Salt Solution

UtahI 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.


95 Replies to “Salt Solution”

  1. I loved this! I’ve always read about people who go travelling in order to figure out something, and the result is usually unexpected yet satisfying. This was such an entertaining read, and I was pulled in by your desire to just find something that would help you get some answers. Have you written about this before? Because I’d really like to read more about your adventures.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Camille! This is the first time I’ve ever written about this trip. In reality, I’m not much of a traveler, so my compulsion to hit the road was really out of character.

      I do have a few anecdotes that took place on this journey. I’ll deliver more travel posts soon.

  2. And here I thought you would continue the story with “And so I headed to San Francisco. I met my destiny and made my fortune.” Then again you showed the greater part of courage and common sense by heading home.
    The Adventures of a Doodling Writer the name of your upcoming memoir?

  3. A journey toward self-discovery always makes for interesting reading, and you pulled us right in on yours. I look forward to hearing about what appeared on the horizon!

    1. The big change that occurred once I got home was my attitude. I still had a bit of a slog ahead of me, however. Years worth of slogging, actually. But that attitude change made everything more bearable.

  4. I’m taking this essay with a pinch of salt, Mike.

    Kidding—it’s a pinch of a different kind, one that feels a lot like a much needed kick in the rear.

    I started my new job yesterday. It’s not quite where i want to go, but it will help get me there. Kinda like Utah. 🙂

  5. What a great story! I think it relates to almost every youngster who is on the verge of taking that leap of faith into the unknown. Takes quite a bit of bravery to explore the unknown adventure that may lay before you. Outstanding.

  6. Great story. You took me along for the ride. I too expected San Francisco, but I love the realization that the path isn’t outside oneself, but inside. There’s great freedom in that. Can’t wait to hear the rest of the story.

  7. I do my best thinking on the road. Its why I always make sure someone else is driving so that I can tap away ideas into my phone or scribble notes in a notebook.

  8. Nice rite of passage story, but oh, how I wish you’d continued on to SF. Maybe you’d still be here, and maybe you’d be a Dogpatcher. Maybe we should make you an honorary Dogpatcher….. 😀

    Love the line, “…thick, speckled gravy the consistency of joint compound.” Yum!

    Still getting out from under all the emails, webinars, etc. I ignored while on spring break. Will try to get something pounded out for BKPTSD before the end of April. Cheers!

    1. If I had made it to SF, I never would’ve met my wife, so it’s best that I turned around. I do hope to visit your neck of the woods someday soon, though.

      Speaking of chicken fried steak, I ate way too much of it on my travels. There is no constipation on earth as terrible as chicken fried steak constipation. Consider this to be a public service announcement.

  9. What a lovely, yet lonely story. I could see you in the car with nothing but your thoughts and future ahead. It is true . . . there is no place like home and the road brought you back to it. How nice.

  10. Wonderful story, Mike! I could not agree more with what you said, “The last place you want to be is in a town filled with fit, chipper people.” Even on a good day, I find this extremely depressing.

  11. Dear Alleg,
    This very good to you post is inspire and thoughtful. I like to read it and look forward to. Please send funds to this attachment overseas account. And two wives.

    I thought I would practice my blog spam this week. It’s oddly fun to write like a bot. Anyhoo, nice post! Actually, I really like the idea of knowing something unseen awaits beyond the horizon. Maybe we all know it but forget it too often. Thanks for the entertaining reminder!

      1. I haven’t seen HOME either, but I like Jim Parsons and can only imagine what he did with the part. I guess it’s animation movie night soon!

  12. Ah….you taketh me on a little trip down memory lane. There is a reason why my blog is called Destination Unknown. The nice part about the unknown destination is that it sometimes can be a life changer. 😀

  13. I like that this told of your inside and outside journey. And you remind me that there might be something worth while in every direction. My ex and I drove cross country in ’89. I suppose we were on the edge of that beautiful nature preserve with all the red rock and buttes — the part of Utah that looks like where they film all the lonely road car commercials. It was fascinating — reminded me of being on mars. We found ourselves — much like you mentioned — in this town in Utah with tall fit people — all blonde — everyone was blonde — we had stopped at a supermarket. Needless to say we were the only black people — hahaha! They stopped to talk to us, and were super friendly — we couldn’t get out of that supermarket for all the people who stopped to talk to us, and everyone stared, but not menacingly or anything. They’d never seen black people before. My boyfriend said jokingly, “They just want to make sure we’re just passing through” — hehehehe! Probably so! 😀

    1. That’s hilarious! And I noticed the blondness of Utah, too. I didn’t mention it the story because I couldn’t believe that my 20-year-old memory was accurate.

      Salt Lake City actually reminded me a little of Leave it to Beaver. So vanilla, so clean cut, so filled with chipperness. I also remember that the town had no extremes; I can’t recall seeing anyone who was obese or unusually skinny.

