Credit card bills, rent payments, tuition statements, may all feel more real than anything else until you’re standing beneath towering fir trees, the magnificence of their immutability telling you how inconsequential your worries are. Nothing to hear but the sound of the wind licking their branches and the chatter of the creatures who inhabit them. When I meditate on the possibility of death tomorrow, all that remains is one simple word: go.
John has agreed to help me convert my hatchback into a camper for my trip to the Pacific Northwest this summer. He’s a feisty, politically-incorrect woodworker married to my best friend Anya. He’s been lending me his power tools for my side jobs since I pawned all of mine to move into this downtown apartment after my extended trip abroad last summer. We compare our creations: he shows me the custom acoustic guitars he’s built; I share pictures of the new flooring I’ve laid throughout another friend’s second-story. He works in a woodshop building custom cabinetry and is something of a perfectionist.
Our early-May project day begins at nine a.m., early for John. Early for John is quite late for me. I find myself getting restless as he racks his brain for a reason to be awake and start cutting wood on a Sunday morning. Anya putters around the kitchen preparing us steel-cut oats with salt, and butter, and bacon.
While John tries to wake up and Anya putters, I work on removing the back seat of my Honda and empty its contents onto their front lawn: an ice scraper, two cumbersome toolboxes, an electric jigsaw, a bag full of bags, jumper cables, the massive CD travel case that’s followed me for a decade, some boxes for the move. Eight bolts and the back seats are on the front lawn, too. I vacuum out Salvie’s hair and some old mulch from a landscaping job.
My hatchback waits, spattered with bumper stickers displaying some of my previous travels: Santa Cruz, Moab, Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park, Everglades National Park, The Narrows in Zion National Park, Blue Ridge Parkway. I have at least one sticker for every wild or new place I’ve been, though only a handful are on my car. The rest are inside a plastic file box on my bookshelf. These curios serve to tell the tale of my deliverance from small-town religiosity, my ventures to all the places I’d much rather inhabit.
John and I set to task with a rough plan I culled from various articles on the internet. For a while, I stand back while he calculates where to start. He intimidates me sometimes. His mind is a factory of perfect engineering ideas. The workday goes longer than I expected. When I finally repack my car in late afternoon, my tools hide in the abundant storage space below the plywood platform bed we’ve built. In a few weeks, the tools will be left in my new apartment, and the storage spaces filled with camping gear.
I walk a fine line between leaving home to find myself in solitude and running myself so ragged that I don’t have time to really look inside, or even outside. What is this leaving? A coming to or a running from? Last summer I backpacked through Europe for the second time and booked myself a solo week in the hills of Tuscany in a relic of a guesthouse, the longest I stayed put during my two and a half months on the Continent. It was the most troubling and the most beneficial slice of that trip. Among the flora and fauna of an unfamiliar place, doors opened to the mystery of being alive.
Mathias Svalina wrote being alive confuses me. It does confuse me. I often suddenly recall the fact that I am human. I recognize that I exist, and it startles me. And it only happens in the monotony of the day-to-day. Being alone in that painting that is Tuscany forced so many questions to the surface. Lost, alone, I could begin to answer back.
Solitude to the adult can be scary like dark to the child. Rebecca Solnit, in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, wrote “the things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration—how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?” Being alone in the painting of Tuscany was a mirror. Being alone anywhere unfamiliar can become a mirror if you look long enough. She says, “leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.”
The American Psychiatric Society defines depression as a condition which causes feelings of sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities once enjoyed. If I wrote the book on depression, I would define it as a loss of things of which to look forward. Life for me, when it works, is a series of things to look forward to. The unfamiliar has kept me moving. It staves off suicide. Not a literal suicide, but the suicide of complacency: the career, the office desk, the fluorescent lights, the picket fence. Death by mediocrity. Death by security. As time trudges on, the unfamiliar becomes harder to find. Jeanette Winterson wrote, time is a great deadener. I’ve grown to think I’ve seen it all, but no one has seen it all. So, I pack my Honda-Fit-turned-camper and I go.
