Driving in Search of Herself
A writer in crisis makes a pilgrimage trek to her childhood home. A story in three parts.
Photo Credit: Jessica Henkle
Before the Roads
A thousand miles stand between my current home in Portland, Oregon, and my childhood home in Fountain Valley, California. When I announced my plan to spend three weeks driving this distance and back, the question most often asked of me was, “Why?” Why drive for days when I could fly there in two hours? Here’s my answer: All my life, I’ve thought of journeys in terms of destinations. I take direct flights, devise the quickest route from point A to point B, and always go over the speed limit. And this mentality isn’t confined to travel—it’s how I’ve approached my entire existence. And the past year brought a landslide of unwelcome change.
For nine months, I’d worked a dead-end job, one I’d taken to support myself while I wrote, but as its demands increased, my creative work dropped by the wayside. During this time, I also fell in and was kicked out of love with a man I thought I’d marry, further collapsing my motivation for writing and most everything else. I began sinking deep into a well of depression. One particularly bad day, in the kind of crystallized moment that’s birthed from desperation, I realized I had to do something drastic or risk losing the person I barely still was. So I quit the job, decided to skip town, and knew exactly where I needed to go: home. The original home, that is.
My relationship with Fountain Valley is a complicated one. I love my parents, who still live there, but I hate my place of birth. Well, maybe “hate” is a strong word. Like a polar bear bred in a desert zoo, I grew up with an instinctual understanding that I belonged elsewhere, and since I’ve moved to Portland, that sentiment hasn’t changed. If anything, it’s intensified. So why return to Southern California? Because in modern Western culture, absent of a holy land, journeying to my home town was the closest I could get to embarking on a pilgrimage.
For centuries, people have set out on spiritual expeditions with clear destinations, but I suspect the journeys themselves were no small part of the worship. Long hours on the road do something to a person that air travel does not, where it’s common to watch a movie or sleep through a flight and miss the whole thing. I’d already missed too much, and that’s why I wanted to drive—to see the highways roll out from under me, to feel every mile I put between myself and where I’d been.
I would make several stops along the way, both at spiritual retreat centers and at loved ones’ homes. I would treat this trip like a reset button. A pilgrimage is, after all, a journey with a purpose, and though I feared I’d return as damaged as before, I loaded up my car and left, clinging to the vague hope that, somehow, what had gone so wrong inside of me would sort itself out on the road.
On the Roads
Two main freeways run from Northern Oregon to Southern California: US-101 and I-5. To accommodate my many detours, I bounced back and forth between them. My first stop was at my best friend’s house in Winston, Oregon, a small town replete with fields of grazing sheep and cattle and the kind of peace you feel in your marrow. Next, I stayed at the Santa Sabina Center in San Rafael, California, where I relaxed in the garden, wrote postcards, ate delicious meals, and tried to simply “be.” I then headed to my parents’, digressing through Carmel, which was how I wound up on CA-46.
CA-46 connects US-101 and I-5 about two-thirds of the way down California. It’s a bleak two-lane highway boxed in by brown hills and a glaring sun, with nary a tree or body of water or sign of life other than my fellow voyagers. It was a far cry from the coastal and tree-lined roads I’d travelled all morning. I drove it in the dead of day, headlights on and AC off, per the road sign warnings, and prayed I’d make it to the other side. I started thinking about how much I implicitly trust maps and digitally generated directions to take me where they promise. There’s nowhere to turn around on CA-46, so all I could do was keep going and hope this road would lead me to where I wanted to be.
There are many things directions won’t tell you, like the fact that CA-37 cuts right through the San Pablo Bay, and I mean, right through—the water a six-foot drop from the road, as though one hard rain could wash it away. Or the fact that, when I headed back up the coast, I’d find myself on the winding CA-1, hugging mountains on one side, the ocean on the other, and driving thirty miles per hour for over fifty miles. Or that the drab ranges of CA-46 would give way to fields of multicolored oil pumps before landing me in the desolate town of (I kid you not) Lost Hills, capped off by an intersection with a half dozen gas stations, then dead-ending, with no choice but to speed onto the I-5.
Life directions work in much the same way. Though I planned my courses strategically, I could never know all the surprises—bleak, beautiful, or just plain bizarre—that would jump into my path, or that the temptation to turn around or even stay put would be hard to overcome. The longer I drove, the more I couldn’t ignore another cliché: to get to where I wanted to be, I often had to spend time where I didn’t want to be. All I had was the knowledge of where I was headed, and sometimes, knowing what awaited me at the end of a treacherous, boring, or isolated road was the only thing that kept me moving through the barren lands in between.
Between the Roads
After a week with family and old friends shopping, sleeping, baking, running, talking, talking, talking, and trying to reassemble my tattered life, I set out for the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California. I’d thought six days in Fountain Valley would suffice, but when I had to leave, I wasn’t ready. Long-standing reservations at the hermitage were all that put me back on the road. On the way, I got stuck in three traffic jams and spent two hours crawling around mountainous curves to avoid plummeting into the ocean. I arrived mentally and emotionally frayed, and what I needed most I couldn’t get: a human voice.
At the hermitage, the primary rule is silence. Everywhere, signs kindly ask guests to avoid talking so as not to disturb others. With neither internet nor cell reception—only a quiet so pervasive I jumped when a hummingbird buzzed into the garden—I had no choice but to let the silence work me over and face whatever it dredged up. I don’t know what I expected: a tirade of self-flagellation, denouncing the poor choices I’d made, until I was nothing but a crumpled, blubbering heap? Perhaps, but I got nothing like that. It was the first time I’d sought solitude and not been confronted by all I’d buried, as though the trip itself had settled my psyche into peace. My thoughts then turned outward, to the people I’d spent time with on my journey, the ones I now had no way of reaching.
On my desk sat “St. Romuald’s Brief Rule,” part of which instructs, “Put the whole world behind you and forget it.” I couldn’t heed St. Romuald’s advice. I’d traveled to this hermitage for the same reasons I imagined everyone else had: seclusion and respite. But over the course of my trip, I’d learned that tending to the needs of those I cared for was as vital to my spiritual health as tending to my own. Before I left Portland, I’d told my loved ones to call if they needed me. “I don’t want to disturb you,” they all said, to which I replied, “Disturb me.”
So I wrote postcards and letters to send them once I returned to civilization, and then, I went on a hike, read, and did some writing of my own. Balance. Everything seemed to keep pointing to balance. How necessary was that time alone, just me and my thoughts, and yet, how wonderful, after a long drive, to have people there to greet me, feed me, and tell me they missed me. Considering how much in my life had fallen off kilter this past year, the lesson of balance seemed apt. That it’s okay to be a workhorse as long as I also take time to rest, okay to seek solitude as long as I also seek community—okay to have faith in all that lies ahead, as long as I also embrace the road I’m currently traveling.
Jessica Lynne Henkle has a BA in English and art history from Boston University and an MFA in writing from Pacific University. Her work has appeared in Northwind, Scissors and Spackle, and 1:1000, and she is a frequent contributor to Bookslut and ForeWord Reviews. Jessica is a writer, editor, and book reviewer who lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is in the throes of writing a novel. She blogs at www.jessicalynnehenkle.blogspot.com.