Love that that sweet serendipity.
Drive 1000 miles in Europe and you get through 12 countries. In the US that will take you from California all the way to — Oregon. Specifically, from Los Angeles to Portland.
My 1000-mile adventure began in the mind-bending snarl of LAX, an airport as labyrinth as the freeways in whose tentacles it nestles. Sarah and I had set out from Los Angeles three weeks earlier, armed with an atlas, a kettle, a tent with no poles, and a carton of super-hot wasabi peas. Four-thousand miles, several national parks, one whisky-soaked birthday bash, and a midnight marathon later she was on her way back to London.
Everything up to the farewell had been meticulously planned, mostly by Sarah, whose talent for organisation I admire but don’t share. Now the brains of our operation was airborne my only thought was to find I405N and stick to it like rubber cement until I escaped the LA sprawl.
Driving Los Angeles freeways feels, appropriately, like a video game. You need total concentration and whip-like reflexes. One minute you’re bumper to bumper at 70 miles per hour; the next at a 15mph crawl. Cars swarm and dart like outraged insects with expensive exoskeletons. Me and Bobby McGee, our trusty Toyota hire car, could buzz with the best of them, though. I cranked the Lady Gaga tunes, rolled down the windows, grabbed the wheel with both hands and hit play.
It takes about forever for LA to peter out. There always seems to be just one more suburb. Finally the landscape muted as we slipped the clutches of la la land. I had 300-odd miles before my next decision: to fly through central California on I5 or hook a left at San Francisco and follow Highway 101 along the coast.
Gaga gave way to Bruce Springsteen. Apropos, given that central California has more in common with working-class Jersey than it does with LA or San Francisco. Those two cosmopolitan dots on the map mask the fact that most of the enormous state is empty space studded with sullen, forgotten little towns. The beautiful bits are ring-fenced as national parks or were plowed under to feed the nation.
The part I was driving through was demarcated with tubular metal fencing around cattle yards that were heralded, miles in advance, by a throat-closing stench. Imagine hundreds of warm bodies crammed together in pits of putrefying sewage and you have some idea. If I wasn’t already a vegetarian, that would have been my road to Damascus. The idea of putting anything in my mouth that came from that smell was revolting.
Three hundred miles in Europe can take you through a variety of languages, borders and landscapes. California offers no such break from the tedium. The grey slice of interstate drags you on, hypnotised. Approaching the San Francisco junction I pictured myself pootling up 101. I could stop over in San Francisco, eat sourdough bread, smell the sea, take another picture of the bridge, stay in a cosy motel then head homewards at a civilised pace the following day. But Bobby was running on tracks and we had far to go.
For the same reason I only start enjoying a 10-mile run at mile six I kept driving.
Bobby and I whisked past Sacramento, California’s forgettable capital. The next significant town was Redding, 150 miles away, roughly the halfway point of my route. It offers no speciality breads or romantic views. I knew I wouldn’t stop. I was in the grip of distance-related cognitive dissonance, a disease all driving fanatics suffer. On the one hand, I knew it would take me at least two hours to Redding, itself still two hours from the Oregon border. But it was only 150 miles. Just a couple of inches on a map.
Redding vanished, taking the stultifying dullness of central Cali with it. I was locked into a mission now: to make it to Portland in one grand dash. Could I make it across 1300 metre Siskiyou Summit before dark? As the sun dwindled I fell in behind a Honda four-by-four and formed one of those informal and, on its part, involuntary road alliances. I have fallen afoul of the California Highway Patrol before, and as Bobby and I climbed there were plenty of places for avaricious traffic cops to lurk. The Honda was cruising at about 80 and I tucked in right behind.
Our mechanical dance carried us into the mountains, taking turns to dip in and out of slower traffic, overtake, lunge forward and linger till we were once again moving in harmony. Its taillights led me up the pass and into the fast descent that followed. By then I was in Oregon and hey, Oregon is home. No stopping now.
Time and distance started to play accordion tricks, stretching and contracting. I was obsessively mile-counting now: 97 from Medford to Roseburg. The Boss had worn thin. As had the Lady. And everything from Pulp to Jay-Z. Every sing-along song had been sung. My fingers were glued to the wheel and my nerves were stretched like rubber bands. The friendly Honda turned off and was replaced by a looming redneck beast of a truck whose jacked-up suspension and massive wheels put its aftermarket halogens dead centre in my rearview mirror. Every time my eyes flickered up I got a nervous jolt: the retina-stabbing bluey-white looked like police lights.
My speed reflected varying levels of prudence, stubbornness and temptation. The roads were practically empty so I felt safe at illegal speeds. That made me easy prey, though, and after 5500 miles and counting I didn’t want to end my adventure with a massive traffic fine. On clear, straight stretches I risked fast runs, drafting on any available vehicle. When I5 took me past small towns I eased off; nobody wants to tangle with local boys in blue.
I considered stopping in Eugene, where I used to live with my brother. Friends there would put me up, no problem. But I wasn’t tired, just bored — and fixated. It’s about a hundred miles from Eugene to Portland and I know every detail of the road. Familiarity would make the miles fly. For most of the trip I’d made a conscious effort to not think about the destination because it was too far away. Now, as the lights of Eugene and Springfield flashed past, I let myself picture my sister and brother-in-law’s house. With any luck Saturday night socialising would still be in full flow. They weren’t expecting me, which makes for the best reunions.
