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True Stories: Heading West

Shortly after moving to California in 2014, I wrote a letter to my grandmother (with whom I've been penpals since I was 10) and I told her about my 4 day drive from Michigan to California (among other things). Once completed, I realized that I'd written a mini-memoir; a commentary on my traveling. It is now that I offer this memoir to you, written to my grandmother.


Originally my best friend Matt was supposed to accompany me on my drive across the country, that is, until the day before we were supposed to leave. On Friday, August 29th he found out that his dad needed open heart surgery that following week, when he was supposed to be in California. It was unfortunate on all accounts, but this news meant that I didn’t have a companion on my trip. I was in a flurry and was immediately stressed. He and I were slated to leave at 9 o’clock the next morning. I didn’t know what to do. My apartment was nearly empty, I owned only what would fit in my car, and it felt like Kalamazoo was trying to hold on to me with a death-grip. I only wanted to leave. So, that’s exactly what I did. With the last few hours of light, I packed up my car with my belongings, said a somber farewell to my friends, and was on the road to California by 7pm.

At first glance, my decision may seem to have been impulsive and somewhat impatient (and maybe it was), but I was eager to start my adventure and my new life. My last Michigan sunset waved me goodbye and I spent the night driving, crossing into Indiana, through Illinois, and across Iowa, until I finally stopped at a gas station in Western Iowa at 4am to rest for a few hours. With perfect 20/20 vision, I’m a great night driver and that first drive wasn’t as horrible as it may seem. I was filled with adrenaline, excitement, fear, and hope. Most of all hope. I was on a pilgrimage to discover the next phase of my life. Anything on the other side of this drive would be what I deemed; a life I crafted. Sleeping in a car, I found, is not that easy. At least not for me. I winked about two hours of sleep in that gas station parking lot before I decided to go brush my teeth and splash water on my face to continue my drive. I believe it was around 6am that I set back on the road. I quickly crossed into Nebraska... a place where landscapes go to die. I jest, but truthfully there is nothing in Nebraska. I’ve been through a lot of boring states, but that one… it takes the cake. As far as the eye could see, there was only flat land bathed with corn fields and cows. Every mile looked exactly like the one before it and I felt like I was in the twilight zone. The only respite from the monotony was when I decided to deviate from the highway and found a lake to sit by and rest for an hour. It was all I could do to not stay there all day, but alas destiny calls and I was on my way. My destination on that first full day was Fort Collins, Colorado, where my friend Angie from Kalamazoo had just moved. Angie is one of my yoga students and in the last year of me being in Kalamazoo, we became good friends. I was excited when I was able to turn off the endless road that is I-80 and venture into Colorado. I was a little dismayed as I crossed the border. We always hear about Colorado being mountainous and breathtaking, but at the Nebraska border, it’s still mostly flat lands.

However, the closer I got to Fort Collins, the more defined the land became. At about 4 o’clock (mountain time zone) that evening, I arrived tired, hungry, and smelly at the foot hills of the Rocky Mountains. I couldn’t decide if I wanted a meal, a nap, or a shower. Luckily I got to have all three, not to mention the good company of a good friend. Despite my nap, I was still quite exhausted and fell asleep around 8pm. I slept 10 hours that night, I’m sure trying to make up for the pathetic nap I’d had the night before. The next morning, Angie and I had breakfast at a nice restaurant in downtown Fort Collins, walked around for a bit (I needed it after the last day and a half in the car), and then I said goodbye.

I traveled north from Fort Collins to rejoin I-80 at Laramie, Wyoming. The rain that had started when I set out stayed with me through the first hour or so of this phase of my journey. My little car, which was doing so well, labored as the hills became steeper and steeper. I’ve driven through the Appalachians in this car, but the Rockies are a whole new beast. I thought of you and your Western novels and movies as I drove through Wyoming. It’s such a beautiful state, full of mountains, expansive grassland, and I remembered you talking about your favorite stories taking place in this setting. This was my longest day driving, having estimated that it would take me 10 hours to travel from Fort Collins to a small town in Nevada called Elko, where I had a motel reservation. The first 8 hours went by without much event. Wyoming eventually turned into Utah, with the most beautiful mountain landscapes I had yet seen. I made it to and drove through Salt Lake city, which turned into sprawling salt-flat lined hills. The road was mostly straight and I was nearly 40 miles to the Nevada border when I heard a big pop. Truth be told, I wasn’t that upset when I pulled over to see my back passenger’s side tire pathetically deflated. I found no good reason to get upset, as this was the truth of the moment and there was no wishing it away. My biggest obstacle at this point was that my spare was located in my trunk, beneath a good portion of my belongings. On the side of the road with the failing sun in front of me, I unloaded the contents of my trunk and changed the tire. Now is a good point to mention that my car was loaded beyond capacity and was quite heavy. This reality may have attributed to my “let’s just get this over with” attitude. Not much later, the spare was on, my trunk was reloaded, and I was on my way… until 5 minutes later… when the spare tire popped.

