I loved the truck. I loved everything about the truck. I loved the way it looked from far away as I stood above it on a concrete viewing deck off I-40. The “scenic view” was supposed to be of the Smoky Mountains, but instead I looked and looked at the truck’s rounded white schnoz and delicate tail, its boxy aluminum electrician’s camper top that I’d painted teal. Also, I loved the way it looked ass-on: the matte black plastic bumper on either side of my West Virginia wildlife plates—twenty dollars extra—license number WL 25537. Above the bumper, the neat rectangle of the tailgate, which showed off my truest truths—REAL WOMEN DRIVE TRUCKS; SIT. FEAST ON YOUR LIFE; ANYTHING WE LOVE CAN BE SAVED—and was dented slightly from an accident it had endured with its previous owner, a Floridian. And above that, the trapezoid of the camper top’s rear window. I loved the way the truck looked from the outside, all sealed up tight and right, and I loved the way that if you turned the handle that opened that window and then lowered the tailgate, it became a wholly different being. It became my bed—a black futon mattress on top of a wooden platform—and it became my backpack. In the plywood drawers I’d installed underneath the platform, I stored the essentials: warm clothes for the winter that was coming, rain gear, a camping stove, extra gas, canned food, a can opener, dried fruit, too many packages of Trader Joe’s brand macaroni and cheese, toiletries, and twenty books, including back issues of Tin House and the Colorado Review. In this six-foot-by-four-foot space, I slept and read and wrote and listened to the wind. I slept alone in the truck for nearly ninety nights – except for the eleven I slept next to a cowboy made of metal and wire, who held a pistol in each hand, and who I bought on the side of the road outside Amarillo to give my parents for Christmas. I loved the way the bench seat in the cab of the truck slid forward so I could stuff the extras behind my back as I drove. My cowboy boots. My cute jeans. Then, it was more important to me that I be pretty. More books: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Bastard Out of Carolina and Where I’m Calling From. In a 13,000 square-foot Wrangler store in Cheyenne Wyoming, I bought brown Carhartt work pants in the men’s section. They had an elastic tab closure that squeezed my fat but I didn’t care. I wore them and I wore light brown aviator sunglasses like Connie Britton’s character on Friday Night Lights. I had the costume. Now, to become the person. To become the person, I drove that 1997 Toyota Tacoma more than ten thousand miles through thirty-two states.
I drove wherever I wanted to go. I was driving away from Hillsboro, West Virginia, but what I was driving towards was not yet clear. I will drive, I wrote to a friend, until I no longer believe I am a worthless piece of shit. I will drive until I can look out the window and not hate what I see there.
I didn’t make a plan. Nowhere was a mistake. I drove between six and ten hours a day. I loved driving the truck. The fact that I was the sole captain of this metal machine—meaning that I could go anywhere and stop anywhere whenever, with no one else’s needs to consider—continued to blow my mind. Speed too. How I could accelerate the rate at which I changed my scenery, changed my life. In Kansas and Wyoming, I got carried away in speed, doing ninety, ninety-five, a hundred, on roads that didn’t even show up on the newspaper-sized Atlas I’d brought along. I couldn’t have stopped myself. I didn’t try.
I loved driving the truck, but I didn’t drive it well. A city kid, I didn’t get my license until I was twenty. I only finally got it so I could drive teenaged girls in West Virginia around in minivans as part of a job I’d gotten through AmeriCorps VISTA, a national service program. When I left for my truck trip, I was twenty-three and had had the truck five months, but I still sat up too straight in the driver’s seat and leaned in too close to the wheel. I had no trust. When I drove back roads and the road crested sharply, I would slow down almost to a stop and sit up too far over the dashboard. I braked hard and dramatically when I went around turns, especially at night. I drove a lot at night, but I drove those miles particularly badly. I wasn’t willing to take that leap of faith that even though my headlights ended, beyond them there was a road that continued in a logical manner. I can’t see, I can’t see, I said to the inside of the cab. A good night driver doesn’t watch the road, but rather watches the path of the brake lights of the cars up ahead. I was afraid of all the wrong things, and recklessly unafraid of the right ones. When a big flatbed truck passed me in a whoosh of air, I gripped the wheel so hard my arms ached. But when, heading west in Tennessee near the Kentucky border, every single radio station carried the same beeping hurricane warnings, I carried on in torrential rain, watching as the interstate emptied out and it became only me and long-haul truckers. I bet this happens all the time, I said to a woman who worked in the gas station where I finally pulled off. Not really, she said.
I wasn’t used to driving in winter weather and I had chosen to do my trip from October to December. In central Montana, on a section of I-90 with a steep downgrade it began to snow hard. My truck was two-wheel drive. I barely avoided an accident in front of me, and every few miles I passed an eighteen-wheeler or a BMW in the median. I realized that unlike planes and trains and buses, which are operated by professionals, cars are driven by regular people. Tired people, stupid people, sad people. For once, I had called ahead to a hostel in Bozeman. For once, chained to my plan, I kept driving. Miranda Lambert’s Jesus Take the Wheel actually came on the radio. I actually prayed, though not to Jesus.
I had brought snow chains but had never practiced using them. On the drive from Williams, Arizona to the mouth of the Grand Canyon, I put these snow chains on only to take them off and put them on again at least six times. When I arrived, in the glass viewing room on the South Rim, designed to reveal a three-hundred and sixty-degree panorama, there was three-hundred and sixty degrees of white fog. All I could do was laugh.
