7.5 minutes of Nebraska and a Chicago drug den

I’d never realised just how fragile friendships were until I ran out of energy and then bonds I thought unbreakable, shattered in my hands, slicing me apart with the shards.

Family however, well they’re kind of stuck with you; my brother for example, sweet, quiet and perhaps just a little shy, was having a lovely time being the apple of everyone’s eye…that was until I burst in, loud and brash, demanding attention. I’ve long suspected that had my parents taken him to a store and let him choose from a selection of little sisters, I would not have made the cut. He has to love me now regardless because that’s how it works.

reject

Generally speaking, family remain by your side, you share a bond strengthened by blood, history, and the knowledge that everyone of your joint ancestors succeeded in at least one thing in their life; the passing on and survival of their genes, sliding down the helter-skelter of history to reach to you.

The wonderful thing about family is that you don’t necessarily need to know each other very well for them to come to your rescue or to find support. My brother and I were incredibly touched when my mum’s cousin flew in from America for the funeral; it seemed only right that I swing by for a cup of tea when in the country. Which is precisely how Blonde and I found ourselves sitting at the kitchen breakfast bench, as my mum’s cousin educated Blonde on the delights of combining clotted cream with jam on scones.

For the first time in weeks, we spent an entire day where we didn’t drive a car; instead we toured a brewery, walked dogs, sat in cafés and most importantly, tried out a sit on mower. It was with great sadness that we waved the family off the next day for their holiday before we set off again ourselves.

sit on mower

“Nebraska better be worth it” Blonde declared, pulling the car out of the driveway. “It’s literally the only state we’ll miss if we don’t go today, it’ll be fun, a random night out in Nebraska, what’s not to like? Besides, we get to visit the ‘Field of Dreams’ on the way” I encouraged, feet up on the dashboard as I tried to find the field’s address. “Tell me again what this field thing is?” Blonde questioned smiling, both of us in better moods after the day of rest. “Have you never seen the film?” I exasperated friendlily, she shook her head. “You’ve seen nothing! What did you do in your childhood!” I over exaggerated, throwing my arms forward, palms up. “Went outside, did stuff, we didn’t watch much TV” came the reply.

if you build it, they will come

“Well, it’s a film where Kevin Costner has a farm and he’s poor and something happens, I can’t remember what, but anyway, he decides to build a baseball pitch in the middle of his corn patch. Then all these dead baseball players turn up and eventually he ends up playing catch with his dad! It’s like, really touching and, oh, and and there is this famous line” I paused in my explanation, switching voices to a low, masculine tone “if you build it, they will come” I beamed. “Right” came Blonde’s response, clearly not sold on my explanation.

The highway took us back west, farm after farm and nothing much else. We pulled on to the dusty car park, a camper-van selling a selection of souvenirs and people posing for pictures on the pitchers mound. We sat on the benches to eat our Subways, sun beating down, our skin growing dark. “It’s kind of disappointing” I confessed “I don’t know what I was expecting but it really is just a baseball field on a farm, I wanted Kevin Costner and home runs” I moaned. After a short play amongst the corn field, too early in the season to really allow any film re-enactments, we got back on the road and drove on to Nebraska.

corn field

Hours later, we crossed the river marking the Iowa/Nebraska border, cheering at the state welcome sign. “Ok, there are a bunch of motels on the other side of town. Oh, wait, they’re pretty expensive. Let me see if there are any hostel’s” I typed away on my phone. “I don’t think hostels are really a thing in America. Hmmm, we want a motel close to the city centre then. Ha, I can’t believe we just drove seven hours for a night out in Nebraska!”. As I typed, Blonde took an exit off the highway and drove around the local streets. Dark alleyways, homeless drinking on curbs, youths wearing hoodies gathered in doorways, rubbish over flowed from trash cans, old couches sat on corners, their springs exposed and rusting.

ghetto

“Ummm I’m not sure I like it here” Blonde said nervously after pulling over whilst I continued to search the internet for accommodation. I looked up and saw a group on men watching us, their expressions dark and untrustworthy. “I don’t think we’re in the best part of town” I whispered. I was having no luck finding anywhere in our price range “do you, do you think we should maybe head back out and stay in a small town somewhere off the free-way?” Blonde suggested. Seven and a half minutes after entering the state, we left Nebraska and headed in the direction of Chicago.

With darkness’ approach, I plotted a small town on my phone and we pulled back off the main road, booking into an Indian themed motel. “Shall we go get a drink?” I questioned, “yeah, I probably won’t drink alcohol though” Blonde replied ‘of course not, couldn’t possibly let your hair down for once, not like we’ve been talking about going out, having some drinks and maybe finding somewhere to dance all day!’ I thought, trying not to roll my eyes.

motel

The town consisted of one small high street and one bar. We pushed open the bar door and stepped into the light; loud music pumped form a DJ in the corner, men with mullets played pool towards the back and a middle aged group stood gathered at the front of the building. We made our way to the bar, eyes scanned us up and down as we passed before dismissing us. At hearing my accent as I ordered, a large lady, clearly several drinks down, spun around on her bar stool “where y’ from?” she slurred. We explained politely and removed ourselves to a table up against the wall.

“Ummm, it’s not exactly the wild night out in Nebraska I was thinking we’d have” I laughed. “Yeaahhh” Blonde surveyed the room “do you think this is the entire town?”. I followed her lead and looked around “yeah, I think it might be”. We sat in silence for a short period, I tried to think of things to talk about, how to make the night fun.

I was bored, I thought of my friends in Australia ‘Rocker would have torn this place apart, if he’d been here we’d of ended up cow tipping and stealing a tractor. House-mate and I would have polished off several bottles of wine and probably slow danced with the bar tender. Burnley and I would have stumbled back into the motel at three am after playing dares all evening. My friends back home would of been the same too, it didn’t matter the circumstance or the person, there was always fun to be had’.

cow

But with Blonde it wasn’t fun and I couldn’t understand why, it wasn’t the lack of drinking, it was the energy, she never let go, never threw caution to wind, always wanting to know exactly how things would play out, always so controlled; I looked at her watching the bar, seeming perfectly content. I blew out my cheeks, stirring my drink with my straw “hey, wanna play truth or dare?” it was all I could think of to try and save the night.

“Yeah” she sounded enthused. “Truth or dare?” I asked, predicable she replied “truth”. I thought for a second, I already knew everything, there wasn’t any gossip to be had  “ummmm, oh, do you fancy Geo? Are you going to get with him when he joins us on the road-trip?” I already knew the answer. “Oh, he’s a really nice guy, and he is interesting, I mean he’s not terrible looking or anything” she skirted the edges, I waited. “It’s, well, I don’t really fancy him. He’s really nice but he, he slouches when he walks and is a bit awkward and…” she trailed off.

discussing

“What?” I pushed. “Well, I’ve lost all this weight and I sort of feel I deserve someone who’s really good looking and intelligent but also nice and funny, you know. I worked really hard to get to where I am and…” she paused. “You feel like you deserve more” I finished for her “well yeah” she said sheepishly. “Have you told him you’re not into him?” I followed up. “No but he knows” she insisted, “but have you actually said that to him?” I asked again “have you actually said the words?”. ” Well, no, but we’re just friends” came the reply, “I think you need to make sure he understands that before he flies down” I tried to drill home.

“Your turn, truth or dare?” she changed the subject. “Truth” I answered, sipping my drink, she didn’t hesitate “do you fancy Alaska?”. I should have known the question would be reversed “no, not really, I don’t think so. I don’t know. I think I was starting to like him when we were staying at his but then he said all that stuff. But now, well we talk a lot and it’s been awhile since I’ve really done that with anyone. I mean I do love him but no, not in that way. I don’t want to be with anyone right now, that’s not why I’m on this trip” I finished. “I think he wants more though” Blonde suggested, “no, we’ve talked about it, there will be no muddying of the waters!” I justified. “Truth or dare?”.

local bar

She went for truth again “you can’t have truth every time!” I moaned. “I’ll do dare next time, but depends what it is!” she surrendered. I struggled to think of a question that wouldn’t lead to the same coming back at me “oh, ok, would you rather get with that man there, yeah, the really big one in the dungarees and beard or the 70 year old bartender who’s belly is hanging out right now?”. We went back and forth a few times before the lady from the bar stool approached “girls, let me buy you a drink!” she slurred, refusing to take no for an answer.

Blonde leaned in as the lady returned to the bar “what if she drugs us?”. I laughed “I think we’ll be ok, look, we can watch the bartender make them and you don’t have to drink it if you don’t want to”. The lady returned setting down our drinks and pulling up a chair “the rumours aren’t true!” she testified.

drunk lady

“Sorry?” I puzzled, Blonde shooting me a look, confused. “The rumours” the lady began again “despite what they say, I’m not sleeping with him! I work all week and my husband doesn’t mind me coming down here on a Friday for a night out. I can’t very well drive home now can I? So he let’s me stay on his floor” she gestured a hand towards the bartender.

“Everyone thinks we’re sleeping together but it’s not like that. My husband understands, he puts our daughter to bed now she’s a bit older and I get to have a night out. A few drinks, unwind. We have kissed and had a bit of a cuddle but that’s al’right. It’s the rest of em who judge me” she sloshed her drink, gesturing to the rest of the bar “they think they know but they don’t!” she seemed angry for a second. She leaned in, heaving her cleavage to rest on the table top “so you two, what are you two up to?”.

dancing alone

“Well, Blonde here was just about to do her dare!” I smiled. “I will do it, doesn’t bother me” Blonde looked resolved. She walked over to the DJ who fired up a track “wa’ she doin?” the lady asked. “She’s going to dance to a song on her own in the middle of the dance floor” I explained, it was the only dare she’d been willing to do. The lady and I sat and watched as Blonde jumped around, the rest of the bar completely ignoring it. “Ok fair enough, I couldn’t do that! That was impressive” I shook my head laughing at Blonde’s return “shall we head back now, we have to drive tomorrow?” Blonde suggested.

The following evening we arrived in Chicago just as a thunderstorm clouded the sky. Alaska had flown in that day and was staying with a friend whilst we had two nights booked with a couch surfer. “This guys wants us to grab some dinner then head out for drinks with him tonight” Blonde stated from the passenger seat clutching her phone whilst I drove up and down the dark street trying to find somewhere to park. I was really tired but the prospect of a proper night out and drinks with people who actually wanted to go out was too much to pass up.

cheers

I reversed parked into the only free spot just as the heavens opened; “he says he’s not home but his housemate should be” Blonde announced, slipping her flip flops back on. We lifted our smaller cases from the car boot and headed down the street, wet feet slipping through growing puddles whilst the sky rumbled above.

Together, crouching under the narrow door cover and shivering in the dark, we rang the flats doorbell. No answer, we tried again, nothing. Blonde text the guy as we huddled closer, the rain falling heavier and great crashes echoing through the clouds as gods forged thunderbolts within. “He says he’s out but his housemate should be in, he might be asleep though”. We rang the bell for a third time, fingers crossed as the sky lit up with electricity, the first bolt thrown. “Yeah” a skinny man in his early 20’s appeared in sweatpants and nothing else, rubbing one eye. “Hi, we’re the couch surfers” we beamed, trying to sound enthusiastic. “What?” the guy seemed confused. “We’re couch surfing, your housemate? He’s said you’d know about us staying?” we were beginning to worry, something didn’t feel right. “Oh, right, ok” the guy seemed dazed but held the door open and led us to the flat.

follow me

We walked into a living room, no furniture, just old blankets strewn across the floor. Piles of paper in one corner, a couple of bags propped up against the wall “you can sleep in here with the others” the guy gestured. “The others?” I probed, “yeah, we’ve got some other couch surfers staying, they’re out at the moment. He gave us a brief tour, the flat was filthy “I don’t like it here” I whispered to Blonde “but he had over 50  positive reviews” she contended.

“So, how many live here?” I asked the man, trying to make small talk. “Just three of us but we’ve always got couch surfers here” he explained. “What do you do?” I was curious. “I’m a chef, the other two work in IT and stuff” came the answer. “You have people here all the time? Don’t you find it hard to work and have people staying?” I wasn’t sure, but something about his body language and the way he answered didn’t add up. “No” he seemed defensive “we all work at night”. “All three of you?” I didn’t understand “yeah” he replied, leading us from the small kitchen back to the living area, we perched on some blankets on the floor as he stood in the doorway.

“Don’t you ever get a bit worried having strangers stay in your house every night whilst you are all out at work?” I continued. “No” he was definitely annoyed “we all work from home”. “Wait, but you’re a chef, and all three of you work from home whilst couch surfers sleep in the living room? How do you cook all night?” he ignored my questions, reading a message on his phone that had just come through.

“You guys need to go get food from the store for dinner” he looked up at us. “We’ve actually already eaten but we’ll happily cook dinner for you guys tomorrow night” Blonde responded. “We’re all going out tonight so you need to go get some food for dinner, there’s the two other couch surfers, us three house-mates and then a few of our mates coming round, about seven people in total” he continued. Blonde glanced at me and proceeded to pretend she didn’t understand “we’re ok, we’ve eaten, but you guys should just get what you want for yourselves” he didn’t look pleased. The doorbell rang.

drugged up

“This feels so dodgy, I don’t know if I want to stay here!” I whispered as he went to answer the door. “But he has really good reviews…” Blonde started to defend her booking skills as two others walked in. A girl and a guy, both skinny with pale skin and sunken cheeks, their eyes wild and dangerous. The girl slumped down on the blankets opposite whilst her boyfriend followed the first guy through to the kitchen.