  14. I don’t think I ever bolted to look for something which is surprising given how impulsive I am. I have hitchhiked on a plane and took a motorcycle ride with a legit gang of Harley riders. I even car surfed, but don’t tell my kids! I have a long list. Getting married was a pretty big adventure since I had only dated my husband for a weekend. Everything turned out okay and it looks like you found the very same happy ending.

  15. Wow – this story made me a bit uncomfortable: #1, because most of us have been on a (at least figurative) journey like yours, with fake mashed potatoes, an ocean of salt, and no raison d’etre in or near or long-term future. What a difficult place to be. You describe it so well it made me feel really bad for you (and me, and all of those 20-somethings wondering who the hell they are). Except for the times you made me laugh while reading, which wasn’t very nice of me, but you made me. You’re a wonderful writer, and I’m so glad that I’ve peeked at the end of the story and know you made it out of the salt.
    P.S. My grandparents and parents lived in South Orange when it was a beautiful place indeed. Before the salt fields of poverty and depression took over…

    1. You should know by now that I am glad when a reader finds my stuff funny. This post was written to be more serious that most of my other blog stuff, of course, so I’m especially pleased to hear that the few jokes I put in landed.

      The trip wasn’t all miserable, I’m pleased to say. *Most* of it was, but not all. In the future I’ll post a few more stories from this particular trip. Maybe there’s a long-form essay here.

      Here’s a preview: I met my very first militia man in a desert in Wyoming. (This was a few weeks before the Oklahoma City bombing, before anyone knew what a “militia man” was.) At one point in our conversation I was convinced he was going to murder me.

      1. You see? You made me smile again, even though I’m scared for you, out there in the middle of nowhere with “miitia man.”
        I think it’s so hard to look back at our lives and see past the angst to lighten up what we went through. That’s a tough job for a writer, because we don’t want to seem to be making FUN of our past selves (or patronizing). Just looking at that younger self with love, admiration, and a bit of tsk tsk. You do that very well.

  16. I didn’t realize this was a true story until I started reading the comments. Yikes! … I say that because the angst is palatable. I think most of us have taken that journey – metaphorically – at some point in our youth. You really did take the journey.
    I honestly expected the journey to continue to SFC so I was surprised at the end when you turned around. Both choices would have been brave for different reasons.

    1. I think a lot of people go through a quarter-life crisis, like I did. Unlike a lot of people, I was fortunate, for I had the opportunity to take time away from all I knew to get my head together.

  17. Ooh, going for the drama this time! Love, love, love it!

    Been there, man. A couple of times at least. I know the feeling of searching and searching for something, then that feeling of emptiness that comes with not finding that one thing that’s supposed to solve our problems.

    But that important adventure serves a purpose. It helps make room for possibility. Sometimes we need to be alone on a journey to find what we’re looking for.

  18. What a great reminiscence of such a turning point, Mike. There’s no way you could’ve known or expected something like that. How wonderful! Not to mention you must’ve had enough money for food and gas to get home 😀

    1. I barely had enough cash to get home. I wasn’t very cautious with money on the way out. If I was stingier I could’ve easily made it to SF and back, but my mind wasn’t in a frugal place. I wanted the trip to be as pleasant as possible; I thought it would improve my mood. It didn’t, but at least most of the beds were comfortable. By far the worst — and most expensive — room was the one in Salt Lake.

  19. You were brave to take that journey. It seems very un-Jack Kerouac that you would land in a city with fit and chipper people, but all was not as it appeared. Utah is one of the highest state’s for drug deaths, mostly meth and since the 60s it’s been one of the top for any and all kind of “mother’s little helpers”. Fit and chipper appearances are hard to keep up. Salt Lake has changed. It’s a democratic run city (with reasonable Portland, Oregon comparisons) in a republican state, rather like it’s little island attitude bordered by desert, mountains and national parks that snicker when they kill. I enjoyed your journey of the heart.

  20. Love the story. I guess I am relatively new here (though I thought not), because this is the first post that made me think more than it made me laugh. Mike, you really do write well. I’ve alway loved your posts, but this time it took me away. I remembered leaving my home town, simply to get away, but to go to school, too. Just going 200 miles, with my parents not far behind me with a fully-loaded car, was scary, never having been anywhere on my own. Driving 2500 was extremely brave. Where did you pass through, or stay, in Ohio?

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Sue. This post was a bit of a departure for me, so I’m especially glad to hear that it resonated with you. I didn’t see the trip as brave, really, it was just something that felt right at the time.

      On my way west I went straight through Ohio — though I wish I hadn’t, for my night in Indiana was far and away the worst I spent on the trip. The only place I could find was a seedy little motel with inadequate door locks and a parking lot that played host to a pack of nocturnal gangs of Harley riders.

      I stayed overnight in Bryan, Ohio, on my return trip. I didn’t know it at the time, I’m afraid, but Bryan is the home of Ohio Art, the factory that makes Etch-A-Sketch.

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