I awoke with stinging eyes, a pounding headache, and a whiff of stale smoke burning in my nostrils. It was all the effects of a hangover with none of the boozy fun of the night before.
Boozy fun didn’t happen in a Salt Lake City Holiday Inn — especially this one. The only vacancy was a smoking room with a lumpy king-size mattress that groaned every time I rolled over. It groaned often. I groaned, too, as I searched in vain for a comfortable sleeping position.
But it wasn’t all bad. I had reached my goal. I had made it to Utah. That was something, wasn’t it?
I was in my mid-twenties. College was over. I was living with my parents. I had no girlfriend or any prospect of finding one. Most of my friends had moved away. The only reason I had to get out of bed in the morning was my job at a bed and breakfast trade magazine situated out of a suite of dingy offices in South Orange. I didn’t like the work, but it was all I had.
Then I got laid off. In one fell swoop, I had lost what was left of my identity.
I still had money, though — and I didn’t want to spend what little cash I had left living my boring life in the same boring way. I wanted to spend it on something else – on gas and motels and heavy meals like fried steaks slathered in thick, speckled gravy the consistency of joint compound.
I wanted to see things. I wanted to travel.
“Where are you going?” my friend, Bill, asked through masticated bites of cheeseburger. Like me, Bill still lived at home. Unlike me, he had a job, a girlfriend, and an exit strategy out of his parents’ basement.
I didn’t have an answer. A destination had never occurred to me, so I said the first silly location that sprang to mind.
“Ah!” Bill nodded. “You could use a couple of wives.”
We chuckled as we slurped our diner coffee, wordlessly mocking a place neither one of us had ever been.
In that very moment, however, a less cynical part of my personality took over.
Well, why not?, I thought. Maybe I would find my future wife on this trip. Maybe I’d stumble into a job – a good one that paid well. Maybe I’d find a little town so perfect that I’d never want to leave. Maybe the hours of quiet contemplation behind the wheel of my Plymouth Duster would help me make sense of my life. Who knew what was out there a thousand miles west of New Jersey? Anything could be out there. Maybe it was wonderful. Maybe it was waiting for me.
My stomach trembled with giddiness. For the first time in a year or more I fell in love with possibility.
I began my journey on a crisp, March morning with a bulging wallet, two bulging suitcases and little fanfare.
I first drove to Baltimore to meet up with an old friend. But our relationship wasn’t the same as I had remembered it.
Then I drove to Pittsburgh – where I went to college – to see if I could recapture something from that point in my life. I couldn’t.
Then I drove to places unknown. Ohio. Indiana. Iowa. Illinois. Nebraska.
I met a few people along the way, but not really. I didn’t want to meet people, so I mostly kept to myself. Part of me knew that I was sabotaging the entire point of my trip – the desire to find something to turn my life around – but I stayed the course. I drove a few hours. I set up in a motel. I watched Dragnet on Nick at Nite. Then I repeated the process, day after day after day, until Wyoming bled into Utah.
Because Utah was my destination, I had convinced myself that the answer to my problems would be found there. But all I could see was a vanilla town filled with fit, chipper people. When you’re depressed, the last place you want to be is in a town filled with fit, chipper people.
That night, in my stinky motel room, I counted what was left of my cash. More than half of it was gone. Logic told me that I had to head for home right away if I didn’t want to get stranded.
But I resisted. Everything was still unresolved. Everything was so very much the same as it was before that I couldn’t bring myself to turn around.
So the next morning I skipped breakfast and drove further west.
Shortly after Salt Lake City disappeared in my rear view mirror, I came upon the Great Salt Flats. The idea of such a lonely place so near a city startled me. I had driven across many desolate patches on my journey, but nothing quite like this. Before I knew what I was doing, I pulled over to the shoulder.
I got out of the car. The wind slapped me in the face as my sneakers crunched against the gray silt. The land was flat and featureless in every direction. I imagined Purgatory to be like this.
“My life in a nutshell,” I announced into a gust of wind. “Nothing worthwhile in any direction.”
But as I took it all in, I reconsidered my assessment.
If I continued west long enough, I’d hit San Francisco.
If I turned around, I’d be back in Salt Lake City and on my way home.
And who knew what I’d find if I went north or south? Something else besides this, surely.
There was something worthwhile in every direction, I just couldn’t see it yet. Like Purgatory, this situation was temporary.
Maybe this was my life in a nutshell. Maybe Utah did have something to tell me.
I let the wind smack me around for a minute or two more before I slid back into the driver’s seat. With a lighter heart, I pointed my car toward home and looked forward to what might appear on the horizon.