The first week of March, I drove from our new home in Virginia down to Florida for my dear friend T’s baby shower. I’d made my plans in January upon receiving her invitation, and they hadn’t included flying; the freedom of road tripping in my trusty Volkswagen felt safer and more socially distant as the Omicron variant bled across the country. I also wanted to do some IKEA shopping, and perhaps stop in NC to see my matron of honor J and my stepdaughter A. It would be my last week of home leave, and thus my last immediate chance to get away and clear my mind before starting a new period of professional focus.
I’d met T, the new mom-to-be, by chance in DC back in 2006. We’d become fast friends. In 2009 I’d seen her off to a foreign assignment in Austria, where I flew the following year for her birthday party. A few years after that, she’d stood up as a bridesmaid in our San Francisco wedding, and then she saw me off to my first diplomatic assignment in Uzbekistan by helping with our packout when V had to work.
I was thrilled to be near enough to participate in her milestone event without having to fly, although “near” is a relative term, especially for me. For my dad’s 70th birthday in 2017 I’d secretly flown more than 48 hours roundtrip, in addition to driving several hundred miles, to surprise him. Last year for my brother’s birthday, I threw a piñata in the Volkswagen and drove all day – for two days straight – from Juárez to northern California. True, his 40th birthday wasn’t the sole reason for my trip, but it was something I didn’t want to miss. And it didn’t feel so far away.
“When’s your flight?” T asked, followed by, “You’re going to drive?” She may have been simultaneously astonished by and aware of my proclivity towards long solo road trips; they’d become increasingly common since the pandemic started. I’d already put about 10,000 miles on my Volkswagen over the preceding six months – a lot considering between 2010 and 2021 I’d barely added 70,000 total miles to the odometer.
I know long hauls alone are not for everyone. Frankly in my pre-pandemic life I’d rarely had the time. But this wasn’t a punishment or fear of flying; I was looking forward to it. And having moved around in such an enormous comfort zone perimeter over the last few years, the distance hardly seemed consequential.
In the late 90s, I contemplated relocating several hours south to San Diego to finish my last three years of college. Most of my hometown friends were dismayed. “Dude, that’s hella far,” they lamented. “Dude, it’s in the same state,” I countered, dismissing the obstacle. Since I was 17 I’d already been driving almost 10 hours roundtrip with my younger brother every time we went to our dad’s house. I moved to San Diego in 1999, and regularly made the 16-18 hour roundtrip home to visit… driving my Cougar, and later my Mustang.
The timing was slightly inopportune, though; I’d spent much of my home leave having the time – if not the materials or focus – to set up our empty house. Our several thousand pound shipment of household effects was delivered earlier than we had expected, but still mere days before my road trip (the day after which I would begin my fourth tour). I quickly unpacked as much as I could, and then regretfully left the complete disorder for my husband V to contend with. When the morning to leave dawned, I put my suitcase and the baby gifts in the trunk and hit the trail.
Six days, five states, and 2,041 miles – a proper last hurrah for my home leave and precious chance to reconnect with loved ones after spending most of the last seven years overseas.
Given one of my dearest friends J and her family are only five hours south of us in Fayetteville, NC, I made my first stop to see her. As I passed mile after mile, sunshine replaced the freeze, spreading across my skin like freedom. I found myself lowering the window and singing along with the best hits of the 80s and 90s on satellite radio. Some of the biggest outdoor U.S. flags I’ve seen since Texas flapped in the wind along I-95 South, a sight to behold.
For the first time just that week, the horrendous hair shedding I’d been suffering for eight months also seemed to be tapering off. That day in the car, I wore my hair down for only the second time since early September. The first time had been the day before. As I drove I habitually ran my hand through it, expecting to see at least the dreaded typical dozen strands tangled in my fingers. But my grasp remained empty, and despite driving with the window down I did not later find the telltale hairs all over the seats and floor. I was elated. Was it over, finally?
It was so wonderful to see J, even though it was only for a few hours and the night before she had texted me to warn she might have to cancel last-minute due to an unforeseen situation. Knowing what huge efforts J makes to see people, probably more so than anyone I know, I completely understood. I had already decided to stay in a hotel due to recent bouts of COVID in their home and also not wanting to impose the following morning when I left before sunrise. Had I known earlier I might not see her, I would have probably put a couple hundred miles more under my belt that first day and tried to see her on the way back, given that neither date ultimately worked out to see my stepdaughter. I usually book hotels at the higher free-cancellation rate; this time I hadn’t.
But in the end my hope she would be available after all paid off, and after checking into my Fayetteville hotel I drove over. Sitting down for a quick family dinner with them and hearing firsthand about everything that had happened the last couple of years we had visited only virtually or over the phone was truly a gift. Now that I’ve returned to the U.S. after three consecutive foreign assignments, I can’t wait to extend and make more frequent these visits. Being this close is so rare!
