The final stretch of our trip was an eight-hour drive through Arizona to California, which we entered through a horrible and everlasting patch of sand, emptiness, and overpriced gas stations. It was the only day where things happened fairly on time, the only day where the trip took as long as we expected.
We ate breakfast in Flagstaff that morning before we headed out. I don’t remember who drove which stretch, but I remember that when we stopped at a California rest stop with exactly two gas stations, two restaurants, and a zillion people running out of gas just like us crowded around them, I grabbed some pumpkin pie ice cream situation from a Dairy Queen. But the day we crossed into California didn’t feel like all the other days. It just felt like one long drive to something that wasn’t quite home yet, and I was nervous about the impending doom of finally having to look around and accept that I did this, that there really wasn’t any turning back, that the adventure was over and it was time to finally stretch my legs and figure out everything else.
I was nervous and excited and anxious and curious when we finally spotted a sign for In ‘N’ Out, the first since the inspection station at the border. We pulled off the highway immediately to put fuel in our bodies and also in the car before hitting the traffic surrounding Los Angeles, which was what finally made me feel like I’d made it.
Then, it was over. We found our exit and pulled off the freeway and passed by all the new stores, brunch spots and automotive shops that lined the streets of my new neighborhood. Geneva pulled up the steep hill that is my new street and parallel parked us up the road. Then I hopped out and knocked on the door of my new house with Eli in tow and looked at my new room for the first time. It’s massive, with a big built-in loft for my bed and a handmade shelving unit with two dressers underneath and two sliding mirror doors on the first built-in closet I’ve had in years. That first night we had practically nothing to put in it, including my mattress which didn’t arrive until this week. So instead we logged onto Netflix, bought some cheese, bread and veggies to eat while we drank wine from the Grand Canyon, and laid out all of the blankets we had to our names in a pile to sleep on.
(And Eli met his new live-in PFF, Puca.)
I’ve spent my time here thus far trying — with little success — to both engage in dialogue with other people and explore the area while simultaneously jumping back into a real-person schedule and setting up my space. Geneva and I went to the Highland Park Cafe for breakfast and then did laundry down the street, picked up six boxes from Brittani’s place and ate breakfast tacos with her at Homestate. We grabbed the most amazing lunch at Charlie’s Tamales before buying an armchair and ottoman at Son of a Vet thrift store, snagged brunch at Ba with Chelsea Steiner and then stumbled drunk into Permanent Records down the street. We even went to Santa Monica to finally see a beach and grab some overpriced food at Rusty’s on the pier.
Los Angeles is everything I thought it would be, and also nothing like I expected. I’ve been gawking at palm trees, trying out palm trees, looking for farmer’s markets and everything is so big and overwhelming but also wonderful. I’m still getting used to driving here and dressing for the heat wave and finding the cheapest avocados and none of this feels real yet, not really. I’ve been calling home, texting my friends and unpacking boxes. I finally, after being here for days, dropped all the postcards I wrote and meant to send from every stop on this wild thing where we drove across the country into a mailbox and it still doesn’t feel like this could possibly be it.
When I declared to myself that I finally wanted to be free, I imagined that freedom would come from finally doing things on my terms in a new place that I could make my own. I never would have predicted that the road there would show me who I really was, how brave, triumphant and insistent I could be with myself, how easy it could be to buck my own expectations and put all that trust I’d just built up in the universe to good work. I drove 3,000 miles through forests, southern towns, desert winds, tumbleweeds, mountain ranges, winding valley roads, heart-melting sunsets, swaths of casinos, abandoned gas stations parallel to dirt roads, windmill farms and wild horses. That was me.
There is a new voice in my head, next to you will figure it out and you can always go back. It’s you can go anywhere. I just keep thinking that one day I’m gonna wake up and hit the road again, with a travel mug full of free lobby coffee in the cupholder and Eli in the backseat and Geneva riding shotgun or driving the first shift. It doesn’t feel right right now to stay, to sit down, to settle in, to be somewhere. I really liked not belonging to anything or anyone or any one place. I really liked being anonymous and a tiny speck inside a vast universe and just another annoying car going the speed limit in the fast lane.
It’s amazing how many versions of yourself you can love. It’s amazing how many versions of myself I’ve stared down in the last month and stopped to embrace at rest stops. I’m in love with all the different potential lifetimes I drove through to get here, all the different things that could have happened to me if I’d decided to navigate somewhere else or pull off on the side of the road and call it a life. On the way here I became a highway woman and a vagabond. I saw myself living on farms and in small towns and pictured my future in a tiny cottage in the mountains or really anywhere at all, and everywhere.
I’m glad I changed. Remember that? I wrote that. I wanted to get it tattooed on my body before I left DC but I never did and I’m glad because it wasn’t true then like it is now. I’m glad I changed. I’m glad I finally did this thing I wanted to do and quieted all the clamoring in my heart about it. I’m glad I became a million people, a tiny piece of dust, a more experienced driver and the kind of person who watches cable television and eats chinese food in a Motel 6 instead of exploring the city she’s gonna be in for just 24 hours. I’m glad I’m here without half of the things I thought I’d miss but now I can’t remember and all the clothes Soph hasn’t brought me yet and all the memories I haven’t unpacked. I’m glad I’m starting over. I’m glad I left. I’m glad I made it. I’m glad I changed, over and over and over again with each continental breakfast and scenic route and tourist attraction.
I never sat in the cheap motel rooms we stayed in in Nashville, or Memphis, or Oklahoma City, or Albuquerque, or Flagstaff thinking we’re almost there. I didn’t count days or cross things off on a big map or really keep track at all of where we were headed, except to make new reservations and look up good places to eat dinner. I just kept unpacking the car and carrying all the things I’d brought in that tiny thing up and down different staircases in different weather thinking we’re here. And now I’m really here, at the end of the road, and a new adventure awaits me just like all the teeny-tiny ones in those cities on the side of Route 40.
Now I start over, and rebuild, and confront fear and learn to drive alone and figure out how to secure Eli in the loft so I can still snuggle with him at night. Now I have to hang the art I’ve collected from friends over the years, find a place for my autographed Eileen Myles books, and learn to do yoga. Now I need to meet all the versions of myself hiding in this city and make friends with every single one of them.
And now I have to figure out where to drive to next.