The moment I’d giddily anticipated, my big splash arrival, was upon me.
“Welcome to the District of Columbia,” the GPS announced ceremoniously as I crossed my final border, windshield wipers whooshing away a light rain.
I’d made it, full circle: 27 states and 12,000 miles over 10 months, coast-to-coast-to-coast!
Then I came to a sudden, shuddery halt. The safe-distance alert flashed on my dashboard. My adrenaline surged.
“Will you kiss the ground upon which you land, or will you turn and run?” My nomad friend, David, a seasoned road warrior, had posed this curious question as I departed Montana, 10-odd states ago, just beginning my trajectory home.
At the moment, staring into a blur of red break lights, squirming in my seat like a fussy kid, I could do neither!
I was trapped in a veritable parking lot of Nation’s Capital rush-hour traffic.
Panhandlers paced the trash-ridden island wielding soggy cardboard appeals.
My dream of doing a victory dance in the endzone was instantly eclipsed by stomach-oozy dread.
A siren’s scream crescendo'ed from behind me; I craned my neck left and right; I had nowhere to go.
Trapped. My voice reverberated inside my throat and the airtight capsule of the VW.
There had been many entrapments: trapped by protracted pandemic fears, by the seduction of the status quo, 20-plus years as a business- and homeowner, by the comfort zone of home.
But I’d escaped! I’d set-off on my cross-country healing journey.
Foot gnashing the brake pedal, I shut my eyes and imagined the spaciousness I'd felt in the wild, open west. Soaring 90 mph through blank swatches of red rock desert, across blond Dakota prairie, I might have been the only human alive.
I had had challenges out there as a solo nomad; for one, the isolation. I was about to rejoin my tribe: why such nostalgia for there when I was here?
A horn blared behind me, jolting me awake to the urban reality, just as a bolt of pain shot through my back and down my left leg. My eyes blinked wide open, and I rolled forward two car lengths, gripping and massaging my sciatica-stricken thigh.
Please, no, I lamented over the din of the radio announcing another market plunge.
That was another thing I’d escaped – the spine surgeon’s scalpel. He’d diagnosed me with chronic, congenital, severe scoliosis. He was ready to immobilize me with steel rods and bolts so I might never climb a mountain or dance a samba again. I was in so much pain, I almost let him.
Instead, against doctor’s orders, I set-out on my own healing journey.
On a 12,000 peak in the Sawtooth Mountains, after a 10-mile, 2,500 foot climb, I’d declared myself healed. I’d felt so good and so strong for so long, days might go by and I’d have completely forgotten about Caroline, my poor, crooked, blessed spine.
She was back, reminding me of her continued presence. I reached around to knead the inflamed hump with my palm.
I refused to let the Washington stress zone take me backwards.
I had to call someone; my friend Michelle would distract me from the doubt swirling in my fight-flight brain.
"Hey, Lady," she answered on the first ring, "What's up?"
A tiny smile spread on my lock-jawed face at the sound of her chipper voice. "Sitting in rush hour traffic...in DC. I made it, amiga!" My excited scream filled the airtight VW capsule and almost surprised me.
My mood seemed as twisty-turny as my nomad route.
"Whoo-hoo, welcome back!" She cheered.
"And it's raining! You know, I didn't see a drop of rain for seven whole months, not 'til Stanley, Idaho, and that was just one overnight storm, when I was camping, of course."
"Oh my," she said.
"Yeah, the West's been in a 1200-year drought, and you feel it. It's not right. Missed this horrible humidity, actually," I chuckled, trying to look on the sunny side of this gloomy day.
I was scared, truth be told, to face my life back home – scared of liking it or hating it, of getting sucked back into the status quo after such a grand effort to escape it. It didn’t make a lot of sense.
Lucky for me, I’d gotten in the habit, on the road, of burning my fears of the unknown and transforming them into faith that all would work out just fine.
All was just fine, I reminded myself as I turned up the AC and inhaled through the vents the sentimental smell of wet pavement.
I’d considered staying out West, in all that mountain spaciousness – Santa Fe or Durango or Escalante, Utah, the most remote town in the continental US, not a single traffic light. Though I never did get used to the bone dryness, day after day of blazing blue skies, the lizard texture of my skin, the hard, dry earth beneath my hiking shoes.
And the weather was likely an excuse; somehow, the journey road had compelled me back home.
"I have a Zoom in a minute," Michelle said. "Unfortunately."
"I know, sorry, but it's 5:30, Cocktail Time,” I whined. “You work too hard. Everyone does in this town."
"It's true. We'll celebrate soon," said Michelle, and hung-up.
That’s another thing I feared: feeling insignificant, lacking identity in a city so identified with itself and its busy-ness and its power.
Meanwhile, I'd inched up and around the culprit fender-bender, past the carnival of flashing emergency lights, exhaling as I eased on the gas pedal and merged into a steadier stream of traffic – U Street to 16th, up Malcolm X hill, and into Mount Pleasant.
