Instead of returning to my third diplomatic posting in Ciudad Juárez through the Nevada desert after I visited my family in northern California this past August, I decided to loop back home through San Diego and Tucson instead. This year marks 20 years since I graduated from San Diego State University and mailed off my application to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer – one day before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks – during my last semester in college. Other than three brief visits to friends in 2002 and 2005, I had never since returned to San Diego. Having the opportunity to simultaneously be in the Foreign Service and be within driving distance of my family and alma mater will not likely happen again unless I serve in another border post or a rare domestic assignment outside the DC area. So, I returned to the place where I once chose the next in a series of forks in the road that, in retrospect, led me to where I am today, although I could not have known it in 2001.
As I drove southbound on Interstate 5 through the Grapevine towards Los Angeles, the late summer sun warmed my skin. Did I use to turn off my A/C on the uphills? I tried to recollect, not wanting to tax my 11-year old car as newer cars flew up the hills around me, their windows up. After a time it dawned on me I probably didn’t even run the A/C back then to save gas; those were the days I got gas five bucks at a time, and my dependence on creature comforts was pretty low relative to now. As I descended from Tejon Pass – the highest point on the Grapevine at an elevation of over 4,100 feet – and approached Pyramid Lake, I switched the A/C back on as the synchronicities kept hitting me. It had been 20 years almost to the day that my favorite singer Aaliyah had been killed in a plane crash.
Back then, I’d heard the breaking news on FM radio on this same stretch of road. I’d been returning to San Diego for the start of my final college semester after a summer working at my mom’s. My eyes had flooded with tears, pulling off to the shoulder and shaking with ragged sobs as my hazard lights blinked for several minutes. I didn’t know her, and yet she’d been with me since we both were 14. She was mine in the way your childhood idols are yours, except of course she belonged to everyone, and most of all to herself, and there wouldn’t be anything else of her that didn’t already exist, and that thought made me desperately sad.
And of course, soon to follow would be the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, and this winter, the 20th anniversary of my graduation and moving away from San Diego for good. The time I took a fork in the road; not wanting to leave, but knowing my time there had come to an end and new challenges lay ahead. What a precise and symbolic time to return now after so long.
It also felt a bit odd to be in California driving my own car – a car I’d bought while living on the east coast in 2010 and taken to our first diplomatic assignment in Uzbekistan in 2015. A car we’d put in storage while we served in Australia due to the steering wheel being on the wrong side, and that in 2019 we’d recalled to Virginia to coincide with our arrival home. And a car we drove to Mexico in the pandemic summer of 2020 and which was still my primary vehicle, despite now having a much newer 4Runner which I mostly left to V to drive.
Since I’d sold my Mustang in the fall of 2002 and left for my Peace Corps Volunteer service, I had always rented or borrowed a car while visiting California, even when I lived there again for 10 months in 2004 and 2005. Between selling the Mustang in 2002 and buying Hilde in 2010, I didn’t even own a car. Not as a Peace Corps Volunteer, a broke grad student in Australia, and then working in DC where I couldn’t have afforded to park a car, let alone the payment. The fact that again, I’m in the Foreign Service and close enough to drive to my mom’s from Post in two days in a car that still has Virginia plates is just, still surreal to me. On different levels. Where am I? When am I? Which road have I taken?
I motored along with Hilde imagining for a moment I was back in my red 1995 Mustang. I could almost feel the Mustang’s firm upholstery warm on the back of my legs. I still remember the round smoothness of the gearshift and the way it angled hard towards the driver. I still reach with my right hand for the stick when I come to a stoplight out of habit, all these years later, and although I drive an automatic transmission now.
How bored I had once been of driving on the 5, and how new and interesting it all seemed again now that I hadn’t been there in years. I couldn’t stop smiling even through Burbank traffic, even through the mildly disconcerting feeling of not remembering how much farther I had yet to go, or why some landmarks looked familiar and others didn’t. I was just glad to be on the open road and doing what I wanted.
While on vacation in San Diego, I mostly did things that I would not have done while I actually lived there between 1999 and 2001 – a semi-impoverished, full-time college student working 48 hours a week in a Longs drugstore to put myself through college and pay my sorority dues and personal expenses.
First of all, I stayed at the Hotel del Coronado, a place I had only ever been inside of twice before in my life. Both times involved more synchronicities.
