It was about 88°F, dry and cloudless at around 7 p.m. on our second day of driving from Massachusetts to California. We had left Ohio early that morning and we had been driving toward Omaha for nearly 11 hours already. The sun ahead of us was just about to touch the golden horizon of corn and wheat that could be seen over the rolling hills for miles all around. Dozens of dove white windmills spun lazily in the early evening heat, which had cooled down from an oppressive 97° earlier in the day. Even though it was amazingly hot, driving through the fertile land of Iowa was undoubtedly one of the most beautiful sights I’d ever seen in my life.
That is, of course, until my car stopped.
My cousin, Alysa, was driving then, and we had the air conditioner and the cruise control working their magic to make the long drive more comfortable. I’m not sure if it was the combination of those things and the low octane gas I’d been pumping into it, but at that moment out in the middle of millions of acres of corn, my car decided it wasn’t going any further.
Later on the mechanic would tell me it was just a badly-timed case of vapor lock, but in one way or another I choose to believe that the universe wanted us to spend the night in Walnut, Iowa (pop. 788) about 40 miles outside our planned stopping place.
A wrong turn on my part earlier in the day had given Shawn a half hour head start in his Rav-4, so he was nearly in Omaha by the time my Honda’s engine light came on and all acceleration ceased. Alysa, my dog Oscar, and I were alone on Interstate 80 while the tractor trailers screamed by at an alarming speed that felt way too close to my car.
“Hi, AAA? Yeah. My car just broke down in….Iowa.”
“I see. Where in Iowa, ma’am?”
“Uh. I don’t know. There are no signs, just…corn fields.”
This was such a bummer. Up to that point, I couldn’t have imagined a worse situation than being broken down in the most alien part of the country (to me), with 2,000 miles left to drive and my husband not there. But I managed to not cry, and instead managed to utilize my phone’s mapping system to somewhat explain where I was to the nice AAA lady. Then I realized I had to pee. So did Alysa. Great. Thankfully, there was a big bush about 200 feet from our car so I told her I’d wait with Oscar while she relieved herself.
And this is right about where life reminded me to smile.
Just as Alysa traveled out of earshot, I saw the bright red tow truck barreling toward me in the breakdown lane. I wasn’t sure how far Alysa intended to hide herself in the bushes, so I tried yelling to her. She didn’t hear me, instead she waved back at me and then bounced away. So I shrugged and turned to watch the truck roll past and begin to back in toward the car. Then I looked back to where Alysa was. She hadn’t seen the tow truck, and she was probably too tired to be insightful about taking cover. All I could see was a bright pink bum and blonde hair, so easily viewable to me (and the lucky tow truck driver), that she might as well have squatted down right in the breakdown lane.
I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard while having a really bad day. I probably should thank her for that.
I managed to gain back most of my composure by the time the 70-ish year old driver climbed down from the truck to greet me (with a pretty big smile on his face, I might add). It took him about twenty minutes to hitch my car up just right, and the whole time I was just standing there with Alysa and the dog, unable to tell her why I looked so happy. She probably thought the stress was getting to me.
I did finally tell her once we arrived at the Super 8 Motel in the impossibly small town of Walnut, Iowa. I’m not sure if she appreciated the humor as much as I did, but she went with it anyway.
The one car repair shop for 30 miles (“Louie’s”) was closed for the night, so we had to wait until the morning to figure out the problem (Shawn wrote to me in a text, “Tell them to tow your car to a Honda dealership.” Which brought on another fit of laughter). And by now, Shawn was still 45 minutes from arriving to meet Alysa and me. We were hot, tired and so sick of sitting on our asses that we immediately changed and went for a two mile run in the corn fields before the sun went down. It was probably the prettiest run I’d ever done…and also the scariest, because the tune to “Dueling Banjos” kept creeping up in my head while we ran along the gravel roads that cut through the 5 foot high rows of corn. Corn that, might I add, could have hidden our bodies quite well, had we not been running fast enough. So we ran pretty damn fast.
When we were done we decided it was high time for some hard liquor. Luckily, Emma Jean’s Restaurant was open for business right next door to the Super 8, and they had plenty of it. Alysa and I didn’t even shower or change from our run. We just dropped off the dog in our room, sat our sweaty butts down at a bar stool, and ordered whiskey.