Adrenaline tingled in my veins as I coasted down lush Park Road then parallel-parked the trusty VW Tiguan, opened the car door, and breathed-in the steamy air.
I had arrived.
Ascending the stairs, shaking out my stiff legs, I gazed up through the treetops toward my brick rowhouse on the hill. It stood tall and strong, turquoise shutters gleaming.
Smiling, I unlocked the door and stepped over the threshold.
That’s when it hit me smack in the face: the suffocating stench of swamp. A deep frown formed between my eyes, and I bit my lips together hard, accentuating the 50-plus age lines around my mouth.
My entire abode was covered in mold.
My heart sank as I dropped my bags and stood at the entry, hand masking my nose and mouth. I was back in the Washington swamp – the literal, not political one.
I would have to report back to nomad David: I was not kissing the stinking ground.
It would take me a week of backbreaking remediation efforts – scrubbing the ceiling of black flower blooms of mildew, washing loads of infected linens and clothes, airing blankets, pillows, rugs, on the patio, running every dehumidifier, circulating fan, air purifier and AC unit on full blast – before I could sleep again, finally, in my own bed.
My first night back on Park Road, below ground, blessed Caroline relieved to be horizontal, I lay awake waiting for the muscle-relaxer to take effect. Listening to the symphony of dehumidifying machines, I counted, like sheep, the number of beds I’d inhabited over just the last month of my travels – fifteen!
I very badly needed rest. But at dawn I awoke, squinting in the dark, wondering where I was, insomniatic ruminations swirling in my head: When can I get out of here, again, and where will I go?
Born and raised inside the Beltway, I’d lived in this house for 24 years, since I’d made the leap into homeownership at age 33.
I wasn’t sure I belonged here anymore.
As a nomad, one could get the feeling she belonged everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Everywhere was spacious; nowhere was frightening.
My DC friends – many of them – had grown distant. I suppose I had also. It was hard to keep up with everyone, plus all the new people I’d met on my travels. Perhaps my blog and social media posts from the bumpy yet glamorous road – attempts to maintain a connection – only made friends envious. Some had reported as much. They wanted to escape too!
In my mind, as I scrubbed the ceiling and mopped the floors of my basement apartment, I was already making plans to leave again.
Then Sunday evening arrived.
I spruced myself up; I took a shower, fan whirring in my now gloriously clean and disinfected bathroom. I put on makeup. I had ventured up to Revo Salon and gotten a spa mani-pedi. My pink painted toenails gleamed against the patent leather of my strappy sandals. I spritzed myself with perfume and pulled a flouncy dress over my head, taking a twirl before the full-length mirror.
When I stepped across the threshold of the Grill from Impanema, the scent of crushed lime and grilled meat hit my nostrils. The owner, Alcey, greeted me with a kiss on each cheek. “Cuanto tempo?” How much time? He exclaimed.
I felt my cheeks soften. “Muito,” a lot, I replied. Ahh, to be speaking Portuguese again, to feel the samba rhythm building in my belly.
This was not something I got to experience out in the wild West!
Alcy handed me a special menu: it just so happened to be the restaurant's 30-year anniversary.
“Nossa, parabens,” wow. I congratulated him with a pat on the back; and he showed me to my table, around which sat a bunch of friends lifting their glasses of beer and rum-laced caiperinas in welcome.
From the stage, accordion music lilted, filling my chest with airy energy.
“Anna Marina!” called out Gigi, my old friend, the band leader, as she beat the triangle and her round face spread into a rainbow smile.
My feet could not help but shuffle across the wood floor to the stage. I hadn’t danced forro, the country dance of NE Brazil, in ages. (But that was another time, another adventure.)
“Saudades de voce, amiga,” I missed you. I reached out to pat her knee. Gigi, seated behind the microphone and music stand, was dressed in a flouncy, ruffly country outfit, polka-dot freckles painted onto her plump, pink cheeks.
Over the course of the evening, the dance floor filled up, friends poured in, we snapped photos, hugged, kissed – we bridged the divide of distance and time.
Over the din and thump of the festa, I spoke of my travels, favorite places, the crazy drive from Cortez to Moab on a Doobie Sister’s gummy, and my wobbly hike up the cliffs to the sandstone eye in the sky HIGH. It was a joy to relive the most harrowing travel experiences, now that they were behind me.
On the dance floor, I basked in the freedom of movement of my body. “Now this ground,” I imagined telling nomad David, “I could kiss.”
I sang along with the crowd to Eu Quero Un Chodo, I Want a Love, and basked in my body’s joyful freedom of movement. One year ago, at this very same time, I could not stand or sit or walk a block, much less samba with reckless abandon.
I forgot about my mildewed apartment and all the unpacking I still had to do, and where I was going and what I was doing with my life; and I basked in the warmth of the moment.
Of course I was home. Of course I belonged.
As a nomad freebird, one could get the feeling she belonged everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Tonight, I belonged everywhere.
Stay tuned for the next scintillating Ramblin' Anne dispatch: "How to be a Traveler in My Own City."