Travel companions

Sacramento to New York—love in 2,800 miles

Illustration by Rob Zammarchi

It’s early morning, and the sun has yet to add any warmth to the day, but as I sit in the cab of the rented U-Haul truck, sleepily blowing air on my hands, my mind is elsewhere, wondering just how I’ve come to be parked in front of a 7-Eleven outside of Secaucus, N.J., celebrating my one-month anniversary with a boy who will soon leave me for a more reasonable California climate.

I am in love, I know this much. But my heart is breaking, too, and I can only blame this predicament on the drive: five days spent in that truck packed with everything I own and a guy I figured I’d never see again once he dropped me off at a friend’s apartment in midtown Manhattan.

I knew I liked him when I left Sacramento, but I had no idea I’d fall in love after he offered to join me on the 2,800-mile journey to New York.

It shouldn’t have surprised me, though—it’d been only seven months since I’d made another important relationship decision, this time from the front seat of my sea-green Toyota Tercel.

I do some of my best thinking in cars. Short trips to the store or long trips to another life, it doesn’t matter. There’s something about the quiet vibrato of pavement beneath wheels that loosens my mind and allows little bits of reason and fancy to mix into something resembling a coherent thought, a sudden and clear flash of destiny.

The last occasion occurred during a road trip to Illinois. Before leaving, I spent the night at my boyfriend’s house, and by the time I left California on that hot August morning in 1997, a nagging feeling had settled into my chest.

The relationship wasn’t going well, but I didn’t know which path to choose. By the time I reached Utah, however, and stood in a roadside truck stop contemplating postcards and $3.99 classic country cassettes, everything crystallized. Somewhere between Reno and Salt Lake City, flying past the salt flats at 80 mph, blasting Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, my brain—so prone to fuzzy thinking—sharpened and my heart shattered into a thousand sharp fragments and then reassembled into something slightly harder, more resolute.

The answer clear, I jotted my decision down on a postcard, gave it to the truck-stop clerk for mailing and never looked back.

Now, less than a year later, there I was, back behind a steering wheel, contemplating the future. The drive was difficult: a cross-country labyrinth of winding roads, suspect motels and wrong turns (how exactly did we end up in Arkansas?) and, thanks to a horrible virus, a 2 a.m. trip to a Chicago emergency room.

And yet somehow, all I could think about were the conversations and jokes, listening to Teenage Fanclub and the Jayhawks and eating at every Taco Bell between Bakersfield, Calif., and Harrisburg, Pa. Five days in a U-Haul with nothing but a boombox and our shared histories between us? If we could survive that, I reasoned, looking over at my future husband, we could probably survive anything.

Long solo road trips tell you a lot about yourself—all that open road with no distractions leads to a lifetime’s worth of introspection. But you discover even more if you make that excursion with a companion. You learn by talking, but also by how you navigate those empty spaces between words. You find out if you actually like the simple of act of just being with that person—bodies in motion, hurtling forward toward a destination while noticing the journey along the way.