Interstate Introspect

March 9, 2023

graphic by Vianey Trejo

A back-and-forth reflection during road trips between my two homes.

Driving back and forth from California to Texas is a 26-hour drive of only going straight for hours at a time. It consists of glancing down at Google Maps, noticing with gutting surprise that your ETA hasn’t budged, and none of the songs in your playlist hit the right way. It’s an excursion of being awake with your hands on ten and two with a foot constantly changing between the gas and brake (I get too stressed out relying on cruise control).

Some hours are grueling, flat, boring, and gray. During others, you drive through every color: red rocks, orange sunsets, tall yellow grass, green hills as you leave Gilroy heading toward southern California, and pink Arizona skies. Like clockwork, the sun bleeds orange on the dead grass, beaming a golden glow onto your face and inundating you with the vastness of the world.

The thesis of driving between states is all about motion. Mental motion.

One second, I’m settled in my apartment at school with my best friends, my own groceries, and a job. The next, I’m thrown back into the adolescent universe where I wore a plaid skirt and polo for four years and the space of solitude throughout a pandemic.

I roleplay, revert back, and get re-rerooted into the routines of my past life for one month of winter break and two months of summer. And I grow comfortable. Then, right when I’m settled back in, my roots are pulled out from under me, and I spew back to the present day. It’s a sudden, unsettling back and forth.

Two bedrooms with two posters. Two iced-chai-with-oat-milk spots. Two late-night-drive routes. Two grocery stores. Two friend groups. Two pets: my family dogs and my roommate’s cat. Two time zones. Two versions of me.

graphic by Vianey Trejo

I separate and dictate the chapters of my life based on my road trips between my two homes. Driving 26 hours (in either direction) solidifies the end of one life for me and the resumption of another. It’s a three-day drive of peace and reflection, a mandatory exhale. My drives are a grace period — my life is on pause. I remove myself from my roles of Pebbles in San Jose and Pebbles in Austin. I don’t owe anyone anything for three days. I’m off the grid.

Sometimes when I’m driving on the two-way highway, I think about the cars going in the opposite direction. I wonder where they’re going and why. What did they experience? Are they leaving for school too? Starting a new job? Falling in love? Breaking up? Are they scared?

I think about whoever I was the last time I was going in their direction. What were my worries then? What was stressing me out? Who was I daydreaming about? What poem was I writing? Each way, I reflect on the new people, new guilt, or new fun in my life. The interstates have seen all the versions of me, past and present, and they’ll see versions of myself that I haven’t met yet. Every time I’m on the interstate, I’m different. Sometimes drastically, like a new major, passion project, or friend; sometimes just gently, like a new t-shirt, scab, or overplayed song.

I get a murky, reflective feeling every time I leave San Jose or Austin. It’s not a fear of leaving, nor is it homesickness. I experience dread leaving one, and then dread again leaving the other. Maybe it’s my hesitancy to change? Or knowing I have to leave eventually? I force myself to separate my life into chapters because I get scared I’ll be the same. I make sure there is something different about me in each direction because there’s no new chapter if there are no distinct changes — and that’s horrifying. I must prove to myself that I’m evolving, growing, learning, hurting, rejoicing.

The two options of routes I take are

  1. I-10, which passes through the southern parts of the country: El Paso, TX; Las Cruces, NM; Phoenix, AZ; and into California.
  2. I-40, the northern parts of each state: Amarillo, TX;  Albuquerque, NM; Flagstaff, AZ; Barstow, CA; then up north.

Different trees and different colors of sunsets. One’s a little windier, and the other flatter. One has more cacti, the other has more trees. One feels like a scurry back home, and the other feels like slow motion.

graphic by Vianey Trejo

August 2021 was the first time I drove to Texas. There were nerves, a thrill, and curiosity over what the next few months would bring. I did the 12-hour drive to Phoenix by myself and then picked up my dad from the airport that night. Those 12 hours alone were vital to fully grasp that I was leaving the only life I knew. The girl in the Cane’s drive-thru in Bakersfield saw my packed-up car and wished me luck for my semester. I still wonder if she knew how much I needed that. I remember the sunset and learning that Palm Springs actually does spill of palm trees. In the evening haziness, I realized it was mere hours before I crossed state lines and departed from the version of myself I knew. I saw my first real-life cartoon-looking cactus with long arms overarching me and squealed.

December 2021 is when I drove with my best friend from Texas to California. We didn’t know each other in August, but we experienced our first semester in Austin side-by-side. We meshed in a way that driving four days together felt natural. Instead of speeding home, we took the tourist route: Roswell, New Mexico, to visit the International UFO Museum (and UFO-shaped McDonalds), then Flagstaff, Arizona, to see the Grand Canyon. We bought mittens at a gas station in Williams, Arizona, because we failed to check the weather before departing and froze our asses off.