“Hey, where you from?” she asked manically, we briefly explained before asking about her “is that your boyfriend?” Blonde questioned. “Yeah, we met three months ago and haven’t spent a day apart since” she beamed as he slumped down next to her, swigging some sort of booze from a cup and passing it over, she ran her hand up and down his thigh whilst taking the cup and taking a deep drink before he pulled it away to raise it back to his own lips. “You haven’t been apart?” I asked, wondering how that would even be possible.

stuck together

“No, not for more than half an hour”. “But what about work? And showering and spending time with family and stuff?” it didn’t make sense to me. “No, we’re just together. He’s my boyfriend” as though that was all the explanation needed, she put a protective arm around his neck and leaned towards me, any friendliness instantly gone, looking as though she was wanted my blood. And then she cackled, before leaning back, her previous demeanor having returned.

“We need to go to the store” the guy tried again. “Do you mind if we stay here? We don’t need to get anything and we’ve been driving all day” Blonde continued to play ignorant. “No we all need to go, you need to pick up the food” the guy began again. “But we got the last spot on the street, we can’t really move the car again and it’s really coming down out there now” Blonde despaired, clearly not wanting to buy a group of strangers dinner when we’d already offered to cook the following night. I was feeling more and more uncomfortable and punched out a message to Alaska  explaining the situation.

arcade bar

His reply filtered through “ah, that’s shitty. We’re going to an arcade which is a combination of bar and arcade. Has pinball machines, classic arcade games and other fun stuff. Should be really cool” he was clearly having a good time. “Sounds fun. Do you think there is any chance we can come stay at your mates for the night? I think we might get raped and murdered here – not necessarily in that order!” I sent a reply, hoping I wouldn’t have to stay in this flea pit much longer, more and more convinced it was a drug den.

Whilst Blonde tried to negotiate with the guy I text her a message “I really don’t want to stay here”. She sent a reply “ok”. “Hey, why don’t we go get some stuff from the car to change in to and then we can head to the store?” I announced. “Yeah, let’s do that” Blonde joined. “I’m going to take my bag, just to swap some stuff around so I have what I need for the night” my lie sounding unconvincing.

We sat in the car as it misted up, lightning forking the sky above and rain turning the road to a river. “I just don’t feel safe staying there” I began. “Well where else are we going to go? I think it’s fine, I don’t mind staying” she returned, tensions rising. “Well you can stay if you want but I’m going with my gut, if you want to stay you stay but I’m going to find a motel somewhere. I can come pick you up in the morning” I fired back. “I’m not being left without the car!” she argued. “Well I’m not staying here!” I insisted “do you honestly feel safe here?”. “Well no, not really but he has loads of reviews so it must be ok” she concluded.

I searched the internet for a motel, the cheapest being 45 minutes away by the airport with only one room left, “that’s so much money though” Blonde complained “can’t we stay at Alaska’s mates house?” she added. “I’ve asked him but they’ve already gone out” I flicked to my message on my phone just as his reply shot through.

playing games

“Sorry, I wish I could give you a hug right now. I haven’t met the house-mates of my friend yet and they have other people staying so there’s no room. Love you, my texting might be intermittent, playing arcade games 🙂 having the best night ever!” came the text reply from Alaska.

“No, we can’t stay at his” I answered Blonde, a little annoyed Alaska was so unconcerned for our safety. Blonde turned the engine on, pulling her mouth into a straight line, clearly agitated “you can stay here! I’m not making you get a motel!” I began. “I’m not going to stay on my own am I!” she retorted. “Sorry, but I don’t feel comfortable there, and neither do you! I’m not going to put myself in a situation if I don’t have to” I defended my position.

no

For half an hour we drove in the heavy evening traffic; spray from the cars in front causing a cloud of blindness and smudging car lights. “Shit, you just turned onto a toll road, this isn’t right!” I looked at my phone “we’re going in the opposite direction, this is heading to the free-way out of town, shit, get off the road!!” I yelled over the thunder. “This is so stressful” Blonde was leaning forward in her seat, fingers wrapped tightly around the steering wheel. “I know, but you’re doing really well” I offered, wondering if we might have been better staying at the drug den after all.

An hour later, one u-turn on the toll road, a lot of leg crossing as we tried not to wet ourselves and some swearing at the GPS we finally arrived at the motel gone midnight; utter exhaustion taking hold as soon as we climbed into the beds.

sleep

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Blown up tyres and history repeating itself

Carmel, California, December 2011
“I am having the best time! Ever! Even if the rest of this trip goes horribly wrong, it will still have been worth it just for the last three days alone! Let me update you…we landed late afternoon, utterly jet lagged; the other two went straight to sleep but I was way too excited, so sat in the window box. Our hotel room was really high up, so whilst they were gently snoring, I just sat there and watched the clouds roll off the hills and swamp San Francisco, I’ve never seen anything like it, it was mesmerising!

watching the city

Anyway, the next day we hired bikes and cycled over the Golden Gate bridge, it was full of tourists but on the other side there was this hill and I got to zoom down it, although the other two got a bit freaked out and kept stopping and starting so I had to cycle back up to see what happened to them. This meant I got to zoom back down again though so was worth it. Then, then we went to this piano bar where we drank cocktails and sang along which was all kinds of awesome. Only I might have drank a tiny bit too much because, well you know what I’m like, it’s not the drink, it’s the fact I don’t know how to use my limbs! Well I got all tangled up in my feet and fell over when we headed back to the hotel and now have a twisted ankle and two matching scabs on my knees.

But it’s fine, because we picked up the car the next day. A bright red mustang convertible! It’s huge! And we probably look like absolute dicks but who cares, it’s a red mustang convertible and we are three girls on the open road, hair blowing in the wind, never to return – well not for another week at least.  I hope you’re proud of this, I managed to drive us out of the super complicated one way system San Francisco road network! It was a little terrifying to be honest, especially as I can’t bend my twisted foot and the car is the size of a bus! Well, anyway, we headed south to this place called Carmel, we haven’t seen the town yet but we spent last night in the most amazing accommodation I’ve ever seen!

carmel valley ranch

Mum, one day I will take you here! You’ll love it. I’ve no idea how we got such a good deal, I guess because it’s between Christmas and New Years, must be the down time, cheaper prices! Well, we arrive in Harry (the car is called Harry) and this golf buggy turns up! We pile all our luggage in the back of the cart, and as you know, three girls, well that’s a LOT of luggage, and start heading up this small hill. Well one of the suitcases falls out so I leap out the car (as much as one can leap when they have a bad ankle and very sore knees) and chase this rolling bag back down the hill. Eventually we get to our own mini villa. It was SO posh! We had a massive wooden balcony, big open fires in the bedroom and living room, and these bath robes! The robes are satin on the outside and towel on the inside, I’ve stolen one, it’s in my case right now and I can barely zip the thing shut!

carmel swing

Well after some relaxing, we all get into our bikini’s (thank god for the marathon this year! I think this is the first time I’ve ever felt good in my skin, I didn’t feel uncomfortable next to the other two, even though they looked amazing, we were all just really content in how we looked and encouraging of each other, it was a really nice moment). So we get in our bikini’s, wrap ourselves in the dressing gowns and call up for a golf buggy. This bloke pulls up, we pile in and get taken to the main ranch area. There was an infinity pool! I’ve never seen an infinity pool before; we got in and watched the sun set over the mountains, then stayed in the infinity hot tub until we looked like prunes. Then we climbed out and sat around this massive fire pit, making unlimited smores (I’ll make you some of these when I get home, they are the best!) and drinking warm cider.

unlimited smores

Ooooh guess what, there are big wooden swings that hang from the trees. A couple of us sat on these as the other took pictures. I think it’s one of my favourite pictures of all time, me, my best friend, swinging and laughing, we were SO happy. Oh, and, and this morning, two of us hiked up the mountain for sunrise and did some yoga – well sort of yoga, I kind of limped up there and then tried to balance on one leg. Today we are driving down the Big Sur, I’ve wanted to do this in forever and it’s finally happening! I do wish we could stay at the ranch another few days but it’s fine, because just as soon as I’m rich, then I’m bringing you here and we can spend a month just getting pampered and eating smores and sitting on swings and being all kinds of awesome!

Mum, I’m so happy right now, I just feel really, really lucky. Everything is good in the world, I feel good in my body and everyone I know is healthy and I have great friends and you’re the best and, agghhhhhhhh I’m soooooo happy right now!!!! Right, got to go, the golf buggy will be here any second. Love you, love me x” I clicked send on my email and looked up at the other two feeling nothing but warmth.

happy

It was the last holiday Bridezilla and I would ever take together, the last and first for that matter, not including the odd festival or weekend at my mums. We’d planned a two week trip to California to spent New Years in LA before she would emigrate to Australia a month later, to start a new life with who would later become her husband.

Up and up we climbed “are you sure this is the right way? The name suggests Carmel by the Sea is…” she paused for affect “by the sea. And we seem to be heading into the mountains!” Bridezilla observed. “Welllllll…..this is what the sat-nav says but it doesn’t seem right does it?” I chewed my lip. With no room on the narrow road to turn, we followed it until we came to a driveway “yep, definitely the wrong way!” I declared poking at the sat-nav hoping it would re-route a solution before giving up and doing a nine point turn to face us the way we’d come.

red mustang

“Oh, I really want to see Carmel! We’re going to have no time now!” Bridezilla moaned, “I know, I know, but we still can, we’ll have a little time, we don’t need to be in Santa Barbara until night, we can see some of Carmel” I calculated, speeding the car up. She cranked the radio as I raced round the corners, trying to get us out of the mountains as quickly as possible “can we put the roof up?” I looked in mirror, seeing V battling her hair in the wind “ha ha, sorry” I responded, Bridezilla flicking the switch to close it as I slowed down. With the roof clipped in place, I picked up the speed again, a small bridge appeared in front; we’d only had the car a day and I wasn’t use to the size of it, or driving on the right side of the road for that matter. I slowed on approach, but not enough ‘BANG!’.

“Oh shit! Sorry” I instantly apologised. It wasn’t a terribly loud bang, just the tyre catching the edge of the curb and pushing us off again. “I’m just going to double check it’s ok” I announced, pulling over at a conveniently located overtaking spot.

car hole

“Fuck!” my voiced called from the front wheel, “what?” Bridezilla anchored her head out the window, straining to see. With a chunk of tyre missing and a gaping hole letting out all air instantly, there was no way we were making it off that mountain any time soon. “I don’t think we’re going to make it to Carmel” I replied saddened. So there we were, three foreign girls with a broken down car on a dirt track; it had all the makings of a horror movie! Luckily, as we sat with our feet hanging out the windows, munching on crunchy cheetos and wondering how long a recovery vehicle would take to find us, a lovely couple passed by, changed the tyre and guided us to a autoshop, where we spent the duration of the day waiting for the car to be fixed before being forced to drive straight down highway 101 in pitch black, missing the Big Sur entirely.

highway 101

 

Fargo, North Dakota, June 2015
The evening had been spent with a couple in their late 20’s. He’d taken Blonde and I to a local dive bar for a quick drink before his girlfriend came home and we could cook everyone dinner – well I say ‘we’, Blonde did most of the cooking however I did cut the garlic and set the table which technically means we both cooked. The girlfriend was studying for a degree but worked in a doughnut shop by day; which luckily for us, meant doughnuts for breakfast. “It’s a shame we can’t stay longer, I’d have liked to of seen more of the town but we’ve got a nine hour drive ahead of us” I remarked swallowing the last bite of my second doughnut. “Do you want to go get the car and I’ll wait downstairs with the luggage?” Blonde suggested.

We’d been unable to park on the main high street so had left the car in a multi-story car-park down the road. I hurried down as the sky started to spit, it was further away than I remembered. We thought the car might be safer if we left it on the top floor, convinced any would-be car thieves would go for a ground floor vehicle rather than hike up all the stairs. With the lactic acid in my thighs building up, I reached the top floor with a puff, my phone beeped “I’m outside with the bags now” Blonde stated, ‘well yeah, I know that, I helped you carry the bags downstairs!‘ I thought, shoving the phone back in my bag, any reply utterly pointless.

leave me alone

The car-park was a maze, round and round I followed the exit signs before finally emerging. My phone started to ring, I glanced over and saw Blonde’s name flashing “what! I can’t answer, I’m driving!” I yelled at the ring tone. I paused, fumbling for the exit ticket in the cup holder; a text came through “hey, I’m outside, are you on your way?” Blonde asked, “I’ve been less than ten minutes! Give me a minute!” I talked to myself. With the ticket located, I headed for the barrier, the phone rang again, Blonde. “FUCK OFF!” I yelled, leaning over to switch off the volume, accidentally pulling the steering wheel with me ‘BANG’. It wasn’t loud, just a subtle warning as I clipped the curb, but a sinking feeling filled me.

Two minutes later I was outside the flat, Blonde began loading the car as I knelt down by the tyre, no hole this time but a low hissing gave all the hint I needed. “FUCK, I’ve done it again!” I observed, explaining the situation to Blonde “honestly, I hardly tapped the curb, it was barely a graze, it came out of nowhere!”.

it was my fault

With some duck tape in place (which came off instantly), we slowly got our increasingly deflating car to the garage, cursing every red light on route. We were suppose to have left by 8am in order to reach my mum’s cousin’s house by late afternoon, just in time for a family meal. But, as ever when you’re in a hurry, something gets in your way.

