Back to “reality,” I calculated that upon rolling into the driveway in Philly, I had driven about 7,000 miles in 23 days.  With the car at Subaru for servicing and a well-earned detailing, now that we (the Blubaru and I) are back, I am stilled and returned to the indoors.  I’ve been dealing with re-entry issues since the night I got home, struggling some, but not bawling like I did that first night.  I’ve managed to write again, post more blog updates, try to catch up with time and space.  I gradually dig through the mail, cuddle my sweet Sofia, do laundry, remember I have other clothes, yet generally have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing here.  Finally, I just had to get outside.  I’d become so used to being outdoors and having the sky over my head, that my restlessness, my captivity, made me feel so “off” that I felt nearly ill.  I had been out for so many days and hours now, I realize it is simply going to be hard to be back “in.”  So, I hopped in my  shinily cleaned-up buggy, and drove down the driveway, only to realize I had zero idea where to go.  Bewildered at the end of the driveway, no idea whether to turn uphill or down, I realized there is no place in the Philadelphia environs that could begin to offer the kind of space and majesty I had become accustomed to on the road, and now simply craved.  There is simply no place here for me to go to get what I need outdoors.  Maybe if I went all the way up to Bucks County or something, but that’s a schlep and I don’t know where I’d be going.  There is no place I know of that I could just get in my car and go.

Since returning, I’ve been back to my ear-nose-and-throat doctor, and it looks like perhaps some of my physical symptoms I’ve had – the ones that haven’t begun resolving – may in fact be due to a significant sinus problem.  It turns out one of my sinuses is almost completely filled with fluid and inflamed tissue (yucky, I know).  Before recommending surgery, the doc said let’s try a longish course of antibiotics.  So I’m on two weeks of augmentin, which means no drinking.  Which totally sucks —  to have to be back from the Big Drive but have no cocktails.  But on the upside, in two weeks, or sooner perhaps, I may start to feel even better.  The weird thing about my sinuses is that apparently I’ve been putting two and two together and getting 22.  Back in Albuquerque, Hazel, the healer woman I’d met, had worked on me (physically, in addition to prophesying), as I was having problems with my neck.  And she was working on this spot at the top of my neck and the base of my skull, and she’d actually said, “That’s your sinuses.”  And I’d thought she was out of her mind, retorting “My sinuses are fine!”  Which I was so sure of, because this condition is not behaving like a normal sinus infection.  But it explains so many of the things I’ve been feeling, and perhaps the low-grade ickiness in general as well; my body’s been trying to deal with something that it can’t handle on its own. So, maybe soon I’ll start to feel better, like all better.  And maybe it’s not all in my head after all – or rather, it is, but shows up on an MRI.  So, two and two equals four.  Whatd’ya know.

And, meantime, I’ve had yet another reminder of the whole “other people’s lives in progress” concept.  After being gung-ho about me coming back to Dallas for the adoption of his charge, another check-in with Pedro confirmed my suspicions:  I am un-invited.  His ex-wife would be there, along with his ex-stepkids, and he said it would just be awkward. This unlikely and complex “family” of his are tight in their own dysfunctional way (the ex threatens to cut off access to the kids if she catches him dating).  I’m trying not to be too reactive, but I’m realizing that what he’s saying here is, “I choose mollifying a psycho who’s my unlikely family, over you, who’s been my close friend for 30 years,” due to appearances.  It’s just too complicated, he says.  (Even though the kid hates the ex and seems to love me.)  Anyway, it’s just sad, in every regard.  More sense of Pedro’s life in progress, his wacky family set up there, and I just pass through from time to time.  Even though I’ve been in his life longer, I don’t figure in in any important way.  The truth is, I didn’t really expect it to shape up any differently.  And far better to know sooner rather than later.  My feelings aren’t inordinately hurt; it’s more a sense of deflation.  And further evidence of the whole “his life is in-progress” and mine is not.  And I think any upset I feel is more around that fact, that I feel alive when I visit his life, more alive than I feel in my own. Which can not augur anything good.