The following morning I headed out bright and very early after being kept up late by rowdy hotel guests. I was annoyed to see that they were already enjoying a chipper breakfast when I came down for coffee. To be that age again. But their time will come. The things I used to do – going to class all day, pulling a dinner shift at work, and then leaving San Diego at 23:00 to drive all night and arrive in the Tahoe area by 08:30 only to take a shower and go out on a date – would literally kill me now.
The hours ticked by as I headed deeper and deeper into the south. I saw a couple bad car accidents and hit multiple traffic jams. As a Californian transplanted to the east coast 16 years ago I still cannot comprehend one main artery from north to south, not to mention through multiple states?!
Additionally, along the same stretch of road I saw (a) a driver in the fast lane leave the road for the grass-filled median at over 100 mph, swerve sickeningly trying to correct, and re-enter the fast lane with an oversteer that narrowly missed the Honda hitting the guardrail and surely slicing itself in half, finally coming to a shuddering stop on the generously wide shoulder; and (b) more than one blood-red billboard screaming in bolded capital letters for us all to REPENT.
The only times I had ever driven through Georgia in the past I’d veered off towards Atlanta; this time I continued due south along the coast until Florida snuck up on me so quickly I missed the stateline and had to stop at a rest stop to recreate the moment. Like the gnome in Amelie, my Mexican doll Esperanza rode shotgun.
T had lived for years in northern Virginia before retiring from federal employment in late 2020. She had spent the interim setting up her new house in Florida – a state I had amazingly never yet been to. I made it to T’s house after dark and after driving at least 11 hours due to traffic. A friend of T’s from high school was also visiting and had spent most of the day setting up for the next day’s shower. There was more to do, but we stayed up late talking and finished it all in the morning.
It was hot to wear my mask inside T’s house the whole visit, and to be at the shower with a couple dozen people – all of whom were unmasked. But it also felt like the right way for me to be part of the festivities while not ignoring the risk to myself. It was a lovely day and filled with good food, new friends, thoughtful gifts, and celebration for a life long-wished for and much anticipated.
The day following the baby shower I drove the 45 minutes up to Tampa to visit a former Embassy Tashkent local staff colleague J and his wife Z. We’d met during my first tour when I was a consular officer and he was working in our commissary. I’d had the accidental good fortune to receive and adjudicate his case when he and his wife and daughters won the Diversity Visa (“green card”) lottery in 2016. As consular officers we don’t pick our cases – we pull them off the rack in order as they come out of intake – and I was surprised to open the file and see a passport bearing a familiar face.
I announced his name over the waiting room intercom. “You’re leaving!” I said as he and his family nervously arrived at the interview window. “If we get the visas,” he smiled tentatively. His Russian-speaking wife looked at me with trepidation, not understanding English. I had reviewed everything already and knew they met all the educational, medical, and legal requirements and would likely be good to go.
They had later sent me Facebook friend requests and I had followed their immigration adventures, from preparing to leave Uzbekistan and struggles against culture shock to settle in, to naturalization, his joining the Air Force, and finding success in their new lives in Florida. Seeing them in person – and hearing his wife now speak English pretty well – blew me away. For years she had sent me messages in Russian of thanks for sending them to their new life, and I had assured her it had little to do with me. They themselves had qualified for their visas, and it was they who had built their American dream brick by brick. I will always be proud of them and glad to call them friends.
I made it back down to Anna Maria Island that night by sunset for T’s beautiful maternity photo shoot on Coquina Beach. An almost impossibly narrow strip of land, it was the farthest point south of my trip. I also got to walk on the sugar sand as pelicans hunted in the darkening dusk, and put my feet in the warm Gulf waters. It was magnificent! At one point I even found myself in the ocean up to my thighs helping to hold up a giant reflector disc for the photographer – wet jeans be damned. T got a slew of gorgeous pictures that she can look at as her daughter grows and remember back to her pregnancy experience.
After another late night of reminiscing and laughter, the time came to say goodbye. I’d decided against an IKEA run in Florida for furniture items I was having trouble getting farther north, and pointed my GPS at Myrtle Beach. The detour to the coast would ultimately take me a couple of hours out of my way, but I didn’t care. I had a reservation in a very nice hotel right on the ocean, and I wanted to enjoy it.
And enjoy it I did! I ordered in a healthy dinner to my suite, FaceTimed with V (and our cat Dzish!) back in Virginia, took lots of photos, and slept blissfully. In the morning I first went to the hotel gym, masked, and then for a long walk along the beach and boardwalk after checking out.
I arrived home in Virginia an hour or two after dark, but I didn’t mind. I’d had a great last home leave hurrah and my spirits felt renewed. I’d eaten whenever and whatever I felt like and tore up the open road, going anywhere I pleased without hurry or worry. The car had run like a dream. I’d laughed and talked with people who really knew me, and contemplated buying real estate in Florida. I told V we should go down and visit this summer.
The seven weeks of doing what I wanted, when I wanted, since waking up our last morning in Juárez and crossing the border for the last time, had come to a close. It was time to look ahead, while keeping in mind neither summer nor the Florida beaches were so far away.