Last August, I left Ciudad Juárez on vacation and drove across the deserts of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada to visit my family in California for the first time in about two years, logging 1,279 solo miles in just under 36 total hours. Five weeks ago in late May, I also set off west; the same destination in mind, but this time from Virginia. It was the biggest solo road trip I’d ever embarked upon, and I’d done so with less than 12 hours’ planning, deciding around 8pm on the Friday evening preceding Memorial Day weekend to leave Saturday morning and leverage three days off in a row to get out to California where I could continue remote working as I do here at home.
I was in a state of acute grief at having learned I’d lost an old friend and ex-boyfriend, T, to suicide and that – unbeknownst to me until late April – his family had buried him privately in our hometown in January. I was distracted, upset, unproductive. I needed answers, I needed to say goodbye, I needed to see my family.
I let my mom know I was coming. In the Foreign Service lifestyle, this would not always be possible. Fortunately, we are still in a pandemic and remote working up to 80% of the time, we are on a domestic tour, my car had recently been serviced, and I was on top of my laundry and bills. A few thousand miles could not faze me. I made a packing list and executed it. Barely four days later, I rolled up in front of my mom’s house with an extra 2,723 miles on the Volkswagen’s odometer and dirt from 13 different states on the undercarriage.
On the first day of my trip, I didn’t leave until around 10:30 am, and even then made a quick stop at our local Costco to return some recalled peanut butter and grab some road snacks to supplement what I’d already packed – organic beef sticks, goldfish crackers, fruit, and protein bars. I wanted to stop for food as infrequently and in as few places as possible.
I hit the road and made my way from Virginia through Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, ending up in Indiana for the first evening. I hit a mileage milestone on the odometer – 75,000 miles on my 12.5 year old car – right as I crossed the Pennsylvania-Ohio state line.
I hadn’t made any reservations anywhere for maximum flexibility; I was just going to drive as far as I could each day and then check into a motel. It didn’t turn out so easy the first night due to a little car race which wasn’t on my radar called the Indy 500! I stayed around 50 miles northwest of Indianapolis because everything before that was booked out, and I mean everything. After my fifth phone call/walk-in it was getting very late, and I was getting very drowsy. I was thrilled to just find a two star motel and go to sleep!
The second day I think I drove farther than any other day on the entire round trip, rising very early and going 864 miles through Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and the endless cow fields of Nebraska, where I eventually stayed over in a small town called Ogallala, before Interstate 80 intersects with 76 down to Colorado. I arrived late and tired after a day of very flat driving in which the odometer ticked up to 76,000 miles, I saw a falcon hunting – presumably rodents – from a roadside sign along the freeway, and I gained two extra hours by crossing time zones from eastern to central and then on to mountain. I chased thunder and lightning storms west, but the driving rain never did fully scrub the stubborn bugs off the windshield.
The third day’s scenery was more beautiful and becoming more reminiscent of home, even though I had never visited any of these states before, as I crossed the Nebraska-Wyoming stateline and proceeded over 700 miles through Wyoming and Utah. The snow-capped mountains ringing Salt Lake City took my breath away.
By nightfall I was racing across some otherworldly salt flats backlit by an overcast sky and trying to make it to Nevada. By a fluke of inattentive motel booking on my phone while simultaneously filling my near-empty gas tank, I ended up staying in Wendover, Utah – literally about 20 yards from West Wendover, Nevada. On the opposite side of the street from my motel, a host of glittering casinos beckoned, safely behind the white line painted on the street that delineated where state law did and did not allow debauchery. I had no interest in such debauchery, but I was momentarily annoyed with myself that I hadn’t technically made it to Nevada after all.
In the morning I found myself nervous and even taking an unnecessary three-mile detour to make sure I got a photo at the Nevada stateline. All across the country I had been enjoying the trip to my former life’s soundtrack, rotating old CDs in and out of the Volkswagen’s six-disc changer with my moods.
“I love how certain music always reminds you of a time and place in your life…” the last message I had ever received from my late friend T had begun. Indeed, I thought, putting myself through a catalogue of hits from my late teens and 20s that made me laugh and cry and sometimes made me feel like I needed to pull over because I was dying of a knife wound.