We finally left Fargo mid afternoon, speeding our way south east across America to try and catch up time. We cut through Minnesota, missing all the Great Lakes as we went, before circling around the edge of Minneapolis, dropping down into Wisconsin as the fire slipped over the horizon and the sky burnt apart. “I’m so bored of driving, I just want to move, shall we stop for a bit?” Blonde moaned. I’d been racing the car the entire day trying to make up lost time, feeling awful for reaching my family so late in the evening.

midwest sun set

“We just stopped for gas and we don’t have time to stop again, they were expecting us hours ago and they’ve got dinner for us” I responded, torn between my feelings of frustration at her impatience and guilt that it was my fault we were so late in the first place. “Can’t you just text and say we’ll eat before we get there?” Blonde suggested, giving no thought to the effort other people would have made to prepare us a meal or the time we’d be arriving. “No, not really, that would be so rude!” I stated, eyes on the road ahead, my foot squeezing the brakes having spied a police car.

“Is it going to be like this the whole trip? Eight hour driving days?” she stretched, picking at a hang nail. “No, the north was always going to be the hardest driving bit, it calms down after this, and we don’t have to get in the car at all tomorrow if we don’t want to. I tried to build in rest days and balance driving with seeing all the things we wanted to do” I explained, a little edgy that she’d had the map up in her room for the last few months, the map I’d carefully plotted out a route on and written down all driving times on but she clearly had taken no interest in, constantly asking me what was next and getting me to relay the plan, state by state to anyone who asked.

roadtrip map

With dusk losing it’s battle to night we turned off onto a narrow road “These houses are huge!” Blonde announced. The road weaved it’s way up a hill, catching glimpses of large houses behind shrubbery and driveway pillars, the porch light providing only enough visibility for the grand doorways, but casting shadows and hints at the ghosts beyond.

We turned into a driveway, gravel crunching under the tyres, the car lights guiding us to the back of a garage. “I hope this is it, would be kind of awkward if we got the wrong house” I remarked, unbuckling my seatbelt, feeling a shyness washing over me at the prospect of seeing family.

We followed the path to the front door, shuffling along together in the dark, almost giggly . Gently we knocked and pressed the doorbell for good measure in case our knocks went unheard. We waited. With the sound of footsteps beyond, the door swung open, revealing a host of smiles, warmth and two very excited dogs. With that, we were embraced into the light within.

welcome

Mount Rushmore, Dinosaurs and a flooding of grief

 

Despite seeping the smell of garlic from every pore, I wasn’t exactly better the next morning but a proper nights sleep had done me the world of good. The morning was spent crossing through the remainder of Yellowstone national park, climbing high into the mountain range, leaving bright sunshine on the ground for thick fog on the incline. Rain plummeted the windscreen, washing away even the most stubborn of bug corpses.

leaving yellowstone

“I can’t see a thing!” I shouted to Blonde over the bullets of the rain and audio-book, horribly aware that we were driving around a jagged cliff face with every bend in the road invisible, hidden in the grey. Water rushed across the road, trees appeared out of nowhere, eerie green smudges passed in watercolours. I slowed the car’s speed and leaned forward in my seat, with the demister turned up full, the temperature was icy in the car. I pulled a jumper and scarf from the back seat, draping the jumper over my bare legs and passing the scarf to Blonde to do the same for hers “thanks” she responded to the gesture, her too leaning forward, struggling to see anything in front. The road dropped dramatically, wheels slipping as I pumped the breaks, struggling to keep control, fingers losing feeling as I tightly grasped the steering wheel. Having broken the back of the mountains, the rain eased and the fog lifted with our decent until we arrived once again in cheery sunshine and spotless skies, crossing into Wyoming  and heading for the great plains and corn belt of America.

Long empty roads reached ahead of us, lonesome trucks, wooden shacks long since abandoned, dry dusty fields and hills in the distance that were never reached. The boundless road was scattered at the edges with blown out tyres and wildlife carcases; for all it’s painted mural of openness, the land provided nothing of consequence.

endless roads

On and on and on the road went, “ughhhhhhhhh I can’t listen to any more of Lena Dunham talk about her diet!” I exclaimed in boredom reaching over and switching of the audio-book, sitting on my lower back, I lifted my feet up on the dashboard, leaving tow-print smudges as I pressed against the glass. Blonde was driving, her right foot on the gas, the other bent up resting on the dashboard her side. Little concentration was required for this drive, straight roads and miles between any vehicle, we cruised at around 90 miles per hour, Blonde a little more cautious than me, her speed always slightly lower.

“Do you want some bears?” I asked reaching into the paper bag on the bag seat “sure”. “Birthday cake, chocolate or golden?” I listed the flavours “or a mix?”. Carefully I counted out the bears, exactly six of each flavour, 18 in total,  preciously 98 calories. I’d of eaten the entire box if it had been left to me but we were trying to show self constraint, desperately trying not to let the pounds pile up. I ate the feet first, biting off foot by foot, next the arms got it, I nibbled at the ears and snapped off the head, finally I crunched apart the guts, savouring every part of the bear anatomy as I went.

teddy grahams

By night fall, we’d arrived in a small town on the state border of South Dakota. Unable to find a couch surf host we reluctantly booked into a motel and fell asleep before our heads hit the pillows.

“It’s not very big is it?” Blonde exclaimed as we stood on the viewing platform of Mount Rushmore the next morning “this is just like when I was in London last year, Big Ben was such a let down, it’s so small!” she continued. A little put out by her disappointment to one of my countries historic icons, I responded “well Big Ben is actually the bell inside the Elizabeth Tower, it’s not actually the tower it’s self, and it’s famous for being part of the Palace of Westminster and for all the history, not really for it’s size. The bell is pretty big though” I concluded but had to admit “Mount Rushmore is a little disappointing though, maybe it’s because we aren’t very close? It’s got to be hard to carve a face out of a mountain! Ooh according to this, they’re suppose to have bodies too but they ran out of funding” I read off the information plaque.

mount rushmore

With the rain beginning to fall heavily we departed the park and headed over to Crazy Horse round the corner. Another mountain being carved, this time into a Native American and his horse “well it might be good when it’s done but it’s just a painted outline at the moment?” Blonde decided “do you think we should get back on the road and try to get further so we have less driving tomorrow?” she suggested.

It was a wet miserable day, a low grey ceiling sat on the roof of the car as we slipped out of the Black Hills heading east towards the Missouri river and onto the Great Plains. The road leading away from Mount Rushmore was littered with tourist traps, ‘mini golf‘, ‘experience the gold rush‘, ‘explore real mines‘, ‘learn about the great depression‘; all of which felt fake and dated, lacking of authenticity and yet cars pulled off the road ahead of us into car parks “do you want to go experience the gold rush? We could get rich?” I proposed to Blonde, braking for the traffic lights ahead. “No, I’m all right” came the reply. “I thought the gold rush was in California in the Sierra Nevada mountain range? Guess they found gold here too”. We carried on through what was once the dust bowl, farming techniques having improved over the decades and green fields replacing the sand, blue skies returning the further east we moved away from the mountains.

dinosaur

“What! That is so random” I laughed pointing out the giant dinosaur on the side of the road. We continued on but dinosaurs kept appearing, random theme parks, pictures in stores, huge statues; for two hours it was nothing but dinosaurs. “Maybe this area is the dinosaur belt of America?” I suggested, “what’s with all the belts? Corn belt, bible belt, dust belt” Blonde laughed. “Technically the the dust was a bowl, dust bowl, so I’m not sure that one counts” I joked back “I think the country is just so big and the landscape changes so much, it’s the easiest way to divide it up”. “Yeah but Australia is big and we don’t divide it up into lots of random names” Blonde stated. “Sure you do, you have the Gold Coast and the Northern Territory” I pondered “hmmm well actually, those are places and states, yeah fair enough, but no one really lives in the middle of Australia, they just cling to the coast for the surf”. “True” she smiled.

shoes on the line

We pulled into a small town near the edge of the state border, wide streets, one story salon style buildings and traffic lights held up by strings, blinking at the non-existent traffic. I half expected to find a pair of trainers, tied at the laces and swung over the telephone wires.

A small motel on the edge of town provided shelter; with the car parked we took ourselves off for a short walk, a train line cut through the road, a straight avenue of overhanging trees swooping down on the track, a cat sat on a sleeper watching. We walked on until we found a gas station, outside stood a tall green dinosaur, we did what any normal girls would do and climbed on. “Hey, heyyyy” Blonde called to the large man in dungarees who exited the station bemused “can you take our picture?” she asked, clearly about to tell us off but suddenly charmed by the foreign accent, he obliged with a smile.

riding the dino

“What do you want to do tonight?” I asked upon our return to the motel, the electric snappple of bugs dying coming from the humming blue light in the corner of the outdoor corridor leading to our room. “We passed a cinema on the way in”. With the decision made, we drove round to buy tickets, after the day of ageing dinosaurs both the human version in rock form and those of giant green plastic, we felt the universe was sending a very clear signal and there could be no other choice than Jurassic Park.

“Do you have sweet popcorn?” I asked the till lady hopefully, still not over Australia’s and America’s penchant for salty and ignoring those of us with a sweet tooth. “Sweet? No sorry hunny” my face fell before she added “but we do have butter”. “Butter?” I questioned, “yes hun, butter flavoured popcorn with hot button poured on top”. “What? You pour hot butter on top of already flavoured popcorn?” I was shocked “here, try some” insisted the lady. Much to my disgust, it was INCREDIBLE. “Yes please, popcorn and hot butter please” I beamed, munching through the sample pack, my fingers coated in grease.

hot buttered popcorn

With time to kill the following day, we found a gym and set out trying to burn off some of the butter. “Oh Geo messaged me earlier, he’s drawn another picture of me” Blonde informed as we got our stuff together. For the last few days, every time Geo messaged her she’d laugh out loud and then not say anything, if I asked what was so funny she wouldn’t say but every time a message came through from Alaska she’d ask what it was about or if I was driving, reach for my phone, typing in the code to read it out before I could say “I’ll read it later”. “What is it you two have so much to talk about in the evenings!” she’d ask, “just how the days been generally” I’d say “it’s the only time we can have a proper conversation because he’s then not at work and we’re not driving” I’d answer as she’d reach for her own phone on reflux to message Geo.

texting

I couldn’t wait for the boys to join us, we needed a balance in the car, everything was becoming frustrating. I found her general lack of consideration agitating; the way she’d plug her travel converter into the socket by the bed, never leaving space for me. If I said anything I would get directed to the other socket hidden behind a cupboard, far from convenient, smiling smuggly like she’d won some little war. Every morning she needed coffee and would then complain it wasn’t good enough, she felt the need to account for every cent, if she bought me a bottle of water, she’d remember exactly how much I owed her and yet if I picked up her coffee, repayment was never mentioned and I considered it too inconsequential to ask for.

Every checkout at a supermarket or meal in a café, she’d want to pay for only what she have, totting up every item rather than just splitting the bill. I knew at the time it was inconsequential but when it was happening every meal, every gas station, day after day, those little things add up. “I don’t see why we have to pay a tip, the waitress didn’t really do anything other than put the plates down” Blonde exclaimed after a stop for lunch, “it doesn’t matter, this is the culture in America, there is no minimum wage, people survive on the tips, you have to pay a tip!” I exasperated, having faced this battle numerous times already, “but I haven’t got much money either, so I don’t see why I have to, the employer should just pay them more” came the standard response. “Well that’s not how it works, we have to pay a tip!” I insisted. “Fine, but I’m not paying any more than 10%” she argued, putting her money down and standing, leaving me to cover her downfall in the cost once again.

paying the bill

“When was the last time you heard from Alaska?” she asked as we entered the gym. “Last night, why?” I answered. “Oh, no reason. Geo’s just messaged me” she said with an air of superiority. “I’m going to get on the cross-trainer” I responded crossing the gym floor away from her ‘it’ll be fine, you’re just hormonal, you hate everything when you’re hormonal. And it’s been a lot of driving recently, you’re tired, she’s not being irritable on purpose, it’s fine, you’re fine, bite your tongue, you can do this. The boys will be here soon and then the pressure will be taken off you, just hang in there‘ I told myself, wondering why I felt like such an awful person for feeling so ratty.

After 15 minutes pumping away, trying to burn off my rising irritableness, Blonde appeared next to me on the cross-trainer, she leaned over, trying to be subtle and adjusted her level to one higher than my own and then sped up, her eyes darting between mine and her machines until her speed was a point faster than my own ‘are you serious right now? No! Fuck no! STOP COMPETING WITH ME!!!’  I instantly stopped “I’m going to have a shower” I stated with a tight smile, trying my best not to clench my fists cutting my workout short, “ok, I’m going to keep going” she delivered in a sing song voice, smiling, her cheeks raised high, looking so pleased with herself “I like to make sure I’ve really worked hard when I go to the gym, got to keep the heart beat high or you’re just not doing anything” she smiled again, “yeah, sure” I walked off.

gym

With only one shower in the gym, I locked the bathroom door and put my head on the wall, trying to calm my breathing, not sure if I wanted to scream, cry or curl up on the floor. ‘Why is this so hard! It’s suppose to be fun, we’re suppose to be braiding each others hair and hugging at national monuments and laughing with the head out the window or some bollocks but I just want to kill her! Why can’t I be a nice person, I’m so angry all the time‘ I wanted to cry, rubbing my hands down my face, my eyes filling ‘aghhhhhhhhhhhh‘ I clenched my hands, raising my head back and staring at the ceiling.

