Middle of the Road

Yep, I haven’t posted anything for a year. Shame on me. Sometimes there are words and sometimes there aren’t. No excuse, really, I’m going to try to do better. The below essay is old, from 2006. It was my first published story, in an online magazine, Salome. I came across it while looking for something else recently and since I’ve never posted it here I decided to share. Sadly, 15 years after writing it it’s still applicable to my lost feeling but every day is closer to a goal that will eventually show itself 🙂 This is based on a trip I took to Garnet, Montana. I don’t have pictures but it can be seen online. Enjoy:

For me, when life issues need serious contemplation, a road trip is the only solution.  A pounding stereo and zipping white lines eventually peter out to some quiet back road, allowing me to get the proper perspective, the proper setting for serious ruminations.  My current life issue is turning fifty.  For this impending mid-life crisis, I found myself in the hills outside of Missoula, Montana, visiting a ghost town complete with intact sections of sidewalks, storefronts, miners’ cabins, a community hall and numerous outhouses – bits and pieces of past lives.  Thoughts of my own life’s struggles pale when I consider the circumstances these hardy souls faced.  Their trials were life and death, from travel and cold to isolation and mining accidents.  Hard work, home life and playtime are reflected in the weathered remains that are more than just empty buildings and the blank stares of dark windows.  Several buildings still have flowered wallpaper with patterns in blue and pink.  Tattered curtains lifted in the breeze where someone once enjoyed the view.  I listened for their voices.  Their presence was palpable and I knew they were watching, peering silently from the past.  We have shared the same misgivings, apprehensions, joys and accomplishments – we are kindred spirits.  Moving here had seemed reasonable, logical even, hopefully profitable, but the mines played out and new decisions had to be made.  The road out of this valley, looking back at good or bad choices, may have been defeating, facing an uncertain future, or perhaps a new adventure full of promise.  Their mindset would determine the outcome, and they moved on.

The obvious metaphor was not lost on me.  At fifty, being single and still having no clue what I want to be when I grow up, I feel I am leaving a valley cloaked in the mist of yet-to-be-made decisions.  I squint with my presbyopic eyes but can’t seem to focus on that far horizon.  The sides of the road disappear in a fog, giving no clue as to whether the grass is greener out there or not.  The road ahead is corduroy rough.  There is no fork, sign, mileage marker, arrow or defining white line.  No choice seems clear except to move forward.  The need to hesitate is strong.  One more step seems impossible.  I have moved all over the west.  I grew up in and loved Arizona but needed to see what else was out there.  I lived in San Diego for ten years, was married there, and enjoyed the California lifestyle.  When I left there I was on my own again, with sojourns in Alaska, Washington and Montana.  Move after move with my stuff and my dog, character building and adrift.  Still I don’t know where I’m going.  I turn and look back but only see my own ghost towns and haunted places.  I keep my own blues and pinks and tattered curtains, along with their lasting significance, forever in my heart.

This spot in the road is not a bad place, just not where I expected to be in my middle age.  Stability and financial security, the all-American dreams, should be close to reality by now but divorce, bankrupt employers, company cutbacks, union rules and plain old wanderlust have guided my route so far, curvy and bumpy, sometimes scary and wild, anything but smooth.  Breakdowns threatened.  Maps blew away in the wind.  The route veered away from any optimistically planned course.  Sometimes unexpected and wondrous things happened, things I never hoped to see or do in my lifetime.  I have flown to the bottom of the Grand Canyon by helicopter, watched buffalo standing in the morning mist of a Yellowstone winter, and been awestruck beneath curtains of northern lights in Alaska.  I learned that solitude can be a blessing.   I’ve had new friends enrich my life before pointing me in yet new directions.

The deserted town is peaceful now, perfect for quiet reflection and possible answers to my questions.  I’m sitting on a bench in the shade of the old hotel, perhaps sharing it with a ghostly predecessor, hoping to absorb their timeless insight.  After all this contemplation, have I come up with any conclusions?  Received any flashes of inspiration or old-age wisdom?  Only comforting, encouraging adages come to mind, things like “the best is yet to come”, “with age comes wisdom”, “we turn not older with years but newer every day.”  Would I do things differently, maybe change the players or my roles in the past?  You bet!  I would not have been oblivious to clues that my husband was choosing drugs over me.  My family would have been hugged closer, and I would not have left that great job.  What’s his name would not have broken my heart, and I would not have bolted in fear that so-and-so would break it too.  Given the chance, I would have savored the journey that much more, made it with more awareness, and been totally present for those rare moments of pure grace.  Maybe they are the same things everyone would change, the same lessons we would all choose to learn differently or with more maturity.  I suspect I’m in good company with other boomers contemplating the cards they’ve been dealt.  We are kindred spirits.

Some people tell me they envy the place I stand – anonymous, adept, open to any capricious thought, the adventurous possibilities of that uncharted road, and yet I often wish I could travel their safe, settled and partnered paths.  Is there enduring stability and contentment on either path?

And so I leave this bucolic, hospitable little valley with a fresh outlook.  I will make my choices and venture out with my own determined mindset.  My conclusions are the simple lessons of more old adages, learning to stop and smell the roses, to be happy for the bird in the hand and the grass on my side of the fence, to maybe take the road less traveled and see it with clarity, enjoying every step, and resolutely moving forward to a new place farther up the trail.

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