Signs and Symptoms of Psychological Shock
• Elevated heart rate
• Dilated pupils
• Inability to feel physical pain
• Urge to run
• Urge to fight
• Feeling out of body
• Feeling a disconnection from what is happening
The screeching tires. The slow-motion silence. The 50-mph collision. The ditch. Barbed wire fence. The hot, exploding airbag.
No amount of planning or experience with the unfamiliar could have ever prepared me for these. Five hours into my summer journey, everything stops. The momentum, the itinerary, the engine, the music, my thoughts. Time.
I push my door hard against the barbed wire that encases my car; it barely opens. The smoke rising from the airbag, the other driver’s car in the grass fifty feet ahead, say get out now. I squeeze my adrenaline-laden body through the confines of the opening and run to the other driver.
Are you okay?!
Are you sure?
Unsure of what to think about her stunted words, I ask again.
Her cell phone rings, and she tells her father that she’s been in an accident. Only seventeen, her driver’s license just two days old. I walk back to my Honda, a newborn deer on shaky legs. In my daze, I had left Salvie in the passenger seat. A family driving a white Cadillac Escalade had 9-1-1 on the line and I hear them describing my movements and the other girl’s. I leash Salvie and walk up the small hill, out of the ditch, as the family starts talking to me. We’re at the end of the young girl’s driveway: a long, unmarked dirt road in the middle of nowhere. Her dad appears.
Was she trying to turn into the driveway? Was she trying to turn in?
I text my mother over 2,000 miles away.
I’ve been in an accident. I’m okay. But my car’s totaled.
She calls me right away, inserts herself into my experience when she really shouldn’t. I yell into the phone about what happened, unaware I’m in earshot of a swarm of people: the other driver, her father, the family of four from the Cadillac. I hang up. The father and the girl never ask me if I am okay. The EMS sirens jostle me back. I’ve never been on the side of the road with my car in a ditch. In fact, I’ve never been a driver in an accident so I couldn’t possibly be in this one. I speak with the firefighters and EMTs as though I’m one of them.
I only sustained a superficial abrasion on my right arm from the airbag.
I maintained the belief that I was the best driver on the road. Whether or not the law agreed, this accident was the 17-year-old girl’s fault. Had she been as experienced a driver as I, she would have checked her blind spots. Funny how blind spots don’t only apply to driving. The EMT asks me if I would like to be taken to the hospital to be checked out for invisible injuries. Said she thinks I’m okay, but the amount of adrenaline released into my bloodstream keeps me from feeling pain, so just to be sure.
I want to get back into my car and keep driving; to think it’s just a dream, like the dreams of car accidents I’ve had in the weeks leading up to my trip. But those were tests, and this is not a test. I am the girl in the ditch. I am the girl who crashed into the brand-new driver in the middle of nowhere.
In the ambulance, an EMT tries to connect four electrical leads to my chest and my ribs to make sure my heart is functioning properly. No signal.
Am I dead? I joke.
No, you’re not dead. I think one was stuck to your bra.
My heart works properly but my blood pressure is through the roof. My brain sloshes; I rub the nape of my neck to calm down. I watch myself and my dog, the girl and her mother, the EMTs, as though we’re all actors in a movie. They ask me questions like where do you live? When is your birthday? How old are you? The words drop out of my mouth as though someone else is speaking for me.
Again and again I ask, what am I supposed to do? I’m on my way to Oregon to work for the summer, I’m alone out here. I don’t know how this works. I didn’t expect the airbag to be pink. I didn’t expect to ever see the airbag.
When we arrive at the hospital it’s empty. I’ve crashed in a town of two and a half thousand people: Rangely, Colorado. The drive from the scene of the accident couldn’t have been more than four minutes. They put me in a bed, hook up the equipment to check my vitals, and leave.
I text Pia: plz call me.
When I answer her phone call I finally cry.
Desperation is not something I often feel anymore, and that’s the only way to describe it: I’m in the middle of nowhere, alone, I’ve been in a car accident, I’m okay, but my car was totaled and I have no idea what I’m supposed to do. I’m five hours from home!