I was so conscious that as far as Blonde was concerned, she wasn’t doing anything to irritate me, not intentionally and yet I was constantly frustrated for no reason at all, I couldn’t work out how to communicate it to her. I was so trapped in my own head, I hadn’t felt anything near this level in years. ‘What do you do when friends annoy you?‘ I questioned myself. Normally you get a break from people, you can go home and shut the door; that wasn’t an option on this trip. ‘Ok, what did I do when I felt upset about something and couldn’t get away from it?‘ the answer came instantly ‘I called my mum’, I always called my mum.

climb out the window

Every problem that has every existed in my life, I called her. ‘Well fuck!‘ with that I climbed in the shower, annoyed at the world, for it seemed so unfair, ‘why did she have to die? Why, I needed her, I still need her, how am I suppose to function in the world like normal people do when I can’t even behave rationally and friendly on a once in a lifetime trip?‘ I was sad, I missed her voice, the comfort, reassurance, advice and strength she offered unconditionally. How excited she’d get about birthdays regardless of who’s it was, how her dreams were always so much grander than other peoples, how there was constant projects on the go, her hands always at work, fixing, making, improving the world. The way she’d record every lifetime movie on the TV before I visited so we could share sweets and await the happy endings.

I missed her. I felt angry and frustrated and sad and carried a lump in my throat for it. I was guilty that Blonde was stuck with an emotional time-bomb and had no idea how fragile I was really feeling. I emerged from the bathroom feeling dragged down by grief and none the better for it. “There is a scale here, I’ve lost a few pounds, you should get on it?” Blonde announced as I stepped out the door, unaware of the emotional trauma those tiled walls had just contained.

good for you

Back in the car and stocked up on groceries (including more bears), we headed for North Dakota. “Why are we going up here again?” Blonde adjusted the mirrors for her driving stint, “because when I plotted the route, this was pretty much the only state we’d miss, this side of the east coast, I thought it deserved a visit. And really, when are you going to go to North Dakota any other time?” I responded, my eyes on my phone, confessing to Alaska how I was feeling about the grief affecting the trip.

We passed nothing but farm land, empty highways and miles and miles of fields, my phone buzzed, Alaska. “I don’t like it all being under the header of grief. It’s the catalyst that started this identity crisis, but it can’t be all encompassing, especially for such a small world. Grief is a moment, and yes a process, but it doesn’t have anything to do with you rebuilding yourself/healing” I read on.

“Grief is meant to help us process and accept what has happened to us. Then after grief passes, that is the moment we start healing. I think you keep falling back on it as a safety net because learning is hard. You need to heal yourself by yourself now, for the first time. You are weighing yourself down by expecting understanding from people you tell your story to, like you used to have with your mom. Most people won’t get it, you don’t have that luxury any more” his words were grating on me, ‘what the hell did he know anyway!‘.

asshole

I kept reading “Your mom used to be that go to person, but now you’re in a shitty loop and not leaving the grief where it should be, in the past. All because you don’t know how to let go. You’re reminiscing habit doesn’t help…also the hormones but I don’t get to say much on that topic because I’m a guy and kind of ignorant” his words finished and I felt burnt, firing out a reply, a flurry of fingers angrily tapping the keypad.

“I disagree entirely! You clearly have read no studies on grief! Everything you’re saying is incorrect! Grief is an 18 month to two year process after a significant loss. It has a deep psychological effect on people and very much has a chain reaction on their emotions, relationships and a whole heap of other things. You’ve broken it down to be a very simple thing which it is not! It’s incredibly complicated and affects people differently! You talk with no understanding, what the hell have you ever known of grief! It’s nothing to do with falling back or leaning in it. It’s a process and one I’m mid way through. I’m not looking for a replacement for my mum’s understanding, you have missed the mark on that one!” I insisted.

I stared out the window annoyed, more green fields, the audio book played on. His reply flashed through “possibly, the last stage in grief is acceptance. At no point in the stages of grief do they have healing as part of it. The Kubler-Ross model is what is predominantly used here in the states to help define grief” he stated, having clearly done a quick Google search.

Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance.

I couldn’t argue with the model, I’d passed through all five stages but they didn’t come in any order and I didn’t complete one course with a glossy certificate and move seamlessly onto the next. No, they came in waves knocking at my door, often in pairs, coming and going without invitation, sometimes forcefully, sometimes invited, often sneaking into my bed late at night. I could relate to them all, however I didn’t feel like they truly represented the full scale of grief.

grief

No one tells you about the insecurities it throws up or how it affects your relationships with other people. They don’t talk about the stress and the shake down your small world feels. You never hear about the running away to Australia stage or the hooking up with random weirdos because you just want to be held at night or the getting a job with Santa Claus period or the fact you drink and eat as much as you can until you are seriously worried you might shart yourself on the walk home! The Kubler-Ross scale does not cover any of these things!

I replied to Alaska “I’m not talking about the definition, I’m talking about the experience. It’s a different thing!” I was getting increasingly annoyed by the time we pulled into Fargo, North Dakota, an industrial town of movie fame.

fargo

“You are trying to heal but it’s not working because of how you used to go about healing isn’t working any more. You can’t keep using grief as an excuse” Alaska summarised his point as Blonde headed into the old part of town, following the sat-nav to our hosts address.

“Ughhh you are missing it! D’you know what, don’t talk to me about it until you’ve experienced a devastating loss! You have no idea! It’s like talking to someone when you’ve never had depression and saying ‘yeah you’re sad but you should just get up and do stuff, then you won’t be sad any more’. When in reality, it’s all that person can do, to crawl out of bed each day and sit on the couch; what they really need from you, is for you to just sit next to them and be there. No words, just the knowledge you care. You’ve never experienced any of this, so you don’t get an opinion right now!” I was fed up.

you don't understand

The truth was, I no longer grieved for my mothers death, I had long since passed through the shock of it, that initial five stage process. Now I was struggling with the challenges of coping alone. As close as my mothers and mine relationship had been, it perhaps had not been as healthy as I had first thought. I turned to her for every emotional need, investing all my security in one person, she was my backbone.

There are fundamental differences between losing a parent as a child, losing one in your young adulthood and losing one when you reach middle age. All points would be traumatic and difficult of course. For me, however, losing my mother as a young adult (ok fine, youngish, 29 is kind of young ok!) I felt completely lost and at sea.

lost at sea

A daughter is brought up in the image of her mother, it is she who the child learns how to channel hope, thoughts, dreams and emotions. A mother provide her child with support, advice, validation and reassurance; these things are all primal to the development of a person into adulthood the transition from first stepping out into the world to building their own family. It is the mother we hold in our hearts that is important, not necessarily the women they are in real life; it’s the heart and soul mother who a daughter will carry with her forever.

And as such, I will never stop grieving for her. I will grieve for the relationship that will never be, that we will never have. I will grieve on the wedding she won’t walk me down the aisle at, for the holding of my hand as my own child comes into the world, for the advice when said child won’t stop screaming at 3am and I’m covered in puke and can’t imagine surviving the night, for the birthdays, the glasses of Pimms on summer days, the frustrations of who’s to visit for Christmas that year, the jokes about the mother in-law, the postcards to send someone. I will grieve for all of it, for all the highs and lows that will never be shared. But most of all, I will grieve for her protectiveness, her encouragement, her listening ear, the guidance, her praise and warmth, I will grieve for her.

mother of the bride

There is no way to fill that void, no one will ever fit the space. The new people you meet will not know her, will not miss her, they will not understand the intensity of the relationship you once shared. The waves of grief will and do ease but the longingness for her will never leave, always hanging in your peripheral vision; it’s not odd or psychotic, it’s normal, it’s why when you’re 39 or 45 or 82 or sitting in a car in the middle of Fargo, South Dakota and find yourself doubled over in pain, missing your mother and feeling like no one can ever really understand, until they do.

The bump in the night and Yellowstone fever

With the beers opened, a quick test in the hammock (which may I add are extremely difficult to get into and requires either a personal man servant or a sturdy stick to keep the swing in action), we settled around the picnic table to catch up on stories. Since leaving the boys at the bunk house in the woods, they’d enjoyed some skinny dipping in thermal spas, a hike around a lake, spent an entire afternoon helping a man fix his tyre only to realise as soon as the man had driven away that their own car battery was dead and were now on the pinnacle night of their trip before heading home the next day.

hammock

Blonde and I set off to find firewood by the nearby lake “there are no bears here right?” we checked with the boys. “Possibly, just yell if you see any” one of them called as we walked away “well that’s not very reassuring, we’ll be dead by the time you get to us!” I gestured back with a shake of my head. Bears aside, we had bigger problems to avoid, no chances were taken this time as we each sourced our own marshmallow stick and returned triumphant with a small pile of logs and multiple roasting sticks.

Post dinner we gathered around the camp fire, the boys complained they’d run out of weed and I complained I was too full to eat any more than three smores. Blonde grew restless suggesting a walk down to the water to see the stars, too cold to move I declined but Muscles offered to accompany her for fear of bear attacks. Sometime passed before I noticed they hadn’t returned “are they hooking up down there?” I asked, looking in the direction of the lake and seeing only black. “No, definitely not, he’s got a girlfriend, he’s so in love with her, he’d never cheat” Man-bun informed me. “Ah ok, yeah fair enough, she would never go there is she knew he had a girlfriend anyway” I responded “have you guys got girlfriends too?” I asked, surprised the subject had never come up before.

camp fire

From the sound of things Curls had an interest but they were trying to work things out and Man-bun had recently broken up with someone but it wasn’t really over “…you see we’re all sort of in the same boat, the girls are a year older and have just graduated, they are going to move to other cities and then we’ll only see them on the weekend. I still want to live the college lifestyle, because I’ve always been in a relationship and never really had the chance to do that but I really love her, I don’t want to lose her. If I pursue the relationship then that’s it for life” he concluded, looking at Curls who provided a sympathetic smile in support.

I grimaced inside, they were farm boys from the Midwest after all, perhaps this is the way things are done where they were from, maybe you meet someone when you’re at school or college and that’s it, you marry, have kids and live happily ever after? Only where I was from, no one did that.

happily ever after

The boys began discussing their situation between themselves, weighing up the highs and lows of the choice they would soon have to make. I tried to stay silent, I really did, but I was two beers down and keeping my mouth shut was never my strong suit “no offence guys, but you are only 21, I know this is probably your first big relationship or the first time you’ve been in love or whatever, but it’s just a college relationship. Yeah sometimes that works out but for most people, life moves on. You’ll finish college, move away, meet new people, it’s how it works. In ten years time you probably won’t even recall the names of these girls, or they’ll just be a distant memory. I was in the same position when I was at Uni, I know what it’s like. I just think, don’t stress so much about it. I get it’s the most important thing you’ve ever had to deal with so far but a lot worse things can and will happen, this really isn’t that bad” I sounded like an old fart, ‘who invited grandma to the party?‘ but the problems seemed so inconsequential in the grand scheme of things life would throw at them.

They stared at me, I couldn’t read the expression, ‘were they annoyed? Bemused? Had I spoken out of turn?’. Finally Man-bun spoke up “well that might be, but you’re looking at it from experience, we hadn’t had that yet, this is the biggest thing in our lives so far, so it does feel hard and life changing right now”. I felt slightly cut down “yeah, fair enough, I’m just saying, you don’t need to worry about it so much, things will work out whatever way they workout”. Before the conversation could continue any further Blonde and Muscles returned.

camping

As the boys had to leave crazily early the next day to cover the 10 hour drive it would take them to get home, bedtime was called. “Can I borrow your car keys so I can blow up the airbed?” Blonde requested, “you are always losing your keys!” I jokingly despaired, fishing mine from my bag. As I trudged back and forth from the car to the tent carrying sleeping bags and jumpers, I whispered to Blonde “you guys didn’t hook up did you?”. “Noo! He was really sweet actually, telling me about his girlfriends and how much he’s worried things will change now she’s left college” Blonde replied, examining the electric pump, car adapter, “weird, we had the exact same conversation up here!” I informed.

With the three boys bedded down in their tent, and Blonde, her air mattress and I in the other, we settled in for the night. Blonde spun round and round trying to get comfortable, with every rotation the airbed shifted a little closer to my side, dislodging the carefully folded jumpers I was using as a pillow. After about half an hour of readjusting I’d had enough “oh my gawdd stop moving! You’re in the middle of the tent now and your air mattress is poking into me!”. “What?” she asked, lifting a sleeping mask off one eye and pulling out an ear plug. “Stop moving, you keep knocking into me and I can’t get to sleep” I complained. “Oh sorry” she repositioned herself.

camping of doom

We lay still; there was silence in the camp-site aside from the gentle wind in the branches above and occasional hoot of an owl. On the brink of drifting off an almighty screech ripped through the peace “BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP BEEEEEPEEPPPPPP BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEPPPPPPPP”. In our sleepy state it took awhile to register what was going on; Blonde pulled her ear plugs out “is that Bruce?” she asked. “Does Bruce have an alarm? And we locked him, why would he go off randomly?” I responded. “I think it is our car” Blonde insisted “have you got your key? I think I left mine in the boot”. I scrambled around in the dark, struggling to find the fob to stop the noise before we woke up the entire site.

scary car

With Bruce silenced and an errie feeling of why his alarm might have gone off, we slowly started to drift off again. Blonde rolled over “I need to pee”. Ughhhhhhhh, I was so tired, the glands in my neck already inflamed and a sore throat developing, threatening a Glandular Fever relapse. Blonde climbed across my legs, unzipped the tent “it’s really dark” she remarked, “do you want to take my phone as a torch?” I offered, “please” came the reply. She climbed out and zipped me back in to keep the warmth in the tent. I watched the glow of the torch through the fabric as she headed in the direction of the drop toilet.

