I drove out of New York in the middle of December.
In the last few months of 2012, I left a job that I had loved for almost five years with no idea of what I wanted to do next. Suddenly untethered, I headed west, looking to the territories I knew and loved before arriving here, and more specifically, to skiing and fresh air, for a little help in figuring things out. After six weeks of that, I returned to New York for a four day layover before heading east, first to Bali, then Burma, via Bangkok, by way of plane, bus, and boat. The farther I went in any direction, the farther I was from the entire life I felt so connected to here in New York (a home I’ve always thought of as temporary, but which has carried me for what’s now nearing seven years). I took notes along the way, thinking it would all make sense upon my return.
My leaving was gradual, starting slowly in a car, from Brooklyn to Fredericksburg, through Asheville to Nashville, from Memphis to Little Rock, city-hopping until the sky opened up over Oklahoma and I gunned straight through still dry and dusty reservations to Taos in sixteen slippery hours. Arriving in single digit temps and finding my way by memory instead of map (I was pretty giddy when Google said: “We were not able to locate the address: 8 XX Lane, El Prado, New Mexico”), I was welcomed and warmed by the familiarity of friends who have known me for a decade.
From there it was a five-week whirlwind of family, more long-time friends, and their children, more driving, skiing, sleeping in toasty cabins, tucking into the backcountry in search of more snow, more skiing, touring, skinning and snowmobiling, more sleeping (I never sleep so soundly as when totally physically exhausted), the breathing of thin, brutally cold air, sledding, sun-soaking, hot spring-ing, star-gazing (the sky seemingly so close, I could always see the mysterious helix of the Milky Way on cloudless nights) and miles of isolated highways through Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and Utah.
On an unnamed day (I lost track a few weeks in), I eventually found myself driving to Bozeman, MT, from Jackson, WY, through a silent Idaho. It had snowed overnight so I skied in the morning before hitting the road, leaving me driving into the dark. It was still snowing as I went north by northwest, rendering the infrequently traveled two-lane indistinguishable from its edges. It was simply white all around—a flat, ambivalent light. By night I was totally lost, the GPS on my phone mostly useless, my traveling reduced to a series of turning arounds. Slowly, I crept along alone, cursing the skiing I had been so excited about hours before and worrying about the tire I had patched in Taos for ten dollars.
It was easy to imagine (entirely naively, but in my exhaustion and delirium, how I wanted to believe!) at this point that the stars, bright and brilliant as they were, were guiding my way, serving as reliably as the highway safety poles and guard rails that intermittently reflected my headlights in silvery sparks when I approached the otherwise disguised shoulder of the road. At least, I hoped that they were. Lumens fluxing above and plastic rectangles flashing ahead, everything glittering was taunting. I had no real idea of how to read either. I was fucking lost. (It was only then that I realized it would have been wise to take an atlas or a map that didn’t require some kind of connectivity.)
I thought of all the recent conversations I had with my mom about traveling and how she claimed her biggest fear was getting lost. I had chided her saying she could always return the way she came, perhaps enjoying a nice lunch wherever she happened to be. Getting lost, of course I told her, was the best part of traveling! I had forgotten you could be so far gone that there was no turning back. Until I was. So far from where I came from, so far from where I was going, my only food a few frozen energy bars stuffed in the console of the car.
But I was also on one of just two roads: I had passed another running perpendicular to the right not too many miles ago. Since every small ounce of courage and smarts I had left in my otherwise empty tank told me that the road I was on was really, probably, not the right one, I circled around, one more time, holding my breath as I eased onto the other, watching mileage and the gas gauge obsessively until I saw signs for Ennis, MT (population 838). I don’t know why or how, but I had picked the right path.
As I came into cellular range my phone began chirping sweet messages from my sister: “Where are you?!” “How far away?” Good questions, I thought. “I got off work early so dinner will be ready when you get here.” Thank goodness.
I was found and fed and all was well. That’s true, but this is not the end: It turns out it takes more than retreating and returning to know how to put these things together.