In last day or so, the thought’s crept in that if I have to live this life on my own, if I’m to be alone (which is a possibility, even if not preferred), I need to live in a place where there’s someplace I can go to commune, and get that certain comforting feeling I get in nature.  Clearly, there’s no place here in Philly that feeds that adequately.  In San Francisco, I used to climb to the top of a nearby hill, take in the panorama all around me, and get that feeling anytime I wanted.  It was wonderful.  Could I go back there?  It is the perfect place with both land and water. But it might be too crowded, and I tend to believe you can’t go backward in life that way.  I love Portland, Maine, and had previously felt I could live there – except they’d have to chopper me out for rehearsals.  I do love being near the water, but not like New Jersey-sandbar shoreline – it’s gotta be forest up to the water, or big bluffs, or wild curving coastlines, or somesuch.  I’ve also learned I’m drawn to high natural places.  And so it has begun to dawn on me that if I’m to be alone in this life, as in, without partner, without children, without even an anchoring career, the very least I can give myself is an environment where I feel less alone, and able to connect outdoors; someplace where I can easily go off alone in nature, and tap into that ineffable  feeling that gives me such solace.

©2011. All rights reserved.

My first few hours home felt unnatural, almost eerie.  In just 23 days, my little cottage in the Wilds of Philadelphia had grown somehow strange and foreign in its cozy familiarity.  Reuniting with my darling Sofie was sweet beyond expression; yet something, perhaps I, felt horribly “off.”  Even after turning on every light in the house against the autumn nightfall, there seemed some sort of filmy layer between me and my own belongings, and my vividly-decorated home felt somehow muted.

The last few days of driving, I was keenly aware of really struggling with this “going back” thing.  I couldn’t bring myself to call it “going home;” but even “going back” made me feel a twisted clench in my stomach.  I remember spending three months traveling abroad when I was deeply depressed at 24, how I was “fine” while I was traveling, but when I came home, I crashed and burned.  So I was more than a little freaked those last few hundred miles, thinking, What if I spend the whole night crying? What if I spend this whole next week crying? What if the same thoughts that were plaguing me before I left creep back in?  What does it mean if I’m sitting crying?  Is it depression coming back?  Will they want to medicate me again? – and on, and on…ugh….  All proving that the things that you can gain on these kinds of journeys are harder to sustain when you take them back to the same old conditions.

But in the moment, I was reunited with my sweet beloved Familiar.  This creature, with her four paws, her white-whiteness, her softer-than-softest coat, this cat-who-thinks-she’s-a-dog, my amazing, interactive, self-cleaning pet, has zero notion that she and I are different species.  And does not for a moment think I might be a cat.  Yet for the first time ever, my girl was not waiting at the door for me.  I fear I have left her far too long, that she has given me up as gone, that I am a cruel abandoner.  When she finally shows herself, and comes close to me, I am reassured that all she craves is to be with me.  My guilt and my delight poured forth in equal measures, and I apologized to her endlessly. For an hour she chastised me; between tongue-lashings, I gave her treats and began unloading the car.  Swarmed with guilt, I rewarded her with the one package of wet food in the house, as she clearly had not been eating enough.  This was the longest I’d ever left her, and with no one sleeping in the house, just daily visitors. Oh, Sofia was righteous as she yelled, screamed at me for an hour; and after she filled her little belly, and after I cleaned her neglected litter box (my fault), she at last let me pick her up and pour her over my shoulder. And stayed glued to me thenceforth. How I love this cat:  she does not punish me – she only wants to be with me now.

And then…oh, how I cried this night.  Guilt aside, I could not stem the flow of tears.  Whatever seemed trapped inside me out on the road had finally found its way free, and came pouring out the front of my head.  I had a birthday card waiting from Mom that made me really cry.  I got a heartwarming, encouraging email from an old friend about the blog, and that made me cry.  Mom sent me an email, and actually posted on my Facebook page, and that made me cry.  I texted several people saying I was home safe, but not to call tonight.  Because cry I must.  Cry I did.  There was no helping it.  I looked around the walls of this sweet little home I’d spent 5-1/2 years nestling into, and although every shred of it, every splash of color on every surface was of my choosing, it felt like a mere shell. But for Sofie, this house was not a home; and the truth is, wherever she and I went would be home if we made it so together. We had already proven that when we moved in here  Yet even she could no longer render this place that ineffable thought, concept, feeling, that we struggle to define, but all agree to call “home.”