Instantly the temperature plummeted and I suddenly felt terribly alone and exposed, I knew the boys weren’t far away in their tent but I’d felt a little on edge since the car alarm had mysteriously shouted. Laying there, waiting Blonde’s return I listened to the sounds of the forest. A crunch ‘just a rabbit‘ I told myself, and then a second crunch ‘ok that sounded like a footstep!’ I lay perfectly still. And then another crunch, it was footsteps and it was coming from the opposite direction than I’d watched Blonde walk. A dark shadow loomed over the tent, a phone light glowed in the hand, whoever it was, was walking around the proximity of the tent. They approached the tent door, I held my breath, fear gripping me, it was probably the camp-site manager checking on things after the car alarm, but in that moment, it was the forest bogey man!

bogey man

The man bent down, his arm reaching towards the zip and then I heard another crunch, Blonde! ‘No! Don’t come out of the toilet!‘ I wanted to scream ‘there is a serial killer outside the tent who will gut us before feeding our remains to his pet bear! Save yourself!’. I didn’t yell though because a rational part of my brain was still functioning and despite what the horror film industry would have us believe, I was pretty sure not everyone who goes camping, ends up being chased through the woods and brutally murdered.

With Blonde’s approach, the phone light outside the tent was abruptly turned off and the sound of footsteps quickly retreated before being replaced with Blonde’s. She unzipped the tent “sorry, promise I won’t get up again till morning” she insisted, climbing back over me. “Did you see anyone out there?” I squeaked, sleeping bag pulled up to my nose, knuckles turned white. “No, why?” she asked.

serial killers

Even with the sleeping bag liner, Alaska’s woolly hat which I’d stolen on our last camping trip and a thick hoodie, I still froze; so it was in a very groggy mood I was awoken at 6am by Curls shaking the tent “Sorry girls, we’ve got to get the tent packed up, you’re going to have to get up”. I was even more unhappy when they decided to remove the outer layer of the tent as I tried to hang on to the last whispers of sleep. Like a caterpillar, I wiggled out of the structure and flopped myself into the still erect hammock “I can’t move, don’t make me” I moaned, feeling the glands in my throat, pain washing over me with every swallow. “Sorry, need to take the hammock down too” Man-bun informed, “why do you hate me” I whined, my hat having slipped down over my eyes, he only laughed “we need you to move your car too”. “I can do move it” Blonde announced, looking completely fresh and well rested.

I climbed out of my sleeping bag for the goodbye hugs, watching the boys pile into their car and feeling a wave of sadness at their leaving. The morning sun sent fingers of dusty light through the trees, spotlights on the quiet camp-site ground as I stood in my cartoon pjs, sleeping bag draped over one arm, alone in the clearing.

light fingers

“What now?” Blonde asked after parking the car back into position, the boys honking a single beep goodbye as they turned the corner out of sight. “Breakfast!” I answered with a smile.

With the drop toilet being the only facility available to us at the camp-site, we piled our belonging into the car and drove up to the nearby lodge village. It only took us three times as long as it should to get there because neither of us could remember which way we’d come and were completely out of phone signal, the landscape was nothing but a straight road and pine trees causing several drives back and forth along the same stretch. Eventually we found our way, walked into the hotel lodge, in our pyjamas and hoodies and slipped into a booth, awaiting our pancakes and sausage breakfasts.

breakfast

“I think I’d live in pj’s if I could” I declared to Blonde as we awaited our food, “ughh, why is the coffee so bad in America?” she despaired ignoring my comment and pouring more milk in which seemed to be counter productive to the coffee taste in my opinion.  Two breakfasts later and a quick change and freshen up in the bathroom and it was time for gift shop viewing.

With postcards I would never get round to sending purchased, we headed for the national park. Whilst Blonde drove, I crossed my legs in the passenger seat and updated her on the few Yellowstone facts I knew “…apparently there is a massive volcano under the ground in Yellowstone, like this huge lava lake and it’s like, super overdue erupting or something and if it does then it will make this gigantic ash cloud that will block out the sun and the entire planet will die. So if it goes off today, then we’ll be the first to go!” I said excitedly. “Right, good to know” Blonde responded, adjusting the mirrors from the position I used for driving. “But it’s meant to be a really stunning park and it hasn’t gone off for thousands of years so we’re probably all right today I reckon” I offered, again feeling the glands in my throat with my thumb and index finger, a pressure beginning to build in my head “I think I’m starting to get sick”.

yellowstone

A small queue of cars piled up on the entrance to the park; handing over our national pass, we received a map in return. “This place is huge! Gutted we only have one day here” I sighed, spreading out the map on my lap. “Could we not stay an extra day do you think?” Blonde suggested, leaning over to look at the map, one eye on the road. “Sadly no, we’ve got to get to my mum’s cousins in Wisconsin in three days time and that’s a lot of driving, we’re only seeing her for one day and then she goes on holiday, it’s already really tight”.

With some quick decision making we highlighted the key things to see and set out a route, first step, thermal pools. The national park laid itself out before us, untouched nature as far as the eye could see, buffalo grazed on a plains in the distance, mountains rose and fell where the sky met the earth, a river raced against the cars along the edge of the road, the road and cars themselves, providing the only evidence of man. “Can you imagine being the first person to wander across this place? ‘oh just going for a walk dear‘ and then WHAM! He climbs over a hill and this is what he sees! It would blow your mind! It’s blowing my mind!” I rambled excitedly.

yellowstone national park

Blonde pulled into a car park, snatching up a space just as soon as it was vacated. The smell of rotten eggs hit our noses the second we exited the car “ewww what is that!” Blonde winced “sulphur” I explained, memories flooding back to the thermal pools visited two months previously in New Zealand. We followed the trail of people around the various lagoons. Ripples of bright watercolour merged into each other, rings of reds and oranges, purples and blues, all mixed in almost unnatural vibrancy. Smoke rose into the air, hazing the sun light and pulling colour off the water, blurring the borders of earth and sky.

The land around the pools was dry and cracked, crusted mud scattered with salt traces; a wooden walkway provided guidance for visitors. Blonde was amazed “I’ve never seen anything like this, it’s, it’s incredible” she gasped, snapping pictures. Her enthusiasm wasn’t infectious, it truly was stunning but it didn’t feel new to me, I’d seen tectonic plates, geysers and thermal pools in both Iceland and New Zealand, I thought, feeling a little spoilt. Theses pools were perhaps on a larger scale however my limbs were beginning to feel very heavy, every step becoming an effort “I might go back to the car” I told Blonde after walking the entire sight and desperate to sit down, “oh ok, well I won’t be much longer” she replied distracted, “don’t worry, it’s fine”.

thermal pools

I slumped into the car, a fine sweat breaking across my forehead, I heaved a laboured sigh and pulled down the visor to review my face in the mirror. My eyes were red and watering, a paleness was washing over my skin which felt both clammy and cold at the same time. “I’m not feeling so great” I told Blonde upon her return, “oh, ok. Are you happy to drive for a bit?” came the response.

With Blonde directing we headed north in the park towards ‘Old Faithful’. Despite the numerous car parks we struggled to find a space; finally a family appeared and climbed into their vehicle. We waited patiently for them to leave before slowly reversing into the spot but before the manoeuvre was completed, a lady slipped off the road and drove straight into the spot mid my reverse “WHAT THE HELL!” I despaired. “I’ll say something!” Blonde declared, springing from the car. “We were parking here!” I heard her state to the small lady stepping out of her oversized 4×4, “oh, didn’t see you, sorry” the lady smirked. Not knowing what to say back, Blonde retreated and we drove on to find another space.

old faithful

“I HATE HER!” I begrudged to Blonde, the hormones flooding my system, full rage on the go as we walked around the geyser area. “She was a cow” Blonde agreed, “who does that! it’s just rude!” I went on, my English accent sounding snobbier by the second. “We should chuck something on her car!” Blonde suggested, “ooh like coke or an ice cream! Something sticky and then when it dries it will be really hard to clean off” I cackled, very tempted to go through with the plan before “no, it would only bring bad karma onto us, a better person would take the high road. Ughhh it sucks trying to be nice!” I decided. “Oh my god, look!” I exclaimed, a Buffalo had just walked across in front of us, stopping right in the middle path like tourists on a London street. “Don’t get too close! Blonde warily advised as I crept up, camera in hand.

buffalo road

With a headache settling in for the day, we continued further north towards some hanging salt, rock formation. The road twisted and turned leading us through a variety of striking scenery. Some corners led to areas of burnt patches from controlled fires. Row after row of dead trees, a valley of death, blackened by fire, ash long since blown away leaving bare white ground; the occasional strand of grass fighting for survival, all standing bare against the infinite blue of the sky beyond. Another turn of a corner produced a sea of green, trees full of life, tightly packed, endless diamonds of Christmas trees reaching as far as the horizon. As we climbed, cliffs crowded the edges of the road, pale red rock, neatly chipped away by wind and rain.

yellowstone mountains

By the time we arrived at the salt waterfall, my bug had taken full hold. The rock formation was an exciting mix of white, errr white stuff that had dripped down over hundreds of years along the rocks, slowly solidifying into a waterfall pattern. Metals in the rocks ionized with the white minerals, adding orange hues along the frozen staircase. I climbed up the safety stairs moodily, the glands in my throat aching and my shoes filled with concrete; within five minutes I returned to the car, unable to go on any longer. Blonde, probably thoroughly fed up with me by this point continued to explore. The car was like an oven, heating up to impossible levels the second the door closed, and yet, I was cold.

rock waterfall

“What time are we meeting the couch surfing host?” I asked Blonde as we drove past a large lake, deer’s grazing at the waters edge. “Not till 7” she stated, slipping on her sunglasses. I pulled my own on, a replacement pair picked up in Lake Tahoe “do you think he would mind if we came earlier? I think I need to go to bed” I’d pulled the sleeping bag into the front seat, forming a makeshift pillow to lean on up against the window and wrapped the remains around me for additional warmth. “He’s a park ranger so I think he’s working till then, we’re staying in his trailer, I can message him and see?” she replied. Normally I would have found the prospect of staying with a Yellowstone Park Ranger really exciting, especially in a trailer in the woods but in that moment, it was all I could manage to utter an “ok” and fall into a daze.

sick

I didn’t recall getting to the rangers office, I know he wasn’t in so we sat by the lake briefly until I got too cold and retreated back to the car. I also didn’t recall meeting the tall 25 year ranger old or falling instantly asleep in the back room of his trailer. “I’ve made you some dinner, I’ve put about three cloves of garlic in it, thought it might boost your immune system. There is a bonfire out back, I’ll be out there if you feel any better and want to come join” Blonde’s words drifted into the haze of my mind.

A minute, an hour, a year later, I’m not entirely sure how long but I rolled out the bed in search of the loo and found myself in the kitchen. Garlic bread sat on the side with a bowl of pasta and sauce. I gingerly took a bite, the thought of swallowing against my glands seeming like a very bad idea but persuaded into it by the grumble from my belly. You know those old cartoons where the character eats something spicy and steam comes out of their ears? This was like that, only the food wasn’t spicy, there was just so much garlic I could almost feel the germs in the back of my throat shrivel up and die. With the food being processed, I returned to the bed, slipping into a dreamless sleep for the entire night.

steam blowing cartoon

Salt Lake, kitchen chicken and the return of the half naked men

Typically it rained our entire stay in Lake Tahoe; the locals were delighted “It never rains here!” we were told, “it’s Becky’s fault” Blonde declared jokingly, “it is” I responded “I bring the rain, I can’t help it, it’s my superpower”. Because this is the way the world works, the morning we were due to leave, with an eight hour drive ahead of us and no time for stopping, the sky was nothing but tranquil blue and a smiling sun.

We pulled over at a beauty spot on the way out of town; Blonde leapt out to capture the view as I followed the other cars in circles around the full car park. My phone lit up on the dashboard with a message from Alaska “Are you going to talk to Blonde about some of the things that have been bothering you? I think you should” came his advice. I punched out a reply, spying Blonde making her decent down some rocks towards the cars “yeah, I know, I’m going to try”.

lake tahoe

“Get it?” I asked as she climbed back in, “yeah, you can’t actually see much more than you can from here, and this couple kept getting in my shot”. I braced myself, preparing to confess how I’d been feeling “So I was talking to our host last night and also to Alaska…” I began, “has Alaska booked his flight yet? Geo wants to come too but he’s going to his Grandparents in Colorado, he said it’s cool down there, loads of national parks and stuff. We are going to Colorado aren’t we?” Blonde interrupted. “Well yeah, but where do his Grandparents live? I think we’re just hitting the bottom part of the state” I explained. “I’ll text him and find out. How long is the drive today? Is this our longest drive? It’s so beautiful here, I think we should come back via Lake Tahoe before we head to LA, what do you think? Ooh I love this song” and with that she leaned over and turned up the radio.

We drove across the spine of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, all sharp edges and alpine trees before the road smoothed out on our decent and became an endless straight line of flat earth upon our entry into the Basin and Range province of north Nevada.

