Thick mist makes the road invisible and dense clusters of small trees blur the boundary between pavement and marsh. It’s eight or nine p.m. but the night has settled into a singular darkness that will last until sunrise. When I look out the window, it could easily be midnight.
An hour ago my mom and I left a bay area restaurant, headed for our home in Sacramento. Both of my parents grew up in the bay area and I have two full sets of grandparents that still live there. We’ve made the drive between there and home more times than I could possibly count. I know the route like I’ve walked it every day of my life.
But it’s never looked like this.
Every so often I glance over at my mom who is doing her best to look calm and confident. Once or twice I catch her eyes darting from her side view mirror to the rear view and back again. She has the distinct look of barely holding it together. Inside, I know she’s panicked.
The repetition of darkness and the absence of city-driving landmarks traps us in a cycle of uncertainty and fear. 20 years from now, our phones and watches can pinpoint exactly where we are and tell 2,000 of our closest friends. But right now, driving alone on the Sacramento river delta, it feels like we may never get home.
10 years later I’m hiking in the San Bernadino mountains with twelve urban teenagers and my best friend from college. We’ve been walking in the wilderness for four days, each carrying 50 pounds on our backs. Prior to our trip, most of the kids hadn’t spent more than 5 consecutive hours in the outdoors. They are mostly clad in jeans and low-support, trendy tennis shoes. I can feel blisters forming between my toes that are covered in eighteen-dollar wool socks and two-hundred dollar hiking boots.
I appear to be the only one in pain.
We are singing and giggling uncontrollably, completely delirious from a combination of exhaustion, dehydration and the type of uninterrupted joy that emerges from the collective triumph of a bonded team. Yesterday, we climbed to the summit of the highest peak in Southern California. Today we make the victory march back to base camp. Too caught up in connection and exhilaration to notice anything but each other, we miss the sky darkening and the wind intensifying. Someone mentions the weather change just in time for us to look up and see the momentary illumination of a lightning crack immediately followed by the loudest crash of thunder I’ve ever heard. A sixteen year old boy, who is six feet tall, jumps into my arms and a couple of the young women shriek in terror. Then, together, we experience a long pause, a palpable suspension of breath. The silent acknowledgment that a giant electrical storm is right on top of us.
In an instant, the parade of laughter and lightness dissolves into a chaotic, desperate scramble.
My memory is blurry in the details between “oh shit” and finally making it to our destination. There was collaboration followed by evaluation and ultimately executive decision-making. There were pros and cons of charging forward at full speed and attempting to wait it out. There was sharp, critical thinking mixed with total confusion and dysfunction.
I remember thinking I’m not old enough or mature enough for this much responsibility.
The return trip seems seems like it should be easier than the journey required to get there. It’s familiar and predictable and there are encouraging signs along the way that you’re “almost there” or “on the right track.” Even when the road there was a surprising adventure, the road back is a retracing of recognizable steps.
Unless it isn’t.
Right now my life feels like an endless series of trips home. I’m finding my way back into my body and back into my life. After ten years on a yoga mat, a three month hiatus feels like I’m brand new again. Except my body is different and the ease I found, even back then, is replaced by tightness and hesitation and discomfort. Most of my work is done from hotel rooms and coffee shops and lululemon stores where I don’t know any of the employees. Thursday nights or Friday mornings are spent negotiating airport security lines and glaring at “departures” monitors wondering why no one ever wants to get to Sacramento on time. I’m texting my mom about the latest travel debacle and checking the weather report across the country to accurately anticipate the severity of turbulence on my flight.
Each time I’m caught off guard by the effort it requires. All of it.
What I should be learning, or know already, is that the way back is sometimes, many times, more challenging than the rest. I arrive to the trip home with a armful of expectations about how it will unfold. I’m attached to a certain sequence of events, experiences and sensations. “I’ve been here before” lulls me into a knowing comfort, a predictable security, a false sense of control. I settle into the celebration of “making it,” take a deep breath, recline my seat, then look up and see terrain I don’t recognize, or the undeniable signs of a thunderstorm.
When I woke up groggy and disoriented in the recovery room after my surgery my heart was beating so fast I almost told my nurse I was having a heart attack. As my pulse slowed I realized where I was and found relief in the observation that the thing I’d been dreading for two months was finally over. Soon, they’d let me go home.
During the car ride to my mom’s house I felt the type of nauseous where you pray you throw up everything you’ve eaten for a week just so you can feel better. It was not the peaceful, gentle, graceful arrival to healing I had hoped for.
As it turns out, it never is.