The Roadtrip

Here’s an older piece that is not an accurate reflection of where I am now, but it is true to who I was then. It speaks of the joys of soul-friends and the heart-crushing pain of losing them to this thing called “growing up” and how the fuck are we meant to do that anyway? This piece is a reflection of all that wrapped up in a story of my first cross-country road trip.

To remember it now is to look at the old photographs and smell through them the autumn leaves, the dirt path, the stones, as viscerally as if we were all still there. As innocent and pure as that day, a collection of perfect moments I wanted to freeze like photographs to keep worn in my pocket, to recall when I am gripped by great waves of nostalgia. To remember that once, everything was perfect, even among the questions and the hurt that we all carried in our own ways. Life can be madness and life can be Pain, but sometimes what keeps me going (and sometimes, what makes me despair ) is the hope that we can all be gifted times like that warm November day, moments where we can stay Young forever, where responsibility extends only as far as the next paper to write, where love and their friendship are the biggest things imaginable. When everything was simple, morality as easy as black and white.

One among us recognized the gravity, the wonder, of that day better than anyone else; my friend Sarah, atop the tower, grabbing our friend mutual friend in a hug that nearly strangles him with its strength, as she thanks him for bringing us here, for giving her the best day of her life. I remember that moment, remember chuckling a little, knowing it was a good day, but The Best?

There were other times like this too, perfect as a picture, bittersweet in their recollection. Before the loss of innocence came a road trip. A time when despair and emptiness were not the ever-present death knolls of my soul, but were instead replaced by light and youth, the philosopher Albert Camus’ words, “my joy is endless” a motto for those days. Sarah is the one person who could have accompanied me on that trip without one or both parties killing each other. It was a (nearly) transcontinental voyage, marked by food budgeting, too many trinkets, beautiful sights, and local meals in non-local places. It was, as all travel inevitably is, a time of growing, of learning, of taking the measure of myself against a world that is so often inhospitable.

My friend Sarah always has had a knack for seeing beauty in the pain, beauty in the ordinary, beauty in everything. Not just that, but the magic as well. It is a certain type of innocence I occasionally wish would rub off on me, but I’m often too cynical for this, consider myself “knowledgeable, hardened, wizened, analytical.” None of these things are inherently wrong  – and in fact are pretty useful – but sometimes I find myself hiding in them, afraid to feel. Afraid to look foolish. As if “adulthood” and “being a mature grown-up” are the pinnacles of mankind’s achievement.

I look back often on times like that: standing atop McGraw Tower as the sun sets beneath us; or outrunning a storm on deserted roads winding through the flats of Nebraska, which was as exhilarating as it was unnerving. I look back on these and other adventures we have shared, and I ask myself why I failed to share Sarah’s attitude, that those times were indeed The Best, instead of realizing this later, after they have passed, when it is too late to appreciate them. You see, there is Appreciating them, which I did, knowing they were Something Special, and then there is Sarah’s Joy, its own brand of sunlight, a special sort of wonder all its own. Hindsight is, after all, 20/20. But maybe it does not have to be that way. Maybe we can cultivate an attitude of innocent mindfulness, like the springtime robins busily plucking worms for lunch. They worry not about the future, but I did, and I do. Maybe it can truly be Enough, to stand atop the world with your dearest friends, knowing with ice in your heart that life will soon take you all in different directions, but not knowing just how forcibly that separation would occur. Maybe it can simply be Enough to enjoy free cheese curds from a kindhearted waitress at an outdoor Wisconsin restaurant, to look around, ponder that sometimes maybe the journey really can be enough.

My friend Sarah is one of the most beautiful people I know. She does not think this – it is a common theme, is it not? – but it is true nonetheless. She has sunshine hair and an even more radiant smile and she bounces around like a kitten when excited – which is often. At the same time there is quiet solemnity too, like the sea, when a view of a canyon stretching to infinity renders her mute with awe while I am busy scrambling onto outlooks I should not be climbing upon. Through our trip, we often find ourselves switching roles: one of us the bouncing popcorn of excitement, bubbling over at each new site, at the magic of it, and one of us quietly appreciating the vastness of a desert so quiet it seems the whole world is holding its breath. She does not think she is very strong, but I would jokingly remind her of the time she singlehandedly freed my car from a desert ditch in the darkest fold of the night – meanwhile, the stars kept their vigilant watch on the wayward travelers below.

I think we all have more strength than we may give ourselves credit for. Humans as a species are a rather resilient bunch – some moreso than others. What if we could learn to see each other for the fantastic creatures we are, instead of reducing our worth to whatever we are told we are? When will the day come when we can embrace our strength, instead of hiding from it? We are capable of much, and we are freer than we think. Travel, more than anything, will teach us this, if we let it. We are infinitely more capable and adaptable than we know. It is a lesson to be absorbed when there are those who would seek to tear down these walls of fortitude and inner resilience.

