Our mission materialized. We were going to relocate with nothing but whatever we could fit in two compact cars. We purged nearly everything we owned. It was a relatively easy decision given the cost of renting and gassing a U-haul cross-country versus repurchasing all of our Ikea furniture… but challenging nonetheless. Josh made the initial road trip in his Mitsubishi Lancer with his coworker/pending roommate, in addition to Merlin, our cat. By the time he flew back into town six weeks later I had purged our apartment down to what I couldn’t part with, having forcefully pawned everything I could off on friends, and still: there was too much.
We secured a roof rack atop my Toyota Corolla, stuffing it with kitchen appliances and vaccum bags of clothing. The backseat was reserved for Murphy, our labradoodle puppy who had spent this time with my Mom in Pittsburgh. The area transformed into what can only be described as a puppy nest, there being no floor space available whatsoever and an overabundance of toys.
A large amount of things were simply thrown away, while Joshua’s family thankfully agreed to store the rest for us. With a final clean sweep, we turned in our keys and said goodbye to our apartment in Baltimore city.
WE WERE FREE!
As we pulled onto the interstate I felt like we were on the top of a roller-coaster, almost breathless with excitement. Joshua turned and smiled at me, “Well, here we go!”.
All of the endless discussions and decisions had led to this departure! We were off.
Our route was planned based on locations of friends and family we wanted to see on the way. Our first stop was to pick up my younger brother in Johnstown, PA on our way to Pittsburgh. I secretly looked forward to revealing the puppy nest to Noah, as he would have to ride in it for several hours and he is known for his (often endless, yet humorous) complaining.
Noah came out of his dorm with a duffle bag swung over his narrow shoulders and his wrinkled suit haphazardly hanging off of a plastic hanger. Joshua and I sandwiched him into a bear hug, then stepped aside, revealing the minimal space available in the car.
“Well guys, this is going to be a bit of an issue,” he stated gravely waving his hands through the air. After several minutes of gripes and forced flexibility we were able to shut the car doors and begin once again.
In Pittsburgh we were reunited with Murphy, and my Mom. She had groomed away all of his adorable labradoodle fluff to the point that initially I didn’t even recognize him, but he remembered us and ran wildly around the house– crashing into our arms and sprinkling pee on the floor in his excitement. Joshua was still laughing in his low-pitched joy when Murphy sprinkled more pee on his toes. So we took the reunion into the yard.
We spent an extra day in Pittsburgh, as we would in every city, and went hiking with my mom and her dogs, Rocco and Weasley who had taught Murphy to always stay “with the pack”. We were astonished with how well Murphy stayed in eye sight as we walked through the forrest. He had lost any progress he had made with walking on a leash, but he was listening and off leash in the woods! Wow!
My mother packed bags of snacks for the road in addition to multiple bags of toys and treats for Murphy. She had discarded all of his stuffed toys, citing he could “choke to death on those squeakers, c’mon!” and had additionally thrown away any rawhide he arrived with, “This is so bad Tash, really, never give him this crap,”. These were replaced with organic greek yogurt treats and indestructible teething toys.
Our next stop was Detroit, MI. Joshua’s brother and his family lived only an hour from my Mom’s extended family, so we went there first. I had already met these three nephews and brand new niece, but it was astonishing to see how much they had grown in just a few months time.
The next day my aunt and uncle hosted a beautiful goodbye party for us, their spotless home becoming crowded with our impressively large extended family. Family friends from West Virginia were also able to come, making the celebration even more special. At one point, Joshua and I were seated beside each other on folding chairs in the living room and showered with gifts. It was very moving. There was so much love, but we were going to be so very far away from it.
The weightless above the world feeling that started as we left Baltimore only intensified as we left the familiar territory of Michigan. The car was packed so tightly that we could all barely move. Our next stop was Joshua’s hometown of Omaha, NE.
When I met Josh he had a barely-running 1984 Ford F150 pick-up truck named “Big Lusty”, and he had painted a large “N” on the side in red to represent the Nebraska Huskers. Listening to him talk, trying to teach me to drive stick shift in that truck I realized that I had found myself a remarkably Midwestern man in the middle of Baltimore, Maryland. Having spent a slice of childhood in Iowa, this discovery warmed my heart.
As we crossed the plains we shared stories of our midwestern experience. Having lived in Iowa from kindergarten until third grade I did not connect as deeply to the Midwest as Joshua, who did not leave until adolescence, but his energy was contagious. I remembered bonfires, hayrides, and square dances in elementary school. Farm animals and Autumn harvest. As we got closer to Omaha his excited energy bubbled through the car, detailing every location he had to show me, rehashing Huskers games from his youth.
