’d found to rest my head.
It was my mother’s kitchen in West Virginia, where I’d escaped to, a temporary measure to subdue the pain of living with a man who no longer wanted me but wanted to continue to share the roof over our heads.
I’d passed out on my mom’s couch while she snored in the other room, cast in the blue light of TV.
When I realize where I am, and the small gap between nest and flight, the small leap toward freedom that’s so easy in a dream, that’s when I know: I have to leave town.
It’s movement that pieces everything together, as if we are always living between two things. It’s movement that brings context.
When an unfamiliar word pops into my head, I sometimes see it as a sort of omen, even if I look up the word and learn that it’s in a language I don’t speak.
Today, it was solito, meaning “usual, customary, habitual,” in Italian.
I’d have to begin on Mount Briar Road, my road, the second-nature one that I travel every day in multiples of two.
It’s a winding, country road, set against a mountain ridge backdrop; big, open fields span its foreground, which inevitably gives way to houses, small gardens, a gas station, a convenience store.
This winding road dips and rockets the driver past fields of corn and soy, eventually leading to a little cedar house, which I rent with another writer.
I’ve seen this small town through winter, spring, summer, and now fall, though the changes in the land suggest more seasons than that. The field of red poppies changes to burnt orange to muddy brown to stark ice and snow; in a matter of a couple months, the trees go from the eagerness of bright baby buds to lush, waving lime greens to tired, spent pea greens, drooping toward the Earth. Every few weeks, a different palette, while rusted cars and tin roofs meeting the sky remain.
I can never be sure how to spell these random words that pop into my head, which can change the meaning altogether. Salito, for instance, is a variation of the word salire and translates to “climb, rise, ascend, increase.”
I’d have to drive past the neighbor’s dog, who would most likely run to edge of its fenced yard and bark as my car went by. I’d have to pass the old farms and their sheaves of corn until I reach the first highway.
The day is sunny but cold enough to make clouds in the air with my breath. I barely slept. After coffee, I start packing my car, my body warm underneath a sweatshirt and hat. I stop in my tracks, sleeping bag hurled over my back, when I see the neighbor’s dog standing next to my car, staring at me, somehow free from his fence today. He runs off.
I leave the pile of dishes in the sink, the laundry in the hamper.
The idea is to carry my life on my back, slowing discarding it, without leaving a trail.
“On my way,” I tell Hank on the phone.
He decided he needs a vacation, too, and is joining me for the first leg of the trip. What is there to say about Hank? We met a month ago and I started dating him knowing that he was nothing more than instant gratification, blatantly burying heartache from my real interest (Basim, the roommate-turned-lover and back to roommate again) — and the gratifying parts lasted roughly one week, after which I decided we were not right for each other. Why he is coming across the country with me, I’m still trying to come up with reasons to convince (con) myself.
I told Hank, “I’m going to need a lot of space.” I told the guy who was under the assumption that he was dating me, “This trip has nothing to do with romance. This is more like business. And I’m in the business of clearing my head.”
Writing for a daily newspaper meant a very cluttered head.
Heart, too, all muddied.
Synonyms for heartache: dejection, depression, despair, despondency, distress, dolor, damnit.
Hank seems to have packed his entire living situation to wedge into my hatchback. I wait for him to ask if he can bring along his cat. He obviously has no appreciation for minimalist traveling, but I figure having a companion on the road will help with practicalities (driving, money, loneliness). So I ignore the small groan that forms in my throat when he asks a series of seemingly rhetorical questions.
“Are you ready for this?” is his first. His rounded, teddy-bear body waddles to and from my car, stacking crates full of food and camping supplies in the trunk.
Hank’s an energy worker, a crystals-in-pocket, delusional type, a real believer of sci-fi fantasy novels. I sleep with crystals, too, read tarot, and like talking about astrology. But I don’t consider myself to be a flake. Hank is a flake.
He continues to load crate after crate, and then it hits me. We cannot take all these. He’s convinced they’ll keep things organized. I can organize a carload in seconds in my mind like a game of Tetris — and the crates are not coming.
Then he’s inside, rocking and caressing his cat, Zeus (that’s what the cat wanted to be called), in his arms, and talking to him.
I think about freedom, the hands of clocks, the sun moving across the globe, slowly.
