1. There’s something simultaneously miraculous and dispiriting about the uniformity of highway travel across the country. The only things that change are the names of the fast food chains, the color schemes of the gas stations. If you go south, you get Waffle House. If you go west you get Sheetz. Every forty miles or so, there will be a Subway, a McDonald’s, and a place to get Mexican food. There will be trucks and bustling rest stops and long stretches of nothing. It's amazing how little of consequence can happen in a thousand miles. When I first made the drive from Philadelphia to Iowa City, I was anticipating an adventure. All I got was tired.
2. I moved to Iowa City in early August 2004. I’d graduated from college in May and I was going to graduate school for creative writing because I didn’t know what else to do . The one thing I’d always been good at was being a student, so I decided to keep doing that. I knew very little about the program itself, and even less about Iowa. I spent the summer clarifying for people that, it’s Idaho with the potatoes, not Iowa. Iowa is the one with the tornadoes. I left a week after LauraBeth’s twenty-second birthday. I’d asked her to move with me, but we both knew she couldn’t; her mom was dying, and her sickly grandfather lived with her. Her younger brother was still in college and her older brother was away in medical school. She had just started a new job as a nurse. I was abandoning her during what would prove to be the hardest stretch of her life. I did it all thoughtlessly, the way I did everything then.
3. Along with two friends, I drove a U-haul with my ‘91 Honda Civic towed behind, headed toward an apartment I’d never seen before. We only stopped for gas, food, and to take some pictures of Notre Dame’s campus. In all, it took us about nineteen hours to get there, almost all of it spent on the same uninteresting road. The next day, after helping me unpack, my friends took a Greyhound back home. I’d like to think I thanked them profusely, but I don’t remember. I must have thanked them. My whole life I’ve been surrounded by people and systems propping me up and nudging me forward, sometimes against my own will, and I’ve so rarely taken the time to thank any of them. I was selfish then. I’m selfish now, I just smile more so people think I’m nice.
4. The night my two friends spent in my apartment, one of them got drunk on Canadian Club and kept hugging me. He kept saying, “this is it, man. It’s all over.” I thought he was being overly dramatic, but in the ten years since that ride, I’ve seen him fewer than a dozen times. Last time we saw each other, we had an awkward, stilted lunch and left with a handshake. Sometimes there are clear moments marking the point when you’re stepping out of one life and into another; the first morning when I woke up alone in the Iowa City apartment was one of those moments when I understood everything actually was going to be different, and I was not ready for any of it.
5. I didn’t realize it until years later, but I was very depressed then, and I was drinking to excess almost every night. I thought I was having fun, but I was coming home and vomiting and screaming at my computer and wishing for a tornado to touch down on my apartment building before I woke up and had to face myself again. Most mornings, I awoke in a panic, certain I'd done something wrong the previous night, but not sure what, or to whom. People assumed because I was in the Midwest, I was trapped with nothing to do, but it was LauraBeth who was stranded. Her friends were being care-free twenty-three year olds and she didn't have that luxury. She was at home, sleeping in the room where her mom had died, taking care of two high-maintenance dogs and a demanding grandfather. I wanted the long-distance relationship to work, but, as with many things in my life at that time, I did very little to make it happen. I thought my good intentions were enough. In my memoir I detail all the ways I was falling as a person during this period; when I was submitting it, one publisher wrote back to say they liked it, but, “Nobody in the room believed this woman would want to marry you.”
6. In early May, the day after I submitted my final grades, I drove from Iowa City to Chicago, where the plan was to pick LauraBeth up at the airport, so she could join me for the final 770 miles. On the outskirts of Chicago, traffic was stopped. People turned off their engines and stepped out of their cars. A tractor trailer had overturned on an exit ramp. Past the guard rail, the road sloped down into a steep hill, at the bottom of which were two totaled cars. We waited two hours, and with each minute, I got sweatier and angrier and more anxious. I realize the people in the accident were much worse off than I was, and yet all I could think then was that I wanted so badly to see my girlfriend and to get on the road and go away. It had been a bad year. I was, for the first time in my life, a poor student, and an even worse teacher. I only went to one class regularly because the teacher stocked Snapple, peanuts, and Pringles, which became my dinner every Wednesday. At an end-of-year party, an older classmate told me I’d be more interesting if I were more mature. Later that night, I’d nearly vomited on the shoes of a famous author who was a recovering addict. Stranded on I-80, I felt incapable of doing anything.
7. I hate driving – I hate the responsibility of holding people’s lives in my hands, of knowing that on the highway, you are always one unlucky moment away from total calamity. The thing I’m most afraid of is not dying in a car accident, but having a terrible accident and surviving, losing my mobility and my ability to think, becoming a lifelong burden and having just enough mental capacity to be aware of it. Alone on the road, I sometimes look in the rearview and envision and truck just rolling over me and flattening me like Mario stomping on a goomba. LauraBeth likes driving. This makes us a good couple.
8. In August, LauraBeth and I were back on the road. We drove together to Chicago, and she flew home from there. At the airport, she tried not to cry and I didn’t know how to help her. My absence had become the biggest problem in her life. I wouldn’t see her again until maybe Thanksgiving. She would visit me in February. when it would be so cold that ice would be frosted over the ignition in my car, and we would never leave the apartment. The only thing to do then was hope the next year passed by quickly.
9. What can I tell you about Ohio? Nothing. What can you see in Illinois? Farms and more farms. What can I say about Indiana? It goes by faster than the other states. Western PA? Everything is named after rocks and coal. I spent so much time on that road and I learned almost nothing about anything.
10. In my final month in Iowa City, I experienced a sudden moment of clarity and realized I wanted to marry LauraBeth. Friends were shocked because I’d never even mentioned marriage, and the truth is I’d never even really thought about it. One day the thought was there and it made more sense than anything had ever made to me. I bought the ring at a mall in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and I proposed to her the day after my graduation. I had a Master’s degree, a storage unit full of junk, and no job prospects. I’d gained thirty pounds in two years from drinking and fried food. But there was one part of my life that seemed right and good and true, and I wanted to hold onto it as long as possible. We drove the thousand miles from Iowa City to her home in New Jersey feeling like we finally had a chance to live the lives we wanted. It was the first time I’d ever been on that road and felt good about myself.
11. There is an assumption when you start driving that the road will continue, that the highway will stretch as long as it needs to until you reach your destination. The maps and the GPS tell you it’s true, but every now and then, in the middle of a long droning stretch of driving, you consider the possibility that the road only exists as far as you can see it. And once you hit that point, you’ll just fall off a cliff and be swallowed up by the earth. Every time I drove I-80 I doubted I would ever reach the end. The road was just a road but it was so long, and the things I wanted were on the other end of it, so far away I couldn’t see them and could barely believe they existed.