Willpower-fueled concentration carried me to the outskirts of the city where I promptly forgot which exit I needed. My brain was tottering towards collapse. Was it 72nd Avenue? Did I hang on till Barbur Boulevard? I can’t now remember which I took, only that it wasn’t the one I wanted. This is my navigational Achilles heel. Give me 6000 miles of open road and I’m dandy. Put me on an unfamiliar street in my neighbourhood and I’m screwed.
There was no point in calling for directions because I didn’t quite know where I was. Nor would well-meant advice have sunk in, at that point. Somehow Bobby and I found our way onto 72nd and nosed tentatively along guided by half-familiar landmarks. Then, bliss. I recognised the cut of a particular intersection. Straight down, right then through the traffic lights.
I drove the last mile slow, slipping silently along Tigard’s low-lit suburban streets, uphill and down. When I killed the engine it was a few minutes before midnight. One thousand miles in 15 hours of solitude, splendour and monumental boredom. “The scary thing”, I thought, trudging up the steps, “is that’s only a tiny little sliver of America. Where shall I go next?”
The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.
…that’s how we measure out our real respect for people—by the degree of feeling they can register, the voltage of life they can carry and tolerate—and enjoy. End of sermon. As Buddha says: live like a mighty river. And as the old Greeks said: live as though all your ancestors were living again through you.
– Ted Hughes
Via Letters of Note
Quitting is an exercise like any other. You don’t have to rush in and try to deadlift the heaviest thing in your life. The big, scary weights aren’t going anywhere so you may as well start with something you can pick up.
For example, when I went to Mexico I quit buying facial cleanser. At first, it was just because I was flying hand-luggage only and it was over the 100ml size limit. So I took off without it. A few days of soap and water on the road and… nothing happened. My skin – long accustomed to expensive cleansers and moisturisers – remained exactly the same. It didn’t flake off or swell up or go greasy.
Now I use Dove bar soap once a day, which costs less than a quid and lasts for months. This represents a considerable savings over £6-£10 on a cream cleanser that lasts a few weeks, so switching has saved me a lot of money.
More importantly, once I realised that ‘cleanse, tone, moisturise’ is pure marketing bullshit I started wondering “what else do I really not need?”
Turns out I can live without a huge handbag collection and a closetful of impractical shoes. Nothing bad has happened as a result of only owning one winter coat and one pair of trainers. Sure, I still have loads of stuff I treasure and would hate to get rid of but it’s good to know I don’t need it.
A man whose needs are limited will find the least noxious livelihood and work in a subsistence mode… Eventually it was learned that the only way to get them to work harder was to play upon the imagination, stimulating new needs and wants. Consumption, no less than production, needed to be brought under scientific management — the management of desire.
The “management of desire” infuses our daily life. We’re bombarded with billboards, banner ads, sponsored Facebook updates, television spots, branded content, and a thousand other canny tactics aiming to convince us that our wants can be appeased by the swipe of a credit card. Very little in the modern ether suggests or reminds us that perhaps what we really want might not be for sale. Might be love, freedom, creativity, generosity, or fresh experience.
Just as our physical appetite mistakes dehydration with hunger, leading us to gobble biscuits when we really need a glass of water, our brain can get confused. Next time you want something, take a minute before you reach for your wallet and ask yourself: “What do I really want?”
You may find your outgoings reduce considerably.
Wish I could claim these beautiful words as my own, but they belong to EM Forster
The people I admire most are those who are sensitive and want to create something, or discover something, and do not see life in terms of power… They found religions, great or small, they produce literature or art… or they may be what is called ‘ordinary people’, who are creative in their private lives, bring up their children decently, for instance, or help their neighbours.
In case you were wondering, I am 100% serious about the I Quit Club. For real. Quitting can change your life.
Quitting is tough though. Not the act itself, which is as easy as falling off a bike (and a lot more fun) but getting your head around the idea that it’s okay to quit.
I was brought up to think quitting was bad. Grown-ups told me that “winners never quit and quitters never win”.
It never occurred to me to ask: “win what?” so I carried on not-quitting like a good girl, right up to my second year of university.
To put this in context, I’d wanted to be a doctor since I was 12. My big crush was Noah Wyle in ER and a steady diet of white-coat heroics convinced me medicine was my calling.
It was a logical choice: secure, predictable, good money, and above all respectable. Off I waltzed to uni: confident, determined and oblivious to the implications of the fact that I hated physics, struggled with chemistry, shrank from biology, and shuddered at maths. I also studiously suppressed my love of English and writing.
Looking back, I am half-amused and half-horrified at how dumb a bright girl can be (“Was anyone ever so young?” Joan Didion sighed). Nothing got through until my second year when I hit term two of physics. Most stuff I can bluff through but physics stopped me cold. You can’t bullshit an equation. Lectures were torturous and the coursework reduced me to tears.
The idea forced itself into my head, unbidden: “why don’t you quit?” Oh god. That was not in my plan. Quelle drama. I freaked out. Bored my poor friends witless with my teacup tempest. In the States, physics is a pre-med requirement so quitting the class meant the end of my doctor dream. Oh my god. I had my WHOLE LIFE mapped out. Quitting would fuck everything up. But I still couldn’t do physics. So I quit.
The minute I made the decision my anxiety and guilt vanished in a rush of relief. I didn’t have the right answers, but I had definitively eliminated a wrong one. It felt amazing.
What I didn’t appreciate until much later was that you can’t have everything at once. You can’t reach out for something new, or receive a gift, if you’re hanging on to your baggage with both hands.