The Open Road: Decades Apart

The only tools we had were a credit card, a folding map and a key. An old school key, the kind you stick in the ignition. The kind that’s hard to find anymore.

I’m sure we each had suitcases shoved in the tiny trunk, and I know we had a discman and a floppy folder full of our favorite CDs.

The ones we knew every word to.

But those details are foggier after 20 years. What we packed is insignificant. What we sang was, too, although I would bet the house it was a mix of The Barenaked Ladies, Keith Sweat, Matchbox 20 and Notorious B.I.G.

Somehow, at 19, our parents trusted us with this. A road trip, across the country, with nothing but a credit card, a folding map and a key.

And a year later, they’d trust me again, when I decided that living through another Michigan winter was not in the cards for me.

I don’t think we even had a camera for that first monumental trip, the one that truly cemented our independence. Not sure I’d be as cool with the same trip today if my own daughter and her best friend were doing it.

I so wish we had a camera.

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The only photo of that trip. When we arrived, alive.

Nails. Our parents were just nails, I guess. I just actually spent a solid 15 minutes debating with myself if my own kids should be able to ride their bikes to Dairy Queen – alone – not more than a mile or two away. On back roads. In good weather.

They went. And it was fine. But there was no way for our parents to know that a trip from Grand Rapids to Phoenix would be “fine.” Especially when one of the girls on the trip was me, a girl who can’t find her way out of a neighborhood after driving into it.

It’s just, the turns. The turns screw up my navigation. That’s all.

And then there was us, all 19 years of us, having no idea what was in front of us. Like, immediately and literally…and down the road…in life.

We had a credit card for hotels and gas and food, and I honestly can’t remember what we bought with it, other than one overnight stay at an Embassy Suites in El Paso.

Because, apparently we were done, by that point, with the No Country For Old Men hotels we had bargain basement-ed along the way. We got gas when we needed it. We got food when we were hungry.

That was the extent of our expenses. And if you ask my parents, we probably should have visited a mechanic after driving on top of, and teetering on, a concrete parking barrier, but we thought it was fine.

(It was not fine: we tore a hole in something underneath that leaked).

We called our parents every night, from Missouri or Texas or Alabama, to let them know we were alive, even though sometimes it was a close call.

It’s bad, Kel.

That is all I had time to send to her, the friend who drove across the country with me years earlier, as the situation I was in deteriorated.

She would know, though, what I meant.

He had already chased me around the kitchen. Cornered me with a solid, aggressive shove of the kitchen table that was meant to let me, and my now-bruising leg, know exactly how serious he was. And he’d thrown a beer bottle my way as he pretended to be attacked during a call to our local police.

I wasn’t capable of measuring time that morning. Things moved at a surreal speed as I gathered a few things I needed that day and closed the car door behind me.

I had no idea where I was going as I backed out the driveway. I just knew I was going.

There was a small cord that hang from the tape deck in my tiny car, so that it looked like the tape deck swallowed something you might want to retrieve at some point. Like how a fish swallows a line.

The cord connected a tape to a discman, so we could hear the music the CD player was working on for us. It was the only way then to kick tunes from those discs, because we were comfortable but we weren’t rich.

We bought my car used. A cute little convertible, in Michigan, but one that had a nice retirement in Arizona, with my parents, in its golden years.

When we had that tape in the deck, it was difficult to hear anything over our own optimistic vocals and the actual performers on the CD. That, and the soft top on the car was noisy at high speeds, making conversations very cloudy inside.

So, we noticed the weather. A little. Like, we knew it was pouring rain. And getting dark during the day, as we drove through Alabama. But we didn’t know how bad it was exactly until we just plain couldn’t see.

I’m actually surprised we didn’t see a cow fly through the air in front of us. It was that bad.

When we thought about popping the tape out to hear the local radio station, all we got was static. And the fleeting bits of information about a tornado warning. Right where we were.

Holy shit. Like, we were in a car that was as heavy as a Labrador retriever. Maybe. Before a meal.

We could have been airborne at any moment. If I remember right, we just kept driving, finding our way out of the storm, escaping the looming danger we never saw coming.

