All About the Journey

When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.
–Audre Lorde

A journey of 2408 miles begins with the first mile. In the summer of 2007, I completed such a journey, arriving in Seattle six days after departing from my starting point in Hoboken, New Jersey. I had planned this trip for weeks and on the day of my departure, my Mazda MPV loaded to the max with personal belongings, I wondered if perhaps I was crazy to do this trip. Why? Because I had decided to do it alone.

Alone? Really? Wow! People’s reactions were pretty consistent. Many were in shock; others were in awe of my willingness to undertake such a thing. A couple of people even called me their hero — something that I didn’t fully understand then, but certainly do now.

What started as the least expensive way to get my car to Seattle, where I planned to relocate, ended up becoming something of a spiritual pilgrimage. A journey in which I’d leave behind the familiarity of the past, enter the unknown, and draw upon some of the strongest spiritual resources I had.

There were a litany of what ifs running through my mind and the minds of everyone who knew about my trip. Some were kind enough to keep their fears to themselves. Others felt the need to voice them. They asked me where I planned to stay so that I would be sure to be safe. They questioned the visibility of the items I was bringing, fearing that surely my car would be broken into. They mentioned the remoteness of the area I’d be driving through. They warned me about large animals appearing in the road in the middle of the night. I was even given a tool to break open the car windows in the event I ended up submerged under water and couldn’t get out (I didn’t bring it).

Once my van was packed, there was a new fear piled onto of all the other fears: would it make it? The weight of my belongings was so heavy that my back end looked like it was sinking onto the back wheels. At one point, I actually panicked and was convinced that it would be un-drivable. I stood helplessly by as that fear wrapped itself neatly around visions of my tires blowing out and not being able to get to the jack without removing the bicycle rack on the back and emptying out all of my stuff, which I was sure would happen on an isolated stretch of highway, late into the night.

So shortly after I set out, surrounded by the backdrop of endless farms and billboards and accompanied by the hum of tires on hot asphalt, these fears would randomly float into my consciousness threatening to paralyze me with thoughts of how alone and vulnerable I was, how foolish I had been to make the trip alone and how I wished I’d at least had the sense to have more of my belongings shipped.

Along with many insights and blessings, I learned a hell of a lot about fear on this trip: how it operates to sabotage our movement forward, how it is derived entirely from the fright or flight place of the mind and is not at all based in reality, and most importantly, what to do with it when it does rear it’s ugly head on a dark, lonely stretch of road.

Looking back over the past few years, I realize that so many of the experiences I had and lessons learned were precisely what I needed to prepare me for a trip of this kind. This heavy investment in my spiritual bank account prior to my departure was absolutely essential, because the need to make withdrawals came up again and again. The growth and stretching that occurred internally, is why this trip ended up being far more than just an ordinary road trip.

My pilgrimage across the country began with the quiet hope that all would go according to plan, that there would be no surprises or unexpected turn of events, bad weather, car problems, accidents, or negative encounters with human beings. I knew I was asking a lot considering it would be a solo cross country trip done in a six year old car weighed down by hundreds of pounds of belongings. But deep inside my being, I trusted the universe to take care of me. And thankfully, it did–it took care of me, and much, much more. Spiritually, it gave me the ride of my life.

*******

The first indication that this was not going to be an “ordinary” trip was on the first day when there seemed to be a prevalence of messages talking about God. The first was on the back of a tractor-trailer truck, and it read, “Do it God’s Way”. Instead of just some random message, it felt as though I was getting a directive or instructions for my trip. I thought okay, probably good advice. Then, later on that same day, this time on the front of a pick-up truck (don’t know why these messages seemed to frequently appear on trucks), it said, “Smile, God Loves You.” Okay, I thought, maybe that means I really am going to be okay.

Several hours into the drive, I got tired of listening to the CDs I brought, so I thought I’d try the radio. Many of us have had the experience on road trips when trying the radio, there is usually at least one Christian station broadcasting out heavy messages about salvation and redemption in the middle of nowhere. Well, when I turned on the radio, I landed smack dab in the middle of a program called, The Faith Connection, in which the minister was talking about something he called temporal faith and accusing his listeners’ need for miracles as doubt seeking evidence. He was practically shouting, “Don’t try to figure God out! Trust! Stop trying to be God!”