Now I’m upset. Now I’m cursing my car, the tire, and my indecision to splurge for new ones before I left Michigan. (In my defense, I’d driven over 1,000 miles on that tire by that point.) The sun was setting fast, and the nearest town is 40 miles away at the Nevada border. I called Mom, not knowing what else to do. If anything, she made sure I didn’t blow the car up in defeat. I was able to call a tow truck from that town in Nevada and just as the sun hid behind the mountains, my car was loaded on a flatbed tow truck and my new friend Rick and I were off to Nevada. I won’t even mention how much this towing cost. Really. Rick the tow man, though friendly, was not best problem solver. It was Sunday night on Labor Day weekend and I needed a tired replaced so that I could get to my motel room, which was still an hour and a half away, and he didn’t really have any answers to my questions. Granted, it was my own false expectation that a tow truck driver in the middle of nowhere Utah/Nevada would know the hours of operations for various auto repair services in the surrounding locale, but Rick only had hunches. And me… I apparently had angels. Rick’s only hunch as getting my tire fixed as a remote “tire shop” on the outskirts of this town at the Utah/Nevada border. In pitch black night, we pulled off the exit and into a gas station. We drove behind the gas and passed four large white diesel silos and to a row of trailers that were the “tire shop.” I said I had angels and I’m really not joking. By chance (or grace), Matt the tire repair guy was there and in business. This must have been the only open tire repair place within a hundred miles and we landed at the right one. Here we enter phase three of this road trip snafu. Rick dropped my car off, I paid him (painfully) and he was on his way. Matt, too, was on his way. This tire shop’s main business was traveling to big tractor trailers along I-80 that had flats and Matt had received a call just minutes before I arrived, so he had to take care of that customer first. Whatever, I thought and both drove off leaving me with my injured car. This setting... the pitch black, the diesel silos, the run-down line of trailers… I felt like I was in a horror movie. To sooth my growing discomfort, I called my friend (and now roommate) Suzanne and talked with her until she had to get off the phone. Then I called Mom and she stayed on the phone until Matt returned about 30 minutes later. Matt was nice and seemed to have something between his ears. He didn’t try to swindle me or sell me a crap tire. If fact, he sold me my replacement tire and a replacement spare and by 9:30 that night I was back on the road, leaving that tragic deviation behind me. I was so tired that I barely made it to the motel in Elko, where I fell asleep immediately. I didn’t want to get up that next morning, except for the fact that it was my last day driving. By that night, I’d be in my new home. I took my time getting ready, showering, and paying my motel bill. I grabbed breakfast at a local diner, and then I was again on my way. Despite the drama of the night before, I felt reenergized after eating. I’ll admit I was squeamish about my other four tires and their durability to withstand this last stretch, but halfway through Nevada I relaxed a bit and just enjoyed the drive (or as much as I could after 1,500 miles). I stopped for lunch in Reno, Nevada. As I sat at the burrito joint, I knew that the next time I got out of my car I’d officially be in California. I was excited and I felt an awakening of hope, possibility, and best of all happiness. Crossing into California was much as I expected it to be. When you drive in on I-80, you immediately enter Tahoe National Forest, a highway winding between mountains lined with pine trees. It was absolutely beautiful (as much of the landscape up to this point had been). I no longer worried about making it to Oakland, because I’d already made it this far. So I just drove on, passing through Northern California and at about 6pm that night, I pulled up to the apartment that is now my home. Tired and elated, my new roommates and I unpacked my car and blew up my air mattress, me soon falling asleep. When I woke up my first morning here, I wanted to pinch myself to make sure that my journey had not all been just a dream. From my flight from Kalamazoo, to my journey through Nebraskan-purgatory, to my pit-stop-rendezvous in Fort Collins, to my flat tire debacle, to my burrito filled musing about my new life… it all happened and I had finally arrived. ---

Copyright Jerry Givens 2015 | All rights reserved


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