That EMT tells me tales of his past car accidents, and the other EMT shows me photos of her dog while I lie in my hospital bed unable to get my blood pressure down. Pia is on the other line, calling the only hotel in town and explaining my situation. She books a room for me and Salvie and never asks for a dime. The front desk clerk at the hotel won’t charge me for a late check-out the next day, knowing what I’ve been through, and she tells me where to get the best food. Paula will drive five hours over the Rocky Mountains to pick me up, no questions asked. Even my dad will call me when he gets word of the wreck. A near-death experience has a way of showing you who loves you, especially soothing for those of us who never feel quite sure of being loved.
The hours in my hotel room are darkness. I all but cry myself to sleep. Every time I look at Salvie I apologize to him, squeezing him tight. He sleeps while I search for a new car online and deal with the insurance company, licks me every time my face contorts and the tears come again, as if to say it’s okay. These were the hours of replay, no matter how hard I tried to shift focus. I was shocked awake every time I dozed off. I only wanted to be held.
Identity is a funny thing. My drive through Rangely towards Flaming Gorge was beheaded and along with it so much I thought I knew about myself. The last life-shifting accident I had was twenty years ago when I was still a kid. The last life-shifting ending, five years ago. I’ve grown to believe in my invincibility. I’ve become arrogant about slow, hesitant drivers and about people who waste their lives never leaving their hometowns. Arrogant about women who won’t do for themselves. I’d never let myself be any of those things. I’d never stop moving.
When I return home, east of the Rockies, the depression won’t lift. I go to bed before the sun set and lay awake on the couch at odd hours, remembering the crash, thinking of the crash. I’m not the best driver on the road anymore. I’m not the best solo traveler. Nearly twenty years without an accident slips down the drain as I take a hot shower to loosen my scorched muscles. The airbag burns on my arm washed away; some bruises were left. My knuckles were still scabbed. But none of it hurt the way it hurt knowing that when I left town, I left a lover in limbo. Being alone anywhere can become a mirror if you look hard enough.
“I’ve learned in love and death we don’t decide.” ~ Dermot Kennedy
A new lover is uncharted landscape, riveting; frightening. I can’t remember a time when I took a new lover and didn’t drink. There are red flags and there are false flags and the abandonment in my DNA tells me they are both threats. I meet someone whose passion enthralls me, my feelings grow more quickly than she or I can keep up with, I chip away at my own dealbreakers and ask myself, does that really need to be a dealbreaker, or can I live with it if it means getting her love? I ignore the red flags, make the false flags mountains, until I am being so dishonest with myself and her that I drink to forget what I need.
This new lover had blocked my phone number after I texted her that I couldn’t engage with her any longer because since we’d started my life had become chaos. We were due to spend the day and night together before my trip: the first plan we made that both put on our calendar. Our short love affair was riddled with canceled plans that I no longer trusted her to follow through. That’s the reason I don’t call her my lover: she doesn’t follow through. She told me she wants to be able to do whatever she wants to do whenever she wants to do it, without having the answer to anybody. Then she blocked me on social media.
Then I left town.
She doesn’t remember the first time we fucked, and I don’t much remember the second time.
On occasions she wanted to be next to me in bed, waste the day together. She never showed up.
She was drunk each time she came over to walk, or talk, or kiss.
She made me laugh more than anyone I’d met in a very long time. I fell for her at the elementary school where we teach while we were coaching our students’ basketball team. Her passion, her dedication, her relationships with them, stole my heart. I remember standing in the gymnasium at basketball practice when it hit me that I could love this woman. She was shouting at the children the way a coach shouts; voice booming from her skinny frame with the frustration of a coach who knows her athletes can do better. The way she threw her arms up and around, pointing and yelling, demanding, made me hungry.
She was in the Rocky Mountains that night, co-leading an outdoor education trip with sixth graders and several of our coworkers, when my text came through: Hey, you up? I have a problem.
What’s your problem?
You. I think I have feelings for you. I don’t expect you to do anything about it, but I need you to know. I’m telling you because I value our friendship too much not to.
She threw her phone at the wall, across the cabin.