We arrived at his aunt’s large home around dinner time, icy wind cutting through me as I struggled to make it inside. We were warmly greeted by Joshua’s cousins and Grandma Perry, who I would not meet until the next day, had cooked a large meal for everyone expected. After dinner we watched Frozen, yielding to the children, on a large semi-circle sectional and ate a warm dessert I can only refer to as perfect pecan streusel.
The next day was a whirlwind historical tour of “The Childhood of Joshua”, and included special speakers Grandma Perry and Mother Brown. Grandma Perry welcomed us warmly into her apartment, giving us each tight hugs. She spoke with a slow, gravelly voice that made it twice as funny when she would unexpectedly say “shit”. As in, “Shit, Joshy, you better take this beautiful girl down to Joe Tess and buy her some catfish” before reaching for her pocketbook to reinforce this suggestion with cash. I adored her.
Mother Brown had gone to church with the family for a lifetime and now lived down the hall from Grandma Perry in the assisted living complex. She was incredibly well-dressed for a morning at home, and when I commented on how nice she looked she pulled out several photo albums of her church outfits. She explained that she was “The Duchess”, and after her 100th birthday she was given several thousand dollars, unlimited Oil of Olay products (as she had endorsed them in interviews), and memorabilia from friends of her fabulous outfits. It was truly impressive. After our visits, we ate lunch at Joe Tess, as instructed, and spent hours driving around Omaha.
In the morning, we bundled up and left for Denver, Colorado. We listened to the audio book “Divergent” by Veronica Roth. Despite it’s popularity and recommendation from several friends I respect, we found ourselves mocking it endlessly. The concept was fine, but the dialogue, particularly when read aloud was simply AWFUL. Still, the story helped to pass the time as we drove through endless stretches of flat land and windmills until reaching Denver. We stayed just inside the city, at a Quality Inn I had found an exceptional bargain with through Expedia.
In retrospect, it was not a good deal. Our room smelled like smoke, and was tucked in a back corner of the fifth floor. The web site had promised “Every room with a mountain or city view!”, but our view was of an expansive parking lot with a “pet area” at the back, next to a dumpster and surrounded by broken glass. Beyond this was the interstate and what appeared to be warehouses. Downstairs there was a restaurant and gaming area. Unsupervised teenagers roamed the grounds and burly men ate overflowing cheeseburgers while drinking giant cans of Coors Light. As we discovered at dinner, not having the energy to venture out, cheeseburgers and Coors Light were pretty much the only things they served. Zero stars, five poops.
On our full day in Denver we dined at Prohibition, a restaurant downtown. They had heavy leather furniture, delicate glassware, and a rustic hipster menu. We were there for hours, eating goat cheese sandwiches and bbq while drinking any local beer we hadn’t heard of yet. Afterward we walked the streets and marveled at how boldly the population openly smoked.
Our greatest feat of travel was the trek from Denver to Las Vegas. As soon as we left the mile high city we were driving into the Rocky Mountains. The car was heavy, and it shifted lanes haltingly as our elevation continued to climb and descend. Despite my many years in the Appalachian Mountains, I had never seen mountains quite like this, blue and jagged and crested with snow. It was both breathtaking and extremely anxiety provoking as we careened around curve after curve.
The drive became a dreamscape of sorts, trapped in our own little cacoon. We listened to the Avett Brothers for hours, marveling at the endlessly changing landscape, and inventing possible futures for ourselves. I drifted in and out of an airy consciousness.
“Oink oink… moo… chirp chirp… naaaaaay…. baaaa… ribbit ribbit… caw caw… woof woof… ”
I woke up disoriented.
The landscape had shifted from blue jagged mountains to red and brown dirt towering above us.
“Cuckoo… eee-aaahhhh…. ”
“Josh, Joshua, stop. What’s going on?”
“I really need you to wake up and, like, participate. I’m doing all the animal noises. What does a hippopotamus say?”
“A hippo. Or, a giraffe? The safari animals are harder.”
“I think hippos, like, bellow and giraffes are silent? I really don’t know. Arrraow! How much longer until our hotel?”
Josh accepted my answer wholeheartedly, letting out a deep bellow as he reached for his phone, “Here, check maps”.
We still had nine hours until Las Vegas, where our hotel reservation was waiting. It was hard to imagine being trapped in the car for another nine hours when Josh was already cracking. My legs ached from being still for so long. I reached into our grocery bag and set Murphy up with another hit of our peanut butter benadryl concoction. If we were already fading I could only imagine how difficult this confinement was for him.