I sat on the two little steps in the doorway between my living room and kitchen, and just bawled.  Wads of tissues were piling up everywhere, mostly near wastebaskets, but I’d stopped even trying to aim.  I had let Pedro know I was safe, but had also told him I was crying.  And though I said not to call, he insisted on checking in later.  We talked for about 40 minutes; we talked of belonging, and purpose, and the notion of home.   We talked about how Philly had never really felt like home to me, although I’d been so willing to make it that. And it would’ve been OK to make it home with my former boyfriend, as we had planned; but that plan changed, and great a city as Philadelphia is (and I will not abide any trash-talk about my Philly!), I just never really felt like I belonged there.  Pedro pointed out that in coming back to a place you feel like you don’t belong, to not cry would be surprising, and that there is a difference between sadness or mourning and depression. These ideas took me by surprise. It hadn’t occurred to me to frame it that way – I was just awash in all this raw emotion and had not seen it as simply sadness.  When he’s right and insightful, Pedro’s right and insightful. You just can’t set your watch by it.  He was being so supportive, which of course had me starting to cry again, and he said, kindly and gently, “No, no, nooooo, you promised no more crying tonight!”

By midnight, we were off the phone and I was busy trying not to cry.  Trying not to freak, just be with it…and trying to stay true to my walkabout and keep making notes.  I committed myself to keep writing the next day, even while dealing with all the re-entry chaos.  Because I’ve found that in focusing within these notes and pages, whether in a hotel room, office, guest room, or coffeehouse, I actually locate a centeredness, an eye in the hurricane, where context falls away and time is irrelevant.  Within the maelstrom of speed, miles, scenery, and rotating cast of characters, I have, unexpectedly, found a spot within myself that lets me set down and feel at home.




©2011. All rights reserved.

Having just made solid friends with myself, upon hitting the road for my last day of driving, I was having significantly more trouble making friends with the reality of returning home.  Continuing to drive north through Virginia felt like pushing through an opposing magnetic field.  It did not draw me.  It repelled me.  Yet home I must go.  My baby girl-kitty, Sofia (still my baby at ~13 years old), has never been without me this long, and I am responsible both to and for her.  But she is the only pull homeward that I feel.  As I drive through the bright autumn air (the storm is long gone out to sea at last), I listen to my friend Molly singing “The Water is Wide” on her CD, and I am crying.  I’m crying a lot this day, it seems….   Even without Flora’s email of the morning, which I can’t quite seem to shake, I am all a-rattle, emotions flying about within me.  But Flora’s email got me thinking in a bookend kind of way about this trip, about all the different things it is and isn’t, and exploring what it means to me.  Running the gamut of emotions from angry and defensive, to proud, joyous, and victorious, to wistful and sad, I am realizing that this trip very much has been about me connecting with nature.  This came as a surprise to me – I hadn’t looked at it that way to start with, but I’d so come to see it that way.  My sensitivity to my geographical and atmospheric environs was rendered so patently clear on this journey, that without yet processing the “meaning” or “results” of the trip, I had been able to draw conclusions on that thousands of miles ago.

Unable to escape the questions raised by the morning’s email, I find myself contemplating the human relationships that have been maintained, sustained, and rekindled throughout this adventure.  The hard thing about being this wanderer that I am is that the people I love – and I keep finding new ones – are scattered so far away, that I can’t possibly be with my community in any ongoing day-in-and-day-out way, and that is a painful truth.  But to have love spread so far and wide that I can drive for 7,000 miles and really not go more than a few days (if I choose) without seeing somebody that I would like to see – that was also something of a surprise on this trip, and it was a huge boon.  While Walkabout may be about being solitary and spiritual, a huge part of the spirituality of my life is found in connection with other people.  My spirituality, my divinity, has been always found in nature, in singing and making music, and in love and connection with other people; so for me there would be no spiritual journey without coming into contact with that love and that connection.  While others may define terms as they please, it is clear that this is my spiritual journey.  And it’s got me crying my head off while driving 69 mph in Virginia.