The small restaurant was manned that night by one bartender, one waitress and a short order cook. A couple Jack and Cokes in, the waitress tells us that her high school graduating class had eight people in it. When she went home, the bartender, Rachel, told us all kinds of stories about what it’s like to grow up and live in the middle of Iowa. I don’t think she realized she was living in such a beautiful place, I think because it’s hard to appreciate 13 million acres of corn when you’ve never seen the ocean. I really liked Rachel, and I felt like I made a friend that night.
Now I’ll never drink another Jack and Coke as long as I live without thinking of Emma Jean’s.
At around 11:30pm, and after $28 worth of food and drink (which consisted of 8 Jack and Cokes, two shots, a Corona and a pepperoni pizza), Alysa and I were plenty enough liquored up to explore the Super 8’s indoor pool…in our running clothes. We spent about a half hour blowing off some steam by racing each other across the pool and showing off our handstands in the shallow end (she beat me in the breast stroke but my handstands were way better). We were roughly as loud as a half dozen grade schoolers until we were asked to quiet down by hotel management (although we weren’t thrown out, despite the fact that we were wearing sports bras and capri running pants, and the pool had been closed three hours prior). Soon after, we dripped and stumbled back to our room and fell dead asleep, where Shawn had been for an hour already.
We were up and off by 10:00 the following morning, and the car was fine. We resolved to use neither the air conditioner, cruise control nor anything but premium gas for the rest of the trip and the car didn’t complain anymore. But we did, plenty. Late August is really hot in middle America!
Despite this small hitch and maybe one or two others, the drive across this beautiful country was really quite an amazing experience. We drove through some states that we absolutely fell in love with (Colorado being one of them). Because we chose to drive rather than fly, I think I was really able to feel the move, to better understand where I came from and where I was headed to. I left the state I grew up in, with its lush green forests lining the Atlantic, and travelled through the mountains, then through hundreds of miles of flat lands, then mountains again, then desert, and finally to the shores of the Pacific. I saw all the changes along the way, so that it was much more of an adventure to get to the place where all the palm trees grow. I saw so much from my car, smelled the air, felt the heat, and had plenty of time to further solidify my decision to move to California. Now, being in San Diego is as much of a geographical triumph as it is an emotional one. I find that to be a nice kind of closure.
I recommend the drive to anyone who is looking to learn something about themselves and about the world they live in. Where you grew up is such a small place, and you can only ever learn so much before its borders stop you. Even if you grew up in Manhattan. Now, despite the tongue-in-cheek title of this article, I wouldn’t be so obtuse as to say that everyone should move 3,000 miles away from their hometown. But then again, what’s the harm in at least entertaining the thought?
Since announcing this move, I have heard from a surprising amount of people regarding their own desires to make long distance moves. It seems for most people, something always stops them. A job. Kids. Their home. Their mother. For awhile Shawn and I thought that some of these things were holding us back, too. But as we really thought it through and carefully weighed out what meant the most to us in life, we gradually realized that we had absolutely nothing holding us back.
I would be lying if I said that everything went smooth as satin. Our house had to be short-sold, some logistical issues arose here and there, and a few of our friends and family members were less than supportive about the whole thing (in fact, some were even downright nasty). But that was okay. We knew what we wanted, and we were about to go get it. We knew that what we were doing wasn’t running away from our old life on the East Coast…we were running toward our new life on the West Coast. Not everyone in our lives understands that, but do they have to? The answer is no. And finally coming to that conclusion has led us to the best decision we have ever made as individuals and as a couple.
I guess what I’m saying is that there’s really no reason to stay in a life that’s “good” without ever shooting for some semblance of “much better.” I’m not trying to sound preachy here, but I mean, think about this for a moment: Just two short months ago I was living in a house that was too small and cost us too much money, flooded all the time, had a really ugly back yard and was bordered by annoying and inconsiderate neighbors. I was commuting over two hours to work each day and dreading the cold bite of winter. I was living in a place I’ve always been sure I don’t belong. People told me that it would cost me much more money to live just as well in San Diego, but they were completely wrong. I am now living in a much better environment in every single way, and it is going to cost me roughly the same, if not a little more, than before. And you know what? I’m willing to pay a little bit more money for a lot more happiness.
How about you? In what way do you wish you could change your life?