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One of the most powerful moments of my life so far took place at a Love’s travel stop about two hours south of Denver. I was alone, perched on a curb, eating a bagel and feeling relieved. I’d driven on empty for a little too long, my heart beating harder with every mile that didn’t bring an exit with services — an experience I’ve idiotically managed to repeat many times in the years since then on long drives in the wide-open West.
As my heart rate slowed, my relief began to arrange itself into something else: a sense of solitude more profound than I’d ever imagined I could feel while watching cars race by on a highway. For a week, I’d been on a zigzagging solo road trip across the Southwest. I felt overwhelmingly grateful for that solitude, the strange kind you can only find at a nowhere gas station along the highway, the kind I’d granted myself by spending several days on my own. Sitting there on the curb, I felt acutely aware of the moment, and myself in it, as I might someday look back on it. I thought about the comforting momentum of travel, the magic of driving alone — that independence, and the freedom I had to claim it. On the road, against the backdrop of the American West, the aloneness that sometimes turned to loneliness when I was home in New York didn’t feel anything like that. I’ve never been more open, I thought, and I’ll never be this free again.
Back home in Brooklyn, I mentioned that trip in an email to a western writer I admired and hinted that I may be looking to head in that direction again soon. “NYC is the perfect place to be stalled out,” he replied. “Go West, young lady!” It wasn’t until later that his tone struck me as patronizing. I liked the echo of 19th-century westward expansion, the way it seemed to wink at a romantic idea we both knew was trouble. Go West, ignite your imagination, find your independence, join a problematic lineage. Go West and get the hell out of Dodge — a cliché with its roots in old westerns. These myths are hard to shake.
I’d never felt like I needed anyone’s permission to go, but each incremental push in a westerly direction undid another stitch in the threads tying me back east, as if the place I’d grown up were a dress I’d been sewn into. With each invocation of “Go West,” I could breathe the idea a little deeper. The choice, finally, to move to Colorado seemed almost small — just the last stitch coming undone, a final release.
In the weeks leading up to my move, I recalled that earlier road trip, summoning that feeling on the gas station curb. Over the course of years, the myth of rugged western individualism had mingled with the reality that I often traveled alone, and I’d convinced myself that I was my most independent self on trips out west. Choosing to move to Colorado, I hoped, meant choosing a life where I could feel that way all the time.
A clear, crisp image kept surfacing in my mind: me, in my own car, driving out of the city and across the country on my own. That image got me through the stress of packing up my whole life. It convinced me to buy a 2013 Subaru I’ll be paying for until 2022. It made any number of things — missing out on friends’ big life events back east, going months without greasy Chinese takeout, the unlikeliness of meeting a romantic partner in a tiny mountain town — feel worth it.
Then something happened, something that felt simultaneously ridiculous and fitting. I’d been single in New York for years — six, to be exact. For that, I blamed New York flakiness, I blamed timing, I blamed the endless options of online dating. And I blamed myself: for having one foot not quite out the door but constantly teetering on the threshold. I was always threatening to go elsewhere, always telling myself I wanted to find love, but also fearing that love would tie me to this place where I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay.
Two days after I bought the car that was supposed to whisk me away to empowered independence, I went on a date that I wasn’t sure was a date. Eamon wasn’t sure either. I hadn’t seen him in a year, not since I’d left the part-time job where we were co-workers, where we’d exchanged innocent but extensive messages on the office chat about music, books, camping, pie. I’d had a big, obvious crush on him. When he asked me out, my heart lurched into my stomach and my phone nearly hopped out of my hands and across the train car.
That date turned into several, which turned into trying to see each other as much as we could. I was happy, I was confused, I was leaving. My image of rugged independence, driving coolly away from it all, didn’t disappear all at once. But other images began to compete with it.
When we decided that Eamon would drive west with me, don’t get me wrong: I was overjoyed. I didn’t know if we’d keep seeing each other after I left — though by then I really should have — and I wanted to milk every moment we could possibly spend together. I wanted to see new places with him, to cover miles together. I wanted to spend nights with him between crisp hotel sheets and in the cozy homes of friends. I wanted sit beside him all damn day in my car, sharing our favorite songs and getting to know each other better, for days on end.
I was getting something I fervently wanted, but I was also giving something up. Another story propped up by faulty western myths fell away — the one I’d been telling myself about the drive west, the person I’d be on the other side of it. That story had served its purpose: It gave me the confidence to go after what I wanted, where I wanted it. It pushed me to make a choice.
Driving west with Eamon wasn’t the next piece of that story. It was the beginning of something else. And the reality, as always, was richer, sweeter, and more complicated than any myth.
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