Transition: Traveling Across the Country to My New Old Home

Summer 2012

As spring in North Carolina gives way to summer heat, as it always does before the calendar declares the change of season, I pack up my little house. It was no surprise to anyone that it sold quickly, still I am shocked to already be doing this. From my empty attic bedroom, I watch professional movers load my winnowed belongings into the end of a huge truck and try to swallow the lump in my throat. I thought there would be more time here. Emma and Rebecca will meet the truck in Washington in a week or so and oversee its unloading into the mini-storage unit I rented over the phone, where most of it will remain—like me—on hold.

That night dear friends sit with me on the floor in the bare, candlelit hearth room and share the last of our many meals together as they help me say goodbye to the house. I have saved each of them something from my belongings: a folding saw for one who has embarked on her own single life, a bird’s nest for another, an antique canning jar, a flying pig from the top of my gate, a tin garden chicken for another. I can’t believe I’m leaving these dear women. Doubt begins to crowd my heart.

I move into a friend’s guest room so I can continue to be a wage-earner while I wait for my second grandson to be born across the state. Three weeks later, I load my 14-year-old Honda CRV with a few clothes, a cooler with food for me and insulin for my twelve-year-old diabetic cat Smudge—traveling in a dog crate behind the front seats—the oil painting a friend made of my beloved house that I didn’t trust to the movers, a used Rand McNally US Atlas with a tentative route marked, and my newly upgraded AAA Gold Plus membership card. I say one more goodbye to friends and co-workers who celebrate my 60th birthday with me the night before my departure. Driving to the house and restored gardens that are no longer mine one last time to pick up mail—left for me by the new owners at the door I had painted Bittersweet Orange before I knew what that would mean—I breathe a namaste to my life here, get back in the car, and head west without looking back. It’s time to discover what’s next.

Smudge is none too happy in the crate. I feel her pain. We howl together as we drive out of the city that has been home for 24 years and turn west down US Highway 64. I am pummeled now with doubt. What the hell was I thinking? My sister is there at the other end, clearing her leftover things out of the rooms she had moved out of five years earlier in the basement of my mother’s house, readying the space for me; but beyond that there is nothing to prepare me for what I am getting myself into. I’m panic-stricken. I’ve moved across state lines before, not knowing what I was heading into, but always I had a partner—and later, children as well—with whom to face the unknown. They were my life then, not what I was leaving or going to. This is not what I thought my sixties would hold. I was supposed to be keeping house with a for-life partner, waiting for children and grandchildren to visit and fill it with noise and laughter. I surely never thought I would be living with my nonagenarian mother in my childhood home in Nowheresville. But as the miles and my old life roll away, I slowly let go of my grip on what I thought would be. I am ready for a new venture. I begin to look through the windshield, rather than the rearview mirror.

When I left the West coast for the Southeast in 1976, it was by car. I’m glad to be returning state by state now as the miles roll by under the tires, leaving my whole adult history behind. I need time to feel the transition. I travel on the two-lanes, the road like scissors neatly clipping my life into the time before and the time after. I travel over the Appalachian Mountains of my Tennessee-born mother’s childhood that I have grown to love, pass through small towns unnoticed by all but those who live there, through fields of soy beans undulating in the stifling hot breeze.

I get lost after leaving my used atlas locked in my niece’s home in Nashville. I eventually replace it with a glossy new one. I turn to Phoebe—the GPS voice I added to my non-smart phone plan—for help. I named her for an ancestor who had traveled 160 years ago by covered wagon from Ohio virtually to the same place to which my parents migrated a century later. In spite of our genetic connection, she isn’t always helpful. It doesn’t matter, really, I’m time traveling. Routes and schedules are not important.

Switching to Interstate 40 across the dusty plains of Oklahoma and Texas, I visit the sobering empty chairs of the Murrow Federal Building memorial in Oklahoma City and the ridiculous graffiti-covered cars planted headlights up in the dirt at Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo. I marvel at the beauty of the enormous hi-tech white windmills that stand sentinel on the smallest of rises in the landscape, in contrast to the creaking wooden ones on long-deserted farms, providing power to no one. A lump forms in my throat as I imagine the impossibly desolate lives of people who fought to survive on the windswept dry earth. An occasional tumbleweed bounces across the road in front of the car, escaping the leaning orange snow fences erected to keep them from the pavement, punctuating the loneliness of both the landscape and my heart.

I climb to Red Rocks amphitheater in the mountains near Denver and sit by a mountain lake in Medicine Bow National Forest in Wyoming. I buy Rainier cherries in the Yakima Valley and finally head over the Cascade Range with Mt. Rainier rising to greet me. I am home. The mountains and trees of the Pacific Northwest is where my soul is at peace in a way that it never was in the Southeast, even after 36 years and three states. Like a pentimento, a trace of an earlier painting visible under those layered on top of the canvas, I have layered several lives on top of this childhood home. Now, scraping off the richness of those years, I am back to my first love.

Two weeks, 4000 miles, twelve states, five homes of friends and family scattered across the country, a fall on a slippery sidewalk resulting in a shoulder injury that will remind me of a grocery store at a barren crossroads in Arkansas for months to come, one car repair in a dust and wind-whipped Wyoming town, and a panic-stricken two hours when I thought I had lost Smudge from a motel room, I arrive in western Washington to begin life with my mother in my new old home.

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vicki

I am riveted to your story already!

Bonnie R Nygren

Lovely words for lovely words.

Bonnie R Nygren

Me too!

Bonnie R Nygren

So, so good. Seriously, I can hardly wait to read it. Beautifully written, friend.

Nancy

This is a beautifully told story and I was right along with you for the ride, from howling with the cat, to switching rear view to front view, to adjusting hopes and dreams, to losing the Atlas, to falling on your shoulder, to sitting by the lake. I too had a journey that changed my identity, but shorter,and not as fraught. I admire your fortitude and determination!

Nancy

some day!

Donna Murray

Pentimento. The layers of life leading back. How I’ve been contemplating that and the possibilities that arise from change. Change brings opportunity, wrapped in sentiment and tied with a stoic need or a burning desire.

Thank you Gretchen. Thank you for reminding me that we are resilient and adaptive.

Leslie

So compelling, Gretchen! If a piece so good was deleted, I can’t wait to read what was retained, what turned out to be essential to your story. You’ve hooked me.

Dawn Merchant

Oh how this chapter reminded me of my cross country journey that very same year. As you know I was returning to the PNW from Maryland where I had lived for 17 years married and raising my sons. Trying to mask the pain of an 18 year marriage that no longer was and dreaming of the life ahead of me. Beautiful words, Gretchen. I can’t wait until October!!

Jo Ann

So glad you didn’t just trash this! I, for one, think it’s an importation foundation for what is coming.

Katharine

Your writing is compelling, beautiful, and heartfully engaging, Gretchen. I’m “late to this party” of fans and friends and family who support and champion you, but happy to have finally arrived.