Last July, I packed up my car full of every meaningful thing that I owned and drove north for eight hours to a different state. I had been awarded some funding months ago to support me in a research internship in northern Oregon, and the mandated change of scenery couldn’t have come at a better time. The months prior had been difficult, with personal upheaval and the alarming realization that although I was nearly done with my doctorate, I had very little that resembled a plan after that, spurring feelings of anxiety and not being enough that became consuming at times. I looked forward to the space, the distance from my everyday routine, in hopes that external changes would bring me the freedom that I could not quite grasp through my personal efforts. You can only go on so many long runs and leave yourself so many positive notes in your bathroom mirror before you start to feel a little silly and wonder why as an adult you aren’t better at handling your shit. Sometimes you just need to get out of town, and a fancy internship seemed like just as good an opportunity as any.
I marked the morning of my departure on my Google calendar in what felt like a cheerful purple shade. Amidst the endless slog of lab work and scientific writing that filled the days before I left, my feelings of anxiousness raging and quieting depending on the day, I silently repeated July 4th until it become a mantra for the day that things would feel different, if only because I’d be living somewhere else and slogging through different lab work and different scientific writing.
But when the time came to finally leave my driveway on that scorching Wednesday morning, I moved sluggishly, resistantly. I took my time loading my bikes onto the roof of my small SUV and said goodbye to my cat at least five times. It had been a year since I had been alone on the road for such a long stretch of time (2016, when I drove the 11 hours to and from the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho by myself), and that was before I had had to spend months coaxing myself out of a deep well of fear and self-deprecation. Being alone, on the road and then in a new state after that, seemed like a good idea right up until the moment where I needed to buckle my seatbelt and start the ignition, at which point it seemed like a doomed enterprise. I worried for a brief moment that I would make it four hours or four weeks into my solo journey and realize that the change I had been looking forward to for so long was not helping me at all, and I would be trapped with myself and completely out of ideas. Then I took another breath, turned the key, and the V4 engine of my sensible Honda hummed to life, ready for anything that didn’t involve particularly high speeds or steep hills. I gratefully acknowledged the non-newness of my car, the satisfaction of turning a key, rather than pushing a button, to start off a journey. Maybe this would work, after all.
As I pulled out of the driveway, and eventually onto the freeway, the pressure on my chest, the one that had been there for so long that I had almost forgotten about it, loosened its hold just enough to remind me of its existence and non-normalcy. I took another, deeper, breath. During the months of caging panic, I had forgotten that I had the power to say no, to acknowledge and then figuratively walk away from the things that diminished me. Driving was a literal way to walk (well, drive) away, my bikes on the roof of my car reminding me that I could go anywhere if I gave myself permission and remembered to put air in my tires.
Driving away from home did not change my life (spoiler alert), but it did change my perspective. It gave me space and time to sit with quietly with myself, left with no choice but to accept myself because there was nothing and nobody else around. It was an opportunity to take stock of my own simple needs and then provide for them. When I needed a story, I turned on a podcast. When I needed to scream, I turned up the music. When I needed to stop at dingy gas stations to buy iced tea and eat Chex Mix, I did just that. It was a chance to be everywhere, nowhere, and just there all at the same time. I could visualize where I was going, where I was in that moment, and where I had been in the most visceral of ways. As I-5 bent west around Mount Shasta, I took comfort in my smallness compared to the behemoth volcano. Though it dominated the horizon for a full hour of my drive, it quickly disappeared from view as I climbed up the Siskiyou Crest and then down towards Ashland, and all of a sudden, I was in a different, greener place.