Friday, March 9, 2012

On the Road Again

We’re abandoning the cash-only gas station in the rain, driving too far in the wrong direction only to turn around in some sad office park, then backtrack to where one of us thinks we may have seen the other gas station. It’s clearly, clearly to the left, but we have a nice discussion about which way to turn anyway, hearing each other, engaging the nuances, debating the pros and cons before finally turning left. I pump the gas and buy myself a roadside decaf in a styrofoam cup, loading it up with half a dozen hazelnut flavored Coffee-mate creamers as we find our way back to the main road.

If Mr. Black were here, he’d be gritting his no-nonsense teeth by now at all this inefficiency. But he and the other Best Husbands in Seattle are back home with the kids for the weekend while we moms hit the road.

It’s been a long time since I’ve traveled with anyone other than him. I’m happy to see that years of riding shotgun with him have honed my navigation skills, because there are many, many ways to go wrong on the Olympic Peninsula. All those zigzags through residential Aberdeen and Hoquiam; Route 101, the closest thing Washington state has to a beltway and just as misleading (if slightly more forgiving). It’s good to be sure of the way.

But it’s also good to bask in the luxury of fumbling a little; taking too long and making mistakes just because we can. For the first time in a long time, we’ve only got ourselves to take care of.

This is how I used to travel all the time. I’d yearned in my twenties for the Jack Kerouac of my dreams to spirit me away, but when the myth of Prince Road Trip in his shining white Studebaker failed me, the other damsels and I were ready to take matters into our own hands. Sometimes it was spontaneous day trips with my sisters during those long college summer breaks. Shopping adventures in slightly bigger cities. A quest for our old Girl Scout camp in the Poconos. Overnight trips to visit each other at our various college campuses.

There were longer trips, too, through Colorado and New Mexico with my grad school roommate; through New Mexico with my mom during a brief but ill-advised job search. There was a meandering jaunt through the south with a friend I’d just met through mutual failed relationships, and we drifted to spots like Shenandoah National Park, Athens, GA, and Charleston, SC more or less by accident.

It wasn’t quite Thelma and Louise, or even Boys on the Side. There were no sexy hitchhikers or new best friends to be found on our meandering roads, although there was no shortage of Twin Peaksian characters along the way. Mostly it was following misleading signs to non-existent rest stops; subsisting on Waffle House hash browns and gas station candy; listening to our favorite mix tapes again and again; laughing and Simpsons-referencing our way through all manner of mundane absurdities. It was wandering deserted streets in towns that had sounded much more exciting on the map two hours ago; fashioning a knife out of a watermelon Jolly Rancher to make peanut butter sandwiches in the motel room; accidentally smacking each other in the head in failed high-five attempts.

We made mistakes and took wrong turns. We watched bad TV and drank wine coolers in cheap motel rooms. Mostly, we just talked. A lot. There were stories to tell, futures to plan, old boyfriends to get over. We could have had the same conversations at home, sprawled across each other’s dorm room beds. But there was something about the journey – about being in motion – that kicked everything loose for us. Really, we were just biding our time until the next semester or the next big thing. But all those roads and motion gave a sense of escape…or of moving toward something amazing. It put into practice what we were already feeling on the inside – uncertainty, hope, seeking poetry and adventure amid the mundane.

We rarely had a plan, which absolutely confounds Mr. Black when I tell him about it now. Over and over again, we made the sort of mistakes that could easily have been avoided with a little foresight. But that was kind of the point. It wasn’t about the destination. It was about the process. We needed to wander and fumble and mess up. We needed to learn how to do it ourselves. No dads, no boyfriends, no Kerouacs. Just us girls, tasting our independence and finding our way.

There’s barely a hint of that old spirit now, on the road again with the other moms. We’re older now. We know what we’re doing. We’re happily rooted to our families back home, and we know more or less what the future holds.

Still, how wonderful to arrive in a rain-swept beach town in the middle of winter, sit down at a restaurant at 3:30 in the afternoon, and order clam chowder and margaritas. How liberating to have no plan but to wander; to finally have the uninterrupted time and space to let real conversations unfold. How satisfying to resolve problems at our own pace instead of handing it over to a husband before the children melt down. How amazing to stroll down a beach so rainy you can’t tell where the sand ends and the ocean begins. Drifting again, sandy and soaked, impractical and free. Ourselves at the center.

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