I maneuvered my 1976 Mercury Cougar onto the gravel shoulder of the twisty mountain road. The old, rusty hinges of the driver’s-side door squealed, and the sole of my dusty brown boot crunched against the rocky red soil.
I remember that part quite distinctly — my left foot pressing against the alien terrain.
Mother Earth has long since smoothed away the evidence of my trespass, but I still remember the thrill that struck my soul at that moment. Had I known the southwest United States could look like this? So wild and alive? I laughed.
At 19, I, too, was wild and alive.
Growing up in a small Midwestern town is a privilege. I understand that now, but as a younger woman, I hungered for an escape from the endless oceans of corn and soybeans.
At 19, wanderlust tickled my nerve endings and set me on edge.
Every afternoon the school bus took the same route. My eyes followed the roads we never drove upon and wondered how far they stretched. Where did they lead? Be there monsters ahead?
At 19, a set of keys was pressed into my hand.
The car was far too old, yet not nearly old enough, to be cool, but it had been cherished, and the chocolate brown paint still sparkled in the sun. In a time when manufacturers produced smaller cars every year, I sat behind the wheel of a behemoth with a front bench seat wide enough to comfortably accommodate myself and three friends.
The price of gas edged up over a dollar and a half per gallon, and I burned through a gallon every 10 minutes on the open road without ever regretting the expense. I’d work more hours. I’d sell my belongings. No sacrifice was too great.
The highway held no appeal. What were highways but long, straight stretches of monotony where the joy of exploration was sacrificed to the gods of efficiency? Those country roads I’d wondered about, though? Marvels! Old, abandoned buildings; little covered bridges; beaches; forests; rolling hills; shops where young women in long pastel dresses sold fresh buttermilk and bits of honeycomb … In my lumbering old tank of a car, I found a treasure-trove of adventure.
At 19, I knew I needed to drive until I reached beyond the horizon.
“But you’re all alone,” my bewildered mother said.
“Yes! Entirely on my own!”
“What will you do if something goes wrong?” she asked.
“I’ll deal with it. I’ll be fine.”
At 19, I remained confident of my own immortality.
My little hometown dwindled away to nothing in the rearview mirror, and before nightfall, I coasted along the shores of Lake Michigan. Sunlight sparkled on the water as though countless fairies with glittering wings played among the waves.
I slept in a campground full of bikers on their way to a rally. They laughed at my enormous car and shared their grilled hotdogs and refused my request for a beer, claiming they wanted no part in the corruption of a minor. When they rolled out in the morning, the earth shook with the noise.
At the edge of the Badlands, I sat on my bumper eating a salami sandwich and marveling at those who’d traveled that path, making the choice to cross this formidable land on foot and in wagons. I got back in my car, turned on the air conditioning and gave thanks for my comfortable old jalopy.
In Colorado, I checked into a hotel. My sneakers squeaked on the marble floor when I entered. I stood in line at the front desk with my backpack full of clothes slung over one shoulder. In front of me, a man in a suit tucked his American Express card into his wallet and signed his name to a form before accepting his plastic keycard and setting off toward the golden-doored elevators.
My heart fluttered a little. Would they call me out as an impostor? A child playing grown-up? Would they accept my wrinkled-up cash? The man at the desk smiled graciously, offered me a choice of rooms, and five minutes later I stepped into my top-floor single and flipped on the lights.
I took the world’s longest shower. Nice hotels never run out of hot water, and there were no sisters banging on the door for me to hurry so they could have a turn. The hotel soap smelled like lemons and left my skin feeling tingly and alive. Room service brought my dinner, allowing me to luxuriate, sprawled like a starfish across the enormous bed, clicking through the channels while munching on crinkle-cut french fries.
Finally, lulled by the irresistible combination of fluffy pillows and a full belly, I drifted off, and when I woke, I found someone had delivered the morning paper to my doorstep. I carried it downstairs and read it while I ate breakfast. Nobody urged me to make room or complained that I’d taken the last of the coffee.
At 19, I began to realize the joy and freedom in solitude.
My Mercury carried me up into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where I pulled over and stepped out of the car. A sense of peace settled upon my restless, wandering spirit, and I thought, perhaps, I’d found the other side of the horizon.
Many years later, I bought a house in that little town I left at age 19. It sits right next to a corn field, and that’s where I’ve raised my own children. My roots run deep into the loamy black soil of that place. I’ve come full circle in a spiral, not a ring. You can never end up exactly where you started. I’m in the same place, but I am not the same person.
The grand journey of life has taken me to a miraculous place beyond the horizon where I thrive among my loved ones, but I have no fear of traveling alone.
This fictional story was the winning entry in a solo travel-themed short story collaboration with Wattpad.