I’ve been afraid of failure my entire life. How can a six-year-old diabetic cope with glucose monitoring, food restrictions, and insulin injections? Glamorize a life of regularity. How can a sixteen-year-old diabetic avoid experimenting with drugs and alcohol? Worship self-discipline. In a desperate effort to insulate myself from the growing need to take risks, I idealized living in a predictable and safe bubble.
Except, in my early twenties, I befriended a man who traveled from the Pacific Ocean to Philadelphia, who believed perseverance is the surest measure of strength. At first, I shamed him for hurling himself into risky situations, but then the angry child living under severe discipline screamed to break free. I destroyed everything familiar, especially the parts about myself most celebrated and rewarded, and began my gutsy journey to freedom.
This is my 3,000 mile pilgrimage from the Pacific Ocean to Philadelphia. It’s about watching fields of sagebrush, massive cloud shadows, and snowy mountain ranges during 15-hour drives. It’s about camping in an empty apartment on a pillow of clothes. It’s about accepting death while swerving across the freeway in a violent hailstorm. It’s about finally reaching Philadelphia to honor the man who inspired me to expand my limits.
Mia and I turn the car toward the Atlantic and drive six hours into the sunrise. I drink coffee and beer on the eastern edge of Oregon with her closest friends, people I met on a whim only a year before. I was attempting mini adventures to fight my fear of failure, so I spontaneously explored my city with a group of strangers. Mia was among them, a young academic whose heart belonged to the land and its wildlife.
Bravery brought me to Mia and her friends, and now we’re here.
I have to be here.
When I was six, I was diagnosed with diabetes and fell victim to strict routine. My mother wouldn’t look at me from across my hospital bed. My father anxiously paced or wasn’t there. He was a child of poverty and became money-mad in order to avoid becoming an adult of poverty. My day-old diagnosis stole five-thousand dollars from his savings. My mom cried whenever she injected me with a syringe, so I paid attention to how she measured the insulin. I watched her stick the needle into my arm or leg.
When I asked if I could give it a try, she said, “Thank you.”
Somehow, it mattered more that she was less scared than I was.
For twelve years, I stepped along a predetermined path. I couldn’t lose control of my routine because failure meant seizure, hospital, or nerve and organ damage, so I glamorized a life of regularity. It insulated me from the curiosity of anything different.
Back on the road, Mia and I drive six more hours to Salt Lake City and stay with a guy with Nick Offerman’s voice. He takes us out to sushi, and we visit The Salt Lake Temple. While headed to the foot of Olympus Peak, we misplace Mia’s car keys at nightfall. We’re 900 miles away from one coast and 2,000 away from the other, stranded.
Instead, she and Offerman drive back to Olympus Peak in his truck, but I stay behind to close my eyes for an hour. After I wake, she and Offerman are back without any luck. The first locksmith Offerman calls is a scammer who heckles us in a language we don’t know. Although we’re exhausted and worried, we insist on refusing his scheme. Eventually, we find the keys on my suggestion (Offerman’s truck, wedged in the middle seat where Mia sat). It’s a bittersweet victory, of course.
We haven’t slept in 24 hours, save for my hour-nap, and we pour an Oregon brewed beer to celebrate before we rest.
When I was fifteen, an atheist convinced me to stop believing in fate and actively engage in shaping my own life. I gave up a predetermined path, but as an idealist and in charge of my own fate, I believed myself responsible for embodying my best possible pathway: you shouldn’t squander anything; you shouldn’t act negligently. I put incredible pressure on myself to never falter from my “good path.” Shaping my own path proved to be just as idealistic as following a predetermined one — the same mindset with a new face.
Then, in my early twenties, committed to a five-year relationship pointed at marriage and children, I befriended a man unafraid; a man named Logan, who said he was free. He talked about sleepwalking through life until he left on a train for New York City at eighteen. For him, strategizing against new odds was the best process for growing stronger, but there was something about his pull to perseverance that nagged at me. I chalked him up as a masochist who was convinced that the mere act of suffering would lead to self-enlightenment. But before Logan left on his second cross-country adventure, this time from Oregon to Philadelphia, he listened to my personal dig on his lifestyle and told me: “I discourage letting fear rule me with every bit of who I am.”
And when he left, something inside of me snapped.
He knew. He saw me.
Logan’s fire for adventure called me to devour anything and everything that might break my idealism. Deep down, I began to realize those parts were fake. I needed to cheat on my long-term boyfriend to explore my sexuality elsewhere; I needed to smoke cigarettes and binge-drink alcohol to experience what I thought all my past high school friends experienced. And I did; on a path of no resistance, I went for it all: everything I’d always wanted to try but couldn’t.
I thought having the intent to self-destruct would offer hope and direction under my perfect mask, but I was very wrong. The bare me was a loud, desperate child turned bitter, nasty, and brutal. I waited for perseverance to become my surest measure of strength, like Logan said would happen from enduring a difficult challenge, but any strength felt futile next to my pain. I completely gave up on climbing out of the shrapnel.
A year after self-destruction and a year before traveling the nation, I walked into a preschool as a temporary teacher’s assistant with a hatred of myself too strong to do more than blindly follow the lead teacher. All of us were strangers in this classroom, so these little people and I needed only to feel that they would survive and so would I. With that as our collective goal, we consistently created an environment we came to understand and trust. With that trust, we grew to care for each other and whichever difficulties we faced that day. And, one day, when my kids discovered something new, I celebrated alongside them; when I broke down crying, they loved me in their silence.
Our personalities were all over the place, mine included, so I stopped missing who I was; I stopped imagining who I might become.
They showed me how to find peace in being here. I still didn’t like the desperate child underneath the perfect mask, but I no longer avoided her. I accepted her, got to know her, and worked alongside her. It was the first time I entered a situation without expectations. It was the first time I accidentally did something new.