“Right, we’ve got 512 miles and seven hours and 12 minutes of driving ahead of us!” I announced, reading off the satnav. “God this is beautiful!” I stared ahead, the line of the road blurring to a dot in the distance, flat earth scattered with tufts of foliage, mountains washed of colour providing a skirting board for the huge sky. A sky of intense blue that reached from our toes and never stopped climbing, nothing to obstruct it’s view. The occasional cloud of puffy white smudges hung on strings as though drawn by children. “I don’t get how people can say they don’t like America, it’s stunning” Blonde declared. “I know! I get some might not like the junk food/theme park type of Orland holiday but this is amazing! In a matter of days we’ve gone from giant trees to mountains and lakes and now this, it’s just incredible!” I responded. “I love this! Road-tripping is awesome” Blonde smiled. “Me too” I agreed, and I meant it, the worries and frustrations slipping away in the moment.

north california

After much quality singing we pulled over at a a gas station for a break and some lunch. Aside from the road splitting the landscape in half; the gas station was the only structure as far as the eye could see. We sat on the sun bleached picnic bench on a small grass mound next to the station, watching the truckers pull up, stretch their legs and have a smoke.

“Can you imagine living out here?” Blonde asked as she pierced a blueberry in her super-food salad. “I’m not sure anyone does, we’ve seen nothing for hours” I looked around, whilst trying to cut through my unripe avocado. “But someone must, the guy who runs the gas station?” Blonde suggested. “Yeah I guess so. I feel like we are in the middle of nowhere!” my avocado pinned across the table and rolled away on the grass, I sighed and chased after it “still good!” I declared holding it up for inspection “five second rule! Germs probably don’t live out here anyway!”. A freight train clunked along a hidden track in the distance, it’s length astounded me, over 100 carriages and no end in sight. “We should probably get going, still four more hours to go and it’s already mid afternoon”.

nevada sunset

We listened to audiobooks until the voice made us feel sleepy and music was required to push us through. The land had sunk even lower as we crossed the top of the Nevada desert. With the sun descending I pulled down the visor and caught my reflection in the mirror “is my face red?!” I turned to Blonde alarmed. “YES! How has that happened?” she replied shocked. “I think, I think I’m sunburnt!” I announced surprised. “Can you even get sunburnt in a car?” Blonde asked, pulling down her own visor to check her face. “Well apparently, I guess we have been driving across a desert all day but still!” I poked at my skin, watching white turn to red.

Upon our entrance into Utah, we dipped over another mountain range and crossed into a basin of salt flats. Golden pools reflecting the evening sun glittered next to us as we sped down the empty road, a storm brewed in the distance to our right, dark clouds and rainbows, the sun shone in our wing mirrors leaving a glow on every thing ahead; the sky burned hot pink with yellow clouds, we were driving through a dream.

utah

“Who are we staying with tonight?” I asked as we approached Salt Lake City, the lake in question appearing to our left, a welcoming sight of water after all the dust of the desert. “He’s in his mid 30’s I think, he said he would be playing softball and we could meet him from the game” Blonde described.

It was dark by the time we arrived at the stadium, dinner consisted of a subway and some Teddy Graham in the car before we wrapped ourselves in jumpers and took to the stands to wait for our host to finish his game. “Which one is he?” I asked Blonde as we huddled together for warmth. “I think that one there with the big moustache” she pointed to a man stretching by the rest of his team. He noticed the point and waved back enthusiastically, the rest of his team turning to stare, we responded with our own wave awkwardly. “I want to play! Do you think I can go down and join them?” Blonde asked. “Errr no! It looks like a proper game, and it’s nearly over, do you even know how to play softball?” I replied, feeling the cold chill into my bones. “No, but it doesn’t look that hard” Blonde decided “I’m going to go get another jumper from the car, do you want me to get you anything?” She asked rising, “can you get my jumper on the back seat. Oh and bears! Bring more bears, I feel we need match food!”.

salt lake city

It was late by the time the game finished, we followed our host’s car to his house “you girls might want to bring everything in from your car, we’ve had a few break in’s recently in the area, they’ll smash a window if they see any spare change”. After a lot of shuffling back and forth, the car was finally empty “the car will be find though right?” we asked once inside “yeah, sure, unless they want to use it as a loo” came the reply much to our displeasure.

“Ok, I’ve got one single bed in here and a small couch in here” we were led around the house “who wants which?”. It was settled with a toss of the coin, much to my luck with me winning the bed, however neither of us was to get a decent sleep that night. “What can I cook you ladies?” the host asked as we took a seat at the breakfast bench “I’ve got eggs, lots and lots of eggs. We’ve got our own chickens out back, if you want to take some eggs with you in the morning feel free”. With it nearing midnight we declined on the food and settled for some small talk, just long enough not to seem rude before heading to bed.

softball

Our host was a bit of a new age farmer, goats and chicken in the garden and various eco projects on the go; his wife was away for the night visiting family. The house was in serious need of a clean with piles of boxes and papers scattering the surfaces; climbing into bed, I pulled the single sheet up to my chin and scratched away at my legs, feeling as though a million bugs were biting me.

The sleep was disturbed with constant itching and waking to find the host going through some of his boxes in the corner at the crack of dawn “only me, just trying to find a few things, I’m leaving early, you girls can stay as long as you like, just make sure the door clicks when you go” I was told before falling back asleep after he’d left the room.

A loud crash woke me fully an hour or so later, followed by an angry yell of “GET THE FUCK OUTTTT”. For a second I thought the host was screaming at Blonde before I realised the real culprit was either a chicken or a goat having entered the kitchen. I climbed out the shower to find the host already departed and Blonde boiling eggs “Morning, I’ve boiled us some for lunch, hopefully they’re ok, one I cracked this morning had a dead chick in it”. “What? Ewww, okkkk, too early, can’t function. How did you sleep?” I mumbled, rubbing my eye with my knuckle. “Terrible! There was no getting comfortable on the couch and when I did half fall asleep, I woke up to find a cat on my head” she stated. “Well you didn’t miss out much on the bed, I think I had bugs crawling over me all night, I’m still itchy!” I replied, scratching my arms.

chicken kitchen

“Shall we get out of here?” I asked, thankful for the porridge Blonde passed me. “We’ve got to load the car first” she answered, scooping at her own porridge. “Oh damn, I forgot about that, I hope no ones pee’d in the car!”. Thankfully any pee concerns weren’t necessary and before long we were back on the road heading north.

“Have you text the boys? They do have stuff for us to use tonight don’t they? It’s cool that we’re meeting up with them again” Blonde finished before bursting into the chorus of a song which I happily joined her for ‘I’ve been waiting all night for you to tell me, tell me that you need meeeeeee, tell me that you want meeee, I’ve been waiting all night for you to tell meeeee’. “I’ll text them now, they did say it would be fine” we were on our way to Yellowstone national park, with lose plans to meet up for camping with the half naked men met a week earlier in Oregon. The boys had promised they had all the camping stuff we would need.

unprepared camping

Having left the low lands of the salt flats, we climbed into a mountain range and sunk back down the other side, plenty of fresh green prairies and lush, rolling hills; it was such a contrast to the previous days drive.

“Have you heard from Alaska today?” Blonde enquired. “Not since yesterday afternoon no, why?” I asked struggling to get my speed down to match the ridiculously low legal limit. “Geo just sent me a message, apparently Alaska was out last night getting drunk and asked Geo to come pick him up then they drove around town trying to find Alaska’s boss so that he could quit his job and all so he could join us on the roadtrip” Blonde explained, re-reading the message on her phone. “Wait, Alaska quit his job when he was drunk last night? What?”. I grabbed my own phone and punched out a message to him.

driving with a drunk

A short while later as we stopped to clear dead bugs from the windscreen for the third time that day, my phone signalled a message, reaching to grab it presuming it was Alaska “oh, it’s Man-bun” once of the half naked boys “oh cool, yep they have a tent for us and are already set up. Oh, wait, they only have one ground mat and nothing else. We can’t camp without sleeping bags and stuff, we’ll freeze!” I despaired. “But they said they had stuff! Hmmm” she thought for a second “Can’t just wear lots of jumpers and stuff?” Blonde suggested. “Come on! Remember what I was like in Alaska, you’ll wake up and I’ll have frozen solid, then you’ll have to post my dead body back to England, is that what you want? Really? Are you sure?” I enquired jokingly. “Well maybe we can find a motel or see if the host for tomorrow can put us up for tonight as well” she decided.

We pulled into Yellowstone village at the close of day, wooden lodges and historic store fronts, it reminded me of a historic lumber town, actually it probably was! Having not heard back from the next days host and only the rather posh looking lodge hotel for accommodation our options were looking thin and I was resolving myself to either sleeping in the car or forcing the boys to let me sleep in the middle of their tent for warmth, already stealing myself to deal with their stench. “That camping store is still open, maybe we could buy sleeping bags or something?” Blonde pointed out.

yellowstone

A kindly old man who clearly knew all there was to know about camping instructed us in the ways of sleeping bags, reluctantly I was steered away from the Arctic level bag with the insistence that it really wouldn’t be that cold and towards a more suitable mid-level ranged one, I did insist upon an additional sleeping bag liner however, just in case! Blonde could not be persuaded away from the inflatable floor mat “will that even fit in the tent? I think it’s only a two man one they’ve got for us” I questioned “oh, this’ll fit a two man tent fine” advised the wise old man, I just wasn’t sure he realised that two of us and the inflatable mattress would need to fit.

We pulled into the camp site around sunset, a crate of cider and our new camping purchases rattling around on the back seat. The boys had set up the two tents next to each other with a fire already burning in the centre of a clearing. We exited the car to find one of the boys sat preparing food at the picnic bench, another sipping beer in a hammock and the third was half way up a tree. “You found it” Man-bun declared, swinging his legs out of the hammock, “Beer?” Curls asked with all smiles whilst rising from the picnic table, Muscles jumped down from the tree to embrace us in a welcome hug; all three were shirtless “do you ever wear tops?”.

camping

Lake Tahoe, sorry I’m British and advice from Matt Damon

We pulled up in front of a small, wooden house sitting on a suburban street in the backyard of Sacramento,; a couple of steps leading to a narrow veranda, it’s cream paint cracked and chipping, scattering the welcome mat with a dusting of dandruff. I pulled the screen door open, the netting was aged with holes and coming away at the edges. Gently, I knocked the main door which creaked open an inch upon contact “hello?” I called into the crack.  An eager chorus of dogs barked, followed by a rumbled descent as they bounded in our direction, the sound of tails thrashing against hidden furniture “come in, come in” called a warm voice from somewhere out back.

door knocking

The dogs insisted on praise for their hello’s as the cat watched lazily from an armchair in the corner, his tail swishing rhythmically. Our host for the night was a lady in her mid 50’s, who judging by her desk did something that required multiples resource books; I found her later that night hard at work typing out reports with glasses perched on the end of her nose, books piled high and only the glow of the computer and sleeping dogs by her feet for company.  She’d never had the opportunity to travel herself but her nephew had surfed around Europe; not being in a position to give back himself, she had taken it upon herself to repay his karma.

We followed the voice into the kitchen and found two German girls in their early 20’s cooking dinner for us all. Quickly introduced by our host to the other surfers, we were then led into the garden down the self constructed ramp leading off the back door step to allow access for one of the older dog struggling with arthritis, and shown the converted shed where we would be sleeping.

lake tahoe

“You’re going to Lake Tahoe today? Great, we’ll just come with you then” the German girls informed me over breakfast the next day. “Oh, errr ok” I stuttered, not sure what to say and wondering how Blonde and I would rearrange the back seat to allow for company to sit down. “Can I use your computer?” one of the girls called as I departed the room to inform Blonde of the new arrangements.

With the icebox squished between our two new car guests and various jumpers piled up on the back seat, we were back on the road. “So how long have you two been travelling?” I asked, looking in the mirror as I spoke. The girls explained they’d been together for eight months, crossing Australia, New Zealand and various areas of South America. “Are you friends from school?” Blonde questioned curiously. “No, we met online. I put an ad up for a travel partner” the shorter of the girls answered. “Really?” I was surprised “weren’t you worried you wouldn’t get on? Don’t you have fights?”. “Oh yeah, we’ve had a few, things annoy you but you just have to say, it wouldn’t be normal not to fight” came the reply. Both Blonde and I felt silently relieved, it wasn’t just us, everyone finds travelling hard.

had to socialize

The lack of sleep was beginning to catch up with me; I felt drained, finding the German girls a little demanding, the directness of their requests and expectations that we accommodate them on their day trip irritated me. Not in the mood to make small talk I popped in my headphones and set about replying to messages on my phone. I knew I was being rude but I didn’t want to talk, I was sick of entertaining.

We dropped the girls off by the water upon arrival in Lake Tahoe and continued on, I could feel an edge coming off Blonde as we arrived at our next host’s house. On a street lined with large wooden lake houses, we pulled up in front of a double garage, the house behind it hidden from view. At the exact moment we un-clicked our seat belts, a truck parked alongside signalling the arrival of our host. A man in his early 30’s climbed out, quickly followed by a dog that looked like it had walked off the set of a Pixar movie.

Doug the dog, UP

Our host greeted us with a shaved head, a short beard scattered with a sparkles of gold and red and a welcoming smile. Sometimes you meet people who just have a presence; this man presented an air of calmness. We liked him instantly, so much so that we circled our trip back via Lake Tahoe several weeks later; a visit that resulted in our host demonstrating a rather terrible Matt Damon impression and thus provided his name for this story.

