The Way

So…it happened. I turned 30 (cue all relevant fanfare) one week ago today.

Bring. It.

Entering my third decade has me reflecting on a number of things, including the title of this blog.  The original title was to be “Exit 29”, but that was taken. Now, I feel as though I should call it “Highway 30” or some such thing. Which led to further rumination on why I am so stuck on the highway references (my friends have blogs on everything from running, to politics, to food and cooking)…and then it occurred to me – the entire span of my twenties involved traveling, and the vast majority of said travel was on highways. Highways, and everything they symbolize, form the frame of those years.

If I start with how I learned to drive, I find a recurring theme.  My dad’s method of teaching me to drive involved 3 things – learning to put gas in the car, then how to get on and off the highway safely, and then how to navigate the endless milk roads of rural Wisconsin. This was awesome – except for the fact that most driver’s tests are conducted within city limits, and I am kind of bad at red lights.

There seem to be a lot of them here – but minus the speed cameras, which I appreciate.

Driving to college on 151 – at that time, a sleepy two lane highway that ran through 3 towns, including Belmont, site of my first ever speeding ticket. I learned to drive in the dark in those years – the real dark, no streetlights or spillover light. Dark like driving in a mineshaft. I also learned about snow – to ride with the slide and to remember that the car is designed to stay upright. This parallels the lessons of those college years – trust yourself to navigate unfamiliar territory; don’t try to control every situation; things mostly work out the way you’d hoped, providing you put in the work.

The years I lived in Madison, and the months in London, my driving habits shifted down to almost nil. During those years I learned to lean on my friends when I needed to – and to survive in a world where the rules were unexpectedly reversed.

When I moved to South Dakota as a part of Teach For America, the road shifted again. I used to joke that from my mom’s apartment, to my house out to He Dog, it was “10 hours and 4 turns”. Which is actually more or less true – right to get on 90, left to get on 18, right to get on 44, and right to get on the ranch road.  What that doesn’t reveal are the details and pitfalls of the miles between.  The dead flat calm of Minnesota that makes you call someone, anyone, and beg them to talk to you until you get across. The winding road south of Murdo where I saw everything from a semi on fire, to a herd of antelope, to a kid with a skateboard, just walking along. The “limited maintenance” ranch road with it’s mud holes, wandering cattle, and tumbleweeds.

This is actually the Lakeview road, which is similar, but better maintained. Seriously.

The lessons of those years were similar – teaching kindergarten? Sounds like a cakewalk! (wrong). Two year resume builder? Cool! (about the farthest thing from the truth – I am forever changed by those years) South Dakota? Sounds…boring. (no.) I learned to persevere. I learned to find the joy in small moments every day. I learned to listen to the world – from owls, to coyotes, to wacipi drums, to ranch road music. I acquired all kinds of skills – how to use a 4 wheel drive, how to not spin out of wash board ruts, how to hook my truck up to a bulldozer with a chain to break it out of an ice block. How to teach reading, how to keep my voice gentle, and how to balance work and play.

Living here helps you focus.

In my later 20s, New Orleans provided new roads to explore, and new challenges to endure. 94 to 39 (stop for gas in Normal); 39 to 55 (last Culver’s is in Missouri, and it’s not good); 55 to 10 (don’t spend the night in Mississippi if you can help it); then past the Superdome, off on the Tchoupitoulas exit, right at the Whole Foods, and park next to the banana trees – a world away from my lonely trek across the Sandhills. The drive was longer, with more intense challenges (seriously, if the Jackson, MS interchange doesn’t get you, the Memphis, TN one will). Life was different too – starting over in my third state, my fifth or sixth city. Working hard, without the saving grace of small people to teach. Heat, rain, storms, bugs, carnival, oysters, music, and color. A confusing welter which left me inspired and exhausted in equal measure. This was a time to accept. To experience and to strive to stay open to possibilities. And to see just how far I can push my comfort zone before fault lines start to give way.

In 2011 I packed up my things one more time – and reversed my steps back to 94. A midwesterner after all – you can take the girl out, and so on. Now my highway rambles are confined to the 94 corridor, and 43 up to schools and back again. It’s strange to me that after all this long time, most of what I need is close at hand. It’ll be interesting to see what the total of those miles comes up to – in distance and in heart.

The scene of the four hour drive of terror in Morocco. If nothing else, I leave my twenties with a sense of adventure!


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