I believe in the road trip, in the route planning and careful packing, in the stacks of snacks like Nacho Cheese Doritos, sunflower seeds, and Gatorade. I especially believe in The Map folded back to expose red interstates and blue byways winding like arteries, the black-dashed backroads stitching together our destinations, and those green spaces stamped Parks and Recreation. But I believe the road trip is more than just getting there.
Last summer ‘there’ was the town of Santa Barbara, the location of my first long course triathlon. Swim, bike, run. The timing of the event wasn’t good, I’d just ended a long term relationship that could have been, or would have been if just, well, you know how they go. I couldn’t concentrate on the triathlon other than hoping to get from point A to B to C, C being the finish line. I considered cancelling since flying with my bike and gear would be a hassle. Last trip I had to give up my potentially lethal water bottles, so out came the map. I plotted the most direct route out of Scottsdale, Arizona, and called my friend Sandy.
I believe some road trips require a co-pilot, content enough to watch the up-close things, the blur of roadside saguaro or wild fennel, and of course, the mileposts marking the in between; yet, she’s insightful enough to comment on the clarity of a receding mountain. Sandy said the triathlon will be like the mountain, the further behind it got, the clearer it’d be. But Sandy wasn’t talking about the triathlon or the mountain, she was talking about another big finish – my heartbreak.
I don’t believe we take the road trip. The trip takes us. We arrived in Santa Barbara. I carbo-loaded, well, we both did. Morning came quick. Through the rough water swim and the steep bike leg that had no down hill I struggled. And the run was up hill both ways. I made it through the course’s heavily wooded hills, beautiful in hindsight. At the finish line Sandy handed me a Gatorade and a heartfelt congratulations. She’d already pulled the car around — my bike mounted on the rooftop. She pointed to the passenger seat and said, “you’re not done. The road trip starts now, we’re heading north.” She didn’t complain about my reek of effort. She nodded when I said I felt sick and tired. She understood when I said I didn’t want to go any further, that I was hurting. The landscape shifted. Vineyards ripe with fruit cordoned grassy hills. The sea slumbered on our left. Up and over and around the bend lay the Avenue of Giants in the redwoods. By that time we were way off the map and on the open road.
A loop around the old Chandelier Tree marked our trip’s apex. Billed as the Drive-Thru tree in the redwood forest, we had to see it. A car could fit through the ancient tree’s emptied gut. But I couldn’t imagine driving through it. I felt like the tree. I told Sandy that I was sort of okay with a McDonald’s drive thru, but not this one. I felt bad for the tree, for its loss, but I remembered it still had its roots. I still had mine, too. With that we turned back. I munched on Doritos and traced a route back home in nacho cheese. I realized then that I was in recovery, from triathlon, from lost romance, somewhere in between hurting and healed, that I took home the mountain, the hills, and the tree. And the deeply grounded part of me. I believe that the open road is wondrous in that eventually, every bend leads inward.
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