When I moved to California in 2016, I spent a lot more time in the car than I expected. For one thing, everyone in California spends more time in the car sitting in the never-ending parking lot of the 405. On the other hand, not everyone was dating my ice-skating Marine boyfriend (aka my now-husband, DJ) who lived 2.5 hours outside of LA in 29 Palms (not including traffic). I drove that stretch to the desert more times than I can count. I would listen to music or call a friend, but the reception always went bad halfway through. So it was me, the open road, and the fuzzy radio. The sun was always bright, the landscape never hid the horizon line, the green hills rolled into terracotta-colored sandhills and the open road led the way.
My move to LA was one of the craziest plans I’d had yet. I was 21, and I wanted an adventure. I bought a cheap ticket that took me to the Palm Springs airport; from there one of my then-boyfriend-now-husband’s friends picked me up in his truck and drove me to the Marine base to the bright red Chevy Tracker that would become my trusted adventure vehicle, and the car that would take me to my new start in LA (note that DJ was on the opposite coast doing some Marine training). After a 6-hour plane ride and an hour truck ride, I was beginning the final stretch of my journey, which would become a 4-hour drive from the desert into the city.
After months of wearing the Chevy tracker tires thin from all the driving back and forth, we finally got married, which meant we could finally take trips together. My brother lived in Vegas only a few hours away from where we were, and we drove out to visit him several times. The funny thing is the road to Vegas from that small Marine base town was exactly that, the only road to get there. The road was windy and straight: it took you straight into the back hills of the desert, winded through a few valleys, and spit you out in the middle of nowhere until finally from a distance you could see the glittering of lights. We made this drive several times in the dark, and that was always the most magical. The stars were so bright, and we were the only car driving for miles. Just picture it, a black desert night, filled with the brightest stars, one set of headlights only revealing a few feet ahead, desert on both sides and all around, and my best friend and I feeling like the only two people in the whole world.
Those trips were the beginning of our road trip adventures. We would have long deep conversations about life, family, love, hurt, politics, and always talking about our dreams. We dreamed together, we laughed together, we cried together. The road opened before us like a white page and the Tracker was our pen writing our story with each mile we left behind us.
The car was a safe space for us. The house made us cagey, gave us cabin-fever, but the road let us breathe in deep, slow down and thread our thoughts into words, letting our minds unwind and rewind. We’ve had our fair share of fights in the car too, but those fights were never trivial. They were loud, yes, and passionate, but when we got back to the same page again, it felt like a win instead of a speedbump holding us back.
Those desert car rides were our favorite, and we haven’t been able to do one since the Spring of 2019, before COVID, before we moved back to Glen Burnie and before the brightest light came into our lives, our daughter Lily. We had no idea our last big trip would be our last. And we mourned the loss of travel and visiting friends and seeing new sights when the lockdown hit.
As a creative my journeys on the road shape me and my art. I’ve thought of poems, stories, and paintings on those trips. Some of my best ideas have come from the open road. Without the possibility of an adventure and in its place the deep heavy dread of a pandemic, my art, and my mental health suffered. My joy felt drained, and my imagination withered. I was like a house plant, shriveled from too much time in the sun.
DJ is my travel companion. Before we said our vows to each other, and after he proposed to me, I repeated to him the words Ruth had said to Naomi, “Where you go I will go,” and those words have led our marriage and guided us to all the places we have called home so far. DJ saw me struggling first hand, and he saw an opportunity to jump back into the road. His mom had called and insisted we visit, then we FINALLY got license plates on our car that we bought in October (shhhh this is a secret to all the road cops we passed the last few months), and his new job started in a few weeks. The perfect recipe for a road trip. He proposed the idea on Friday, we confirmed with his mom on Saturday, planned out Airbnbs and packed on Sunday, then hit the road Monday, with no time to wonder if we were crazy, or if we were being “safe” enough with Covid, or if we packed enough, or if this was even a good idea right now.
That impromptu trip breathed fresh life into my withered little creative lungs. I felt alive again. We listened to Matthew McCaunoughney’s new book Green Lights on audible, and let his voice and stories guide our little road trip down south to Florida. It was a homecoming for DJ, as a homegrown Florida boy, and a homecoming for me to the open road. Our trusty Tracker had lived its last journey a year ago, and we christened our new car with its first Wayne Road Trip Adventure, and christened Lily into the Wayne family road trip lifestyle, to which she was surprisingly well-suited for a 9-month old baby.
Our trip took us to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to a little farm of tiny houses where we got to stay for one night; then we left there Tuesday morning waved goodbye to the chickens and roosters clucking around in the morning mist, and headed for Jacksonville, Florida. We stayed with an old high school friend of mine and got to talk about life, babies, parenthood, and of course, the enneagram. We visited DJ’s grandpa, who finally got to meet his granddaughter Lily and then went to his mom’s house. We hung out with his mom and stepdad, his grandma and aunt, and then we all went to the beach. We left a few days later on Sunday morning had breakfast with his sister and brother-in-law and set off for Raleigh, North Carolina. We woke up to a quiet city street, waved goodbye as Sesame Street music played from Lily’s car seat, then headed for Richmond, Virginia to see his Aunt Sharon. We got to tour her historic row house and see all the cool projects she has going on, from re-doing her basement into a studio apartment, to her carriage house and kitchen. And finally, we had a two-hour stretch home which led me to picking up Where the Crawdads Sing and getting lost in a novel for the first time in 18 months. I finally felt like I could breathe again, and that breath gave me the hunger to read.
The open road offers an invitation to anyone who will take it; we’ve had our fair share of dances with her, but the beauty is you can dance as many dances as you want, but never the same dance twice. The road will be the same, but you will be different. This time older, this time stronger, this time wiser, and each time more you than you’ve ever been.