Trust. This one word really became the theme of my trip. I had put myself in a situation that absolutely required that I not only trust in myself, but also trust in something greater than myself. This would be tested again and again, the further west I went.

I think it was somewhere south of Toledo, when I stopped for my first night, that I realized on one level, I was truly homeless and the trip was requiring that I be totally present and in the moment at all times–my safety and well being depended on it. I didn’t know what was around the corner; I didn’t know what would happen in the next five minutes. Of course no one does, it’s just that when we’re anchored by our daily routines, it appears as if we do know. I couldn’t afford that type of thinking. I had to be very conscious of my surroundings at all times; I had to focus on what I was doing; I was, after all, spending 8 – 10 hours a day behind the wheel of a vehicle averaging 70 miles per hour.

As I became aware of this, my intuition became my best friend and ally, and from the beginning of the trip to the end, it never let me down.

*******

The second day into my trip was when the real test of my stamina and trust began. I woke up in terrible pain…the aftermath of days of packing and lifting boxes. My whole body ached and felt beaten up. Many doses of Advil throughout the day didn’t even touch it. It was something I simply had to live with. On top of that, my car was so jam-packed with stuff, the driver’s seat was stuck for the duration of the trip in an upright position, causing my neck to spasm every hundred miles. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t adjust it even a little. Instead, I got creative and removed the headrest, propping a series of different items behind my neck…pillows, jackets, bags of clothes, until finally settling on a bath towel, which when wedged, seemed to give my neck some much-needed relief.

After all this configuring and adjusting and enduring the aches and pains, it was then that I came upon one of the worst stretches of my trip. Foolishly, not planning an alternative route, I ended up crawling through over two hours of bumper to bumper construction traffic on the stretch of I-90 that curls around and through Chicago. If I was feeling tense prior to this, during and afterwards, I hit a wall of exhaustion that threatened to ground my trip to a halt. An explosion of mental, physical, and emotional pain hit me all at once as I got on the other side of Chicago through stop and go purgatory. It was right then and there that I questioned my decision to travel alone, without a navigator by my side to direct me away from this kind of suffering.

The metaphor was not at all lost on me.

Yes, solitude and quiet and aloneness can be good. But there are times when simply having someone help you get through a tough spot can be good also. And this was one of those times.

For the first time since leaving Hoboken, I admitted the obvious: I was handicapped by being alone. And because I was alone, there was:

no one to drive;
no one to navigate;
no one to massage my shoulders or feet;
no one to share meals with.

There was nothing to be done about that, but accept it. The only thing that got me through this existential crisis were a couple of CDs of a lecture given by life coach Cheryl Roberts, given to me by my younger sister. Robert’s inspirational words carried me past belching trucks, endless cops with lights flashing, angry drivers, and erratic dips and bumps and turns in the road. She reminded me that in our darkness there are gifts; and that instead of changing the parts of ourselves we don’t like or that we hide from others, we are better off facing them and seeing how they serve us and what gifts they carry with them. Loving our shadows, and embracing them and integrating them into who we are allows for tremendous healing and acceptance of ourselves. Our pain and challenges carry gifts with them.

On that lonely, painful day of driving, I began to get a glimpse of the possibility that my feelings of loss were quickly translating into gifts of strength. I recognized that just because I was in transit, it did not mean that I was running away or escaping the parts of myself I didn’t like. Instead, I had so stripped down my life to such a bare minimum, those shadows were beginning to emerge transformed. I was embracing myself along with the changes I had initiated.

The past was unraveling behind me; the future was unfurling in front of me: one known, the other a mystery. The whole damn thing stretching my capacity to the max! To think I wasn’t even halfway there yet!

