I seem to have run out of things to say as of late. Ironic, considering words are my bread and butter. Literally. (Though nowadays, it’s whole wheat bread and nothing more than a schmear. Damn you, diabetes).
But then I remembered today is Flashback Friday, and who says that only applies to photos? Memories are flashbacks, too. So I’m going to write about the loneliest road I ever traveled. I mean that literally, but you can also take it metaphorically, I suppose.
The place: U.S. Route 212, somewhere in eastern Montana. The date: June 24, 2011. Late morning.
It was Day 3 of my solo road trip from Vancouver, WA to Dayton, Ohio. I’d had a rough evening in Billings the day before; I was far enough from home by then to realize there was no turning back, and the fact that I was alone hit me pretty hard. It was the only time I seriously questioned the wisdom of my journey. But on this, the third day, my mood changed completely and the whole thing began to feel like an adventure. It all started when I crested a hill on Interstate 90 E and saw what looked like the whole world spread out before me. I had a view of the wide open Montana prairie stretching from one end of the horizon to the other, and it took my breath away. I had always laughed at the nickname “Big Sky Country” thinking, come on, the sky is the same size everywhere! But I was wrong. It really is bigger in Montana. Maybe because there is nothing else to distract from the view.
Shortly afterwards, my GPS had me turn off the interstate onto U.S. 212. I had not been expecting this, and debated whether she (yes, I’m referring to my GPS as if it were a woman – remember, I was single then) had screwed up by having me detour onto a two-lane highway with a reduced speed limit, especially when the little traffic I had encountered dwindled to an occasional car passing by every twenty or thirty minutes, but I had long ago learned to trust Maggie (yes, she even had a name), so I went with it.
I ended up in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by endless miles of gently rolling hills dotted with rock formations and trees, and a carpet of purple and yellow wildflowers that made the landscape look as though an indecisive artist had dragged his paintbrush over the whole thing. At one point I pulled over and got out of my car to stretch my legs. I stood in the middle of the highway, looking west at the road I had just traversed. It stretched on seemingly forever, a twisting black line that narrowed to a distant speck before disappearing from view entirely, snuffed out by the horizon. There was not another soul around; in that moment, I felt like the only person on the entire planet.
And it was liberating.
There was a field beside the road, which now felt like an asphalt intrusion; a stream meandered through it haphazardly. There was no sense of purpose to the trickling water, no rush or need to be anywhere. It doubled and tripled back on itself serpent-like, as directionless as I was. I walked through the grass, the hot summer sun beating down on me, nearly hypnotized by the constant buzz of a thousand cicadas and the realization that I had found one spot on earth where time did not matter.
Nothing mattered. And that mattered more to me than everything.
Go, my brain urged, instructing my legs to just keep walking. Where to, exactly? I did not know, nor did I care. Anyplace else sounded like a good enough plan as I stood in that lonely field, and besides, isn’t the journey more important than the destination? It wouldn’t take long for the prairie to swallow me up and make me disappear. I felt the pull of nature, the allure of the unknown. Like Chris McCandless, suddenly I contemplated ditching it all and taking my own trip Into The Wild.
And why not? My life at that time was in shambles. I had been unemployed for eight months with nary a prospect in sight. “What if somebody calls you for an interview when you’re on the road?” my dad had asked before I set out, and I had to choke off a laugh. Nobody was calling me for anything. I was burning through my savings, hopelessly upside down in my mortgage. And mired in the quicksand of a relationship that had run its course the previous year, but had been oblivious to the circling vultures with gleaming eyes and blood on their lips, despite the very obvious empty passenger seat beside me. How much deader could I get? I reasoned.
One step, the voices whispered.
Very good. Now another.
The tall grass tickled my knees. I became keenly aware of every minuscule droplet of sweat trailing down the back of my neck, gravity working its humdrum miracle. Counting each step away.
Away from the road.
Away from my car.
Away away away away AWAY.
Quite unexpectedly, just as the abyss was looming, a new realization dawned, something I had previously overlooked.
I was, in fact, alive.
Maybe I hadn’t actually overlooked the obvious. Perhaps instead, I was born in that moment.
All I know is, I stopped. Told my subconscious to quit its yammering. Drank in my surroundings one last time before settling behind the steering wheel and continuing east. Where sunrises are born, I might point out. A compass direction as an allegory, no need to spell out phrases like dawn of a new day. Some stories just write themselves.
Is it any wonder I look back on my trip with great reverence? It was nothing short of a life changing experience.
Maybe even a life saving experience.
Two and a half months later, I found myself on the real “loneliest road in America,” U.S. Route 50 in Nevada. And yet, I couldn’t have felt less lonely if I’d tried. I was on my way to see a girl, after all.
But that chapter had yet to be written.