Road Warrior or the True Story of How I Finally Left My Hometown (Memoir)
What happened was this: I packed every last inch of my earthly belongings into a U-Haul, which my now-fiancee and then-boyfriend was to drive halfway down the east coast. I was going to follow behind in my own car, with two appropriately sedated cats, all the way from Somewhere, New York, down to Nowhere, North Carolina.
I was going to start a new life in a place I’d only seen from a handful of pictures taken on a cell-phone, with a man that I’d only begun referring to as my boyfriend early that summer. We set out at ten a.m. on October 31st. It was supposed to be a twelve-hour trip, but we didn’t get there until six a.m. on November 1st.
So what happened between that 10am and 6am the following morning? Usually the story goes something like this: poorly-packed U-Haul, howling cats, fatigue, nap, torrential downpour, delirium, arrival, amazement, contentment, a long nap. Sometimes it is a twenty-four hour trip, sometimes eighteen, for some reason never the twenty it actually took.
Sometimes I add in the tidbit that because we were, in fact, moving on Halloween day, both of us decided to travel in costumes. He dressed as Hercules, I was a pilot. Sometimes the torrential downpour is a bad storm, sometimes a monsoon. Sometimes there is thunder. Sometimes I am a proud road warrior, sometimes it is a near-death experience.
But what really happened, the part of the story that makes an appearance only in brief tidbits of supporting information every fifth time it’s told, is as follows. We left Somewhere at 10am, Halloween morning. Apropos to the date, the air was ominous. A warm wind gusted already browning and decayed leaves off the trees. The sun shone in brief snippets while roiling black clouds swarmed overhead.
I played Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” as I carefully followed the U-Haul (which was actually a yellow Penske truck because they gave a triple A discount) onto the highway, while one cat who was apparently tranquilizer-resistant mewled along in protest. City limits, La Fayette, the reservation, cheap cigarettes. Nedrow, McDonald’s, Citgo, Cortland. Suburb, farm, highway, howling.
Somewhere between Whitney Point, New York, and Gibson, Pennsylvania, the U-Haul in front of me, which had been bouncing and rattling from side to side in a somewhat unsettling manner, hit a bump or a rivet or something crossing over a small bridge. The cabin portion swayed from side to side, I actually saw the wheels on the right side lift up, then the left, but the truck righted itself and kept going.
We both pulled over and had a brief conference outside a Flying J, resolved to drive no faster than fifty-five, and bought some sort of foul-smelling concoction that came in a can and promised unlimited reserves of energy and focus. With visions of coffee tables and bookshelves stacked up outside a truck-stop dumpster on the side of Interstate 81, I offered to abandon half the furniture in the truck, and received a stubborn no in response. We’d get there, it just might take a little longer.
Around Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania my hands began to relax on the wheel. I remembered how nice a good deep breath felt, and the little cat seemed to calm down, only blurting out a protesting mew every five minutes or so. We bumped along. Hazleton, Pottsville, Colonial Park, a twix bar and bag of pretzels.
I was leaving, really leaving. No more unemployment. No more astronomical winter heating bills. Harrisburg, Martinsburg, the Endless Mountains. The sun was getting lower, how was that? We stopped for dinner in Winchester, Virginia, burgers and cokes, re-drugged both cats. I bought yet another energy drink. It got dark.
This is the part that usually gets left out, the part where things started to get really weird. It started with a sick feeling, not just in my stomach, the back of my throat, but my skin, my hair, my neck and shoulders. My arms felt jerky, and a damp sweat crept over my body. My costume, which was little more than a cheap nylon dress over leggings, clung to my stomach, damp and itching.
The road was newly paved, smooth and inky, with the lines an impossible white. It snaked out in front of me, void of shadow or definition. The concrete pavement was a two-dimensional pool of jet that I was hurtling into at 55 miles an hour. The lines began to blur, they seemed to rise off the road, coming at me rather than pointing the direction to somewhere. I slowed down, down, down, but the road was relentless. I could barely see the truck in front of me, I’d lost all depth-perception, my arms ached, every turn felt as if I were jerking the car into some unknown maze of light and blackness.
Finally we pulled over in Roanoke, Virginia, our pre-arranged stopping point. It was ten o’clock at night. My teeth were chattering even though my jaw was completely clenched together. We’d been driving almost non-stop for twelve hours. We were supposed to be in Nowhere by then. I was starting to wonder whether or not the place actually existed.
“Should we get a hotel,” my then-boyfriend asked, concern wrinkling his forehead. I refused. We would have to drive to a hotel, and I wasn’t driving anywhere at that point. We climbed into my car together, leaned the front seats back, and drifted off to the gentle pattering of rain on the metal roof. I dreamed, the car became a boat, the boat gently drifting into a quiet lagoon. The lagoon became a sea, and we rocked on giant waves while the world filled with water.
When we woke up, three hours later, the rain was pelting down, furious at something. It was the kind of rain that comes in too hard to sustain itself for long, a brief, angry shower and then calm. I felt refreshed, washed clean. We’d keep driving, I decided. We were only two hours away, and the rain would be sure to let up.
It didn’t. Again, then boyfriend pulled over in concern. Thirty miles an hour is better than zero miles an hour, I told him. I just want to get there. And the rain will have to let up some, at some point. We rolled and bumped and skidded our way through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, the back roads of North Carolina while raindrops the size of grapes splatted in front of my eyes. At some points the roads were flooded.
My depth-perception had returned, but it didn’t much matter because I could barely see more than 20 feet in front of me. I just stared at the back of the yellow truck, until the motions became automatic. Turn, slow, left, right. Brake, gas, swish, clunk. The big cat managed to unhook the catch of the carrier, and climbed in front, onto my lap. I let him sit there, let the dark haze of rain wash around the car, following only the two red lights in front of me as they wound up and around, down, splash, skid, up again.
At this point it wasn’t my eyes or my body that was protesting, it was my mind. My internal monologue became louder, more and more persistent, but with less and less to say. I couldn’t seem to find anything left to think about but the trip. The world had receded. There was nothing left in existence but my car, twenty feet of road, two red lights.
I rewound the tape, started from the beginning, yesterday, and those ominous clouds. The yowling. The eventual cessation of yowling, in which the pauses in between grew from a half a second to minutes, to hours. The strange road-hallucinations. The greasy burger I ate for dinner that seemed to have left a patina of film all over the inside of the car. The flood in my dream. The flood outside the car. What I could only describe as a monsoon. Squatting to pee outside a deserted gas station in a sopping marsh while the rain poured down on my bare behind because I was too embarrassed to take then-boyfriend up on his offer of holding a jacket over my head. Telling myself the story.
After ten or more versions, I was no longer sure what had actually happened. I kept forgetting the details, and I was losing track of whether or not I was telling the story of the trip or telling the story of telling the story of the trip. It started to get light out, Sunday morning drivers angrily splashed past our little crawling caravan.
But in the end, at six o clock in the morning, we crossed a bridge over the Haw River, and arrived. We carried in the bed, food and a litter box for the cats, and a few blankets. In the light, I realized that the ink on my pilot dress had bled onto my skin, and my arms and stomach were covered in what looked like a strange black fungus.
In another version of the story, future-fiancee and I would have cracked a bottle of champagne carefully packed in a picnic cooler and toasted to our new life before falling asleep in each other’s arms. In this version, I promptly fell asleep in a fetal position on the carpeted landing, while petting the big cat and listening to the rain beat down on the tin roof.
Read on: How it all worked out in Nowhere...
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