With the dog leading; Matt Damon, Blonde and I climbed down the wooden stairs at the back of the garage and followed a path to a beautifully designed house, all exposed wood and glass. We made ourselves at home in the large open plan kitchen, living and dining space; admiring the views through the grand windows out onto the decking sitting above a river running through green marshland, a mountain range shaping the backdrop beyond. “This place is amazing!” I exclaimed in wonder “how come you live here?”. “Well it’s my parents house, my dad had it designed when we were kids, but a few years ago they wanted to move closer to my sister down the coast and I had just come back from travelling, so moved in” Matt Damon explained. “So tell me your story, an Australian and a Brit, driving around America? How did this happen?”.

matt damon

The afternoon was spent walking the worlds most beautiful dog and updating Matt Damon on our travels so far. To my annoyance, Blonde insisted on telling our new host all about our stay in Alaska, informing him how Alaska and I had spent a good deal of time during those last few days hugging, including such details of Alaska and I sharing a bed. My hormones bubbled away under the skin, too polite to call her out on it in front of Matt Damon but embarrassed that he might think I was the kind of girl who hooked up with couch surfing hosts and well, even I could see that the hugging thing was a bit weird. Something had happened during those days of hugging, seeing Alaska’s vulnerability and feeling like I perhaps didn’t need to hide mine quite so much, we were two lost children who suddenly realised that perhaps we weren’t the only ones in the world feeling alone, so we clung to each other and it was as innocent as that. Unfortunately that wasn’t how it sounded when Blonde explained it and I didn’t know how to correct the assumptions.

dog walk

That evening, I was tasked with cooking a traditional English dinner; neither Matt Damon nor Blonde had heard of ‘toad in the hole‘ so that’s what I prepared, a favourite meal from my childhood and one of the few things my mother could cook – or at least until she cooked herself sausages one evening when I was in my early 20’s and gave herself the most miserable food poisoning of her life. She was never able to eat the things again and as a result, never again cooked me my childhood favourite.

I hadn’t thought of that meal in years until Matt Damon asked what traditional English foods were and I struggled to think, suggesting ‘Fish ‘n’ chips’ until Blonde insisted that Australia invented the combination, a fact I pointed out technically still made it a British dish because Australia was once our colony so therefore, still British. Matt Damon rolled his eyes “you Brits, always claiming things as your own” to which I responded “shut it America, you can not talk! Hamburgers? Hotdogs? Pretzels anyone?I could go on!” with our country differences put aside I went back to racking my brain for traditional English meals, running off a verbal list to blank faces “Cornish pasties, beef Wellington, stew, hot pot, shepherds pie, spotted dick (more of a pudding to be fair but included for my own comedy value) ummmm” I paused to think “oh, toad in the hole” I remembered, a wave of sadness for my mums cooking washing over me.

toad in the hole

I stood in the kitchen, ready to whip up the meal, iphone in hand and BBC’s cooking instructions loaded “ummm, how do you cook sausages?” I bit my lip and furrowed my brows, already failing in my chef duties. With a team effort, Matt Damon took control of the sausages, Blonde prepared the side salad and I set about making the batter. Whilst we got down to our tasks, Blonde told Matt Damon all about the marshmallow stick war. I was embarrassed, her version made me sound so petty, she stated the surface detail – she had a stick and I got in a mood, then everyone told her how great the smore were. I wanted to defend myself, to say that there had been a power struggle taking place around that fire pit, that there was a fight for attention and that yes, it was all rather sad and it was petty, but it was petty on both sides!

lake tahoe mountains

“Well that wasn’t quite it” I interjected. “Well what else was it then?” Blonde challenged, the air shifting. I looked at her, mixing bowl nestled in the crook of my arm, whisk paused in my other hand, ‘how honest can I be right now? Can I really tell you that I thought you were acting like an attention seeking brat and doing everything you could to get the boys to notice you and that I found it all rather pathetic? You think you’re being sooooo subtle and you know what? I was 23, I did the same bids for attention and I bet people saw right through me too!’ I weighed it up internally, the hormone influx were adding acid to my tongue, it wasn’t really her fault. “Never mind, it’s done with now, we don’t need to dredge it all up again” I lowered my head, concentrating on the mixing, her eyes were still on me, knowing I was holding something back but not sure how to pull it out.

baking fight

“Yeah but you got annoyed at me over a marshmallow stick” she pushed on, wanting me to say what I wasn’t. Matt Damon picked up on the tension “marshmallow sticks aside, how has the rest of the trip been going?”. With the ‘toad in the hole’ crisping in the oven, we sat at the table, watching the sky fill with neon colours as the sun set across the mountains. The conversation was still rolling “and I had to talk to the German girls the entire drive because you had your headphones in. I was having to make all the conversation” Blonde was finishing off relaying the trip, my blood was beginning to simmer. Biting my teeth together I forced a smile “hmmm”. “Yeah, so I had to talk for over two hours to them…” she continued.

lake tahoe sunset

I bit my lip and took a swig from my drink “this is the first time the entire trip that you’ve had to make an effort with people!” I stated, feeling annoyed. “No it’s not, I talked to the guy in Astoria for half an hour when you were in the shower and the woman last night” Blonde argued. “Yeah, because I was in the shower or out of the room! Every single host you’ve made me go in first, I’ve had to entertain them while you go and call your mum or just sit there saying nothing. Whenever anyone asks how we met, you always go ‘oh Becky tells it better’ and then say ‘oh tell them the story about this or that‘ then you state you’re going to bed and I’m left to tell the story and you get to go to sleep!” I erupted, as calmly as I could, taking a second long swig of my drink and smiling towards Matt Damon so he didn’t think I was starting a fight at his dinner table.

shut up

“Well if I’m tired, I’m going to go to bed” Blonde defended herself. “But I’m tired too!” I insisted “but you throw me under the bus!” I continued. “Well then just go to bed, the host would understand! Wouldn’t you?” she turned it on Matt Damon. “Well, err yeah, I mean if someone is tired, they don’t need to stay up and chat” he answered on cue. “Oh come onnnnn!” I despaired, feeling as though I was losing a boxing match I’d never signed up for “the whole point of couch surfing is to give something back, you can’t just show up at someone’s house, say hi and then go straight to bed, you have to interact with people, that’s the point! It’s rude otherwise!” I despaired.

“It’s just that you’re British, it’s not rude to go to bed if you’re tired. The British are overly sensitive about this stuff” Blonde informed, much to my annoyance. Perhaps she was right though, she wasn’t a rude person and yet I found a lot of her behaviour un-polite; not always making the effort to be friendly, or not reading the atmopshere in the room, interrupting conversation with irrelevant questions, asking for things as though they were her right not a request; it did jar against my sensitivities, what I thought was basic manners was perhaps a cultural problem.

I mean, I apologise for not smoking if someone asks for a light, I always tell the hairdresser the cut is ‘great, thanks” even when I hate it and I’ve definitely accepted a glass of red wine when I only drink white because I didn’t want to offend the host. Maybe, just maybe, these Australians and Americans have it right with their direct communication and saying what they mean; of course I couldn’t possibly tell them that, I’d need to apologise a million times first and then have a good old cup of tea!

sorry

A rather undercooked dinner was served, my cooking skills showing no signs of improvement, followed by an evening of story swapping and draining the fridge of beer. Blonde retired to bed, leaving a sleeping dog by my feet and both Matt Damon and myself to continue the conversation “So what’s going on with Alaska then? And with you and Blonde?” he asked, curious after the various information revealed throughout the evening.

With only the raccoons tearing open the bins outside, tormenting the tired dog to disturb us, I tried my best to explain everything that had happened. “…So you see we’re just friends, only close friends, we get each other but that’s all it is” I concluded about Alaska.

raccoon

“It sounds like he wants to be more than friends, do you want that?” Matt Damon asked, draining the last of his beer. “No. Well, maybe. No. I can’t really get past that whole fat ass thing. I feel like all my confidence is slipping away, just when I was starting to build it back up and, and…” I let the sentence die. “And what? There’s more to it?” Matt Damon encouraged. “Well, after mum and everything that happened with Dreadlocks and the weirdos I dated in Australia, I lost all my confidence, I was starting to feel better about myself but then Alaska said all the stuff he did and well, Blonde..” I paused again, he waited for me to continue. “I feel like she’s competing against me, it’s stupid but I feel like she’s in competition with everything I do and I don’t like it. It’s affecting my confidence, and until I feel confident, well I feel like I can’t be happy with someone else until I’m happy with myself” I answered.

love me till I'm me again

“What do you mean?” his own brows crossed, confused. I struggled to word what I meant, stopping and starting “She. Well she. She buys the same clothes as me or the rare times we’ve gone out on this trip she’s had to borrow something of mine. I said I wanted to get Christmas decorations as souvenirs from the trip, so she’s started doing that as well. I said I wanted to get patches of the different places we go and then make a patch work quilt so when I’m old and grey and crusty in my arm chair I can bore my grandkids with all the places I went. But now she’s buying patches for a quilt too!” I finished my own beer.

“Well it’s flattering that someone copies your style and ideas” Matt Damon sympathised. “Well it was at first but, ughhh and this is so stupid and typically girly but, well, I feel like I’ve put on weight and she’s lost weight, so she’s buying the same stuff as me but she looks better in it. I sound jealous don’t I?! Ughhh it’s not that, it’s just, it’s like she’s rubbing it in my face. I was saying earlier in the car that I felt like I’d put on weight and was getting a bit self conscious and she said ‘oh, yeah, I think I’m losing weight, my shorts feel looser, look’ and then pulled her waistband out to show me how loose they were. Which is great for her, but possibly not what I needed to hear when I was confessing my insecurities” I paused.

“She followed that up by examining her nails and expressing that her new vitamin tables are making her hair and nails all strong and nice. And the marshmallow stick stuff. It is stupid, I know it is, but she seemed so happy when she thought she got one over on me, like she was winning. In a normal world, this wouldn’t bother me, I could go home at the end of the day and able to process it, or you know, call my mum and talk it out. And normally I’d feel confident enough in myself that her behaviour wouldn’t get to me but right now, right now I don’t feel strong, I feel broken, I still feel broken” I dropped my eyes, twisting my fingers back and forth. “If she keeps competing against me, I’m scared I won’t win” I shook my head and smiled sadly, trying to shake the confession off me, it seemed so silly once said out loud, I’d been feeling it all for weeks but this was the first time I’d put words to it “maybe I’m reading into it all too much, I’m probably just being hormonal and paranoid” I finished, smiling shyly.

Matt Damon stared at me with a crooked smile from the other couch, his head slightly tilted “well maybe you are being paranoid a bit but she does expect you to take the lead and yeah, maybe she is competing a bit, I could see it at times tonight but I don’t think it’s a conscious decision on her part; it’s not out of malice, she just doesn’t know any better. She is only 23 it doesn’t sound as though she’s had that many experiences yet?” he offered.

I know

“I know! It makes me feel bad that I lose patience with her. She’s, I don’t know, she’s… when I met her she seemed so confident and together. I just thought wow, this 22 year old (as she was then), travelling around Europe for months alone, that’s really brave! I was impressed” I lifted my head, picking up my empty beer bottle and passing it back and forth between my hands absent mindedly.

“We were in Italy, we were both glad of the company but it was more than that, I’d confessed some of my stuff and then she told me she’d just got over depression and had lost a ton of weight. I mean losing 50lbs is amazing! And having the strength to do, to make the changes etc, well I just thought it was pretty cool. I saw this glow in her, like she was just waking up to the world and has all this new found confidence”I put the bottle back on the coffee table, Matt Damon didn’t say a word, waiting for me to finish.

the truth

I looked at the raccoon face staring through the porch door, he caught my eye and strutted away nonchalantly. “It was only when I got to Australia, and, well this trip, that I realised she some of the things I’d been so impressed about weren’t quite as they’d seemed. She’d been staying with her family in Europe and when she did travel, she was doing organised bus tours with other Aussies, which is fine, but she makes out she is very well travelled and experienced but that’s really not the case. And the weight thing, of course that was hard  but she did a meal replacement thing and her dad gave her thousands of dollars every time she reached various targets, that’s a pretty good incentive!” I stopped, thinking about what I’d said. “I don’t want to sound like a bitch, it is still impressive, I don’t know, I think it’s the version she tells people isn’t the whole truth and I hate that. Maybe I’m simply bitter because things felt harder for me, or at least in my eyes”. I dragged my hand down my face, pulling my knee up to rest my chin on it. Matt Damon was still waiting for me to finish.

“It’s, well, it’s that now she feels really confident about herself” I paused “which is great” I quickly added. “Just, now she wants validation back, she wants constant approval, she once asked if I thought she had nice lips! And then told me that people say she has nice lips, ‘does she had nice lips?‘ She was pouting in the mirror as she posed this question. She wants validation and attention from guys too. She told me she wants to go to a bar and watch me flirt so she can learn how to do it! It feels like she thinks the only way she can get this attention from guys or validation or whatever is if she competes for it against me, as though the only way to get it is to take me down so she can feel on top. It makes the hairs on my neck bristle, half of me wants to go all ‘well bring it on bitch!‘ and the other half makes me want to crawl into a ball and cry, I don’t want to compete and I feel like she’s forcing me to” I sighed dramatically, flinging my arms to my side in an open gesture “ok, I’m a nutcase aren’t I?!” I smiled and bit my lip, my eyes trying not to let any tears slip out.

I'm fine

Matt Damon laughed “you two need to communicate! What you’re saying is probably true but she is competently oblivious. You’re obviously much more aware and sensitive to these things, plus you’re able to articulate it, and you’re older, you do have more experiences to draw from. She won’t realise that the things she is saying or how she is reacting is making you feel this way. You need to tell her some of it” he advised, heading to the fridge to see if any drinks were hiding behind the food.

