Journeys and stuff


I had finally hit rock bottom.

It was 11:30pm on a Wednesday. My car was stuck at the side of a dimly lit, foggy road somewhere outside of San Francisco. It was dark, and I was alone. I had no idea where I was, and I was sure that I’d drive into a ditch or get hit by an oncoming car before the night was over. This was far from the freedom I had been looking for.

The months leading up to this event had been difficult: At the age of twenty-three, my marriage ended abruptly, I dealt with a cancer scare, and friends who I had considered like family all but disappeared. Every step was difficult, every breath I took was heavy and painful.  It felt like I was living in another dimension, where only bad things could happen to me. As soon as I figured out my way, another obstacle would get thrown into the loop. I hardly recognized myself in those months. It seemed like the cycle would never end.

After months of turmoil, I was ready for a break. I craved a vacation, and was ready to go on any trip that came my way. So, when one of my friends suggested a road trip to San Francisco, I immediately said yes. It would be a chance for me to heal, and to find myself in my favorite city. It was perfect. I spent days planning out the itinerary in my head, dreaming up perfect trips and scenarios for each one. I couldn’t wait for the trip to arrive.

I should mention that I’m not much of a driver. I’ve always had a negative association with driving. One of our family friends died in a terrible car accident days before I took my license test. I was always apprehensive to drive. It was only in the past year that I learned how to really get behind the wheel. This road trip would be my first test in long distance driving.

On our drive up the 5 to San Francisco, my friend and I made a detailed list of all the things we wanted to do and see: Bike across the Golden Gate Bridge, go hiking in Marin County, visit a winery in Napa, and hang out on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. I was sure that this trip would help me forget everything I had gone through, and pave the way to a ‘new me.’  I expected to return home a completely different person…and I did…just not in the way I was expecting.

On one of the days of the trip, we took a drive up to Napa Valley to spend the day at a winery. A group of people who my friend was acquainted with decided to join us on the trip. It was refreshing to spend the day around people who knew nothing about my life; I could be anyone I wanted to be, and they’d never know. It felt good to talk about anything besides for the previous six months of my life. We spent the day exploring the winery, tasting, laughing, and talking. It was the perfect day.

And then, came nightfall.

The group we were with invited us to spend the evening with them. My friend was more than excited to hang out with them, but I was getting tired, and it was getting late. So, while my friend went off with the group, I opted out, choosing to go home instead. I was a little nervous about driving on my own, but I didn’t want to push my friends to end their evening to join me. I’d be fine, I thought. What could possibly go wrong?

It wasn’t until I was already on the freeway well into my trip home that I realized that my car was running out of gas—my friend had meant to fill the tank earlier that day, and forgotten. Needless to say, I panicked. I didn’t know where I was, or how to find the nearest gas station. My sense of direction was lost in the thick fog that had enveloped the city. I took the first exit I could see (it was really, really foggy), and turned off onto a dimly lit road. Cars came flying past me as I squinted and tried to find my way; I almost drove into the wrong lane more than once. Finally, I pulled off to the side of the road and began to hyperventilate. Up until that night, I had never driven by myself in the middle of the night. I had no idea where to go, or who to turn to.

My GPS’s reception went in and out, making it impossible to locate a gas station. Every minute or so, a car would speed by, sending me further into shock. I turned the car off, put my head down on the steering wheel, and began to sob. Yes, I was crying because I was scared, but more than that, I was crying because I was alone. I was crying because my marriage was over, and because I had a lump in my chest that my doctor was still weary of. I was crying because I was mad at God for throwing one obstacle after the other into my life. Hadn’t two big fears been enough to face in one year?

I called my parents, begging them to help me, even though I knew there was nothing they could do from 400 miles away. The line was crackly—my phone’s reception was as bad as my GPS’s. I needed to know that in my time of need, someone would be there for me, even if they couldn’t drive over or hear me for that matter. All I needed was someone—anyone—to be there for me.

My father quickly came to the rescue, helping me navigate my way through the dark, foggy streets. He used his GPS to direct me, while I creeped slowly through the streets, high beams on, praying that oncoming traffic would forgive me for blinding them as I drove. It took forty-five minutes, lots of tears, and getting out to push my car forward towards a hill at the very end of the drive, but I finally found my way.

When I arrived at the gas station, I collapsed with gratitude onto the hood of my car. I didn’t care that people were staring at me; I didn’t care that my cheeks were stained from tears or that my hair was frizzy (I had tugged at my hair pretty tightly at one point, thinking that if I applied pressure to my scalp, I’d calm down. It didn’t help). All I cared about was that I was safe, and that I had survived. I looked at my car in shock as the tank filled up. I had survived my worst fear. I had avoided driving for years because I was scared of such an event. It was a worst case scenario, and I knew that such things weren’t likely to happen, but the fear kept me from getting behind the wheel. But, now that was over, and I was okay.

As I drove away from the gas station and towards the Golden Gate Bridge, I couldn’t help but feel proud of myself. I felt braver than I ever had before. The word ‘brave’ had been thrown around a lot during my divorce (and again during the cancer scare), but it wasn’t a word I related to. “Oh Leigh, you’re so brave,” people would say. I didn’t feel brave. I felt lost, upset, and devastated. What was brave about ending a marriage? What was brave about a biopsy? I didn’t think that I was capable of bravery; bravery meant bungee jumping or skydiving. But, maybe bravery is also about having the guts to do the things that are right for you, even when the rest of the world disapproves. Maybe bravery means sinking into vulnerability; allowing yourself to cry in front of strangers, taking the road less traveled, facing phobias and fears. The word means so much more to me now than it ever did before.

As difficult as it was, I learned a lot during this year…and though I’d prefer to never repeat these experiences again, I’m thankful for them. I’m thankful for all that I’ve learned, and for the person I’ve become because of (and in spite of) them.

After all of those experiences, I think I’m ready—and brave enough— to tackle whatever comes next.

Next stop, skydiving lessons!