On a road trip from Kentucky to California, highway mile markers ticked off the stretches of silence between me and my high school sweetheart. We were eight months away from heartbreak, and we had no idea. I have limited recollection of our roadside arguments; instead my mind returns often to the happy scenes. Playing in the St. Louis City Museum ball pit. Camping next to a field of hardened lava in Carrizozo, N.M. Walking in the neon glow of the Las Vegas Strip.
The glug of gas into the tank, the sound of the ignition kicking the car into life excited me. I liked our stop-and-go travel life. It was slow-change, not like the long-nap-and-you’re-there experience of airplane travel. Our trip was the palate cleanser between the life we’d lived in Kentucky and all the life we’d yet to live in California.
When we left Louisville, I was the kind of girl whose boyfriend fixed her flat tires and her Daddy was only a phone call away. I didn’t know who I was without a man in the picture. It was as if I was riding in the passenger seat of my own life.
After my boyfriend and I broke up, I was single and 2,000 miles away from my family. I had to learn how to sit in the driver’s seat. I grew up. I became a woman. And after eight years out West, when I decided it was time to return to the South, a road trip was the only way to go.
I would reverse the trip I’d made in my 20s to start a new stretch of my life in my 30s. I didn’t know anyone else who had a month free to meander across America, so I planned to take the trip alone. Everyone I spoke to expressed concern that hadn’t come up when I’d traveled under the supposed protection of a boyfriend.
By making this trip alone, I would prove to myself that my years in Southern California had made me into a capable, resourceful woman. I would return home stronger than I was when I’d left.
Before I left California, I housesat for a friend of my mother’s. Before she and her fiance left for vacation, they asked me about my trip. I told them I’d be traveling solo, spending some of the time sleeping alone in a tent.
“But you’re, you’re a woman,” her fiance told me, stating the obvious.
“That’s true,” I said. He didn’t know that my fear of being raped or otherwise hurt wasn’t based on location. That I couldn’t feel any more unsafe in the shade of ancient Sequoia trees than men made me feel on the sidewalks of streets I walked every day.
Outside a Starbucks west of Yosemite, I called my best friend and tried to explain how I felt about the risk I was taking. I was surprised by how emotional I got. “Sometimes you just have to deal with the awful and live in the world as it is,” I told her. “Sometimes you have to fight for change, and sometimes you just have to live like the change you want is already here.” I desperately wanted to believe we lived in a world were a woman could venture off alone unsupervised without consequence.
Yet, a couple of weeks after that conversation, in a remote part of Idaho, I made the mistake of asking a fellow camper about the mulberries he’d gathered by his white van. He was overly eager for me to eat some and I got scared and rushed off. That night, I laid down for sleep with a corkscrew gripped tightly in my hand — it was the only thing I had to defend myself. I survived the night unbothered, but that moment, like my mother’s friend’s fiance, reminded me I was a woman alone in the world.
In time, I hope my memory tucks that feeling away, and repeats the same trick of only retaining the happy moments from my road trip. Yellowstone’s Old Faithful releasing steam that looked black against the darkening sky. Cody, Wyo., cast in an orange haze by the smoke from nearby forest fires. The stuffed moose in Jackson Hole’s town square that made a good stand in for bae in a selfie.
After weeks on the road, moments of lost cellphone reception inspired relief, not dread. I did the last leg of the trip — Lincoln, Neb., to Louisville — in one long 11-hour stretch. When the bridge over the Ohio River came into view, the “Welcome to Kentucky” sign above it was as crisp as a postage stamp. I had arrived. I drove into my home town confident that whatever unexpected turns lay ahead, I could navigate them on my own, no passenger necessary.