*******

As I entered deep into the big western states of Wyoming and Montana, nature began to have a much larger presence. The prairies and farmlands of the Midwest disappeared, replaced by the unabashed grandiosity of the sky and the mountains. I could almost feel the testosterone in the air. It all felt so male and proud. The scenery seemed to be showing off, the way a male peacock struts around fanning its feathers.

It was around this time, that nature began to communicate with me–at least that’s the way I chose to see it. In the late afternoon one day I decided to pull off the highway in the little town of Sundance, Wyoming to buy gas and stretch my legs. After fueling up and buying something to drink, I headed through town to pick up the highway again. After a driving a couple of blocks, the sky suddenly filled with Dandelion puffs. Not hundreds mind you, or even thousands; there must have been millions of them as if they all decided to release them at once in unison. I’d never seen anything like it.

While this would be considered an extraordinary phenomenon by almost anyone who witnessed it, it meant something a little more to me. You see, it was only weeks before when my son decided to replace the photo on the home page of my website, something he did on a semi-regular basis. The photo he had chosen was of a Dandelion puff.

So I’d gone from messages on trucks to this. It made me smile. Suddenly, I didn’t feel quite so alone.

It’s a good thing, because I didn’t realize that some of the more challenging parts of the trip were right around the corner in Montana.

Before I got to that, I popped in another inspirational CD my sister gave me. This one was by Iyanla Vanzant. As I weaved my way through the mountains of Wyoming, she spoke to me. She told me that we don’t get what we ask for, we get what we expect, and therefore, we should expect the good. “God always says yes,” she continued. “If you say I am broke, God says yes.” Wow, I thought, that makes sense. “Stop affirming your afflictions!” she shouted, taking up all the empty space in my car. “Affirm the best and God will say yes.”

Ironically, shortly after that, I almost ran out of gas.

*******

When I left Wyoming, my gas tank was half full (or should I say half empty?). Having been a city dweller for the past five years, the foolishness of this decision didn’t occur to me. I naively assumed based on my experience so far, that there would be plenty of places to get gas. But that was before I had driven in Montana. They don’t call it Big Sky Country for nothing; the operative word here being “big”.

Everything about Montana is big: big sky, big mountains, big ranches and BIG spaces between exits. In the very eastern part of the state along I-90, the exits all seem to say the same thing: “No Services”. Wow, I thought as my gas tank quickly drained due to the winding hilly roads and the heavy load, this is not good, not good at all.

My heart started to pound as I imagined myself stranded in the middle of nowhere relying on the kindness of strangers (hopefully they’d be kind) to drive however far it was to get me five gallons of gas and even then would it be enough? Would I have to call AAA? Would they even come out here? What if I didn’t have cell phone service?

For the first time since I started my trip, I started to panic and realized that it would be my own stupidity that brought on this crisis. I felt as though I’d landed in a David Lynch film and that any minute my trip was going to take a bizarre, unexpected turn.

I gripped the steering wheel, my mind racing. Around the next bend I saw an exit, and along with it was a sign for gas. Thank God, I thought, it’s going to be okay. By this point my low fuel light was on. I had very little time before I’d run out of gas.

As I pulled off the exit, I had to drive under the highway and down a rough road for while before I came to a small, run-down service station on my right. It looked completely deserted except for a couple sitting in front of a trailer advertising fireworks for sale. As I pulled up in front of the pump, I saw a closed sign, and next to it another hand written sign that said they closed at 5 pm on Sundays. Well, it happened to be Sunday and it was quite a bit later than 5 o’clock.

I got out of my car and walked over to the couple selling fireworks. In spite of the lateness of the day, the sun was blazing.

“I’m kind of in trouble. Just about to run out of gas. Do you know where I can get some?”

“Yeah,” answered the woman, pointing to a road that ran next to the station. “Just head up that road about 16 miles. There’s a gas station that’s open there.”

The guy chimed in, “If you drive that way instead of the highway, it’s all flat and straight and that’ll save you gas.”

“Thanks,” I said, getting back in my car thinking again about David Lynch (who happened to be born in Montana). Sixteen miles? I wasn’t even sure I’d make it that far. But what choice did I have, except to spend the night in my car and wait for this gas station to open. So I took my chances and headed down that long flat road.