I couldn’t use my phone. If I did, he would find me. And eventually, after sending me dozens of text messages filled with ridiculously empty apologies, he shut the phone off altogether.

So I had no way to tell Kelly I had gotten out. That the “bad” had gotten worse and I had driven away from it.

I also had no idea where to go. He couldn’t find me. I needed a game plan. And I needed wifi, in private, because I had some shit to figure out.

When I asked, this angel of a friend didn’t hesitate to meet me with a key to her house. I couldn’t map where I was going so we had to talk out our directions. And we had to be quick, because my phone was on borrowed time.

Not five minutes after letting myself into her empty house did I realize he had killed my phone. Off.

I tried email. Blocked. I tried Facebook. Blocked.

He had effectively shut me off from contacting anyone in all the ways I knew how. But I still had my friend’s landline. And I still had my car, which I knew could take me anywhere.

The road had been long and flat for a long time. Days. Getting through Texas had taken us parts of three days, which is hard to fathom.

And by now, we just wanted to be in Arizona. To put that car in park and lay out. Besides orchestrating a good hair day, laying out in the sun was one of our undying priorities.

Because, tan skin looked good. Sun was hard to come by in Michigan. And it was relaxing, allowing us to let go of “all the stress,” as if we had some tiny clue what real stress was.

We didn’t.

We grew up middle class. She with siblings. Me without. Our stress was getting good grades, holding down a part-time job, finishing our classwork on time and balancing our pretty healthy social schedules.

We had no clue what life held for us down the road.

The flashing lights, though, upped the ante a bit. I’m sure we said a few swear words. I’m sure we did, as soon as we noticed the lights were for us. I was likely sweating less than Kelly, because she had her hands on the wheel.

It was her shift. A long, flat, boring shift through nowhere New Mexico.

And she was going 110, apparently in a real hurry to cross the state line, which we wouldn’t do until the following day.

It wouldn’t be my first interaction with a police officer, but I wouldn’t know that then. I remember we drove away with a fresh ticket as a souvenir, but I don’t remember if the officer was nice or mean or sarcastic or wearing a hat. Nothing. I remember nothing about it.

Except the speed.

The car was tiny. And had zero horsepower. This had to have been the car’s actual life moment — it had to be smiling inside.

Saying yes to this road trip, one that would include a three-night sleepover at the Grand Canyon, was the quickest and easiest yes I had ever said. It was a no-brainer, even though I knew none of the details. It would be a life moment. I knew it.

I had never backpacked. I had never hiked that far. I had never seen waterfalls like that – ever. Which is exactly why I was able to type the y-e-s out so quickly when I was invited.

Even though I knew where I was going, on a map, I didn’t know where I was going. I just knew I needed to go. I didn’t know where this hike would take me — beyond the waterfalls — but my brain needed it.

Unlike the trip I’d taken years before, I had a cell phone on this trip. I had a camera. I didn’t have a credit card, because I’d use cash at the little hut that sells Navajo tacos. And I didn’t have a real key – the car only required one of those fobs.

I did, though, have the same sense of adventure. I hadn’t tasted it in years. A scary past, littered with too many exhausting, abusive days were behind me. And whatever the universe had in store for me was ahead of me.

The crunch of the rock under my feet was with me. The pain in my shoulders from carrying a pack that was overstuffed with everything I thought I’d need for three days. Me realizing I was doing something I wasn’t entirely sure I was ready for, physically or mentally. Deep thoughts, strung together and unfolding over 10 miles in a canyon, focused on what I wanted for me.

Someone who is captivated by me.

That’s what I came to. And held on to. And said out loud, as a whisper, to myself. Only me. Because isn’t that a crazy idea? To captivate someone.

But it didn’t seem crazy on the edge of that waterfall, when our eyes locked in a way that smoothed every sharp edge, every scary pocket, every deep hole. They locked in a way that sent a current right through me, which could have been bad had it been literal, since my soaked feet were seriously considering a plunge into the foaming pool of turquoise water beneath me.

I just needed his eyes to tell me to dive in. They did. I listened. And our best adventure, filled with the best road trips followed.

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Ready for each other. And anything.