Adventure is a hard drug. You get sold on the promise of fun, the lure of escape, but when you’re there in the thick of it, it’s hard and painful and you just want to go home. I used to apply for internships in places far from home and jet off with romantic visions of me sipping coffee in cafes and wandering city streets and reading poetry in the park and meeting people who moved me in a way no one back home could ever do. Cut to me sweating buckets on a bus freaking out because I don’t know if I missed my stop. Cut to me walking miles in urban wasteland, nothing but warehouses and empty fields and big box stores as far as the eye can see. Cut to me blowing off weird guys, awkward coworkers, and annoying roommates to hang out in my room alone. Cut to me running out of money. Cut to me calling my mom, my boyfriend, my friends. Cut to me desperate to come back home.
I love billboards because I love the highway because I love long road trips because I am a sucker for nostalgia. Nostalgia for an Americana that I never lived that maybe never existed is like a short cut to eliciting emotion about my own past, or maybe it’s more like a crispy clean saccharine coating for memories that are more complicated to process. We drove everywhere when I was a kid because we couldn’t afford to fly. There were too many of us and even before then there wasn’t money for plane tickets. So we drove through the mountains up to the pacific northwest to see one set of grandparents and we drove halfway across the country from the midwest to the southwest and back again to see another set of grandparents so many times and I loved every miserable moment of those trips. Robert and I drove too, in our early years, all over the desert, not because we couldn’t afford plane tickets but because we had nowhere to go. We used to pick destinations at random, for no reason. Let’s go to Wilcox! Let’s go to Casa Grande! Let’s go to Bisbee! Let’s go up to Phoenix for the state fair! It was on one of those trips that we saw the greatest billboard of my life, a campy horror-esque advertisement for THE THING. What THE THING was we had no idea, but we had to see it. The billboard told us we had to. And then we saw another billboard and another and another after that, each one announcing with increasing urgency that THE THING was drawing nearer. We followed the billboards, they were on the way to whatever small whatevertown we were headed to that day, but we would have blown right past our destination in search of THE THING if it had come to that. When we finally made it to the home of THE THING, one of those gas station/souvenir store outposts in the desert, we followed the signs to the back of the store and saw that we’d have to pay $2 for the thing. Robert lost all enthusiasm but there was no dampening mine, so I went in, and wandered through a labyrinth that wound well behind the store, marveling at all manner of chintzy artifacts and treasures but also walking quickly because I needed to get to the THE THING and finally I did and it was everything I ever dreamed.
Today was a travel day, a quick trip down to North Carolina for work. I thought for sure I was going to miss my flight, but I didn’t. I like to be at the airport a full two hours early because I am an anxious traveler (fine, and anxious person) and also a typical Taurus in that I live for creature comforts so if I can get to the airport with enough time to buy a coffee and a snack and settle in with a book or do some window shopping, I am generally much more amenable to the idea of being forced to spend hours of my time between places that I want to be. So, ideally, I would have been in a cab by 3:15 pm to make my 6:00 pm flight (because Chicago traffic is a miserable nightmare always), but I wanted to see D for a few minutes before I left, so I offered to do school pick-up, which is at 3:35 pm, and then we walked home and talked about books and rocks and the fun night she has planned with her dad, and we got home at 3:45, and it took me another 15 minutes to book a cab because I had a last-minute freak-out about which shoes to pack and kept swapping my Cole Haan oxford heels for tall black riding boots boots (I could give a shit about fashion for the most part but I appreciate clothes with an autumn sensibility) and then realized I needed to change my socks and pack extra socks (I get sweaty feet, yo), and I kissed my family goodbye several times because I kept thinking I was ready to go and then redoing my bags and having to say goodbye again, and then no Lyft drivers were close to my house, and I didn’t get in the car until 4:15, by which time traffic was already rush hour-y and my driver kept making confusing and confused-seeming turns, but I not going to complain because he got me to O’Hare right at 5 and the security line was semi-light and I had time to use the bathroom and refill my water bottle before strolling up to my gate as they were boarding my group– group 4 to be exact, because I am not fancy!
The flight was fine. I was nauseated from the cab ride that was all detours and hungry because it was dinner time, so I ate a giant blueberry muffin from Whole Foods that my husband thoughtfully sent me off with. I used to eat these muffins almost every day on my maternity leave and haven’t had one in years and I forgot how good they are, all crumbly on top and gooey, almost undercooked, in the middle. Toward the end of the flight, when the plane started to descend and my sinuses were blowing up with pressure the way they always do, a toddler in the row behind me started in with the shrieking. It was piercing and terrible but the poor girl looked so exhausted and so sad with fat tears rolling down her round cheeks that reminded me of D’s when she was that age. D is an awesome flyer now, but she always threw at least one screaming fit per flight until she was about three. Watching the wailing kid and her inexplicably mellow mom made me miss D. Traveling alone is easy, but lonely.
The hotel was just a short drive from the airport. Like, less than 10 minutes. Cities where things are close and easy to get to are weird. The main entrance at the hotel opened right up into the restaurant, which had an unexpected party vibe. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was definitely a business party vibe, with lots of bros and shiny-haired women in suits drinking beers, but it was a lot more activity than I usually see at a Marriott on a Monday night. It was like a really late, really fun happy hour. I had planned to eat at the restaurant but all those people and all those beers felt just a little triggering so I ordered a caprese salad at bar and grabbed a bag of chips from the sundry store and took it all back to my room. I am eating and writing this now. I watched four videos of D and her dad eating ice cream sundaes and playing board games. He planned a special “sleepover” for her to make things fun while I am away, which means he has to sleep on the bottom bunk in her room. That is the price of being a fun dad. I am going to read and eat candy and starfish on this clean white king-sized bed. That is the beauty of being a working mom.
You don’t grow up Christian in America without hearing a thing or twenty about the “straight and narrow” path. As a rebellious Mormon, I loathed this concept. I could imagine nothing more dreary and oppressive than a life spent following a road laid out by someone else, following orders, moving forever forward while looking longingly at the roads less travelled.
As a perfectionist who never could manage to live up to that trait, I hated the concept equally but for a different reason. A narrow path offered too many opportunities to fall off. I’d never make it, so better to never bother stepping on, better to pretend I never wanted anything to do with your stupid straight road anyway.
A few months after I stopped attending the Mormon church, I started hearing the phrase crop up in recovery meetings, usually from old timers describing how the path of sobriety narrows the longer they’re on it. This scared me. Had I stepped into a way of living that was going to end up feeling as oppressive as Mormonism?
Today, more than a year into this life, I found some clarity around this concept. The straight and narrow path isn’t the one laid down and blessed by the church. It’s the path that carries each of us forward. Once you’ve found purpose and direction, it becomes increasingly intolerable to live in a manner that is inconsistent with those things. Your mind and body and soul won’t tolerate straying for long. It’s too painful. When my mind wanders to relapse, my chest tightens. When I entertain the notion of going back to the old way of living for much longer than that, my cells start screaming apart. It’s not freedom; it’s chaos. The narrowing of the path is the price we pay for finding it. The cost of learning how to live is that you can’t stop doing it.
My road doesn’t pass through the same valleys as yours. Mine is a highway through the middle of the US. The road is mostly well-paved paved but it cuts a dusty path through the desert and winds through a few mountain towns.
Our roads don’t take us through the same cities or countries or churches. Some roads don’t have a church on them at all. They are all long, though, and I suspect that our maps are all the same. Do unto others. Love your neighbor. Lose yourself. And I’ll be damned if we don’t all end up in the same place.