Jim’s “real” memorial was in Elk Grove Village, in an imposing stone Arts and Crafts style church, with a tasteful gathering at a country club afterwards. Canapés were served, and throughout the evening everyone who approached the three of us who had known Jim during his graduate school days in Arizona seemed to know we were from outside this well-coiffed and well-dressed community.
I guess we did look a little whackadoodle by comparison. Patty was in haphazard long layers of black and, having come from Phoenix, was not dressed warmly enough for the blustery winter day. Dan was wearing jeans and a wool plaid jacket with a cut that was popular over a decade ago. You can wear jeans to a funeral in Arizona and nobody thinks a thing of it. Not so in the Midwest. Even I, who have lived in Chicago for more than seven years, looked out of place. I’ve never quite been able to fall into the fashion rhythms and perpetual put-togetherness of this place. So, there I was in a grey and black Kate Spade wool dress, destroyed eyeliner (head smack: do not wear eye makeup to a funeral), and with my waist-length curls looking like a weaver bird’s nest.
Jim always looked out of place, too. He’d wear a lawyerly blazer and slacks with cowboy boots and a homemade t-shirt that more often than not said something fairly raunchy and offensive. He drove a vintage, cherry-red Mercedes on the dirt roads through the Hopi reservation for work. He would have loved that we were there looking and feeling out of place.
When he died, Jim was living in Austin, Texas, and was forever asking me to come visit him. I never did. It was easier just to wait for him to come home to visit his family. I regret that now, of course. I wish I’d gone to Texas and had a drink with him at his favorite bar, met whatever girl he was dating at that given moment.
So in honor of Jim, I’m spending five weeks on a solo memorial road trip, dropping in on all the friends I only ever see on Facebook. I’ve got so many babies and spouses to meet, so many new homes to sleep in, so many marathon catch-up sessions to partake in. But first, I have to make my way to Jim’s second memorial in Flagstaff, Arizona, his favorite town and where he and I met ten years ago. In making my way alone across America, I am following the trail of many brave women who didn’t have the benefits of four-wheel drive and thoroughly connected Interstates.
For instance, the incredibly courageous and eccentric Emily Hahn, who drove from Wisconsin to New Mexico in the 1920s with a girlfriend, Jane, in a Model T. Both women felt the need to travel disguised as men, even though both agreed that “men were the absolute limit.”
Two women in their early twenties, they convinced their parents that this was an acceptable summer undertaking because Jane had an uncle in Albuquerque they could stay with. Meanwhile, they “... saw lucky young men planning the summer adventures open to their sex. Some boys had jobs as chauffeurs, some were going to work their way to Europe on cattle boats, and a few declared their intention of hitchhiking across the country.”
As they set off, Jane remarked, “I get so tired of being someone’s daughter or somebody else’s niece, don’t you?” I know that feeling. Probably all women do. They are someone’s girlfriend, someone’s wife, someone’s pretty little girl. Most women dutifully play these roles, working hard to please all, as we were taught.
When I first moved to Arizona at 18, I was so pleased that I knew no one and no one knew me. Ever restless—and always living with loads of roommates for the cheap rent—I’d go on long, night drives in the desert for privacy. What I loved most about those nights, even more than driving with a crisp view of the Milky Way dashed across the sky, was the knowledge that nobody, not a single soul, knew where I was and, thus, I had no obligations, at least for a little while.
One night on Emily and Jane’s journey they were awakened by the local sheriff who was dismayed they were sleeping alone in their car. He insisted they move their gear to his lawn where they’d be safe. Fast forward about 90 years. I was sleeping in my car on a New Mexico dirt road and was awakened at dawn by a knock on the roof. My breath had, in the cold desert night, condensed on the interior of my old station wagon and frozen. Looking through my windows was like looking up to the sun from under water. Not being able to see who was on the other side of the knock, I opened the hatch with trepidation. A serious but friendly lady police officer greeted me. She was in her mid-twenties probably, a bit younger than me.
“I just wanted to make sure you were still alive,” she said. “It was a cold night last night.”
Emily Hahn’s parents complained that she was never the same after the summer in the Model T. She was always restless, making any excuse for a trip, however small. Maybe that’s what such trips do for women: give a glimpse of what’s on the other side of all the obligation, of the freedom that the opposite sex can exercise casually and without any appreciation of its magic.
I am the second in a familial line of American road wanderers. My mother, unlike me, is an impeccably tidy dresser with a love of fast cars, and though she has never understood my penchant for plain grey t-shirts and practical cars, she very much understands my need to wander. When a teenager, she regularly drove her blue Mustang out to Montana by herself in the summers. Many steps up from Emily Hahn’s Model T, the Mustang had an 8-track player for listening to Emmylou Harris and Simon and Garfunkel. Living in a Cold War world, she had the benefits of good, paved roads maintained to ensure quick movement in the event of nuclear attack.
My mother continued to wander, even after she had me. When I was a little girl we’d drive down to Tennessee for the weekend, if the week had been lousy. When I was in college, we’d sometimes drive across the country from Kentucky to Arizona in separate cars (good for our relationship, admittedly bad for the environment), me in my old wagon, her in a rented Mustang. Adult responsibilities have limited my road time, but I’ve still managed to drive from Mexico to Canada and most places in-between. The only continental state I’ve not yet hit is South Dakota. Maybe I’ll tap it on the way home.
My next stop on this trip is in the Jemez Mountains, where I will visit my friend who is the Bureau of Land Management Wildlife Biologist for the area. We will be getting up at 2:30 in the morning to track mountain lions. He has a mulberry tree in his backyard, apparently, and a chicken.
After that, I’ll be heading to Flagstaff for Jim’s second memorial, taking place in a field at the base of the San Francisco Peaks. There will be a bagpipe player, poetry readings, and an old friend dressed as a priest in honor of Jim’s infamous offensive sense of humor.
Beyond those stops, I have Phoenix, San Francisco, Eugene; small towns in Montana, North Dakota, Vermont, and Kentucky; as well as Nashville, Charleston, West Palm Beach, and New Orleans on the docket. By the end, my old car will have almost 7,000 more miles on it and I might feel a little lighter, a little less restless.
When I told my old boss, Barbara (who is on the list of folks who’ll get a visit), about my journey she said, “Oh, you’re earthing!” A Reiki master these days, she explained that earthing is the calming, stabilizing practice of getting on nature’s wavelength. One does this by studying the sky, sitting and sleeping on the earth. Maybe she’s right. Maybe I’m earthing. Studying the sky by driving into the horizon at 65 miles an hour.
Maybe Hahn and my mother were earthing, too. Maybe the three of us, in the course of our rambles, tapped into a different wavelength, one very much unlike that of those who, while we were out under the sky, spent their nights in comfortable beds and their days within the various predictable four-walled confines of home, work, and the grocery.
Emily Hahn was an early 20th century adventurer. A few of her many feats include being the first woman to get an Engineering Degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, walking the breadth of central Africa alone on foot, and becoming a concubine to the Chinese poet, Sinmay Zou. She wrote about much of these exploits in articles for the New Yorker and in her memoirs, all of which are rollicking reads.