I had never felt so alone and afraid and foolish. I started yanking every spiritual tool I had out of my toolbox. I used affirmations, prayers, visualizations, etc., all the while sweating like mad, because I turned my air conditioner off to save gas. Every time I passed a ranch I imagined putting myself at the mercy of the rancher to give me gas. I assumed that with all the tractors and trucks and machinery, these big sky ranchers had plenty of gas lying around or perhaps even their own pumps.

Well, whatever ego/pride shit I had dragged across the country with me got squashed and then reamed out of me in Montana. The humility and gratitude I felt when I finally pulled into that far away gas station was akin to mystical rapture. I was in such an altered state, I almost kissed the ground. Everything suddenly seemed incredibly beautiful and I felt ecstatically happy. It was the relief that comes from getting another chance, a reprieve after a major screw-up. It was as though I’d been hit really hard in my heart chakra and my third eye at the same time. Just plain jolted out of my complacency. Colors got brighter. Sounds got louder. I was awake at a new level. Sharp and real and fully present.

Later on I thanked Montana for being my Zen master, my guru, my shaman. But not until after I’d gotten a few hundred more miles under my belt. Montana is a big state and she had a few other lessons up her sleeve before she was done with me.

*******

Montana was a purging experience for me. The complacency of the first two-thirds of the trip ended abruptly as I approached Billings and was broadsided by a sudden wave of intense grief. I had held myself together for almost four days, but almost running out of gas must have popped the cork on my feelings. They came on like a flash flood, quick and fast and deep; I surrendered and finally let myself feel the loss, the vast, open, empty space surrounding me, a metaphor. My soul emptied out so that I could feel the pain, the loss, and the separation.

It lasted close to an hour, hitting me in waves as I drove. I questioned the wisdom of continuing to drive, thinking perhaps I should pull over. But being behind the wheel was grounding for me. I think I was actually afraid that if I stopped, I might not be willing or able to get back in the car again (that’s the hard part about this kind of grief–it feels as though you’ve sunk into an endless deep pit of quick-sand never again to emerge).

So I plodded on, letting the waterworks flow unhindered, tissues wadded up in my right hand, dabbing my eyes so I could see and blowing my nose so I could breath. Finally, the shuddering and heaving slowed, and bit by bit, my breathing returned to normal.

It was getting late; I was exhausted and ready to find a place to stay. Life had other ideas. After stopping at a half dozen acceptable-looking places with no vacancy, I got back on the road, my stomach growling (it had been hours since I had last eaten) as the sky darkened.

Before I started on this trip, I had imagined the issue of not being able to find a place to stay might come up. Up until now, I’d always had plenty of choices. Not in Montana, I heard myself say out loud. I could almost hear Montana answer me back, “Sorry, honey, it’s not time to rest just yet. “

I wanted to shout back, “Wasn’t almost running out of gas and sobbing my guts out enough? Don’t I deserve a rest?”

No reply. Just silence. I could feel the fear rising up again as I continued driving with no clue what my options might be on the road ahead. Perhaps I’d have to drive all night, something I’d done before in my life, but not alone.

Images of what could happen began to play across my mind’s eye. I could break down. I could run out of gas. I could be ambushed by a psychopath. I pushed them away, started some deep breathing and turned on the radio. I found an oldies station; songs of infidelity and heartbreak and some rockabilly accompanied my late night drive through the Rockies.

Out my right window, I noticed some strange lights in the sky. Inside of a large bank of billowy clouds there was a violent lightening storm happening. The clouds looked almost black against the brilliant bolts of white and orange fireworks exploding within them. It was quite stunning to behold. I felt a kindred spirit with those clouds as they mirrored my own internal storms.

At around 11:30 pm., I saw a sign for a town called Big Timber. There was a sign that said lodging. I was hopeful as I pulled into the Super 8 parking lot, and relieved when the woman behind the desk smiled and said she had a room. I told her of my difficulty finding a room, and she said that it had been like that for weeks. Some work on an oil refinery nearby or something like that.