Take me out of these hills that I know, from the red October of Maryland west, my car loaded with everything I need to survive, my head loaded with everything I want to forget: Basim, and the rejections that came before him and the rejections that were his and the rejections that will follow; cushiony things, like face tonic; 11,000 words written for my job at the newspaper last week; the job itself. I don’t care where you lead me, just none of this. Take me past the Maryland house where I grew up and the West Virginia house where I got sick. Past the street to my dad’s house, the street where my mom lives, and all these streets in between.
We ease into the trip by taking long, winding back roads through the West Virginia hills, the heart of Appalachia — 50 to 219 to 33, then 79 to Interstate 64. Eight hours. Crisp fall colors, blue air, and tall, white windmills wheeling at the tops of Blue Ridge peaks, standing like proud angels of the New Earth, while strange little gas stations collected dust at each unknown mountain town.
By dusk, we cross into Kentucky. She greets us with a power plant all lit up like Christmas, announcing bright and shiny toxins.
Clichés take form in a grocery store — blonde hair, blue eyes, screaming babies and young, tit-popping pregnant teens in tight clothes. I grab a copy of The Kentucky Standard, the local paper. We are tiny dots. What difference am I making?
The Blue Grass Parkway takes us to My Old Kentucky Home State Park by nightfall, where a reception of some sort is taking place — girls donning Easter-colored bows nearly the size of their heads. More blond hair and freckles, more Southern accents. They direct us to the tent camping area, far from the party.
“We missed the turn,” I say, directing Hank to the camping area.
He drives past a couple campsites and then suddenly into an open field.
“Is this a road?” I ask.
Hank says nothing and keeps driving.
The road shrinks again.
“Dude, we’re on a golf course.”
Hank looks out his window and then mine. “Really?”
“OK, you have to turn around. Look! There’s one of the holes! For a golf ball.”
He reluctantly turns the car around and not long after, he’s burning a little sage and I’m setting up camp.
Not long after, we’re in the tent, Hank with his headlamp and a book, me burrowing into my own bag, like a glow worm, ready to lose my head in dreaming. No kissing.
Before I’m ready, the stiff, morning air and bright sun wakes me, my hair stuffed in a hat.
Mission: the Rockies. Get as close to them as possible.
Hank promised dark, beautiful coffee each morning with his roommate’s percolator, but what comes out is weaker than tea.
A little country road leads us to the gravesite of Thomas Merton. Chopped cornfields and short pines whiz past, and we turn onto Monks Road in Trappist, Kentucky. The Abbey of Gethsemane sits on a hill, a Medieval stone bell tower at its highest point.
“Do you know where the gravesite of Martin is?” Hank asks the first people he sees.
“It’s Merton,” I remind him. “Merton.”
He can’t retain it.
A half moon hangs in the sky, a blue green morning, a church bell chiming.
We make our way around the grounds, checking names on every tombstone. Hank continues to ask random passersby where we can find Martin’s grave, and finally someone knows.
“He was a monk; he was buried as a monk,” the round-bellied Kentuckian tells us, walking through the cemetery.
There’s such beauty in that. His devotion transcended death.
Among tall statues of weathered angels and saints, a small plot runs alongside the monastery, full of tiny, identical white crosses, each with the same simple inscription: name and date. Two rosaries adorn one of them, stones and dried flowers at its base: Fr. Louis Merton.
I thought his name was Thomas.
I kneel down, but Hank’s clunky body distracts me. How do I pay my respects with Hank here? He wanders off; I close my eyes. And then I wander off myself.
. . .
TIED TO THEIR WELLS
From Louisville, we drive over the Ohio River and straight into Indiana.
Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas — they blur into each other like past lovers — similar, but with their own quirks, each a little less intense than its predecessor, the way religions and recipes get diluted through American generations. The mountains gradually become slow moving and steady, and then they are gone.
The land rolls and gathers itself in marshes, studded by gnarled sycamores. A school bus graveyard rusts on a hillside, sinking deeper into the earth every passing year. Pumpjacks bring up oil from otherwise empty fields. Long stretches of this emptiness, while shoddy houses and barns act as beaten prisoners, chained to their wells, extracting all the lifeblood from the earth.
I drive most of Indiana, then Illinois and over the Mississippi River into St. Louis, with the sun shining down on fast, heavy traffic.
“Meet me in St. Louis,” I remember Basim saying with a cheesy grin, a few days before I left. “Have you done any planning for this trip?”
