(This is really long. You've been warned.) The summer after my freshman year, I came home from college with battle scars. No one could see them. They were all on the inside. My parents knew. I put them through a lot in the months following.
I was nineteen years old, and the world had exploded around me. Living on my own did it to me; shook me to the roots. Boyfriends. Roommates. The dorms. My first experience on my own. I was growing up and the world looked a little darker now.
At the beginning of the summer, my parents suggested I go and visit my Great Aunt Jean; my Granny's littlest sister.
I'd never been on a road trip without my parents. I'd never gone so far from them. Even college was only three hours away. And I hated to drive. But all I could think of was this little ranch style house nestled along a winding road. A warm memory. A place I felt safe. A place that felt like love.
My parents told me my dad's oldest sister would be going to my great aunt's with my cousin for a few days. It didn't take much to add me to their party. My traveling companions were two women I admire.
My Aunt Jane. Nineteen and a half years older than my father, she'd always remind me she could be my grandmother. She'd share family stories with the flair of a storyteller, never leaving any doubt of the love and respect she had for the people she talked about. I could listen to her for hours.
And my cousin Cynthia. A storyteller in her own right, she was also a published poet and had a love for all things family and nature. For most my life I think showed my admiration with tendency to follow her around. And she always took it in stride. At the time of our trip, she had a four year old son and was eight months pregnant with her second. Yes, that's right. Eight.
We piled in the car. Me, my aunt, my pregnant cousin, and my cousin's son. We took turns driving. Told stories. Laughed. I drove through my first road construction (mostly because I was too scared to get off so we could change drivers.) The road took us to Northern California, to a small town in the mountains and my Great Aunt Jean's.
Arriving was like peeling back layers, complications, bits of the depression festering inside me. I was given my own bedroom. I slept in the very bed my great grandmother shared with Aunt Jean after my grandfather died. Each night I sat at the desk and wrote what I was grateful for.
Aunt Jean is another woman I admire. Company is welcome, always, as long as they cook their own meals. Between the group of us we tried out some old family recipes using leftovers and canned foods from the pantry. We watched shows, visited, and explored antique stores. I think they were a little worried I was bored.
But I was thriving. I'd been planted in the center of something so good and lovely that I wanted nothing more than to sit and soak it up. A bright warmth inched into the darkness of my past, casting strange shadows on the memories of my freshman year. Shadows I didn't understand yet.
I got locked out the car one day. More accurately, me, my pregnant cousin, and her son, got locked out of the car. We were up the canyon in one hundred degree weather, and the cell phones didn't work. I think we really freaked out some of the other park visitors when Cynthia waddled over asking if anyone had a phone that worked.
In the end we found help, got the second set of keys and made it back. But that day sitting with Cynthia on the sidewalk as she talked about hard things that happened to her in the past was another changing point for me.
At the end of our trip, we said goodbye, loaded the car and headed back the way we came. Morning dripped away to mid-day. The traffic came to a standstill. We read Harry Potter to each other and called my uncle to find out what was going on.
That is when we learned about the fires. And the road closures. And the alternate route home, dead center through Nevada and across through to Utah. Night was coming on. Cynthia began to have labor pains. We considered hospitals until we were sure the labor wasn't progressing. By then it was night. The hotels were completely full. We had two options.
Camp out in the car. Or drive through to Utah.
So far I was the kid on the trip. I didn't know much; didn't have much experience. But with my aunt falling asleep, and my cousin still really uncomfortable, I was suddenly the best option for getting us home.
A sense of dread hit me as the headlights illuminated an ominous sign, "Welcome to the Loneliest Road in America."
In the seat next to me, Aunt Jane offered reassurance. "I'll stay awake with you. Let's just keep talking."
What do you talk about on the Loneliest Road In America? Not the color of the road, or the beauty of the surrounding wilderness, that's for sure.
In the darkness of that night I think I told my aunt every single experience in college I'd had. Every boy. Every miss-placed hope. Every fear. When her head dropped forward and she let out a tiny snore, I fell silent, praying with all my heart that we'd make it home and that I wouldn't kill us all.
"Don't stop talking." My Aunt said, waking up to enough to urge me on again. Another rabbit darted across the road. "Whatever you do, don't stop talking."
My throat was raw and my body stiff by the time we reached Delta in the early hours of the morning. We were so close to home, but I wasn't driving an inch further. We got a hotel and I shared a bed with my aunt.
The next morning, Aunt Jane would drive us into the tiny town in Utah that I call home. I would walk inside the house and sit at the table near my mother. I would tell her everything that happened, but even once I was done, I'd feel like pieces of it were missing. Something happened to me that I couldn't describe.
All these years later, I think about that unexpected detour and all the ones my life has taken since. There is so much about that crazy freshman year that I wouldn't trade for anything. The darkness is parted now, almost completely, and what I see is beautiful.
I see what maybe my aunt and cousin saw; what they tried to explain by the stories they shared with me. It's not always like we think. It's not always as dark as it seems. And when the road gets so long and lonely that we think we can't possibly make it, there is always someone there. An angel in the darkness next to you that whispers, "Don't stop. Whatever you do, Don't stop."