I slept like a baby and the next morning, once I got a look at Big Timber in the daylight I decided to take my time and wander around. I ordered my first real latte in days and browsed for a couple of gifts in some shops. Then spying a real mechanic at the end of the block, brought my car in to have them go over it to make sure it was road worthy. A couple of sweet guys gave me a quart of oil, checked the air in my tires, and refilled my windshield washer fluid. I handed them a nice tip, which they gratefully accepted.

I knew then, at the start of my fifth day, that I had passed the test of driving through Montana; the rest of my trip through the state passed uneventfully. All that was left was a tiny part of northern Idaho and crossing the state of Washington. Then I’d be home free…

*******

The final miles of my trip ended with a bang. Not to be outdone by Montana, Idaho had a little gift waiting for me in Coeur D’Alene. When I pulled off the exit, the memories of a trip taken over twenty five years ago came flooding back. It was cross-country trip taken with D--my boyfriend at the time and now my ex-husband--to celebrate my newfound freedom after a year devoted to settling my father’s estate.

The two of us had arrived in Coeur D’Alene after dark and pulled the Chevy Luv truck we were driving into the parking lot of a large hotel. Rather than checking in, we climbed into the back of the truck and slept in the makeshift bed we’d rigged back there. Roughing it came easily back then. We were in love and needed very little except each other to keep us comfortable. Finding places to park the truck were part of the adventure. There was barely enough room for the two of us in the small covered truck bed, but I didn't mind; to me it felt romantic.

What I remember most about that long ago trip was the sight that greeted us the following morning when we emerged from inside the truck. As we rubbed the sleep from our eyes, we looked around us at one of the most beautiful places either of us had ever seen. We had no idea we were near water when we’d pulled up. Now in the light of day, the lake aglow with sunlight and surrounded by a bank of evergreens, we soaked it in without speaking. The surprise of it added to the magical quality of that morning. I remember feeling incredibly blessed with love and freedom and opportunity. Losing my father the year before had carved a hole in my heart, and now this place seemed to be offering me a healing balm.

Over two decades later, this is what I recalled when I drove down the main street to the water’s edge. My life, what it looked like then and how it looked now collided and ultimately completed a kind of circle. I came to this place both pre- and post marriage, each a time of new beginnings--bookends around that twenty-four year period defined (and confined) by vows and commitment.

Now alone, I let the tears come, in honor of who I was and who I was becoming. I let myself feel sadness for the lost innocence and love. My life had come full circle and here I was on a journey to the new and unknown.

Afterwards, I found an adorable little motel with a large cozy room decorated like a mountain cabin. On the main drag, I stopped in a wine bar and ordered some local wine and a cheese plate with three different cheeses, fresh bread, figs and dates, and a generous helping of hummus. It seemed a perfectly light and fitting meal for my last night on the road.

The next morning, I said goodbye and thank you to Idaho and before long, entered the state of Washington. As I drove, I was struck by the barren flatness of eastern Washington, the landscape, not at all what I expected, but as I soon discovered, set me up to be nicely awed by the last leg of my trip. Halfway across the state, the terrain shifted dramatically and the mountains simply appeared out of nowhere. One minute they weren’t there and the next, they were, popping out as I rounded a long curve in the road.

It was soon clear that I’d managed to save the best part of the trip for last. Nothing so far compared with the beauty of the Cascades. A bit of ironic perfection, I thought, to realize after traveling over 2500 miles, that my destination was in fact the only place I wanted to be.

This took some time to sink in.

As I counted down the last miles, the gorgeous scenery, my constant companion now, I thought about what it took to get here -- the love of my friends, my courage and my unwavering trust in the universe to take care of me.

Finally my time on I-90 ended and I came face to face with the Seattle skyline. There it was at last…my new home, beaming and proud in the sunlight. I’d made it….me and my stuff and my car…all in one piece.

This journey had ended, and the real one would be begin, but this time, I had no idea what the destination would ultimately be.

I turned north onto I-5, in no hurry to find out.