Finding My Way Back: Road Tripping Solo and the Power of Love

The Newlyweds

“And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity, and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.” 
–Pico Iyer

Early in October, I had the occasion to take a road trip by myself. Although I love traveling with a companion, especially my husband, it had been a while since I’d done so alone. We had been invited to Napa Valley, California, to celebrate the wedding of good friends who, after being together over 20 years, decided to make it official. Wine lovers, they travel extensively around the world building their impressive cellar collection. But no matter where they’ve been in the previous twelve months, they always manage an annual trip to Napa.

As Tom and I started to make our travel arrangements, we reached out to my San Francisco-based stepdaughter about seeing her while on the trip. As it happened, Lily was in the process of contacting us. Having recently begun a new job she had finally built up enough vacation time to come see us in Spain. But the kicker was she was planning her visit for the same time as the wedding. Since this would be her first trip to our new home, Tom agreed to stay. And as I realized I would still overlap with her for a few days, I responded “yes,” to the wedding, leaving the “plus one” box unchecked.

Solo crossing!

There is something so liberating about solo travel. You have the freedom to go entirely at your own pace. You can do, see, and eat what you want, when you want. You can take detours. You can listen your own playlists without eye rolling or teasing from fellow passengers. More importantly, you can listen to your own thoughts. But making your way alone is not just freeing, it’s empowering. It’s up to you to handle all the logistics and details. You are forced to pay attention. And you have to be prepared if things don’t go according to plan.

The truth is, I needed this trip. I was single for a long time before I got married and I used to be far more self-sufficient. I traveled. I read maps and figured out directions to new places. I rode on subway systems in unfamiliar cities. I could parallel park like a champ. At home, I learned to make minor repairs like snaking a shower drain or replacing a kitchen sink washer. Indeed, for several years I directed a field studies program at the university for which I worked, overseeing a variety of classes domestically and abroad. I was trained to figure things out for myself.

But my husband is so eminently capable that without even realizing it—and certainly without him asking me to do so—I began, slowly, to cede control to him. It was easier, and frankly, he was better at doing most things: driving, deciphering directions, planning itineraries, taking care of household and car repairs. I even stopped changing lightbulbs. I had allowed myself to slip into a weird sort of learned helplessness stemming mainly from the concern of “doing it wrong.” On my own I learned to push through this fear; indeed, I had no other choice. But of late, it had started to creep back in, and in the process had established a firm grip on my psyche.

San Francisco sunset from Twin Peaks

I didn’t even realize the extent of my self-imposed helplessness until we moved to Spain. All of a sudden, nothing was familiar: I didn’t know how to drive anywhere, I felt clueless when buying groceries or pumping gas, and even more so navigating the bureaucratic processes of getting residencia cards. I could barely speak the language. Tom, on the other hand, jumped into the unfamiliar with both feet, figuring it out as he went along. He hired plumbers and electricians. He deciphered the paperwork for our padrón certificates. He ferreted his way through ancient winding streets in cities and towns along the Costa Blanca, squeezing into parking spaces—often halfway up on the curb like the locals do. He made us dentist appointments and got the cars inspected. He fumbles through Spanish and laughs when he gets a word wrong. Waiters and clerks size us up when we walk into their establishments and immediately switch to English, but Tom insists on plowing through in Spanish. He talks to everyone, and in the month before I joined him he had established a solid group of friends. He doesn’t sweat the small stuff. If he makes a mistake, he learns from it and moves on.

Whereas I tend to agonize. In the supermarket if I forgot to weigh my produce, thus holding up the line at the register while the cashier called for a price check, I avoided shopping there for the next month. I would break into a cold sweat calling the doctor’s office, worried the receptionist would not understand me and get mad for wasting her time. Mostly, my fear manifested into an almost paralyzing anxiety about getting lost. It took a whole month before I was confident enough to go for a solo run through our new neighborhood. Even with Google Maps, I was nervous. The irony that I used to plan trips for a living had actually become lost on me. I felt incapable and disempowered.

I needed a shake-up: a healthy dose of self-reliance. I’d been to California a few times but never alone. It would be a good test. I arranged to stay with two sets of friends in San Francisco and Petaluma on the days before the wedding. Another couple from the east coast introduced me to a friend in Yountville who offered to take me hiking. I booked my flights and rented a car. All of a sudden, I felt strong again. I was excited.

Wedding photo booth fun

I loved driving through northern California. I found it remarkably similar to the Alicante region of Spain we now call home: rolling golden-colored hills, scrubby pines, an abundance of succulents, and, of course, acres of vineyards. Unfortunately, a persistent drought and above-average temperatures caused the threat of wildfires to loom large. As a preventative measure, many cities and towns were cutting power. This meant that the cell reception on my travel SIM card was drastically compromised. For almost the entire drive to Petaluma, I had to rely on road signs. I made it fine, thanks to a few sporadic spurts of service, each which allowed me enough time to double-check my route. But I still had to fight an irrational sense of panic, simmering just below the surface of my psyche, over getting lost. I reminded myself that it was broad daylight, I had plenty of time to make the relatively short trip, and I could always stop at a gas station or cafe for directions. That evening, while on my hosts’ WiFi, I had the foresight to pull up directions to Calistoga and write them down; good thing, as I was completely without internet access the entire next day’s drive. As anyone who has driven from San Francisco to Napa can attest, it’s a fairly straightforward route. But for me, it was a huge accomplishment. When I arrived in Calistoga and checked into my hotel, it was as if I had hiked Kilimanjaro.

