Route 66: A return to Chicago

April 7, 2014 – Santa Monica, CA, to Kingman, AZ – 335 miles

April 8, 2014 – Kingman to Flagstaff, AZ – 152 miles

I am two days into the final leg of my sabbatical journey: Route 66 from Santa Monica to Chicago. I have been looking forward to this segment of my big journey for months. Months.

Route 66! The Mother Road! The most storied road trip available to those with an automobile or Harley Davidson, not to mention a whole lot of energy.

The problem is, my endurance is currently running on fumes. And my enthusiasm is being colored by an on-and-off focus on the past and future: bittersweet reminiscing of people, places and things from the last five months, combined with anxiety over future plans once I land back in Chicago.

It is hard not to have Chicago (AKA the future) on the brain when I am finally headed in that direction, plus also have someone sitting shotgun who hails from the Windy City. I invited my good friend Emilie to join me for the first part of the Route 66 drive, an atypical move for my typical solitary self. I knew that this leg of the journey would be the most challenging, mentally and emotionally, so I am happy to have Emilie’s company to talk through whatever springs to mind as we journey through desert, forest and mountain environments of California, Arizona and New Mexico.

There are only so many one-sided conversations that I can have with my smartphone GPS navigator, affectionately nicknamed Dharma. I did a lot of talking to her during my solo road trip from Portland to Los Angeles. A lot. I didn’t always realize that I was talking to her, not until I was deep into verbalizing my thoughts out loud, hands still on the steering wheel. It was bizarre, yet oddly comforting. She couldn’t respond to me nor give me any advice, but she listened. Dharma was very, very good at listening. Think back to the Tom Hanks-Wilson the Volleyball scenario from the film “Castaway” — and I was the Tom Hanks character in this modern Erica-Dharma the GPS relationship. In a way, her presence has been therapeutic, if not at times silly.

The main challenge expressed in my conversations with Dharma, and now with Emilie: The mantra “Stay Present” — which I have strived to uphold throughout a career sabbatical that has carried me through Nepal, India, Thailand, China and the U.S. West Coast — is really shaky right now. Too many thoughts and ideas and plots and concerns and questions are competing for my attention. They are doing so with great vigor now that I am on the verge of being back in Chicago. As I creep closer to the city I call home, it is the unknown future that scares and excites me most.

Once this journey ends, what is next for me in Chicago? Or elsewhere? How significantly have I changed? Will plugging back into aspects of my former life be an impossibility?

After being gone for more than five months, I am bracing myself for a bumpy reintegration into “normal” life. I am still held in a sort of suspended-yet-separated version of my “normal” life while out on the road, living from a suitcase, embracing each day as one filled with new adventures. It has become my normal. It’s funny how this nomadic lifestyle has morphed into a place in which I feel safe. I am a creature who craves stability and security. Living out of a suitcase runs counter to thIs.

I wish I could go back to the quiet, hillside ashram in Nepal, where none of this future stuff so easily penetrated my thoughts. Channeling what I found there, amidst the daily routine and utter simplicity is just so … hard outside of its walls. Of course, I didn’t expect it to be easy. But I didn’t expect myself to get so frustrated at the obvious and predictable challenges.

Come next Thursday, which is a little more than a week from today, I will be back in Chicago after circumnavigating the globe and traveling the continental USA for the five months. It is crazy to acknowledge this. It means admitting that this phase in my life story is almost complete. Almost. How¬†this dot connects to the other dots in my life story arch is yet to be seen. A few things are emerging into view … but I want to concentrate on the views right in front of me, and honor the mantra I set forth for myself on Nov. 30, the day that I caught that first plane to Kathmandu.

I hope to concentrate more fully on the day-to-day experiences and moments along Route 66 — and give myself permission to shelve the reminiscing and forecasting for when I get to Chicago. There is just too much kitsch and quirk and natural wonder unfolding along this famous stretch of road to allow these worries to distract.

Hands on the wheel and look at the road in front of you, Erica.

Just try not to look too far ahead.

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