Back on the road, Mia and I drive across the border of Wyoming into a hailstorm. It takes a few seconds to realize the car is swerving across the freeway. And when we spin, I do nothing but let Mia take the wheel. I lean back in my seat and keep quiet, focusing only on the flashing storm and giant semi-trucks and Mia downshifting, carefully correcting our spin, reacting on instinct. Only after we straighten out and drive off the freeway do I realize we narrowly escaped death. We sit in silence, looking through a windshield of blinding hail. Mia eventually thanks me, but I don’t know why. It isn’t until we slowly drive to the next town that I realize my embarrassment from being completely at Mia’s mercy, powerless in my submission. I’d never truly given up control, I tell her, until I worked with my kids, until this dangerous situation. I’m embarrassed; I feel useless and uncomfortable. Mia tells me that I never submitted to her. Submission is choice taken away, she says. Rather, we quickly found our roles during a difficult challenge, she took control and I yielded, because I paid attention and reacted to the matter at hand. You could have told me what to do, she says, which would have only distracted me. Instead, she says, you leaned back so I could see our surroundings, and you kept quiet so I could focus. And, she says, you didn’t freak out once we parked off the freeway. Instead, she says, you waited patiently for me to embrace you.
Thank you, she tells me again.
I can’t explain what if feels like to almost be severely hurt or killed. I can only say that in a space void of expectations or desires, I’m the most free.
We slowly drive to the next town, eat Mexican food and drink beer, split the cost of a hotel room, and take long hot showers. After a safe sleep, I quietly watch fields of sagebrush, massive cloud shadows, snowy mountain ranges, and rainstorms. Mia asks me to pump gas while she grabs coffee. I’ve never done that before, so I try. I wash the windshield too. We find a “road family” that travels across states with us. It’s a long drive.
880 miles later, we walk into a flat in Des Moines I only expected to see in a movie. And in a modish city flat, you play hard. We’re here to visit Mia’s extended family, so we drink Kamikazes with kamikaze helmets, sip cocktails out of copper cups, and I have the unexpected privilege of getting my hands on “das boot” at a German pub. Drunk and excited, I film myself naked in their luxury shower and repeatedly jump onto their enormous bed of pillows. We go out for brunch, visit the capitol building, play cards, and look through Mia’s family photos. Spending time with her family is my greatest joy on the road. In a world of uncertainties, their kindness and hospitality reminds me of home.
Back on the road, we drive 17 hours to Pennsylvania. I get Mia lost twice, first of all, and when we finally reach her new town, we don’t know which house is hers. At 2 AM, we peep in on backyards and try opening doors. I keep a timid step back from Mia when she assures me we found her new home, another betrayal of mine that haunts me. The house looks like an old, haunted children’s boarding school. I’m really scared. But then I build a pillow out of my clothes and sleep in a sleeping bag on Mia’s new living room floor.
In the daylight, there is an old beauty to this place. We don’t have heat, so I leave a bucket of water in the sun and take a sponge bath. Being here makes me feel like Logan. This is the kind of place he would be — these are the kind of things he would do — on an adventure. But in the quiet moments of being adrift, I miss my community of the educated and artistic. I miss my bedroom with my art, music, and heartfelt gifts. I miss my children and the peace we discovered.
And I’m scared to visit the great landmarks of the man who inspired me to be brave, the man I’m here to honor. Logan’s fire first brought him to New York City, the hub of superheroes and alter egos. I imagine standing at the crossroads of the world and imagine the young hero he sought to be. I fell in love with that hero when he came home, when he told me of his aversion to fear, when he moved out east again to Philadelphia, driven by that same fire to go, when he returned unsuccessful and took a tumble with my self-destruction.
When Mia and I reach Philadelphia after another 8 hour drive, I think about the idealist who destroyed herself, the desperate little girl underneath a perfect mask who accepted her pain, bore it, carried it, who agreed to travel the nation, who acknowledged potentially swapping secrets with strangers at a travel stop, hitchhiking, car accidents, living off roadside coffee and finger food in bulk. I accepted we were two young women traveling 3,000 miles alone. I acknowledged rape or death. I felt a soul tug, and against my fear, I had to somehow muster the courage to go. I chose to go. So I sip from a Saxbys coffee with the Atlantic on my side and think of the happy times Logan found inside this café. It offered him sanctuary through a difficult time, like the thoughts my community, bedroom, and kids offer me while on the road.
Instead of telling Logan any of these things, I barely navigate Mia to the airport with faulty GPS. Just a few miles away from the end, I see only two highways, both leading away from the airport. I finally choose to go west, and I actually cry in relief when our dot pulses southward toward the airport. But we get there too early to pass security, leaving me stranded at check-in without food or even a chair for seven hours. This is a sure test of endurance, I tell myself.
I buckle under the exhaustion, hunger, and fear of running into a diabetic problem without easy access to emergency supplies.
Mia stills my crying and helps me book a hotel room. It still feels imagined to have gone a week on the road and end my journey in the lap of luxury, eating an expensive boxed sandwich, cutting my knuckle while opening a beer bottle with a house key, watching the sun set over Philadelphia before rising to catch my plane home.
I make it home.
In the beginning, Logan’s devotion to perseverance destroyed the perfectionist in me, but I still didn’t feel free. I think about those who put themselves through physical exertion to reach the peaks of mountains, those who get piercings and tattoos for beauty or message, or those who endure exhaustion and anxiety for a college degree. I think about my friend hurling himself into risky situations for freedom. I think about destroying everything I knew for courage. In the end, I think we often achieve what we set out to do.
Adventure began as a reflection of someone else’s soul tug, but I’m eager to break into what is untamed by my expectations.
There is sincerity in being here.