I was sitting on my bed, studying an atlas of America. “No.”
I didn’t want a plan. I had written down a few notes, ideas of places to see, should I be nearby: Hunter S. Thompson’s hometown, a stretch of highway known for its wildflowers, the vortexes in Sedona, Naropa University.
As my car dashes through the city, the shiny silver Gateway Arch greets me like a gigantic upside-down smile.
. . .
Where are you taking us? Your shiny pebbles strike the sun and your yellow dirt brushes against the horizon, going onward for miles. Where do you stretch off to? What stories have you carried on your back? And how will you tell mine, and who will your next traveler be?
. . .
FIELDS OF NOTHING
Five miles on a dusty, gravel road, they appear: Monument Rocks, a salt deposit that formed 80 million years ago. These giant arches rise from the otherwise barren ground, amid the nothing fields.
I rush out to climb their sandy backs, thousands of layers tall, and peer through their hollowed-out oval windows. An archway leads into an open field. Stillness. Magnum silence. Castles made of it, the immensity of which makes my mind unravel, as if my mind attunes to the landscape and is momentarily vacant.
Further up the road, ancient trees bend toward a tiny brown creek, and houses, where people must live, mark the land in what appears to be an otherwise unclaimed terrain, claimed only by nature herself. It’s puzzling, actually, how people can live here at all. Don’t they grow up and live their long lives as envious neighbors of the great Colorado?
There’s more to life than cows and tumbleweed.
Maybe there’s not more to life than cows and tumbleweed.
After the short-lived blissful state, we realize the gas light is on. Again. Hank drives … slowly. So slow, we don’t let the dust rise on this dusty road but cross our fingers, counting the miles. Eventually, we’re on pavement again. The first gas station looks as if it closed a decade ago. I tell him to drive farther down the street and then, after the 30-plus miles with the little orange light on, there it is: gasoline. And cigarettes. And coffee. America’s fuel.
Not long after, we see another sign we’ve been waiting for.
Welcome to Colorado.
a long ribbon of light
moving and unfolding
along the way.
. . .
Winds sweep up Wyoming dust in one fell swoop, raising it into whirls in my gusty morning dreams. Little tornadoes roll down white highways until a young cowboy harnesses one in a tree. “That’s how you get ‘em,” he tells me.
Cold, biting air outside my bag, warm nest of dreaming. Outside, day-old coffee on a picnic bench. Inside, a quartz crystal clutched in my palm.
Steam rises off his skin when Hank returns from the showers, and I am smoking a cigarette and folding up the tent with numb finger, tucking away my other self, until night draws in its dreams again, the pre-sunrise fantasies still swirling in my head like twisters.
It’s 27 degrees.
“I also dreamt I was in a stream covered in floating flower petals, and Monarch butterflies were landing on my dress … one of which was making a cocoon.” I, fuzzy, turn to Hank. “Isn’t that backwards?”
The guy running the campground makes his rounds on a four-wheeler, stopping at each site to collect money and say his morning hellos as we all rise. He’s an average, content type. Simple. Grateful.
“You could walk 100 miles in any direction without hitting a fence,” he tells me proudly. “It’s all public land. The cows just roam around.”
I take a few swigs of the day-old coffee, which is partly frozen, and keep listening.
He’s lived here for 29 years, here in the nothingness, riding his four-wheeler around. I imagine his life 10 years prior to meeting him and see the same picture, another brisk morning, another girl holding another cup of coffee with chattering teeth and straw hair. Another truck rolling past, another mule deer being the unfortunate victim of a conversation piece.
Cows walk in a line against a fence, toward a herd of antelope. Even with freedom, conformity. Even with wide openness, some primal, biological, evolutionary desire to stick together. Maybe that’s why a few weeks ago I agreed when Hank asked to join me.
A willingness and want to stay together.
I gaze at the cows before packing the car and heading west.
Train tracks patch together the sides of hills and brown landscapes; the Rockies still linger in the distance like steel phantoms, silver in the sun; white trailers dot the landscape along with the occasional house; factories blow smoke into an endless sky. And the electric lines, the vegetation, the plateaus and dirt roads, all earthen brown and tan. There’s only every shade of beige. I can’t help but think of the Pacific Ocean, somewhere past all this.
You’re taking me past all these nondescript hills, all beige and vague. Where is the entrance to my poetic space?