It’s a beautiful day, and I’m still seeing the last of the fall color, some of which remains quite spectacular. (For the record, West Virginia had the best foliage so far.)  I am obviously dawdling going home:  I left Virginia a mere three or so hours from home, but find myself taking my time, and definitely feeling sad, and scared about what’s going to happen when I get home.  As I cross the border from Maryland (all ten minutes of it) into Pennsylvania, I have another soundtrack moment.  I am listening to the San Francisco Symphony’s Brahms Requiem, a recording I am actually singing on.  The flood of memories that comes with listening alone are intense; and as I drive into a fairly tight bend and come around the curve, the section “Tod, vo ist dein zieg” – “Death, where is thy sting?” sounds.  Thinking about those words, hearing the sweeping cadence of that line, I lean into the curve and all of a sudden see mountains off to the left again, in this vast, panoramic view of an endless range (granted, not the Rockies this time, but the Appalachians).  The range is long, all along my left in the distance, as far as the eye can see.  And I’m hearing “Tod, vo ist dein zieg,” a leaning, swooping musical line as I’m banking around this bend, facing this vista, and I’m just bawling, thinking suddenly about Daddy – surprise!  Perhaps heading home is bringing out all the accumulated, unprocessed, and untapped emotion of the last three weeks, triggered conveniently by the morning’s email.  But wow, ever more surprises!  This trip has been full of surprises.  Of the many things I could already say, if I had to characterize this Walkabout in a single word, it would be “surprising.”  And the emotion coming up like a geyser today after weeks of just being in a curious and exploratory mode, well, that came as rather a surprise as well.

Approaching Harrisburg near 4:00PM, I find that final turning eastward, back toward Philadelphia, so hard.  I’m struggling; I even have a moment when I feel like I’m having a little bit of a panic attack.  And then think “Whoa, I thought we left that behind in Utah!”  I just don’t feel like I’m going “home.”  I’m going back to Sofie and I’m going back to my house, but capital-H “Home” – that ever-foreign concept – feels like it’s out there somewhere, and that ain’t where I’m headed right now.  I try to just be with whatever thoughts and emotions are coming up, and not distract myself in the last hour or so of this trip, which is going to be very prosaic.  Driving east into rush-hour traffic, past familiar landmarks, could be any other daily commute.  The temptation to start making phone calls and critiquing traffic reports is there, and I need to resist that and remain in the space of this experience.  I already feel the creeping proof that the things you gain on these sorts of journeys are harder to sustain when you take them back to the same old conditions.  Which is why I need to keep writing; I need to write my way out of that.  This seems clear.  Also, ironically, I have been able to sing today, ironic considering how emotional I was (and that I’m still a little bit sick).  And I actually cried some while singing, which is nearly impossible.  I was having trouble singing on this trip across the board; I just physically didn’t feel up to singing a lot.  But today, I actually did, and in the morning was  feeling reconnected with the best of that.  Perhaps there is something about actually doing this writing that is providing parallel tracks of finding my voice, regardless of medium.

A typically exasperating rush hour managed to distract me from the coming-home drama, and I got back to the house after dusk and later than expected.  The house was mercifully clean (the housecleaners had come, yay!), but I couldn’t seem to find Sofie.  She didn’t come to the door as I’d expected, and I couldn’t find her in any of her normal hiding places.  Finally, she poured herself off of the cable box – a spot she’s started squeezing into lately – and for an hour straight, she yelled at me.  I gave her treats and began to unload the car.  My little sweetheart yelled at me, screamed for an hour (which I had certainly earned); but after she had a full belly, my sweet Sofie let me pick her up and drape her over my shoulder, where she remained longer than she ever has.  And then stayed glued to me for the rest of the night.  How I love this cat-who-thinks-she’s-a-dog; she does not punish me – she just wants to be with me now, and tell me how relieved and happy she is that I am home.  I hold her tightly, kiss her perfect little white head, and don’t argue with her by saying that “home” feels to me now to be at the steering wheel of the car.

©2010. All rights reserved.
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It’s my penultimate day on the road, and the Tennessee sky is blinding and crystalline in the wake of the massive storm.  As I drive east of Lebanon, I pass a billboard that asks “If you died today, where would you spend eternity?” Does it mean something that I initially drew a blank in response?  An instant later, I thought, “Well, behind the wheel of a Subaru!”  Yes, I cracked myself up.  (Nota bene: This blog is in no way sponsored by Subaru.  However, if Subaru would like to call me up to discuss, I am willing.)

So I am back on the road, thinking about how I’m headed home, and how far behind my blog is already (more on that later).  I find myself wondering “what’s gonna happen now?” when I get home, and feeling more uncomfortable than ever with the notion of “home,” something I’ve never been fully easy with.  It is clear I am not ready to head back.  If it weren’t for Sofie, I can’t say how long I’d have stayed out here; but I’m feeling guilty for having exceeded my original plan by nearly five days, and must get home to my girl.  Although I am still officially “on walkabout,” I can not help but begin processing the experiences and miles behind me.  I try to withhold summary thoughts, keep conclusions at bay, yet feel an inner thrust to some kind of knowing, which has a trajectory all its own.