Yet Murphy seemed to be handling the trip with more enthusiasm than anyone. He would nap on his back for hours, waking to gnaw on his toys and release loud, exasperated sighs. Intermittently he would lunge his fifty pond frame against the divider we had purchased from PetSmart and hoist himself into the front seat, inevitably causing chaos as drinks and provisions spilled onto the floor of the car. We always took these antics as cues it was potty/water time, and would pull over at rest stops. These exits proved to be very scenic as well, and throughout Utah there were also plateaus we were able to climb at each stop, the dry air coating our throats with dust as we gasped our way to the top, taking in the alien landscape in heaving pulls.
By the time we pulled into Vegas, it was after 2am. The twinkling lights in the darkened desert thickened dramatically, and suddenly, creating an oasis of busy, blinking, civilization. I foggily remember stumbling into the hotel and collapsing on the bed, Murphy bounding from one Queen bed to another while Josh dragged his crate and our luggage into the room.
In the morning we had waffles in the crowded lobby.
“San Diego is only five or so hours from here,”
“I wonder how much our room would be if we added a night”
“You wanna stay?”
“We could walk around the strip and go exploring…”
We debated the pros and cons of extending our trip at length, it becoming readily apparent that neither of us wanted our trip to end. The rambling existence had become comfortable, despite the marathon drive the day before, and the thought of returning to work, or looking for work, and normal day to day responsibilities was unappealing, even in our new sun-drenched city.
Ultimately we voted to pack up, citing our need to buy a bed before Joshua was sucked into work for the week. As we drove into California the land became greener, and the desert heat faded. Green mountains soared upward with giant rocks leaning against them haphazardly.
It was so beautiful.
Josh pointed out areas he had already explored as we drove into San Diego. The traffic was impressive, five lanes of converging cars, every driver with sunglasses on and their windows down. After a horrific winter back East we were driving into an endless Spring. I felt rejuvenated.
As we approached our apartment in Old Town we passed several smut shops. I was concerned. On a long street bordered by the trolley tracks and a recycling center we approached our rectangular glass complex across from a massive costume shop. Even from the outside the modern, Ikea-like design was evident. The outdoor furniture was modular in shape and flanked by bright green end tables. An indigo blue canopy hung above the gated entrance. Every apartment door was painted these same shades of blue and green. The patios which faced one another were fenced in by metallic silver. I excitedly opened the door to ours and scaled the narrow staircase to our first floor.
What was supposed to be our living room, kitchen, and dining room was covered in trash. It was hard to even imagine these rooms serving that purpose.There were huge piles of collapsed boxes and miscellaneous screws and nails on the floor. Trash bags were half full, and untied, scattered across the counters and floors. Despite the breeze sweeping through the rooms, it smelled stale.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I was livid. Our brand new apartment I had never seen was disgusting. It wasn’t even clean enough for me to let Murphy off of his leash. It really wasn’t even clean enough for Murphy to be in.
“C’mon man, seriously.” Josh pushed the collapsed boxes against the walls, trying to clear a path.
Our roommate was going to be an issue.
I climbed the second staircase to the bedrooms and bathrooms. The narrow hallway was almost impassable, blocked with large mirrored closet doors that had been removed from the bedroom and propped against the wall. Even in our bedroom random crap littered the floor.
I let out an exasperated cry, “Josh, what the fuck?”
“I don’t know, he’s been here like two weeks. It didn’t looks like this when I left. He literally did this in less than two weeks. Shit is so gooddamn ridiculous,” he hoisted the closet doors toward the stairwell, where the hallway was wider.
Murphy was chewing cardboard absently at my feet.
“C’mon, we’re just gonna go to the beach. I can’t deal with this right now.” Josh instructed.
As we headed down the staircase a door swung open above. Our roommate, plodded down the stair case. His button-up shirt billowed open in the breeze,
“Hey guys, didn’t realize it was so late already. I uh, what time is it anyway?” He rhythmically packed cigarettes against his palm and stared at us, wide eyed, “Uh, how was the trip?”. His short hair was dramatically disheveled.
I stared, then abruptly turned and left the apartment. I had known Jon previously, having in fact met him the same night I met Josh, and despite the level of my anger I did not want to begin our roommate venture with an emotionally-charged verbal meltdown.
Josh followed seconds later.
“What did you say?”
“Nothing, that we were going to the beach and we’d catch up when we got back. Whatever,”
In less than ten minutes we were pulling into Ocean Beach, the salty air rushing into the car. We were just in time for sunset.
The wind whipped around us as we walked toward the water,
“You’re going to love it here, Toots” Josh said, pulling me into a tight hug.
“I think so too,” my toes burrowing into the cool, smooth sand.
“I love you, my queen,”
“I love you too,”
We stayed long after the sun set, the light, salted air fueling whimsical discussions of what would happen next. We wrapped ourselves in West Coast promises and hoodies we would rarely need in our new climate.