Here's a fascinating essay by Vanessa Veselka: The Lack of Female Road Narratives and Why it Matters.
I thank my writing pal Joe Monninger for sharing it with me and therefore sending me on a remembrance-of-road-odysseys-past. I went through a hitchhiking phase in my teens, and I sometimes have nightmares of a couple specific close calls. One happened somewhere between Old Lyme CT and Hightstown NJ; it was early October, after a summer at the beach, and I missed one of my beach friends so much I decided to hitch down to visit him in boarding school.
In this space I normally write about the nature of summer friendships, the depth of love for my beach friends, but Vanessa's essay takes me to a different place, to the reality of what happened on the road. There I was--17, maybe?--standing thumb-out on an I-95 entrance ramp, so convinced of my own invincibility that I climbed into the cab of an 18-wheeler. I can't picture the driver, but I can see that truck--red cab littered with fast food wrappers and a dark curtain behind the seats. "Check it out back there," he said. "It's where I sleep." That was the first moment my stomach flipped.
I felt brave, resourceful. That made me reckless, but I only know that now, from the distance of many years. If I think of my nieces doing what I did, I'd lose it. Yet even after that ride in the big rig--and the driver's innuendo and invitation into the back and my opening the door and jumping out at a toll booth--I kept hitchhiking. I got to Hightstown and later made my way back home. When my younger sisters were visiting one of their boyfriends in Warren VT, I hitched north through thickly falling snow to meet them.
Right after our father died my sisters started hitching with me--great older sister, wasn't I? The the three of us were heading back to Old Lyme from Newport RI and got picked up on Route 138 by some creep in a rattletrap who told us he had beagle puppies at home and would we like to see them? We scrambled out at the next exit, climbed the ledge that bounded the ramp, and walked for miles along the crest until we got tired and called our mother to pick us up.
Nothing disastrous happened, except perhaps to our psyches. Stepping so close to the edge, courting danger, has a serious half-life. You might not be conscious of it, but the what-ifs visit your dreams. When I was young I was searching for something--I'd push myself to do things that must have scared me at some level--when I think of them now I marvel that I survived, thrived, and wrote about them in short stories and novels. I feel guilty for taking my sisters on that part of my own strange journey, but back then we were so inseparable it would have been unthinkable to leave them out.
Come to think of it, my new novel, The Lemon Orchard, is about journeys. Traveling far from what is comfortable to find something you're not even sure you need... Maybe that's just life; it's certainly been my life.
[Image: The Highwayman by Linden Frederick]