As I face the autumn sun blasting between the remaining gold and russet leaves not peeled off by the storm, I revel in the renewed contact with sunlight, and find myself thinking about needing to be a part of nature.  An old Buddha quote (that has long hung on my refrigerator) comes to mind:  “All that we are is a result of what we have thought; what we will be is what we do now.”  And so I am thinking a lot over these remaining miles, what will I do now? But I still really don’t know.  And decide to give myself at least the last day-and-a-half on the road free from the pressure of answering.  But the seed is there, germinating.  Despite having hung on my fridge for about eight years, this quote keeps coming back to me now.

By the time I reach the Virginia state line, I’ve caught up with the back edge of that horrendous storm.  Headed largely north, at first I could see the western edge of the cloud mass on my right, even though I remain outside it and under the sun.  But before long, I catch up with it, and am back under the clouds, even as I look wistfully at the clear sky and setting sun off to the west.  As far east as the eye can see hovers this massive, ominous, seemingly endless dark and menacing cloud-cover.  As much as I want to be a half-mile west and clear of that blanket of gloom, I am at least glad I waited out the rain enough to not be full under it yet again.

I spend my last night on the road in Lexington, VA.  Running late from oversleeping, I check my email one last time just before leaving the hotel.  There in my inbox is newly arrived a missive from a woman — let’s call her Flora — whom I’d met only a few days before leaving on this sojourn.  I met her right before departing, and therefore barely know her.  But there she is, unexpectedly in my inbox, essentially criticizing me for not doing a genuine walkabout, which she reminds me is something done alone with nature, without contact with other humans.  She points out that I’ve been in constant contact with people, clearly implying I have failed to do my walkabout authentically, then says “I hope you’ve accomplished your goal.”  The tone was both critical, yet also seemingly pseudo-supportive, her language largely couched in a “spiritual sister” tone.  A cosmic challenge coming to me at the 11th hour of this trip, this email really pushed my buttons.  In a rushed and triggered moment, I could not resist writing back a defensive (if sweetly-toned) reply, pointing out how much time I’d logged alone, and inviting her to read this blog to glimpse the inner journey; and moreover pointing out that the only “goal” for my walkabout had been to go, so mission accomplished!

Yet, despite having “defended myself,” I could not shake the effect of this critique.  Flora’s email seriously upset and angered me, although I wasn’t sure why, since she was not someone important to me, or even “in” my life.  There I was on my last morning of walkabout, all packed up, luggage cart loaded, about to leave the hotel room and trying to get unstuck from my resentment, when on my way to the door, I stopped and stared at myself in the mirror.  I stopped, looked in the mirror, and talked to myself, made contact with myself, in a way I never have in my whole life.  I told myself, “This person doesn’t know you; this is yours; nobody lives inside you; this journey has been yoursyou know what it was and wasn’t; nobody can take that away from you, and it is for nobody to judge.”

I was looking at myself in the mirror, looking at and talking to myself as if I were looking at a friend in a café, and I began to cry.  I had never talked to myself like that before.  I had never received from myself like that before.  Perhaps because I had never been able to give to myself in just that way.  I had certainly never made myself cry like that – no worked-up drama; simply treated myself kindly and compassionately, as I would a friend, telling her that nobody could judge her experience for her.  It was an intense and surprising moment, and in the end, I believe, no coincidence that it came on the day I was finally going home, however reluctantly.  And so, on this clear November morning, following what may have been the most intense half-hour of my entire trip, I drove northward again on I-81, and soon enough found myself compelled to thank Flora for giving me the chance to prove my friendship to myself.

©2010. All rights reserved.
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I awoke Halloween morning in Lebanon, Tennessee, with a distinct rawness in my throat and swelling in my pharynx.   My entire body ached, though most likely from two days’ white-knuckle driving rather than from any sinister, barnyard-based influenza. I looked out the window from my top-floor room (that would be floor seven), from which vantage I could clearly see a low, thick, slate-colored layer for miles in all directions, as well as my trusty Blubaru parked below, rain pooled on its roof.  There was zero chance of driving out from under the storm within the day, even if I felt grand.  I surrendered.  It was plain to see there was no sense in going anywhere that day, no matter how I tried to rationalize it.  I finally called down to the front desk and informed them I would remain a guest in their well-appointed, free-upgraded suite for another day.  I promised myself I would spend my sick/rainout day napping and writing, getting my money’s worth on the room.

