Friday, January 18, 2002

Letter to Karen (13 Jan)

In two days at this time I'll be driving through Arizona in a silver Saab. My backpack will be lying awkwardly in the backseat, its straps nudging the suitcase lying next to it. The suitcase belongs to Anna, the owner of the car and the rest of the stuff in the trunk. She sits in the passenger seat, a glazed look on her eyes after driving all day. She sleeps through Flagstaff. I sip my coffee and let my mind roam for a while, curious where it ends up. We've had some good conversations during our trip so far, getting to know each other and exchanging travel stories. She's headed to Central America after visiting her friends and family on the east coast, so she likes to hear my self-indulgent travel advice almost as much as I like giving it. But now we're exhausted and in a road-coma, so her tapes provide the only soundtrack.

I guess it will be something like that, anyway.

Well, I was close. The Saab was red, not silver. I was the one who slept through Flagstaff, not Anna. And we listened to her CDs, not tapes.

I hugged Darcy goodbye. She didn't cry. I guess she's getting used to me leaving.

I climbed into Anna's car and we were off -- around the world in 80 days, or at least across the country in three. Ten o'clock Tuesday morning we filled the tank for the first time, paying from the money jar -- a small-mouthed Martinelli's Apple Cider bottle, just to make things more interesting.

280, 17, 85, 101, 152, 5, 46, 99...the highways changed quickly in the first few hours. By evening we'd hit Interstate 40, the ribbin of asphalt that would take us all the way to Elvis.

We slept in the car that night, folding back the seats in poor approximation of a horizontal plane. We slept well, however -- the simplicity of road travel offered a welcome respite from the last minute chaos of preparing for the trip.

Anna had all her worldly belongings in the back of her car -- among the cardboard boxes was a computer, some clothes, a box of cables, and about 400 CDs. She'd moved to San Francisco a half-year before, and decided the experiment was over. Her last few days had been full of goodbyes and loose ends, and light on sleep.

As for me, I'd left Jeff's house, where I'd been staying, in a bit of a rush, throwing everything into my backpack two minutes before walking out the door. I regretted leaving him without tidying up properly, but I guess it was beter than making him late for his performance that evening -- he was dropping me off at Darcy's on the way to play doumbek for some belly dancers.

My motorcycle rested on its center stand in Jeff's garage, woefully unprepared for the next eight months of alone time. I'd intended to change the oil, fog the cylinders, cover the exhaust pipes, and disconnect the battery, but lack of time and proper tools kept me from doing much more than stabilizing the gasoline. Echoing in the back of my mind was the van, my last vehicle which I'd had to give up due to improper storage planning the last time I left. Why am I so slow to learn?

Jeff dropped me at Darcy's, though she was still at work. My mind was numb, in shock after shifting from high gear all day to a dead stop. There was nothing left to do, everything was on automatic now. I walked to the grocery store to get some road food for the next day and something for dinner, but found myself incapable of deciding what I wanted for dinner. I watched myself pick up, and then put back, the same items three times before I gave up.

I watched a movie on television until Darcy got home. "That's not very holy!" she mocked me as she walked through the door.

No, I guess it wasn't. I had a lot of regrets about my time back home. I'd spent so much of it trying to do practical things and not enough doing things that made me happy. I often found ways to blame the money-hungry culture for my dissatisfaction in the Bay Area, but clearly I created my own lack of fulfillment by what I spent my days doing.

Easy to say now, thousands of miles away.

Anna and I woke up to the alarm clock at nine the next morning, our second day on the road. The rest area, full of truckers and travelers the night before, was now empty except for us. Back on the freeway, New Mexico greeted us with patches of blue in the sky and patches of snow on the ground. We reached the one-third-of-the-way-across-the-country milestone early on, hoping to reach two thirds by the end of the day.

After our third consecutive meal of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Anna mentioned to me, "I have a gift certificate for Outback." She'd had it for four years -- being a vegetarian, there'd never been much occasion to visit the steak house chain. But now seemed as good a time as any to use it, so we stopped for dinner in Oklahoma City, the middlest middle of middle America.

"Could we get the cheese fries without bacon?" we asked our waitress. She spoke with a twang that made me smile. She was blonde, but certainly not dumb. "Are you a," she paused as if to make sure she got the pronunciation right, "vegetarian?" I confirmed that I was, and she laughed that she'd guessed so when I'd declined the caesar salad even though it didn't have "chunks of anchovies." Later she told us that there was a vegetarian in her class but she didn't think she could be one, even though sometimes people order their steaks bloody and nearly raw and that's gross. And all this she spoke with a twang that made me smile.

We got back on the interstate, stuffed to the gills with rich food and the irony of being vegetarians in a steak house in Oklahoma.

"This is what I would have missed if I had taken a flight," I commented to Anna.

I popped a few drive-all-night pills (chocolate covered espresso beans) and drove all night, passing the two-thirds milestone somewhere in Tennessee. Some time after dawn we napped in a gas station parking lot for two hours, then took turns driving and napping all the way to Washington DC.

We pulled into Anna's parents' house in DC just before eight o'clock, the evening of our third day. 3000 miles in two days, seven hours, with perhaps a total of three of those hours outside the car.

Bible Belt Billboards

"For a spiritual experience you'll never forget, visit the largest cross in the western hemisphere."

"Knowledge...Wisdom...Faith. Exits 267 & 268"

"Looking for a Thrill? Abstinence!"

"Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of all those who Threaten It. US Navy."

Travel Trivia

I found Anna on Craig's List,, in the rideshare section.

We took the southern route across I-40 to avoid the Rockies in the winter. Total mileage from San Jose to Washington DC was just under 3000 miles.

Her car got about 25 miles per gallon, and we used regular grade gasoline which cost between $0.94 and $1.99/gal, averaging around $1.17/gal.

My expenses to DC were $70 for gas, $15 for food, $6 for an oil change, and a few dollars for phone calls.