I drove until I wasn’t afraid of driving any more. I drove until I touched the thing I needed to touch to no longer feel like a worthless piece of shit, and to empty myself out of hate. There is something about driving that makes this possible. What is it? There is the way going somewhere you haven’t been before does something to your body, flexes some wonder muscle that is vital to our humanity. But there is something about arriving gradually in a new place in a vehicle driven by you that gives that wonder muscle its maximum possible workout. First there is the interstate, west or east, north or south, then the miles, four hundred say, then the right turn signal and the exit ramp, then right or left, then finally, a house or a parking lot or a diner. Say, as I decided I was, you are headed to Short Mountain Sanctuary in Woodbury, Tennessee, a haven for rural queers. When the sign says Nashville, 102 miles, the mountains are still there, the space is still big. When the sign says Nashville, 7 miles, the space has grown smaller, flatter, the world beyond the interstate has become a strip of check-cashing places, chicken joints, a bowling alley, a Sonic. And when the sign says Exit 273 Tennessee 56 South/Smithville/McMinnville and you turn onto Tennessee 146 South and drive through Smithville, the seat of DeKalb County, on a two-lane paved road and then turn off onto the dirt road that leads to Short Mountain, and which quickly becomes hairpin switchback after switchback, you get to see these woods, this rebel sanctuary that is miles from pavement, and you get to know that the person sweating and braking around the turns and making that sight possible is you.
We drive to see new things and to go interesting places, but that is not the whole story. The cartoonist and graphic novelist Lynda Barry once told me that the purest zone of creative concentration is achieved when our hands and minds are engaged in doing something trivial and physical. She suggests drawing spirals in pen and continually trying to narrow the width between your lines.
I suggest driving. Driving for six to ten hours a day is best, but driving even a few blocks will do in a pinch. From the moment I put my key in the ignition and the radio comes on to the moment I open the driver’s side door, my brain exits the zone of regular life and enters another zone of meaningful connections and free-associative drift. There’s music there, and light, or at night there’s only darkness and the lights of the dash. Whole, good, sentences present themselves to me. Revelations: small, ugly, true, drift in and drift out. Whole conversations can be had with exes and sisters and bad friends. Why did you do that? you can ask them, and then take the whole drive to imagine what two people would say to each other if everything had been different. The interior of a car is a different kind of space than any of the other spaces in our lives—home, office, bar, library. What is supposed to happen in there? Motion. That’s it.
Why, for example, does my upstairs neighbor sometimes pull into the driveway of the big house where I live now and sit for half an hour in his car listening to the baseball game and reading the paper? I know he has a radio in his apartment because I can hear it, and in all likelihood he has a couch or a chair that would be more comfortable than the front seat of his Honda civic. But I know why. When you’re sitting in your car, even in your own driveway, you’re not yet bound by the rules that apply once you’re at home. Sweep the floor, call your brother, read the book that’s been sitting for months on the shelf above your desk. If you are still in your car, however technically, you’ve not yet arrived. You can listen to the end of that song or talk to your ex on the phone and cry without consequences. It’s an in-between space, a no-judgment zone. Different rules apply there.
Here is a thing that is true: at the Grand Canyon, in the room of three-hundred and sixty degrees of white fog, I wasn’t alone. There was a man and a woman—I took them for a couple—having a fight. I told you so, said the man. I felt sorry for them. Sometimes you are up against a wall. Sometimes you cannot see beyond it. I was traveling by myself, so the wall was only myself. I walked out to the parking lot and kicked the driver’s side wheel of my truck. Nothing happened except for then my foot hurt. I lay down on my back and put the snow chains on again. They weren’t chains actually, but metal coils attached to black rubber tubing, easy to put on as snow chains go. I decided to take Arizona route 64 east towards Tuba City, into Navajo land. As I drove along the South Rim, it was still snowy and white, and I listened to the Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash duet “Girl From the North Country,” on repeat one. Soon, I could see a little of the canyon, but it still wasn’t much. And then, about the twentieth time that Johnny Cash came in, singing, “See for me that her hair’s hanging down. That’s the way I remember her best,” the fog lifted, the curtain between me and the Grand Canyon was pulled back. And it was good—really, truly, good, and also surprising. Because I’d forgotten what I’d come here to do was to see what this famous hole in the earth looked like. I’d forgotten so truly that what I’d come here to do wasn’t just to drive in snow, taking off my snow chains and putting them back on, that when I saw the Grand Canyon, marbled red and covered in snow, which few people ever see—who goes to the Grand Canyon in November?—I actually believed I’d witnessed a miracle. My wonder muscle exploded.
And here is a thing I still can’t explain: in the town I was driving away from—Hillsboro, West Virginia—there was a straight stretch of road between the unincorporated village of Mill Point and Taylor’s Grocery store, just before you get into town. It lines the flat floor of Little Levels Valley. I drove it every day of the almost two years I lived there. I go back and drive it now, whenever I can. Because to drive that stretch is to drive the whole ten thousand miles over again: it’s fear, it’s trust, it’s wonder muscle, it’s the white curtain lifting. It is what the sight of those mountains across the wide valley floor—dunked in fog in the morning or patchworked with color in fall or Technicolor green like you wouldn’t believe in summer, even etched in black charcoal in the winter—does to my body. Why? And how? How does it lift all that dead weight off my shoulders in a way that nothing else ever did or has done since or will likely ever do?
It is—as Annie Dillard wrote—“well and proper and obedient and pure” that my truck met its end on I-76 headed west towards that stretch of road. I was rear-ended going eighty miles an hour, and the truck ended up t-boned against the concrete barrier, its hood buckled, its frame irrevocably fucked. What I remember: jamming the wheel into the space as far as the wheel will turn (exactly what you don’t want to do in a vehicle that carries most of its weight in the front), and the sound that rubber makes when it is dragged across a paved surface. Also: the feeling of being crammed up against disaster, of coming away scot free when you could have, should have, died. In the end, I lost control—of the truck, of the adventure. In the end, I didn’t know how to drive a truck like that. In the end, I became the person anyway.