He would understand this. He would’ve understood the whole trip. The needing to come home and see my family, to clear my mind with a long drive, to see his grave with my own eyes. He had been shocked but not really surprised when, as his girlfriend and a 21-year old junior at San Diego State, I had jumped in my car at 11pm after a full day of classes and work and driven nine hours so that I might spend the weekend with him in Reno because his work was making it impossible during that period for him to leave town. That had been in the year 2000. I listened to an album I’d been listening to back then. I shook my head, remembering how it felt to be that young and crazy. My sense of scale of “far” has always been a little different, I guess.
But now I was so close to home and it meant it would finally be time to face the first hard thing I had come to do, the thing that had been pulling me across the country like a magnet.
I arrived in my hometown and walked into a local grocery store. I bought flowers in a jar, and his old favorite kind of beer. I had a startling moment where I actually thought I saw him in the store, and had to realize not only that it wasn’t him, but that there would never again be a chance to come home and run into him. Suddenly every time I’d ever come home and not reached out to see how he was doing, not tried to hang out with him, not introduced him to my husband, made me feel absolutely terrible. Why wasn’t I there to have fun with in the good times? Why wasn’t I there when it mattered? Again I asked myself why and again I had no good answer.
I went to the cemetery and it took some time for me to find T. I was tired from having driven almost 500 miles that day, not having slept well the night before, and having had to stop for a previously scheduled telehealth appointment via video call on the way. Fortunately I had the pictures of the service from his sister on my phone. The backgrounds of the photos helped me triangulate where to look as I wandered around in the dry heat.
When I saw his stone, it shocked me even though I was expecting it. I sank down on the grass. I remembered sitting there with him 17 years or so before in the same place as he mourned his grandparents after I came back from serving in the Peace Corps; I never thought I would be sitting there mourning him.
How could I have forgotten the towering, old tree, strong and shady, dropping a pinecone or clump of needles every once in a while? As far as places to rest, you could have done a lot worse, I thought, tears burning my eyes, but is this really better than being here, really? Better than going swimming at Edward’s Crossing right now and drinking these palies with me? Because we could be doing that right now while it’s hella hot, in case you didn’t notice.
Is this better than going to get some pizza and telling an old friend who cares what’s been going on in your life? Better than anything you might have done, or anyone you might have met in the future? Remember the people we saw at the Rough and Ready historic cemetery who died in the 1800s? They’re still there! And do you know you’re still going to be here in 2023 and 2031 and 2052 and 2189, unless someone hits the button before then and none of us are here anyway? You got that you weren’t coming back? So then, you chose this over every possible alternative?
I’m trying not to be hurt about this because I know it has nothing to do with me, but it’s hard. Because I’m here now. Like before. We could be doing awesome things right now and having fun. I would have come from anywhere, had I known you were struggling again. Because every time you ever called me and needed someone, I was there. I didn’t communicate well, but what about you? Maybe the point is that you had lots of people who cared and would have helped, and you didn’t call any of us, because you already made up your mind and didn’t want to be talked out of your belligerent, unilateral stubbornness. So, you really showed us, didn’t you! Now what? Nothing, ad infinitum. The ultimate last word.
I didn’t hear anything. It’s one cruelty of suicide loss, to be left in a state of conflict with your deceased loved one. To mourn someone gone from your life not due to accident or illness, largely understood to be tragic but within the natural order of things, but who ostensibly decided themselves to go, leaving everyone behind to resolve that conflict on their own while feeling rejected and stunned. And perhaps even guilty. Why didn’t I do more? Why wasn’t I a better friend? Why didn’t I know something was wrong? Why didn’t I at least make more of an effort? To be one moment crying and the next moment angry with the person you miss for murdering the person you miss, and the next moment filled with compassion for someone you respected and trusted to always make the right decisions for themselves. It will be a long journey for me, but this was the first step and a very important one. To face it, to look at it directly.
I sat for a long time and drank my beer while it was still cold, and said as many of the things I have been meaning to say as I could remember. I thought I might be angry, talking to a box of ashes in the ground, and that I would feel he wasn’t really there. But I didn’t feel that way at all. I found myself talking to him as carefully and authentically as if he were sitting on the grass next to me. It felt very real, actually.
Afterwards, I left the empty bottle and the flower jar and went the less than 10 remaining minutes to my mom’s where my mom, my brother, and my niece were waiting for me. I texted my husband that I’d made it.
For the first time, I had crossed the country by myself.
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