We sang our hearts out to “Telescope” by Cage the Elephant and “Me & My Dog” by boygenius. Silences were never awkward, and we brainstormed what we wanted to write a book about. December was juvenile independence: we were young, old, and free all at once. We were taking on the world one gas station at a time. I learned the virtues of friendship then, and realized this was someone who would be in my world for lifetimes.

I stalled leaving California for as long as I could, so my dad and I rushed back to Austin in January 2022. This time, driving back to school was filled with dread: I was driving toward my doomsday. I didn’t want to take classes I didn’t care about and fend for myself again. My roots were most tightly planted in San Jose soil. Semester one was exhilarating, but so damn exhausting. My dad and I raced to the Austin airport and said quick goodbyes as he rushed out of the car. To second semester I go. Filled with dread, fear, and hesitation —  the goodbye didn’t feel proper, and I certainly didn’t feel ready.

By May 2022, I had survived a tumultuous semester. My dad and I dedicated extra days to sightsee and clear our heads. So, I picked him up from the Albuquerque airport and we went north to visit a few of Utah’s national parks like Arches and Canyonlands. I felt peace settle in every part of my body as I walked through the red rocks, finding solace in the quiet as I escaped my own chaos. Off-the-grid isolation was reassuring; sometimes I tell my dad that if things go sour, I’ll live in a town with a population of 300 and be a speck amidst the rocks. Maybe I’ll take up waitressing.

Summer 2022 was for working in an office, house- and dog-sitting, and online Nutrition and Spanish classes. In fact, bliss is actually defined as soaking in UV rays in a stranger’s backyard, buying tickets to see Bleachers the night before the concert, and journaling all summer. Over this time, I met someone, so out of impulse and summer spontaneity, they joined me on my drive back to Texas in August 2022. We went through Bakersfield for a burrito, then Flagstaff and up to Dallas. We visited barbecue joints, an ice cave, and a dinosaur museum somewhere in New Mexico. They helped with my Spanish homework every night.

The three and a half days were vulnerable. What if we hated each other by the end? Or worse: what if we still liked each other? The drive was for learning deeply about someone simply because there was nothing else to talk about; it was about giving yourself up completely to coexist with another. What are they like when they’re cranky? Hungry? Stressed? Exhilarated? Do they talk in their sleep? Snore?

The trip was beautiful because it was finite. We were driving toward the start of a school year with different time zones, responsibilities, priorities, old flames, and rituals. Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if the drive had lasted an hour longer. Would we have been different people then?

I dropped them off in Dallas to visit a friend from school. I drove to Austin silently. This time, alone was jarring. I thought of all the questions I’d forgotten to ask. Do you like to go camping? Do you wear your retainer every single night? What’s the scariest moment of your life? Have you ever seen a ghost? Do you also feel like your perception of relationships is completely shattered? Can I see you tomorrow? What about next week? Will I ever see you again? I faced the reality that we had to live in our separate universes; — me in mine and them in theirs — but I still hummed their song.

Over the semester, my roommates and I started and finished “Breaking Bad,” so December 2022 was dedicated to the city of Albuquerque. I went with my best friend again — another December of heading to California. We went to the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History. We got our other roommate a Breaking Bad shot glass from a tourist shop. We went through a snowy forest on a mountain range and then hills upon hills of cacti. There were so many cacti that I almost started believing in heaven.

During the fall, I had gained accountability and got a better grasp of my life. I had secretly applied to double major in my dream major and got accepted over Christmas break. This time, January 2023, I was driving toward a semester I was actually looking forward to. My dad and I stopped at a diner and I pulled my laptop out and used his phone’s hotspot to register for new classes. I realized that this little town, this restaurant, hell, maybe even the booth, were all here before the main freeway was. I was just a momentary figment there, and I would fade into a memory just like this booth would for me. I got to soak in and exist in this place with my burger, my dad, and the laptop loading to determine my future. And then, like I did from the other restaurants I’d already forgotten about from all of my drives before, I’d depart.

When I got back to my apartment a few weeks ago, after I dropped my dad off at the airport, he texted me that somehow the drive feels shorter each time. And I agree. All of my road trips are a bit blurred and jumbled together. The sights and cities aren’t new, so there’s no initial thrill. The only newness is the different small town we decide to stay at for the night or the restaurants that later slip away into time. I mourn for all the revelations, waitresses, hotels, gas stations, internal monologues, and song lyrics I made up that I’ve now forgotten. Yet, that’s the fun of it — so many stories and faces I’ll never see again, who saw me for a sliver of my life (whoever I was then).

If I wanted to, I could scout the validity of my relationships with others based on who I would and wouldn’t want to drive with. The interstates are refreshing despite being familiar, and driving for days is reflective and intimate no matter who I do it with, but most importantly, it’s intimate with myself.

I have time to bond with whomever is in my passenger seat. But more importantly, I have me. Old and new. Broken and healed. Thrilled and scared. Reverting and blooming and rooting. Going back and forth between my life of twos with only one of me. Back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and. ■

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