The whole USA is my backyard. I’ve traveled over the whole country at very slow speeds, not just by car, but by bus and train and bicycle, too. And how many people can say they’ve not only crossed and criss-crossed, but circumnavigated the USA in a vehicle named Squidley?
But as I packed my bags last night in Seattle, I felt butterflies in my stomach. This time, I’m going alone.
Fifteen years ago, my sister Julie did a trip like this, with a car, a tent, a bicycle, and no cell phone. I envied her courage. At the time, others envied me — I was bicycling across the northern USA with Barry. I didn’t realize that my travels with Barry took a different kind of courage.
Since I’ve planned this trip, women have asked me, “Aren’t you afraid of traveling alone?” Men say, “I wouldn’t let my wife do that.” I laugh and say blithely, “No, I’m not afraid of being harassed or attacked.”
But when I packed my bags, after I took Barry to the airport, kissed him goodbye (many times), and said, “See you in North Carolina next month!” the butterflies revealed my secret: I am afraid to just be alone.
Driving alone away from our friend Margaret’s house, where we once lived for a year, was like leaping into the void, embracing my fear and hoping the universe would catch me.
But the beginning wasn’t scary at all — I drove across the I-90 floating bridge, which I’ve driven hundreds, if not thousands, of times, and have even bicycled dozens of times. Cough, cough. I can’t recommend bicycling alongside an 8-lane interstate, even if it does cross one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Today, the deep blue water sparkled as though topped with diamonds. And then I headed up 405, that river of SUVs, only a little less familiar, but the route I’ve traveled to reach many good times.
All travel begins with a single step. Then it continues with single steps.
When I reached US 2 and started going east, I thought, “This is it! I’m traveling alone now! What if nobody talks to me?” The butterflies came back.
I chased them away by noticing funny things along the way. Pickle Farm Road made me laugh out loud. How do you grow a pickle? Do you grow a cucumber and water it with vinegar? Then I went through Startup. Wouldn’t it be funny if the venture capitalists moved there from Silicon Valley? I wonder what they would think of financing the Startup Market, which is probably older than the venture capitalists themselves.
Knowing that I would forget about these things as I kept driving, I pulled over to dig out my notebook and jot them down. A kindly, well-tattooed man sauntered out and looked at me and the Tracker. “Can I help you?” he asked, his smile genuine. I shook my head. “I just needed a place to pull over,” I said, but I was thinking, “Thank goodness! Somebody talked to me today!” And as I left his wrecking yard, with the junkyard dogs snarling, the butterflies were gone (despite my nearly pathological fear of dogs).
My drive took me across Stevens Pass, and now I was in travel mode, recording the scenes as I passed. I compared Stevens with Willamette Pass, which we crossed last week on our way back from Burning Man. Willamette Pass is green and cozy, with a tunnel-like feel. Stevens is full of sweeping vistas, meadows, vast rock-faces. The road slides along the side of the mountains, instead of twisting its way down at the bottom.
I didn’t linger long in Leavenworth, but I stopped in Cashmere, because my friend Margaret said it was a really cute town. I needed an excuse to talk to somebody, so I went into the Hometown Market. I wanted to measure the butter.
A couple of months ago, when I got to Seattle, I wrote a piece entitled “Crossing the Butter Divide.” In it, I mentioned that one difference between the east coast and the west coast is that quarter-pound sticks of butter are shaped differently. So when I decided to drive across the country, I thought it would be fun to actually find the mythical “Butter Divide.” That’s the place where sticks of butter on one side are long and skinny, and on the other side, they are short and fat. And people’s butter dishes are different.
I have mentioned this idea to a few people, and they either look at me as though I’m nuts, or they laugh. There’s a fine line between insanity and hilarity, and I am on it.
Those who don’t think I’m nuts have hypothesized that the butter divide may coincide with the continental divide. Or it may follow the Mississippi. Either way, I plan to find it, and perhaps, follow it.
Back to Cashmere, when I told the woman with the movie-star black pageboy in the grocery that I was measuring butter, she threw her head back and laughed. “Is somebody paying you to drive across the country and measure butter?” she asked, incredulous. I told her that not only was I not being paid, I was so scatterbrained I’d forgotten to bring a ruler! She sent me over to Doan’s Pharmacy, where I got an old-fashioned 12-inch wooden ruler for 49 cents and an Italian soda at the soda fountain for four times that amount. “You can get anything you need at Doan’s,” said the silver-haired cashier.
Then I went back to the grocery store and measured the butter boxes, and, just for kicks, the margarine boxes. I continued up the road and measured the butter in Wilbur, Washington, too, just to make sure the butter divide isn’t here in Washington. It’s not.
Along the way, I stopped at Dry Falls, imagining water and icebergs coursing over the largest waterfall in the world at the end of the last ice age. In 1958, my Dad was also entranced by Dry Falls, and he took me and my mother there in 1978. In those days, we visited a lot of waterfalls, and I’ll never forget the look of disappointment on Mom’s face when it dawned on her that the breathtaking Dry Falls he’d been telling her about for 20 years were actually dry!
Now my little blue tent is set up in Wilbur, next to Highway 2, in a little RV park full of friendly people. I’ve had lots of conversations today, and the butterflies have flown completely. Tomorrow, I’ll continue to seek the butter divide, or I’ll talk to more friendly people. It’s really the same thing.