By Angie Mizzell
Years ago, early in my adult life—after marriage but before children—I packed up my entire life in Charleston and moved 3,000 miles across the country to Portland, Oregon.
My husband had already left Charleston to start his new job, so I drove the moving truck, which was packed to the edges, my hatchback Hyundai Elantra in tow. My mom followed me in her Toyota Camry with a small portable storage container trailing behind. My mom was a bundle of nerves about the heavy load we were hauling. The life I was leaving—my job, my friends, a new house that I loved—felt just as heavy.
I hoisted myself up into the driver’s seat and adjusted its position, raising it as far up and forward as possible. I sat on a pillow for an extra boost. My cat was in the passenger seat, tucked away in his crate. Like my mom, he was nervous too. I, on the other hand, had my favorite CDs and a 6-pack of diet Cokes on ice in my Igloo cooler, and this comforted me somehow.
I’m not sure why, or how, I remained calm as I turned the key in the ignition, put the moving truck in drive and slowly rolled away, leading the funky parade out of my suburban neighborhood. All I know is that I was acutely aware of how dramatically my life was changing. It was a clear turning of the page.
There’s something about a road trip that conjures up images of Thelma and Louise, that early 1990s movie starring Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis about two best friends who escape their lives to experience the thrill of the open highway. Before we left for Portland, my mom and I watched that movie, romanticizing the journey we were about to take. In reality, our trip was nothing like the movie. We didn’t pack light and we didn’t take off in a top-down convertible, waving our hands in the air. We also weren’t running from the law. And, to state the obvious, we had no immediate plans to drive off a cliff.
Still, the movie symbolized the freedom that I craved. In the days before our departure, I chopped off my hair and removed my Britney-Spears-inspired belly-button ring, physically shedding pieces of the old me. I welcomed the idea of living where no one knew me and reinventing myself.
On the road, Mom and I communicated with yellow walkie-talkies, which she used frequently to tell me to slow down. I can only imagine the scene from her point of view. Her small car was low to the ground, the large moving truck towering above her. The fact that I was towing my car made it worse, the way it kept bouncing around and looking like it could roll off the trailer at any moment.
For me, the view was different. Sitting up high with my hands firmly clasped around the steering wheel, my thoughts and feelings moved through me as easily as the scenery breezed by on the other side of the glass. I wouldn’t say that I felt empowered, but I definitely wasn’t afraid.
There was, however, one moment when I thought I might die—fly right off the side of the mountain—just like in the movie. We’d just crossed the Oregon border and I didn’t see the signs issuing a warning about the steep decline up ahead. Suddenly I was picking up speed and when I tapped the brakes, the whole truck shook. There was too much weight, too much momentum as I traveled down, down, down the winding mountain road. So I did the only thing I could think of: I pulled the truck out of drive and dropped it down to second gear. The engine moaned in protest, but miraculously, the truck slowed down. I never touched the gas, and each time the truck picked up speed, I’d repeat the cycle. I did this again and again, for miles.
And then, suddenly, the road flattened. I exhaled. I made it.
There’s a powerful scene in Thelma and Louise, when Thelma says, “I feel really awake. I don’t recall ever feeling this awake. You know? Everything looks different now.”
On the road, I was awake. I experienced what it means, and how it feels, when people talk about being fully present. The fog that sometimes covers my eyes and senses had quietly evaporated. And in those brief moments of fear—especially then—I was definitely awake. And, it quite possibly saved my life.
When I arrived in Portland, it was raining. Second-guessing and self-doubt began to creep in. The fog over my eyes would return. In the days and years ahead, I’d discover that I had a lot about my life that I would need to unravel. I’d have to do more shedding of the old self —more than simply cutting my hair and removing a belly ring.
Those days are long behind me, but even today, when things get foggy, I have that Thelma and Louise-inspired road trip to point back to. It serves as my compass. It helps me return to center, back to the present. To the place where I feel alive and awake.