A touching tribute: Life-sized photos of the grooms’ late parents’ weddings flanked the reception entrance.

Although Calistoga and many neighboring towns had been running on generators, all of Napa appeared to take it in stride, and formed a stronger bond because of it. Vineyard, restaurant, hotel, and shop employees went out of their way to stay cheerful and positive as they created workarounds. Strangers helped each other: offering use of a working cell phone, assisting with directions, even paying cash for another’s lunch or beer if the credit card machine went down. We stayed grateful, knowing things could be a lot worse. As a result, unexpected glitches resulted in creative, often last-minute solutions: When Markham Vineyard’s tasting room lost power, the wedding planner found space for the post-wedding brunch at the lovely and spacious Tre Posti. The rehearsal dinner in the wine cave at Fairwinds Estate, went from elegant to sublime, lit by a multitude of flickering candles.

Heading into the Rehearsal Dinner (photo by Julie Smith)

The wedding festivities spanned four days of events, with the ceremony and reception at the Charles Krug Winery, the oldest in Napa. A Facebook group allowed attendees to post pictures and videos, share memories, and trade wedding-related jokes. There was an avalanche of continual and ever-changing swag for the guests: buttons, t-shirts, water bottles, single-dose packets of Advil and Alka-Seltzer (it was a Napa wedding, after all), noisemakers, trick eyeglasses, pens, mints, matchbooks, wine stoppers, and wine openers–all branded with the custom-designed “A&J 2019” wedding logo. Then there was the food and wine itself, which got more delicious and exquisite with each event. And all of it was set against the spectacular backdrop of Napa Valley: the golden hills, the vineyards, the kooky-chic little wild west towns.

The wedding itself was nothing short of a spectacle. As theater people, Andy and Jeff had considered every detail. The officiant, Andy’s uncle, delivered an elegy both humorous and poignant that included a passage from Obergefell v Hodges, the decision overturning the ban on same-sex marriage in California. For the recessional, a pair of “wiggly men,” the kind of thing usually seen outside auto showrooms but this time attired like grooms, suddenly inflated. They swayed to and fro, plastic arms waving in the air, as the brand-new husbands strode arm and arm past the applauding guests, to the string quartet’s instrumental rendition of “Stand By Your Man.”

Wedding Fabulous

The reception was equally sensational. Jeff’s aunt, on behalf of Jeff’s late mother, handed traditional gifts of bread and salt to the newlyweds. Aerialists (yes, aerialists!) flipped and twirled above the dance floor. The cake toppers were from a 3-D printer: exact miniature likenesses of the grooms. The grooms even orchestrated a stealth wardrobe change: from wine-colored dinner jackets for the ceremony to gold sequined ones for their first whirl as a married couple. Everyone danced and drank and laughed late into the night. Mostly, there was the love: a love that radiated from every person present and created a feeling of goodwill so tangible it seemed to fill the room and spill out onto the grounds and vineyards and the rest of the world, reminding me yet again of its power over fear.

It is, after all, our fears that keep us small. They prevent us from being whole, from being open, and thus, from being great, individually, or as a collective; whether fear of getting lost, or being laughed at, or “doing it wrong,” to fear of difference, of change, of people who seem other than us. But Andy and Jeff embody love; they are a beacon of all that is good and great in the world: deep kindness, generosity, family, friendship, fun, and hope. When you are with family, you feel less afraid. Arriving in Calistoga just a few days before, the only people I had known, besides the grooms, were my friend, Lee, and her daughter, Maggie. Now, looking around the room at all the guests, I realized how, through an intensely joyous few days, we had all become family.

Lee and Maggie: Wedding Ready

I was no longer traveling solo; I was at home. You can try to legislate family all you want, restricting what counts as legitimate and what does not, but it is like trying to hold water in your fist. Ultimately, love is stronger; love wins. It slips through the chains and the laws and the narrowness, all of which, let’s face it, are rooted in fear, and blossoms in spite of these very constraints. Love can’t help itself. That is its real power.

Swag

The morning after, I woke at the ridiculously early hour of 7:45AM. Throwing on jeans, my Nats baseball cap, and socks, I padded, shoeless, down the carpeted stairs of the elevator-free inn for coffee, freshly-baked scones, and house-made granola; the hotel’s delicious take on a continental breakfast. Besides me, there were only two other people present: a couple who looked to be in their 40s, still in evening clothes. They were ensconced in a booth, sitting in tired but friendly silence; she, wearing sky-high heels and acres of diamonds; he, with a watch the size of a bread plate. They had coffees and glasses of orange juice in front of them. At the end of the table was an open magnum of Domaine Carneros Brut Cuvée. Like me, they seemed unwilling to let go of the previous night. So, we sat, in the wonderfully quirky Calistoga Inn, with its ridiculously high thread count sheets but shared bathrooms; anchoring one end of the rustic, one-street Western town. It was a juxtaposition that seemed to perfectly sum up Napa and I loved it. I finished my coffee and went upstairs to pack.

Yes, it was time to go home. But on a deeper level, I realized I had already found my way there.

Cake toppers, the morning after, amid leftover swag.

This post is dedicated to Andy & Jeff, a couple whose deep love and and abiding respect for each other and the world is an example to us all.

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