“How! How can anyone be that honest with someone? ‘Oh, I know you’re in a good place in the world and everything is great in your life but I’m insecure and feel threatened because I’m not as skinny as I was and I don’t like that you copy everything I do and expect me to hold your hand through every thing, so can you not? Thanks’ I’d sound like an idiot!” I exasperated.

yeah ok

“Well maybe don’t say it like that” he laughed from behind the fridge door. “Ok, only every time I say anything she doesn’t like, she gets defensive and immediately starts arguing her point which I find embarrassing because she only ever brings stuff up in front of other people, I’m really conscious it’s making a negative opinion for people we’ve just met, it’s embarrassing! I find her impossible to communicate with, she’s quick to pass the buck and never takes responsibility and I’m left looking worse because I know if I really did call her out on anything, she’d only cry and get all shouty or worse! Hurt!. She pushes for confrontation but only ever in front of other people. And I don’t want to bring up things later in the car when it’s just us because I’ve either forgotten or I don’t want to ruin a nice moment. Well that and I’m a coward who hates confrontation!” I laughed again as he passed me a glass filled with half the remaining beer.

“Well you’re going to have to figure something out, you’ve got a lot more roads to travel together!” Matt Damon informed wisely with a knowing smile.

matt damon being wise

Thankfully, the lake house was large and afforded plenty of room for Blonde and I to enjoy separate rooms that night. I retreated to the tower of the house as a text from Alaska beeped through “What you up to?”. With legs crossed I typed out a reply “just been sitting up chatting with our host, he’s lovely, ended up telling him the whole story of everything and about the frustration on the trip and how guilty I’m feeling about getting annoyed etc” I hit send as my belly made a worrying grumble.

His reply quickly followed “you have to stop telling people your life story! You’re never going to get any sleep, was he helpful though?”. I punched out a reply “I know, but I can’t help it, people always ask questions and I like to talk and and and well it sort of just all came out, plus I like him. Actually, hang on I need to go to the bathroom, be right back”. I dashed to the loo. “Sorry, I think I might have given myself food poisoning” I typed, clearly the beer was lending me to be a little too honest. “Really? Sorry! So what have you been up to today?” he beeped. “Can’t type, bathroom, must go. Never going to get sleep! Talk tomorrow”.

poop

 

Ancient trees and the fakeness of a Facebook life

The car emerged from the thick, green tangle of the forest’s roads; the Pacific Ocean welcoming us with a wink whilst the tired day sparkled in the water. We drove through dust-ball towns whose identities consisted of nothing but empty high streets, lonely blinking traffic lights and boarded up shops; their heyday gone, forgotten to the world long ago. The path twisted and turned dramatically, hugging the Jurassic coast, it’s edges worn and chipped by centuries of biting seas; it was nothing but sharp angles and juttering rocks. And yet, for all its anger, it was beautiful.

oregon pacific ocean

The late afternoon sun burnt the sky orange, shadow and gold cut deep into the rocks which dared to venture out the current off the shore; bronzed beaches weaved, the smooth curve of the tide contrasting against the knifes edge of the land. We hung in the twilight, caught in awe of the landscape surrounding us and the exhaustion from the drive. The world seem to reflect a contentedness felt at that moment in our minds; light began to washout, fuzzy at the sides, it was calming, we were calm.

Oregon coast

On the Oregon/California state border, in a sleepy town worthy of no description, we pulled up with the night’s arrival at a motel perched on the edge of time. Two double beds and a kettle, the first of many motel rooms to come. With the relief of not having to hide our heavy heads and entertain a host, we climbed into the separate beds, relishing in the luxury of not having to share. “I’m so happy right now” Blonde called. “What?” I asked, pulling out an ear plug, having not heard her words. “I can’t hear you” she replied “I have ear plugs in” she added. And with that said, sleep pulled us under.

ear plugs

“Have you heard from Alaska?” Blonde asked the following morning nonchalantly as we drove towards the Avenue of the Giants whilst eating the oatmeal Blonde had hastily made in the motel room and served in plastic drinking glasses. “Not today, how come?” I responded, scooping a spoonful of the cement like mixture into my mouth and wishing I’d added more honey. “Oh I asked him to write me a couch surfing review, he’s online now, just messaged me” she stared ahead at the road. “Oh right, what did his review say?” I asked curious, “I can’t remember, I’ll tell you later” came the response despite her having just read it.

“Ooohhh I think this is it!!” I stared at the map and back at the road. Enormous columns of trees rose from the ground, sailing up past the clouds. Huge, great structures almost beyond comprehension with leaves blocking out the light, leaving a warm basking of green wonderment, speckled with golden shafts of escaped sunlight. I was Jack and this was a playground of beanstalks.

Avenue of the giants

We pulled the car over and ran into the forest, checking first for no sleeping bears and then walking into the huge nooks at the base of the trees, bigger than most of the rooms I’d rented in London. We climbed onto fallen trees, clambering on rotting bark, moss staining our hands, the smell of damp earth, the crunch and dash of creatures hidden in the undergrowth. I craned my neck backwards trying to take in the height, half expecting to see a pterodactyl glide past. I wrapped my arms round the bark feeling the thousand year old wood beneath my fingerprints; my arms stretched but I couldn’t reach more than a tenth of the width, I knelt on the floor to try and capture the entire length in a picture but achieved only trunk.

hugging a tree

We headed for the drive thru tree – a tree so big they put a road through it! As I drove the sun snatched glances of us through the rooftops of trees, with the velocity of the car causing a strobing effect, blinding us at speeded intervals. “Has Alaska text you yet?” Blonde asked for the second time that day, “no, but I owe him a reply from his message yesterday” I answered, squinting for the turns in the drive. “Oh, yeah, he’s online right now, he’s messaging me at the moment, when was the last time you heard from him?” she questioned with a smile. “I don’t know, last night, I need to reply to his message but haven’t had time” I was getting agitated, it felt like she was making this a competition. “Oh, Geo is drawing a picture of me from when we were all in Alaska” she continued, a satisfied look crossing her face.

drive thru tree

“Alaska was looking up flights yesterday for Chicago, he said he’d come join us for a couple of weeks on the road, are you still ok with that? Has Geo said any more about coming? It would be cool if they both come down” I began. “He’s not just going to come down and hug you the whole time is he? Because it’s my trip too and if he’s how he was the first week in Alaska that’s fine but the last few days just got weird” she responded “are you two going to hook up?”. “Nooooooo!” I stated “no! That is not going to happen! We are just friends, that’s it. Plus he said I wasn’t attractive at all! Remember? And let’s not even mention the whole fat ass thing again!” I insisted “plus I think it will be nice to have the boys along for awhile and we might be at each others throats by the time we get to Chicago!” I half joked, laughing a little too long through clenched teeth.

Blonde, rather oblivious to any real concern, continued “yeah, but it’s normal to fight, think just as long as we’re honest with each other then we’ll be fine. Just tell me if I’m doing something that’s annoying”. Only I wasn’t sure just how honest I could be with her, it was becoming increasingly apparent that we were on very different trips, she’d come on holiday, I was on a journey. I stared out the window, my mind racing back to the night before we left for Hawaii.

cartwheel on the beach

“I found this picture, I think we should recreate it in America!” I was straddling my suitcase, using all my might to zip the thing closed, I looked up to see Blonde standing on her bed unpinning from the wall, the map I’d leant her to review the proposed route. She’d surrounded the map with various pictures cut from magazines and was leaning forward with one picture in her hand; two models, a blonde and a brunette doing cartwheels on the beach in their bikinis. “Errr, well I don’t know how to cartwheel and I do not look like that in bikini! Plus if I actually managed to stand on my hands, I’m pretty sure my boobs would slip right out and that is just not going to be a winning look!” I joked but internally it was worrying me.

I flashed back to Bridezilla with the list of pictures she’d insisted we all recreate for her wedding day, pictures she’d found on the internet and felt looked like the ‘perfect wedding’. I didn’t want to pose for staged pictures, I already had real versions, over a decades worth of pictures with various friends, smiling at the camera or each other, simple moments caught in time, real. “I’ve been thinking about what our road-trip song should be…” Blonde interrupted my thoughts, placing the picture back on her wall. “What? Nooo you can’t choose a road-trip song before we’ve even got the car, before we’ve left home, the song has to find you, you have to let it happen naturally, you don’t need to force these things”.

fake pictures

I snapped back to modern day “it’s hard travelling with other people, of course you’re going to annoy each other, it wouldn’t be normal if you didn’t. We’ll probably be standing in the rain, having broken down and screaming at each other across the car roof at some point” I visualised. “Exactly, I want that stuff to happen, we’d be laughing about it later and it would make a good story” Blonde continued “and it is hard travelling with other people, I don’t think I could do this trip with many of my friends back home”. I pondered for a second, running through my friends “yeah me neither actually, but then a lot of them have babies now and baby poop really smells! We’d be stopping every two seconds to change a nappy and toilet breaks!” I insisted. “We do stop every two seconds for toilet breaks” Blonde smiled, “I really like water ok, I have a problem!” I returned.

I don’t recall growing up in my 20’s, it seems to be something that just happens when you’re too busy doing something else, noticed for a fleeting second when passing the mirror or pointed out in an old photograph. Until I got in that car, I was convinced I was still mentally 17 but unbeknown to me, somehow I’d grown up a little and that seven year age gap became very apparent. The “I want to do that” response to various stories I’d mentioned about dates or random nights out and “I want to go to a bar and watch you get hit on so I can learn how to flirt” felt sweet and endearing at first however after awhile the questions began to grate “when you kiss someone standing up, what do you do with your hands?” had me raising an eyebrow and questioning just how much cotton wool she’d been wrapped in. It was clear we’d lived in very different worlds.

old and young

I’d forgotten what it was to be 23, to need all your approval come from men in bars, your physical appearance being the most important attribute to your being, the need to compete with friends, for constant validation. I must have driven my mum nuts, asking every time I saw her if she could tell I’d gained 3 whole pounds or ensuring she agreed that I was in the right and it was really my friend acting like a cow in whatever fight we were having.

These things were manageable, I understood that for Blonde, it felt as though she was just waking up and there was a whole world to explore however the vanity and attention seeking weren’t quite so manageable.  It seemed to me, in my grief stricken, over-sensitive way, that Blonde was pushing against me, as thought she felt this approval and validation was only going to be achieved if she could win it in some competition against me.

boxing

“Remember when Alaska was talking about his Communications degree? And he said that thing about males having to have an alpha and a beta in a group?” Blonde asked whilst driving, as we turned inland and headed south east towards Sacramento. “Yeah” I said, not lifting my eyes from my phone. “Well do you think girls have that as well? Is there always an alpha and a beta etc in female groups?” she asked. “Well not always but yeah, generally, humans are pretty primal, we naturally fall into various roles in social environments” I responded, wondering where this was going.

She thought for a second “I think I’m probably the alpha in my group of friends, just because I’ve always been taller, and I’m probably the smartest and just more confident” she didn’t sound arrogant in the way she was saying this, it was simply a stream of consciousness. “I’m pretty sure I’ve never been the alpha in any of my friendship circles, I’m not sure I was ever invested in any one group at a time to need to be top dog, I mean, there has definitely been times where it’s felt like there is some sort of power struggle going on but generally, I’m not sure any of that matters if you’re sure of yourself” I thought out loud.

alpha beta

“Hmm yeah, I know who I am, I think other people get intimidated by me, last year on my coach trip in Europe, some other girls would give me looks and stuff, yeah, I think the alpha thing does exist. Even in small groups, don’t you think that there is always one who is more of an alpha than the other? Even when there is just two or three people?” she looked at me, the atmosphere seemed to have shifted. I felt slightly pushed ‘are you trying to get me to say you’re the alpha out of me and you in this car?’ I looked up from my phone “well an alpha would never need to say they’re an alpha” I returned to my phone “oh yeah, err, I would never say I was an alpha to my friends” she back peddled.

The day passed with soft rolling hills, scatterings of isolated trees and dead grass, yellowing at the edges, showing our first evidence of the California drought. We slipped down into farmland, endless fields of small crops springing up for summer. Lakes appeared around bends in the road, large bodies of still water, populated only with small boats and retired men fishing. Everything felt frozen, caught for a brief moment as our car sped by.

north california

Blonde seemed to want the Facebook version of our trip; pictures of us hugging, ‘best friend’ hashtags, star jumps at every landmark, attention from sexy cowboys, random stories, daring adventures, a thousand ‘likes’ “but that’s not real is it” I stated whilst driving through the north of California with all its whimsical hills and candy floss skies.

“That’s all Facebook memories, it’s fake. No one is really that happy, not all the time at least. It’s a version of ourselves we show to the world and we’re all guilty of it, the worst part is, we see everyone else living what we think is an incredible life and then we feel like we’re failing somehow, it’s depressing. I bet you, that couple looking so loved up on their Greek island holiday were screaming in the hotel room this morning and that lovely family picture took 15 snaps to get followed by someone crying! The worst part is, we’re all just as guilty as each other, I post a million pictures and all anyone see is smiles and stunning scenery, they don’t see the never ending driving, the holding your breath so you don’t suffocate in the shit stained toilets along the side of the road or the fact I’ve had one proper nights sleep in the last three weeks and am definitely a danger on the road right now! None of it is real, there are always more sides to a story, just don’t expect the film version to play out” and with that, I clambered off my soapbox for the day, just as we pulled into a rather dodgy looking neighbourhood.

like