My mother told me to wear a baseball cap, so I would look like a boy. This was one of the many pieces of advice I took and then quickly abandoned on my drive to California from Kalamazoo. “If the truckers think you’re a boy they won’t try to trick you into stopping so they can rape you,” she told me. My hair was very short and so paired with my Cleveland Indians cap, she thought I could pass. “What about all the hitchhikers I pick up though?” I asked her. “Surely they’ll be able to tell I’m a girl when they get in the car and see my boobs?” She gasped and swatted at me, “oh, Amanda don’t you dare!”
A customer at the coffee shop where I worked urged me to pack some nicotine gum. “I don’t smoke,” I told him. “Yeah, I know…so it’ll be just, you know, like chewing caffeine.” It was worth a try; I could barely drive to Chicago without getting drowsy, I wasn’t sure how I’d manage more than 2,000 miles alone. I just knew that I would.
On September 15th my dad pressed a loosely-wrapped sushi roll into my hand, then hugged me. I’d put him through perhaps the most during the last few months, though we weren’t the type to discuss such things. It had rained the night before and I backed out of his driveway with a casual wave, then slowly made my way through the washed clean and quiet streets. The sun had not yet risen and there was a soft glow and reflection surrounding me as I paused at one stop and then another, gaining momentum but also aware that this was Goodbye. At the red light on Rose and West Michigan I looked at the passenger seat, filled with snacks, water and my Chief Wahoo cap; I glanced at the glove compartment which held a pack of Nicorette, and then the light turned green.
I needn’t have worried about the drive making me lethargic. The gum remained untouched as I buried mile after mile in a music and adrenaline-fueled shedding of skins. It felt so good, this orderly abandonment of everything I wanted to run away from. I thought I’d done it all correctly – I’d said goodbye to everyone, with plenty of notice and proper fanfare.
I didn’t acknowledge that I’d led my family and friends to believe I was leaving for real love. I’d eloped with a friend nearly five months earlier and was now leaving to join him in our shared but very separate life together. Though we’d married for convenience I had come home from that sunny California weekend of elopement and, for reasons I couldn’t explain, told everyone who would listen that I’d secretly married – full swoon, whirlwind romance – and would soon be moving out west. I let them throw me parties: a belated wedding shower, a final goodbye; I accepted their gifts and well-wishes. And then I left.
I left the shame of ever having to admit I’d lied; I left the need to sit down and get quiet with myself to find out why I’d done so. I left the man I’d had a slow-simmering crush on for years. I told him the truth behind my fake-marriage because I desperately wanted to have an affair with him before I moved away, and we did. I left our late night rain-soaked steamy drunken meetings, because I could tell they were nearing their natural end and I couldn’t let that happen. I left Club Soda where I’d seen too many bands while drinking too many rum & cokes and too often flipping my sweat-drenched hair away from my face on the dance floor. I left my family, who did sweet things like break into my apartment to leave me a fully-decorated Christmas tree, a microwave hidden in the coat closet, green plants to help get me through the depression of winter. I left the offer of a promotion at one of my two jobs because I didn’t trust myself to live up to the assurances that I was destined for greater things.
I left it all and didn’t realize I would carry most of it with me after I was gone. I was so wrapped up in the bittersweet act of leaving that I believed everything would fall away behind me like clumps of mud drying from my boots.
Each time I flipped a new page of my free AAA TripTik map my anticipation ratcheted up a notch. Highway 80 took me through familiar Illinois into corn-filled Iowa, where I stopped to sit on a curb and eat the sushi roll handmade by my father. A woman with a frosty perm stopped while walking by to ask what I was eating. “It’s a handroll,” I told her. “Sushi.” She blinked at me then said “my dear, I thought you were a boy!” Then she looked from me, to my car, and back. “You’re not traveling alone honey, are you?” I told her I was, and smiled. She was not pleased with my answer and clucked as she walked away.
From there: Nebraska – dull, dull, flat Nebraska, then Wyoming, where I thrilled at the 80mph speed limit which meant I could actually go 90. Past the salt flats and around the Great Salt Lake of northern Utah, into the Sierra Nevadas which took me from Nevada into, finally, California. God must have made this wondrous place as a glorious reward for surviving such a boring journey.
I’d driven thirteen hours the first day and sixteen the next, the final three of those because each time I saw billboards and a cluster of lights ahead I told myself you can go a little further…just to the next town. When I truly knew I couldn’t go any further, there was nowhere to stop, and so I’d kept going. I wasn’t drinking coffee and was pushing forward using nervous anticipation alone.
When I did stop, for gas or to upgrade my backseat parking lot naps for a cheap motel room, I received more looks of concern and unsolicited warnings from strangers, all women. “Young girls such as yourself shouldn’t be traveling alone,” was the common theme. Such as myself? I wanted to ask them what made me a target in their fearful imaginations. The baggy khaki pants and baggier Nirvana concert T-shirt? Was the destination-desperation in my veins emitting an odor of vulnerability? Sometimes I would tell them I wasn’t alone, that my boyfriend was just in the bathroom. Sometimes I would just smile, say thank you, and get back into my car.
The last of the food I’d packed for my trip was taken away from me at the agricultural checkpoint at the Nevada-California border. It was a partially-eaten carton of sun warmed Michigan blueberries and when I handed them over they were replaced with an unexpected sadness… “not the blueberries! Really?” I was sent away with a ‘Sorry, ma’am’ and a shrug. At least they didn’t think I was a boy.
When I dipped down into my new home state, all lush greens and massive boulders and rushing rivers, Under the Table and Dreaming by Dave Matthews Band was in the tape deck, the windows were down, and the energy I’d lost only moments before came back in a giddy rush. Five hours later – after hills and valleys, bridges and tunnels, grapes, artichokes and garlic – as September 17th was lazily beginning to wane, I stopped, breathless, the Monterey Bay sparkling in front of me like an animated postcard.
My heart was, finally, in full swoon.