After another marginal hotel breakfast followed by a soak in the tub, I wrote for a few hours until my languid limbs itched for a little activity.  Not yet tired enough for a nap, I figured we (my limbs and I) would go out and explore the Lebanon environs.  I retraced John’s and my steps from the night before, and found myself shortly in “Historic Downtown Lebanon,” if you believed the banners hanging from the streetlights.  It looked more like Decrepit Downtown Lebanon to me, ‘though I hated feeling so repulsed and judgmental.  This was just another American town that had once had a lovely little town square, which was now decaying while the Prime Outlets opened a few miles up the road, and the big-box megastores paved over the neighboring farms.

I drove a few back roads, just to see if there was anything left of the old residential areas (there was), and found myself drawn to what turned out to be a lone casket waiting in abeyance in an outlying cemetery.  As I drove past, oddly struggling to take my eyes off this eerie sight, I remembered it was Halloween and shuddered a little, as this lonesome display was no holiday prank.  After turning back onto the main road, I passed a funeral home just as a stream of people trailed out of it.  Here was the lone casket’s congregation, on their way to surround and lower that coffin, no doubt.  I have often found it surreal to realize that I am peering fleetingly into the full and complete lives of strangers, which are going on by the billion all around me at all times.  It usually strikes me as freakish somehow, that as big and consuming as my own life is to me at any given moment, so is the life of that random person walking down the street, or stepping out of the funeral home, or lying dead in that casket – or it was – to them.  In the context of so-called civilization, it seems to me odd that all these teeming ant-humans each have full-screen lives.  Yet back out west, in the rocks and the mountains and the canyons, this did not strike me as odd or uncomfortable or unnatural.  I have always had this awareness, ever since childhood, but only now noticed that I find it troubling just in certain contexts.

Having seen quite enough of Lebanon (in less than an hour), I went back to the hotel to rest, yet was still not sleepy despite my cold.  Instead, I wrote all afternoon, on top of having written most of the morning.  Who was this person doing all this writing?  By evening I was ready for a change of scenery again, went out for some soup, then came back and wrote yet more. This writer, who had done little of her own writing for nearly 20 years, probably wrote for eight to ten hours over the course of that single, damp day.  I was amazed, surprised, and strangely refreshed.  Before dinner, as I finished writing one of these segments, I had looked up and out the window, and seen the setting sun jubilantly streaming in beyond the western edge of the mammoth storm front.

It was around this time that I noticed that my spiffy, spanking-new hotel room had ladybugs.  The ceilings were high, and I had not at first noticed the little dark blobs in the corners where the walls and ceiling met.  But ladybugs there were, in large clusters.  I have heard that these charming and sweetly-named beetles are a good omen, and on this day, I trusted this to be true.

©2009. All rights reserved.
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Monsoon Enough

After three days in Dallas (the sunniest of which I ironically spent writing in a windowless office), feeling overdue to go back to my patiently-waiting kitty, I drove off like an idiot into a monsoon.  My stay in Dallas was, despite mostly lousy weather, a sick kid in the house, and my friend Pedro himself fighting off the bug, nonetheless pretty darn warm and fuzzy.  No distress, no confusion, no angst.  I rested, wrote, and spent time with my friends.  I de-garbaged the Blubaru, reorganized my luggage, and bonded further with the Mamacitas, a trio of fantastic women who function as Pedro’s sisters, advisers, and family (and coincidentally, keep his law practice humming).  And although I could have stayed in Dallas through Halloween weekend, waiting out the huge storm that blocked the nation from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes, I felt compelled to push on and begin the 25-hour drive home, especially as I was intending to do it over four days so as to keep writing from the road.

What an idiot.

After a lively and loving sushi-sendoff at Pedro’s office, I headed east into dismal weather, yet felt warmed to the core.  Initially, my spirits were kept aloft by a delightful NPR program I stumbled upon on my way out of Dallas.  It was a local show with a word-geek guest, a self-described “snoot” regarding language, grammar, and usage.  Distracted by the wit of a man who says he can’t read six consecutive words of a legal brief without getting offended, I felt little troubled by the rain, wind, and generally murky environment.  I found my thoughts returning to Sarah the Healer back in Boulder.  Had she really worked magic?  Had I worked magic somehow on this trip?  I suppose there is no single turnkey explanation to any changes wrought on this journey; but again, I observed that I was unruffled by these last days in Dallas, and was even now holding pretty steady despite the awful weather.  I would be curious to see if and how these changes might be sustained under more ordinary circumstances after returning home.  Meantime, I was driving in downpours. Every now and then, I’d look up at the sky, certain that I would soon drive out from under the front.  I did this at least four times, each time thinking, “Hey, the cloud layer is getting higher and thinner just ahead,” only to get clocked again by a torrent of water.  Eventually, in what was clearly a bit of weather-gods trickery, I did hit a few drier spells and a miraculous, teensy bit of sun.  I even stopped to gas up in Texarkana, just to see it fog-free.