The first time had been exactly 30 years prior, in August of 1991 on a road trip with my dad and brother C. Walking on the beach, we’d seen a man in a tuxedo whose job it was to polish the doorknobs of the Del. C and I were stupefied. We’d gone in for breakfast, but I think spending $45 for three for breakfast had been a bridge too far for my dad.
The second time had been 20 years prior, in 2001 when my roommate and sorority sister L was working on a documentary film for a class about a supposedly haunted hotel room in the Del. She and her project group rented the room, and a few of us tagged along and made a night of it. Nothing particularly paranormal came to pass as I recall, and eventually I tired of sleeping on the floor and drove home to rest up for work the next day in my own bed.
So I’d told myself that one day I would stay properly at this beautiful, historic hotel, and stay there I did! In a room with a private balcony and everything.
Second on the list of things I did that were new-to-me in my old town, I went to Louis Vuitton to have the zipper on one of my purses repaired, and while I lived there as a student I think the most expensive purse I had was from bebe. I would have no sooner walked into a Louis Vuitton than I would have boarded a space shuttle. Third, I got to hang out with my stepbrother J, and he didn’t live there when I was there before – other than him, I didn’t meet anyone I knew.
It isn’t because I didn’t want to see anyone, or was feeling antisocial – I’m sure there are still plenty of my sorority sisters around and I would have loved to get together with anyone available irrespective of how closely we may or may not have kept in touch through the years. But because of the pandemic and only having a couple of days, I primarily was treating this trip as a stopover (to not return to Juárez all in one go, or retrace my route through Nevada), and to see my stepbrother and my old haunts before continuing on, with as little COVID-related risk to me as possible.
It was also astonishing how much things had changed and been built up, particularly around the university. I couldn’t remember where my old nail salon was, or what it was called, even though I went there loyally for three years. Pre-social media, so there were no old posts I could look up to remind myself. I only have my physical planners back to 2005 and my sent emails back to 2006. I figured it might not even be there after so long anyway, or that there might be somewhere better, so – I found a place, and it was fine!
It was unsettling in a way to navigate around and vaguely remember freeways and exits but not well enough to go without Google Maps. I don’t really remember how we used to find our way around in those days. I’m pretty sure it was memorization, and written instructions when you were going to someone’s house! What I am sure of is that I used to drive all over the place by sight, and I was good at it.
I also tried to go back to the post office where I mailed my Peace Corps Volunteer application, but it looked so different I questioned whether it could possibly be the same place. I didn’t take the picture I wanted because it really did not seem like the same place. I kept remembering things the way they used to look, and it was not matching with what I was seeing in front of me. I think everyone has experienced this at some point, somewhere, when returning to a place they haven’t been in years. You start to wonder how much is you forgetting or remembering things differently to how they were, and how much is actual change.
On the way out of town I went to campus for a few hours to look around and thankfully, although the dorm I used to live in had been knocked down years prior for a sports complex, all the frat houses had moved into a row, and the parking garage I used seemed unfamiliar, the campus itself with only a few exceptions seemed to have stood still. It was nothing like my experience when I went to visit my grad school in Sydney in 2018, 12 years after graduating, and could barely orient myself.
I spent a couple of happy hours wandering around campus, making some purchases in the bookstore, eating lunch in the sunshine, and people-watching. I got the diploma frame I’d wanted since before I graduated, finally! It was still there. I was astonished.
I even took a stroll a couple of blocks south to see the Kappa Delta Sorority house, where I had been an active member for all three years I attended SDSU. It looked as beautiful as ever, and I laughed when I saw that Pancho’s taco shack was still across the street. I hope the owner of that place retires a millionaire. He deserves it. As I looked at the current sisters’ names painted on the sidewalk, and gazed up at the rightmost second floor window that used to be my bedroom my senior year with L and M, the room where I actually watched the second tower fall on live television, the front door opened and a girl bounded outside and pulled the door closed behind her.
She had long, thick blond hair that curled effortlessly into ringlets at the bottom. She was wearing jeans and a crop top and sandals, and wore her backpack low in the middle of her back. I guessed she was probably 20 at most. Her sandals slapped down the front steps and she paid me no mind as she crossed the street. It probably did not occur to her to wonder why I was looking at the house. I remember things like that when I was in the house – even an alumna in her late 20s seemed ancient to me then. They talked about wrinkles and the way things used to be. Mortified by my own nostalgia, I thought about telling her to look for me on the 2001 composite, assuming it wasn’t stashed in the attic, but instead I smiled and said nothing. It was her house now.
