I left on a road trip on the longest day of the longest year. I would drive with the promise of enduring light, the road unrolling over the darkness of months of stress, grief, confusion, and ill health: a slate-wiping or a full immersion baptism—either way, it would happen with music, sky, and a game-like hunt for the best gas prices and cleanest restrooms.
In German, there is an imposing word: Vergangenheitsbewältigung. It means, quite literally, mastering the past. In a German context, it refers to the guilt-filled prospect of dealing with the Nazi past. In my own consideration of recent events, it was less a need to master them as it was an urgent desire to be IN them. My father, to whom I was close and from whom I received many of the traits that make me who I am, had died before the holidays—taking my identity mirror with him.
But just as I was about to dive, in earnest, into the process of grieving his loss, I came down with bacterial meningitis. That was followed by the discovery that the organism had gained entry through a small hole in the front of my skull, through which cerebrospinal fluid was leaking out my nose. What I thought was months-long sinusitis turned out to be my very brain fluid flowing away. Months of hospitalization, surgery to repair the leak, and tiresome recovery later, I packed my new little car and turned my face toward home: the South.
I only stayed on I-5 from Seattle to Roseburg, OR, at which point I took the “wagon road” over the hills toward Coos Bay and picked up US 101. Still—at one and the same time—wound up and depleted, still set-jawed, I tried to inhabit the role of Middle-Aged Woman On Epic Road Trip, Considering Loss and Identity, Remembering Who She Was and Is. I put on the right clothes, I donned the jaunty cap, I cued up the proper tunes. But I was acting. Mostly I felt like a fraud. Mostly I fought the urge to check email from work. Mostly I stumbled over song lyrics and shifted in my seat, gripping the wheel a little too tightly. But I committed to the role, and by the time I rounded the bend in Port Orford and saw full-out ocean—the waves-crashing-against-craggy-coast kind—I felt my brow starting to unfurrow. I stopped at the first “vista point” and stood on the cliff, listening and breathing in this different air from downtown Seattle for a while, and then pressed on to my first overnight of the trip: Crescent City, California.
Truth? Forgettable. EXCEPT that my hotel room was so scary that I put on the flip-flops I had packed for the eventuality of a hotel pool along the way, and wore them to bed. Yes, I was so afraid that I would get up in the night for an, um, comfort necessity, and would be too groggy to remember to put them on before shuffling over that infested carpet (infested with germs, with bugs, with dirt, with body fluids, with sad endings?) to the bathroom, that I WORE MY FLIP-FLOPS TO BED. I shouldn’t have been concerned. It was solstice, and I couldn’t sleep. I clutched the thin sheet to my chin (being careful not to touch the thin coverlet over it), and stared at the ceiling—with my feet against rubber soles—until I finally dozed off. Day One accomplished.
Jenifer Ward is the Editor of Off Paper and Dean of the College at Cornish College of the Arts.
Looking for the entire series? Click below:
#1: Travelblogue I: Solstice
#2: Travelblogue II: Perigee
#3: Travelblogue III: Key Lime is the Color of Grief
#4: Travelblogue IV: Road to Nowhere
#5: Travelblogue V: Marfa,Texas (art not included)
#6: (Final episode) Ashes and Dust