On my front stoop after dark I asked, I just don’t understand why it derailed you, why it made you so angry, if you don’t also have feelings for me?
Next question, please.
I wasted days on hangovers. I stopped reading, stopped writing, stopped walking the dog. I only wanted her.
When I left Denver, I felt sick. Then I crashed.
I wanted to call her, tell her I needed her. When you make the claim that someone has only brought chaos into your life, though, you don’t get to reach out to them in your time of need. I tell her that I’m home, that I’d had a bad accident and realized a lot of things, and was she willing to talk? She just happened to unblock my phone number. She wanted to see me, but I’d have to drive an hour into the mountains to get to her. So, I do.
I walk into the coffee shop in Nederland, CO., hold her and tell her how good it feels to see her. What happened between us didn’t matter anymore. We spend the rest of the morning hiking, embracing, flirting, thanking one another.
Back at her trailer in the woods, I splay my limbs out on the couch and wait.
It’s humorous and frustrating, I think, how similar we can be. Awkward and shy, reportedly hungry for one another, but unwilling to go first. I kiss her goodbye; I kiss her goodbye again. I stand watching her puppy chew on discarded plastic, she sits on the trailer’s wheel well. I don’t want to go. We must know that to pull each other into bed would make my leaving unbearable.
See you in August! I shout while walking back to my borrowed car, and I head down the canyon. I arrive home to a message about how special I am to her and how she’s here for me, that maybe she loves me too much. I still don’t know what that means — to love someone too much — and why so many of the women who claim to love me are inclined to do absolutely nothing about it.
I drive away from Denver more at peace, but always, always wishing she were in my passenger seat. I won’t hear from her all summer. She’ll take a new job and disappear like a ghost whose silhouette I could barely make out to begin with.
Capacity for survival may be the ability to be changed by the environment.
~ Robyn Davidson, Tracks
When I pull onto Daniel’s property in southern Oregon, I see a barefoot, half-naked young man walking back and forth across the yard from the towering teepee on one end, to the two buffalo hides stretched over a handcrafted frame for tanning on the other. It’s unseasonably hot for early June in southern Oregon, pushing 100 degrees, with no clouds in the sky. Dan will be my boss for the summer and for the first week I’ll be camping on his property, his very interesting property.
He owns about an acre of land in Corvallis’s Southtown, tucked just off the main road, a stone’s throw from a swanky coffee shop, a Shell station, and a co-op grocery store. Once you step onto the property, though, you’d never know it. His house stretches up to the street, with a yard for the four dogs directly in front. Two female roommates rent the main house, and Dan lives in a large closet in his fabrication shop. He makes wooden kayaking, climbing, and cycling helmets out of trees and sells them for over six-hundred dollars a pop. You’d never expect those polished final products to come out of that disheveled workspace of his. Ergo, out of chaos comes order.
When I return outside from using the restroom, Nick approaches.
Are you Chris?
Yeah, hey, what’s up?
We shake hands; his so dirty and mine so clean that our handshake forms a yin-yang.
Wait, the Nick? The Nick I’m working with? We emailed each other, yeah?
I watch him putter for a bit while I set up my tent in the yard. Salvie isn’t sure what to think of this mountain man. He finds a discarded piece of buffalo hide to chew on and decides we can trust Nick. Throughout the week, Salvie will wander into the teepee where Nick smokes and cures various meats, steal a piece that dropped to the ground, and wander back to our tent to deposit it in my sleeping bag. We live under a ripe cherry tree for the week, squirrels dropping fruit on the top of the tent each morning. A lovely way to wake up.
Nick and I are scheduled in Pullman, WA and Spokane, WA for the first two weeks. It takes everything in me not to put a pillow under Nick’s head on the seven-hour drive from southern Oregon. He’s doing that type of dozing a kid in a car seat does, when their head falls forward limp and, at every turn and bump, looks like it might pop off and roll away like a cantaloupe. Whenever he wakes, he points out the window at a doe or an Osprey or a piece of roadkill or a fruit tree or a Willow tree. His constant connection with the natural world, even in the passenger seat of my shiny new Ford Focus, reminds me that there is a world outside of myself, and how to let it feed me.