This girl was beautiful in a bohemian, unfussy way. The light changed and she darted off, hurrying to class. I meandered along, wondering about the super bright, super polished looks we used to spend hours putting together before we would step out of the house. Hopefully times have changed. From what I saw on campus, times have changed. A girl passed me on a longboard, talking on a phone I couldn’t see.
Somewhere, in a time warp, the lights dim, iPhones and social media disappear along with all the food joints too close to the sidewalk, and the Phi Kap house is back in its old spot. I am wearing black pants with a side zipper from Forever 21, a stretchy v-neck hot pink shirt and platform sandals, and small butterfly clips in my hair. Layers of foundation, lipstick, mascara, and purple MAC eyeshadow are expertly applied to everyone around me. The sounds of Kurupt’s “We Can Freak It” and Jay-Z’s “Can I Get A” bounce and echo distantly through the air. Bottles clink and the world keeps spinning.
As we come home from another night out, a thousand shared confidences and laughter echo through the halls of the house. “Pancho’s!” someone yells, and outside, another woman stands wistfully on the outside looking in, thinking about the 80s and all we will never know.
Standing there now in my 40s, I came back to reality. I felt glad I had been a part of it, for the moments I belonged and those I didn’t, for everything I experienced, whatever I missed, the good times and the bad, for the roads I took.
Glad I walked through the halls of what is now the Student Union in January 1999 where all the Rush tables were set up and paused a moment too long. “You gonna rush?” some bro asked me. “No,” I said dismissively, feeling stupid. His face opened towards me. “Why not?” He said. I stood there mentally flipping through answers and coming up with nothing to say aloud. “Why not?” he repeated sincerely. “I don’t know, really,” I admitted. “Isn’t that like buying your friends?” “What?” he replied. “Not at all. You have to pay dues for the chapter to operate, and do philanthropic stuff. It’s not buying friends.”
“Well, don’t you have to, be Barbie or something?” I asked. He gave me a pained look. “You could join a house,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with how you look. Why wouldn’t you? More parties, more fun. So much fun. Some of the girls are really cool, you’ll see. You should totally do it.” He gave me a shrug and a look like, Duh, obviously. I tried until the deadline to think of a reason not to do it, but ultimately all the reasons I had were nothing more than stereotypes and fears. To my surprise, everything I came up with was a reason to do it, so I signed up.
It was another fork in the road. Like the moment my brother had mentioned, the prior summer of 1998, when I was devastated that I’d been accepted to San Francisco State but had been unable to find housing and wouldn’t be able to go, that if he were going away to college he would go to San Diego State. As soon as we got home from that failed orientation trip, we were on our 1998 dial-up internet looking at SDSU and four months later, we flew there so I could enroll.
Or like the moment one of my best friends K would mention, in the summer of 2000 after a fight with her parents, that she should run away and join the Peace Corps. It prompted me to print out the application and think about it for a year, until I finally filled it out and mailed it a year later, right before that fateful day. Or like the offhand remark a Peace Corps Volunteer friend J made to me in 2003 about whether I’d looked at grad schools in Australia instead of in the United States that made me feel as if I’d been struck by lightning. Two years later, I was in Sydney studying for my masters.
Each of these tiny things are just that – tiny, but had some kind of snowball effect on me where I had never even thought about taking these roads before – roads that were not even necessarily visible to me – and then suddenly, someone mentioned there was a map, and then the destination was all I could think about.
I drove out of San Diego with a smile on my face and headed for Tucson. The desert opened out ahead of me and for several hours I raced the sun to my evening accommodation – a place called the Westward Look Wyndham Grand Resort, a place I would love to stay again if I have the chance, next time with V.
Although I only had a late dinner, an excellent night’s sleep, a morning nature hike, a hot shower, and a sports massage to enjoy in Tucson before hitting the road to make it home to Juárez before dark the following day, I felt very rested and comfortable there. Horses, rabbits, lizards, and hundreds of orange and yellow butterflies brought motion to the warm life of the soil, cacti, and abundant flowers. I would definitely return, and I hope the road will bring me back there. I won’t wait for a fork; we already requested annual leave in January to return as part of a broader regional road trip.
The next day I followed signs east across Arizona and New Mexico to Texas, where I followed the setting sun along El Paso’s border fence back to my love, waiting for me in our country of assignment: Mexico. As I reparked where I’d started in front of our house, the final roundtrip mileage on my odometer read precisely 2,850 miles.