October 1, 2009


on this day four years ago I left Spokane, my hair a wild, unbrushed wreck, wearing an old pair of grey shorts and a zip-up cardigan I like to call my "house coat." everything I owned was in my car, including my pet rabbit. I had been on the road for three days already, traveling through 11 states on my way to this one.

that road trip -- along with what brought me to it, where I came from, and where I ended up going -- continues to be one of the defining stories of my life. for years and years I had fantasized about one day packing it all up, everything I owned, and moving it all to someplace where nobody knew me and I could build a new life. I applied for my job at the opera almost on a whim, on a day when, killing time while listening to the end of "wait, wait, don't tell me!", I perused the music librarians' association website and discovered the listing. a guy I had been seeing (though not quite dating) was moving to portland as well and I had been discreetly searching for a reason to come along. I had been to the town once, my freshman year of college, and had sincerely loved it. and I wanted to get out of syracuse before the snows began.

the day I left -- september 27 -- I woke at dawn and was, for the first time in the 11 days since I had been awarded the job, terrified. I had packed up everything that would fit into my little coupe and sold the rest. all that remained in my tiny studio apartment was a couch and a couple of plants. I even gave my two fish, spongebob and patrick, to my neighbors. when I drove out of town I sobbed and sobbed, watching things pass the window for the final time. no more library within walking distance; no more tree-lined street in the upstate suburb; no more toxic lake, no more tiny sweet apartment, no more familiarity or people to keep me safe.

but the road! I love to drive. I had just under 3000 miles to go. on the first day I drove out of new york, through a slice of pennsylvania, across ohio and indiana and into illinois, where a high school friend, living in chicago, was putting me up for the night. the first day was mostly spent shaking off the weight of emotion for what I was leaving behind, and in embracing the sudden freedom of the open road. that night I slept on a couch in an apartment that overlooked navy pier.

the next morning I left early to drive through the sixty billion tolls on I-90 just outside chicago, and into wisconsin -- america's dairyland! -- and then into minnesota. I loved minnesota. I stopped at the mississippi river and stepped into the cold, drizzly day to read historical placards about lewis and clark. across the wisconsin/minnesota border, there were giant grey stormclouds on the horizon; red barns and silos dotted the landscape. it was the beginning of wind turbines. I stopped and visited the SPAM MUSEUM. the spam museum!

day two was south dakota. my mother was afraid I might never leave the state. I took my picture with a jackelope statue on the side of the road. I stopped at wall drug and bought myself cowboy boots. I burst into tears upon first seeing mt. rushmore. the sky was bigger than I had ever seen it.

I had a very zen attitude about the road. I didn't really care what I looked like or even if I was dressed very well for the weather. I ate when I passed something I had never heard of, stopped if something seemed interesting, and never had any idea where I'd sleep on any given night. my bike was strapped to the back of my car; everything I owned was inside. it was the freest I've ever felt in my life.

on day three I drove through montana. have you ever been to eastern montana? that place looks just like mars. the soil is red and there is literally nothing in sight. when I entered montana I had half a tank of gas. there reached a point, somewhere in eastern montana, when I felt certain that I would never find a gas station; my tank would dry up, I would have no cell reception, and I would be forced to bike down I-90. every exit had a sign that said simply "no services." I still have no idea where those people get gas. that night, because of a harrowing few hours spent in an auto shop after my alternator blew in missoula, I took a 90 minute nap in my car at a truck stop in the rockies, and then drove the mountain passes in pounding rain, drinking red bulls to stay awake. I didn't want to stop until I reached spokane, a 6-hour drive from portland. I reached it at 2 AM. when I got there I was so wired from the energy drinks I stayed up for hours watching SNL and staring at the ceiling, unable to sleep.

on the final day I drove down through chilly eastern washington, into pendleton. when I first reached oregon I was confused -- where were the pine trees? why was nothing green? I had no idea how different the two sides of the state were. I felt a little nervous; maybe I had misremembered it? then I hit the gorge, and spent the last hours of my drive with my mouth agape, breathless.

when I reached portland, I had $75 to my name.

I did not write at all during my trip, a truth which, for me, borders on tragedy. I did, however, keep a daily audio blog on livejournal, and I love to revisit those one-way conversations. they're a great window into my mental state in that cramped driver's seat.

9/27/05, midday
9/28 -- musings on minnesota
9/29 -- i love south dakota
9/30, montana before the crisis

every year when fall hits I stumble back into the feelings I had when I first arrived. I remember driving down sandy boulevard, lost, half-panicked, wondering what the hell I was doing in this place. over and over I talked myself away from the ledge, telling myself that I had done this all before, had leapt into the scary abyss and had come out OK in the end. in truth, though, I was happy almost from the beginning. even when I was living in the basement of total strangers, all my things still boxed, there was a certain coziness: in the evenings I would stop somewhere for dinner and then bring it to my little basement cave, where I would snuggle into bed and listen to an audiobook and fall asleep. there was a great deal of freedom -- albeit terrifying freedom -- in knowing no one and having no history. it was life as a completely clean slate. I have never once regretted it.

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