What an idiot.  I wasted over 15 dry minutes in Texarkana, which turns out to look just like every other freeway-side swatch of suburban Generica.

Onward I went, back into Arkansas.  I approached Little Rock at “rush hour” in the worst rains I’ve ever seen in my entire life.  I had known I would be driving into a storm, but heck, we’ve all done that, so I hadn’t been daunted.  I knew it would rain most of the way home, so figured there was no point in waiting if it would continue for days anyway.  What I didn’t – and couldn’t – realize until I was well into it was that this appalling monsoon, the likes of which I have never seen in 45 years, would continue at this intensity for two solid days before easing up in the slightest.  It was the kind of rain you sometimes hit for five or ten minutes, usually in the summer, and just wait out, or drive through carefully, knowing it will spend itself out shortly.  Except this slow-moving storm did not.  Visibility reduced to near zero, speed down to 15 mph on the highway around Little Rock, I was hit with literally one wall of water after another crashing against my windshield.  Windshield wipers were a joke, akin to intercepting a cruise missile with a fly-swatter.  And I thought to myself, “I am going to die out here, and FOR WHAT?  I DON’T EVEN HAVE TO BE HERE.”

Have I mentioned what an idiot I am?

As I scanned for NPR west of Little Rock, hoping for a weather forecast that would tell me what I wanted to hear, I caught a snippet of a country music song, twanging as only Country & Western music can, “It’s haaarrrrd to get a daaaate…Much less a reeeallll girlfrieeeennnnd.” I could barely laugh.  My spirits were now unliftable, not because I was sad or depressed, but because I had to focus on somehow getting through these horrendous conditions safely.  I tried listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, but they got on my nerves after a while, and I had to switch off the stereo.

I kept on, following tail-lights and the painted line of the shoulder just far enough to make the changes from one highway to another.  By the time I realized the going was too bad to continue, I had little choice but to press on yet a bit longer, as I could not even see if there were any hotels off the exits.  Continuing, even at 15 mph, seemed marginally better than getting stranded off the side of the road.  So long as I didn’t die first.  Finally, I saw a billboard for a Holiday Inn 15 miles ahead on I-40.  I seriously was not sure I’d make it that far; but the rain eased slightly and briefly, and I put a few safer miles behind me.  Then it came back, hitting harder than ever, and I inched my way in such biblical torrents and winds as to drive out any thought unrelated to hanging on tight and concentrating with all I had on survival.

At long last, I reached the Holiday Inn’s exit in a place called Lonoke, Arkansas.  There are not words to express the relief I felt upon turning off the Blubaru’s engine beneath the front awning!  As I arrived at the hotel desk, just as the clerk was about to check me in, sirens went off outside, a call came in with a tornado warning, and the overworked and solitary clerk had to start calling rooms to persuade all the guests to come downstairs to the safety of a windowless room.  Before she completed this task, the sirens mercifully ceased, and the warning was cancelled.  Checked in and unloaded at last, I longed for a drink, only to discover that despite all this water, I was in a dry county.  The closest liquor was a county away, and I was not going back out there tonight for anything!  Settled into my hotel room, with intermittent internet and nonstop Weather Channel, I began to suspect I should’ve stayed in Dallas a few more days after all.  But I had known this storm was large and slow, and to fully wait it out, I would’ve been stuck until the following week.  Based on all prior experience, I really believed I’d drive out from under it.  I tried not to smack myself upside the forehead too often, and hoped that tomorrow’s going would be less brutal.