Our first day in Pullman is the day we almost witness a murder. It becomes rapidly apparent that county parks and campgrounds are the outdoor getaway for white, lower-class folks, and on this particular Father’s Day, two cousins are screaming at each other across the campground.
I fucked your wiiiiifffeee! I fucked your wiiiiifffeee!
Come back here and say it you little bitch! That’s right keep walking! BITCH!
Nick and I look at one another, eyebrows raised, as the short, stout cousin who fucked the wife bounces into the trees, down the trail, and into the picnic area by the lake. So many families are grilling meat for their Father’s Day celebrations, children everywhere, mostly swimming in the lake in their underwear. The cousin whose wife had been fucked sits alone, desperate, on the phone with the sheriff’s office imploring them to come down to the campground and apprehend the harasser. Throughout the day he’ll have reminded us countless times: the sheriff will be down here soon. But the sheriff never comes.
Fuckee’s children and a third man as tall and thick as a tree, with a confidence that’s just as huge, returns to the campsite. When Short and Stout appears again, the tree man goes berserk. Nick and I are plopped right between the two parties, watching everything. Tree Man grabs an enormous piece of firewood in one hand, wielding it like an iron pipe, and bounds toward Short and Stout.
Come here, faggot! Let’s do this, you little faggot!
I’m right here! I dare you! Short and Stout shouts, walking in the opposite direction.
Nick and I stand ready, alert like two deer in headlights, waiting for blood or gunshots. Tree Man turns to us on his way to kill, apologizes softly and gently for subjecting us to this drama on a holiday, and carries on. Short and Stout is already halfway down the trail back to the lake, still chanting with every step.
I fucked your wiiiiifffeee! I fucked your wiiiiifffeee! Can’t wait til you get another wife so I can fuck her toooo!!
All the while the children are watching. Two or three young girls sit by the tent of the Fuckee, a middle school boy stands by the car, and suddenly I can’t help but remember the pain of uncertainty that came with the battles between my uncles so many years before. I turn to Nick.
Those poor kids. How traumatic. When my parents were separating, I remember these fights. My mom had had an affair with my uncle, too, and one night my father almost killed them both. That was precisely when I stopped trusting that my world was a fundamentally safe place.
One of the girls turns to Tree Man and Fuckee and says, I think he ran away because he’s scared, cuz he knows you’ll win the fight!
Their normal is adults acting like children, worse than children, and they’re being swept up in the tide of small-mindedness. Pushing back against a tide exhausts to the point of drowning. At their age, I let the tide take me, I didn’t fight it. Then one day, I simply swam away, back to the shore of myself. I hope someday those kids can swim. I want to pull them aside and say it doesn’t have to be this way, there is good in the world, and you deserve love. Instead, I go fishing.
And it’s strange, all the things that I’ve run from
Are the things that completeness could come from
~ Gang of Youths
The rest of the story doesn’t matter much, only that I go home before my work is complete. I leave two weeks early; running from, again, or is it running toward? The unfamiliar places may serve to sharpen my outline, but change is not beholden to geography. It never will be. Being alone anywhere can become a mirror if you just look. And sometimes it takes being home to answer to the changes that have begged of you all along.
Chris Moore is an elementary school teacher and poet-turned-essayist residing in downtown Denver. She is currently completing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction in the Mile High MFA Program at Regis University. Her work has been featured in the 2018 Punch Drunk Press Anthology, Naropa’s 2019 Vagina Monologues Zine, South Broadway Ghost Society, and Allegory Ridge Magazine. She is currently working on a memoir and traveling whenever possible.
Visual Artist Biography
Alexis Avlamis received an early art instruction from Bennington College, Vermont and later on earned a BFA(hons) in Painting from the Athens School of Fine Arts. By tapping into a stream of consciousness, he creates dreamlike mindscapes aiming at a Cosmic Unity, where nature and the artifice co-exist symbiotically. Avlamis is a laureate of the International Emerging Artist Award (Drawing and Illustration category), which saw his works exhibited in Dubai and Brussels, respectively.