Shortly after our trip, there was a time where Sarah was in Florida, almost a continent away from her friends, her family, and her fiancé. She was taking a chance I never would have the guts to take, which is funny, because she always calls be a brave warrior of a woman; if only she knew – how much easier I find hiking alone for a week, rather than going against the grain, against what people expect of me, to pursue an internship so far from home. Fortitude, it seems, can be measured in more ways than one. Not merely in the strength of one’s hands – or in my case, the strength of legs that carry me across Massachusetts mountains – but also in the stubborn endurance of one’s spirit through a turmoil-riddled childhood, through drained bottles, continued insults, and attempts to shatter a hard-won self-worth, of a tenuous but resilient determination to Press On.

Travel will teach of the ability to be fluid, to be open to change even as I rail in fear against it. One of the most important times on our trip occurred during what was then a low-point, during an episode of altitude sickness that required a brief detour to a clinic. After this, we were directed to stay in a town of lower elevation, where we wandered sunset streets and were later treated to ethereal views of the red desert cliffs from our room while the moon rose above Sedona.

Even though our plans had been disrupted, I reflected upon invincibility, even at a time when we had been reminded of our own vulnerability. I thought again of strength, of hope, of the unknown, of contentment, sitting beside my best friend in the world in a natural hot spring pool in Colorado, mountains rising tall and black behind me, gold lamp light dancing in the water before me. And as the first stars appeared in the inky sky that we had watched fade from its sunset dusk, I wondered if I could keep this moment, like so many others, close for when I needed to be reminded, two years later, that true consolation exists. Love exists. Friends for whom you’d walk off a cliff for, or curse together at the wretchedness of traffic roundabouts exist, and they are there with love even during the times when none of us feel very loveable.

Why does growing up inherently involve such grief and loss? A loss of the adventure and dashing that colored those days on the road, a loss of community as friends scatter, a deep sense of unmooring, of being cast out among waves that could not care less if – in your failure – you are dashed upon the rocks. It is funny how hope, despair, and this thing called Growing Up have all morphed into a great analogous mass; I wonder at one’s ability to weather such change.  Maybe there is still hope to be had, even when the sweet memory of the times you once shared with all of them brings more pain than joy, more grief than solace. The memory of lost love does not fade with time, even if the people are no longer there.

Once, Sarah and I sat in a dimly lit gas station, eating cold cheese nachos, while the world outside threatened to end in a fury of wind and hail. Maybe even in moments like this, where we bunker down and weather the storm, regardless of whether it is personal or global, there are things to be taken from it, lessons like chips of obsidian from lifeless rock. Maybe there will come a time where I can write these words, and believe once more in their power to save a moorless and listless soul, that I can believe there is as much merit in saving my own life as there is in saving another’s, that together we can huddle beneath the eaves and watch the storms blow through, safe and sheltered.

This trip is two years behind me and Ithaca even further so. They are lifetimes, galaxies, away. The normalcy and mundanity of life after college sinks in, and it is all too easy to allow bitterness and complacency to fester. Even writing does not feel as natural as it once did, a wall existing suddenly between the girl I was then, and the woman I am now. I am sure these feelings plague many a disillusioned young person, but like many other things in our society, they are rarely spoken of. Those feelings are instead drowned in the corporate machine that chews people’s souls and humanity and spits them out a different person. People just continue to exist in their isolated spheres of work, go home and “dope up” in whatever manner suits them, and call that contentment. Perhaps it is, for some. But for others, perhaps it is not enough. Perhaps there is more.

In the end, this piece is several things at once. It is a tribute to my friend. It is Memory, of a time precious and pure. It is a physical measure of who I was then and who I am now, and the differing places in which I find myself, places more wild and frightening than anything I ever faced on my travels. It is unanswered questions and dreams unpursued and relentless self-doubt and questions upon questions, none of which I have answers for. And as much as we rail that they should be answerable, the fact is that sometimes they aren’t. Why aren’t we all together anymore? Why did I do it? Why did we all grow up? Why are we all scattered? These are all questions that will forever be without answer, and I am still learning to be okay with that. I might never be. They may haunt me forever. I am a pragmatic person – I hate accepting that there is not a straightforward answer to everything. But so often, that is how it is. At times, everything and everyone – and perhaps most importantly yourself – are screaming fuck you so loudly it makes you question why you should bother hoping, trying, carrying on. And yet, I sometimes think that this is all we can do: press on, even when the storm tells you otherwise.

 Originally written in 2019.


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