The next morning, I awoke to intermittent rain, but generally quieter conditions.  Grateful for my safety and the night’s shelter, I nonetheless did not relish the notion of sticking around Lonoke, Arkansas, smack in the middle of Tornado Alley.  In a relative lull, I hauled ass out of there, not even stopping to gas up first, wanting to not waste any rain-free time.  I had forty minutes’ good and peaceful driving before again encountering deluges as I crossed the Mississippi River into Memphis.  I plodded onward.  In the sky ahead of me, I could again see a lighter, higher cloud layer.  If only I could catch up with it!  My friend John from Tennessee called to check on me.  By then I was west of Nashville, was catching up with the eastern end of the storm, and the rains were finally abating.  I wanted to clear Nashville before dark.  John kindly called ahead and booked me a room east of Nashville, and said he’d come down to meet me for dinner.

Exhausted, relieved, and questioning my own good sense, I settled into a room in a largely empty Hampton Inn in Lebanon, Tennessee.  When John showed up to take me for a steak dinner and that long-overdue bourbon, I could have cried, and could barely speak coherently.  Unwinding over a first-rate meal (in Lebanon, TN…who knew?), we had a jovial visit, and I reveled in cementing another friendship.  I returned back to my room with a full belly, a smile on my face, and too tipsy to write, much less pay any mind to signs of incipient illness.

©2009. All rights reserved.
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Somewhere about 75 miles west of Amarillo, Texas, I accidentally reset my trip odometer, forcing myself to receive yet another cosmic thwack upside the cranium regarding attachment and ego.  I had been keeping track of the mileage driven on this trip out of curiosity and, I’m sure, the desire for some sort of bragging rights once my Walkabout was said and done.  After a fill-up just east of the Texas-New Mexico state line, I reset my primary trip odometer and accidentally hit the button once too often, erasing all 4,400- or 4,800-odd miles I’d accrued on the secondary trip odometer.  After the “Aaaaarrrrgghhh!!!” Heard  ’Round the Panhandle, I had no choice but to laugh at myself, and the random, meaningless importance I had placed on an LCD readout on my dashboard.

On this return third of the trip, I had, in the end, chosen to retrace my tire tracks and return via the exact route I embarked on.  I opted to purchase easier driving, trading off the novelty of more fresh scenery for driving at a less frantic pace, facilitated by stopping with friends again instead of paying for hotels for the entire balance of the journey.  (I simply don’t know anyone who lives in the geographical center of the United States, my alternate-route option.)  I arranged to return a few days later than originally planned, which would allow for another rest-break of several days in Dallas, in turn enabling me to write more than I could manage during days on the road.  I had initially hedged on returning to Dallas, given how rattled I had felt after leaving there on the outbound leg.  But the clarity and groundedness I’d felt since Sarah the Healer worked on me in Boulder remained, and I no longer hesitated to go back the way I came.  The influences that had shaken me up so much before, seemed now (though yet untried and miles away) distinctly outside of me, and no longer so threatening.  It was as though something inside me had finally clicked into place after grinding for heaven knows how long just on the edge of its gear.

So far, that fear I’d wrestled with on the outbound leg remained completely absent as well.  I wasn’t sure if this was because I was back in familiar territory, having driven these roads already, slept in the same town (ah, sublime Shamrock, Texas), and even stopped at the same Starbucks at the Barnes & Noble in the outskirts of Amarillo.  I may never know if the fear was gone because the turf was no longer foreign, or if it might be due to whatever I gained while I was all the way out west.  Only time and further miles will bear that out.

Even within this new stillness, in the two days’ drive between Albuquerque and Dallas, I felt my mood fluctuate distinctly under changeable skies.  My susceptibility to variations in the sky and weather was becoming unmistakable, and this lesson in just how sensitive to light, sun, space, and sky I have become has been surprising.  I did not know this before I left Philadelphia, and it seems crucial information to acknowledge about oneself.  Having grown up in cloudy Cleveland, I remembered sometimes feeling oddly happy on grey days during college, as they made me feel nostalgic.  So now, I felt compelled to question, have I really grown that sensitive to the clouds, or am I just bummed that I’m heading home?  I recalled my cousins touting the fact that Denver boasts, on average, 300 days of sun per year.  Colorado again pulled at me from behind, and I felt a tugging at my heart and fullness around my eyes.

As I approached Dallas toward rush hour, I hit rains once more.  Why did it keep raining on me as I headed into Dallas?  Now it was just pissing me off!  I fought my way through the increasingly monochrome twilight mist to arrive in time for a hurried dinner with Bella.  We had a lot to share, but there was little time before she had to run off to rehearsal.  The rains bathed me in a sense of bewilderment and anticlimax as I made my way across town, back to Pedro’s house, where he and his charge were waiting.

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