California or Bust!

Today’s prompt is: “You have $300 and a Prius, describe the 2,800 mile road trip from NYC to LA”. I modified it a little since I’ve actually lived this road trip. This essay is my memory of driving the 2,470 mile road trip from Conneaut Lake, PA to Fillmore, CA in August 2009.

The August day was sunny and warm and my black Camry was stuffed to the gills with my belongings, snacks, and overnight bags. My friend Megan and I hauled the last load to the car and she took her place in the passenger seat. Dad and I hugged and said our goodbyes. He gave one last admonition to be careful as I climbed into the driver’s seat. I started the car and pulled out of the gravel driveway, the rocks grinding and crunching under the tires. We were off.

We took back roads for a long time to avoid tolls. Of course, in rural northwestern Pennsylvania, every road is a back road. We picked up Interstate 90 near Cleveland, Ohio a couple hours later and drove that all the way to Chicago. Somewhere in Indiana, it began to rain. It rained so hard that we were traveling at no more than 10 miles per hour and could not even see the front of the car. Praying that there was not another vehicle on the side of the road, we pulled over to wait out the storm. We prayed while we waited, too, that we would not be hit by a semi-truck that couldn’t see or any other vehicle. Megan remarked that she was glad I was driving. I thought about how nice it would be to live in a state in a drought.

We came out of the storm unscathed and continued on our way. Since we had lost time, we ate tuna packets and crackers for lunch while driving and only made one quick stop at the least shady rest stop we would see over the next five days. Interstate 90 collided with a toll-free Interstate 80 around Chicago. We took I-80 only a little way that day before stopping for the night at a hotel. We just beat out another summer storm and had pizza delivered to our room. Day one complete.

Day two was mostly cornfield, Iowa just is not that exciting. I found about a hundred pictures of corn on my digital camera and they all looked exactly the same. We had already grown tired of tuna packets, so we made an extended stop at a McDonald’s for lunch. Then Megan made a sign that read, CALIFORNIA OR BUST!, and stuck it on one of the back windows of the car. I made sure we played Counting Crows’ “Omaha” as we drove through Omaha, Nebraska and that was the most exciting event of the day. I would beg for more cornfield days in the day that followed.

We purposely planned day three to be light on the driving, figuring we would be bored and cramped. We were right. We found a shrine to Mary and spent time there and then took a leisurely stop at a dimly lit rest stop that we decided was a prime place to get raped. We didn’t even leave each other’s sight to pee. We filled up Rufio the Camry’s tank on my daddy’s credit card and got back on the road. Weird that the dimly lit restroom would be the safest we felt that day.

Back on I-80, driving across nowhere Nebraska, Megan’s sign was garnering some attention. Most people simply honked and gave a thumbs up. That is what the maroon-cab trucker did initially, too, but he caught up with us a few minutes later and had a sign of his own in his window: CAN I COME TOO? Megan and I panicked, as women in their twenties on a cross-country road trip are apt to do. She quickly wrote another sign, NO BOYS ALLOWED, and held it up. Then we sped away, thinking that was the end of the ordeal.

There is a sense of foreboding and doom that horror movies are so good at creating. But horror stories usually take place at night or during gloomy days, when every visual can be distorted. This was a sunny day but all it did was help us see the horror more clearly.

Megan was driving now and we were related. There was no doom or gloom in sight. I looked out my window and caught a glimpse of the side mirror. I whipped around in my seat and checked the rear view mirror. I began to sweat. There, coming from the horizon like a demon loose from hell, was the maroon-cab truck. Megan tried to speed up but there were other vehicles and we couldn’t get away. He caught up to us and had another sign in his window: SLOW DOWN SO I CAN CATCH UP! We found an opening and sped away again.

We were both sweating now and were sitting bolt upright in our seats, scanning the mirrors for any sign of our pursuer. Every time we tried to get off at an exit, the trucker would come from behind. We couldn’t get off the highway and let him know where we were! We had to somehow give him the slip.

This game went on for the better part of an hour, until we did successfully give the trucker the slip somewhere in rural Nebraska. We stopped under a bridge for about a half an hour to make sure he was gone. Then we called Megan’s dad, Bob. Not my dad. Never my dad. My dad would have come for me and hauled me all the way back to Pennsylvania and I had to get to California. After freaking out and crying and explaining the situation to Bob, he said, “He just wanted to be friends!” Completely devoid of sanity and still dripping sweat, I shouted, “We did not want to give him the type of friendship he wanted, Bob!” Bob just laughed.

Megan and I made it to our hotel in Cheyenne, Wyoming that night without further incident. We thought we were safe. I created my Twitter account that night. I decided on @TheresaZoe as my handle; knowing that I would drop my maiden name someday, I didn’t want everything attached to it. This was the beginning of the end of T.Bey. Megan and I splurged and ate at a Mexican restaurant attached to our hotel that night. Day three finally came to a whimpering close.

The only memory I have of the following day is of stopping at the welcome center at Salt Lake City, Utah. We must have slept somewhere in Nevada that night, but I don’t remember it. I just remember the welcome center.

Megan and I finally felt safe again, so safe, in fact, that we split up so she could take pictures while I used the restroom. The stalls were the kind with doors that didn’t reach all the way up or go all the way down and I chose the first one. I was mid-pee when fingers curled over the door of my stall. Megan’s head peeked over the top and she shrieked, “He’s here!” I don’t know how she knew which stall I was in. I also did not have to poop when I entered the stall but I pooped right then anyway. Somehow, the maroon trucker was at the Salt Lake City welcome center, too.

When I was done in the restroom, we hung out by the information desk for a long while. Megan told me that she had been taking pictures when an overly friendly, male voice came from behind her and said, “Slow down out there, speed demon.” Megan turned around and saw a man with a mullet and cutoff denim shorts smoking a cigarette and walking a tiny dog. He identified himself as the maroon trucker. Megan didn’t say a word and ran to find me. We waited inside the welcome center until we saw him get in his semi-truck and pull away. We saw him one last time as we were headed into Salt Lake City, but he took a different exit. I have never praised and thanked God that much in my life.

Driving across Nevada the next day is a blur. I remember thinking that Carson City was a bunch of nothingness and how much farther could it possibly be to Aunt Fran’s house in Reno? We did finally get there and Aunt Fran freaked out about the trucker with us. A proper response! She cooked us dinner and kicked her kids out of their beds so we would have somewhere good to sleep that night. She also replenished all of our snacks and drinks for the last day of our drive. We actually rested that night.

On day five, the final day, we broke into California after a couple hours and immediately my spirits lifted. This is what I had been waiting for. The palm trees swayed in the breeze like they were saying hello. My first California lunch was a double double with animal fries at an In-N-Out in northern California. Megan drove us down the 5 to her home in Fillmore, California. As the sun set on the Topatopa Mountains as I looked out my new bedroom window, I knew I was home.

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