Fall on the desert island

Rainy day

“This is definitely a desert-island album for me.”

Spencer and I were driving along our winding road last night, heading to my parents’ house, rain splattering against my windshield. Earlier in the day I’d dug around in the trunk for my old CD case: a fat compilation of albums, mostly collected a decade ago.

John Mayer’s “Heavier Things” was the first CD I bought with my own money. I was a freshman at a nearby community college, running out on my lunch break to pick up odds and ends at Walmart. It was September 2013, just a week or so into the school year, and I’d just started a job as a cashier at a craft store. My paycheck was paltry, but I didn’t know any different — and it didn’t much matter. I still felt impossibly adult with my brand-new debit card.

I told Spencer this story last night: how, eleven years ago, John Mayer’s “Clarity” and “Something’s Missing” and “Wheel” were the soundtrack to my 18-year-old days. I can close my eyes and be back on campus, climbing into my battered old Corolla, cranking the music up with cool September air pouring through the windows. A love note on my windshield. A scarf around my neck.

Music meant more to me then. I don’t listen to it much these days, preferring news radio or audiobooks on my drives. But when I do? It’s the “old” stuff. My vintage stuff. The songs that comprised my mornings and afternoons and weeks when I was younger and bursting and unsure, but still making progress. Steadily. Grasping.

Does your music change seasonally? Because as soon as the leaves begin to turn and I dig out my boots, I find myself reaching for Ingrid Michaelson, The Fray, Death Cab for Cutie. The softer, subdued stuff. It’s like my mind shrugs into a sweater, too, wrapping up and quieting.

I like that. It’s cyclical.

John may feel that, too.

“When autumn comes, it doesn’t ask. It just walks in where it left you last. You never know when it starts . . . until there’s fog inside the glass around your summer heart.”

“What do you mean — desert island?” my husband asked.

“Desert island. You know. An album you’d take with you if you were trapped on a desert island?”

“I’d bring a satellite phone,” replied my scientist, smiling in the dim evening light. “So I could call for help.”

“That’s not the question!”

But I laughed, anyway.

We’re never gonna stop this train


Back when I was commuting to College Park for school, the only thing getting me through long, terrible, traffic-riddled drives was the soothing sound of John Mayer.

Though his antics in recent years may have colored him in the public’s eye, perhaps, John will always be my main man. I can’t remember my young adult years without thinking of “Clarity,” “Bigger Than My Body,” “Something’s Missing,” “No Such Thing.” As John grew and released more sophisticated, blues-inspired tunes, so did I. My early years at Borders were marked by the release of “Continuum,” the 2006 album that served as a definitive change in his sound, and it became the soundtrack to my college days.

Sometimes I have these moments — crystal, perfect — that fill up the soul. Soothe me. Comfort me. Remind me that, no matter how disjointed and afraid I may feel some days, I’m on the right path . . . and everything is going to be just fine.

I often have John to thank.

Some of my best thinking gets done in the car. Despite all the chaos in the D.C. area, I usually find cruising around to be pretty relaxing. I don’t mind being alone — especially with music or books along for the ride. When the weather is nice? Windows down, hand in the wind. Just going.

Last night I’d just finished an audiobook and was digging around for something to listen to when I rediscovered “Where The Light Is,” John’s two-disc live album from 2008. “Stop This Train” began to play. The simple guitar intro took me immediately back to the spring of my senior year of college — the time when I realized, in a few short months, I’d be done with school forever and officially “an adult.”

I didn’t have a job lined up. Didn’t have a post-graduation plan. Was still living at home and already pondering ways to end another relationship, which pained and scared me — because at the time, he was my absolute best friend. Though far from being my great love, it’s always hard saying goodbye.

I remember driving on the Beltway on a warm spring day, the sun filtering through my cracked windows with “Continuum” on repeat. Graduation was probably weeks away, based on the knot in my stomach, and I was taking the exit that would lead me back home. Happiness and freedom should have been sitting right in my passenger seat, soothing me, but I’m nothing if not a worrier. I just remember feeling scared.

Stop this train
I want to get off and go home again
I can’t take the speed it’s moving in
I know I can’t
But honestly, won’t someone stop this train?

The words — the words. They hit me like a brick wall.

Oh once in a while, when it’s good
It’ll feel like it should
And they’re all still around
And you’re still safe and sound
And you won’t miss a thing
Until you cry . . . when you’re driving away
In the dark

How did John slip inside the darkest corner of my heart and pluck out every scared thing I was feeling? I can’t listen to that song without thinking of that day . . . which is exactly what happened last night.

And then I realized: I got through it.

My fears about getting a job, leaving home, making new friends, finding someone to love who would love me just as much . . . entering “adulthood.” All of that. It hasn’t been easy and it’s certainly not over, but I did many of the things I was once so afraid to do. They came to pass, and I’m still standing.

Indebted. But that’s okay, too.

I drove slowly to the new house, the one stacked sky-high with boxes. Breathed in the muggy air. Watched the fireflies twinkling in the trees.

It’s the most unshackled I’ve felt in months.

Winding roads, take me home

Sequoia IV

Sequoia National Park, man. That place is no joke.

We arrived in Three Rivers, Calif., after a four-hour drive from San Francisco. The road was long, the sun scalding . . . the day young. After learning we couldn’t check into our hotel quite yet, we set off for the park in search of the famed giant trees.

We made it.

Kind of.

Please observe:

winding road

There’s a road in there.

I have exactly one photo from our time climbing switchbacks up mountains in Sequoia — mostly because I’ve never been so terrified in a car in my life. My dad was behind the wheel with Mom beside him, and Spencer and I were clinging to life (and the door handles) in the back.

I should note that Dad is a very good and cautious driver (as evidenced that I’m alive to write this post), but there was only so much one could do on those treacherous roads. Families seemed to be happily sailing along next to us, and all I could think about were the unbelievable drops immediately to our left and right. Drops off a cliff. Into the abyss.

Despite the fact that I’m a well-known scaredy-cat, I vouch you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who wasn’t a little shaky driving through Sequoia. It’s awe-inspiring, yes — unbelievable, crazy, gorgeous. Brother (or sister?) to the mighty Yosemite.

But it’s scary as hell, too, and there’s just no way around that.

Whether through lack of research or information ahead of time, we had no idea the hour-long drive from the park entrance to the grove of Giant Sequoias was going to be filled with endless hairpin turns. I’m talking serious, no-joke, terrifying angles — many without guard rails — as we climbed into the sky. The temperature was a good 30 degrees cooler at the apex than it was in Three Rivers, where it was breath-stealing hot.

That was one good thing.

As we made our way up, I had to roll my window down because I was pretty sure the motion sickness was going to result in actual sickness . . . but that meant not even a plate of glass was separating me from certain death should one minor thing go wrong.

The views were pretty spectacular, though.


Sequoia II

Sequoia III

Pretty enough to make up for a near-death experience? I guess so. We did eventually get to the sequoias, where we paused to breathe in that cool, clean, crisp mountain air. But this was only after one member of our party did become ill and every member of our party came down with the jitters.

And we almost ran out of gas.
On the side of a mountain.
Without a shoulder.
And no cell phone service for miles and miles.

Never. again.

But the trees? The trees were nice. Impressive. Tall.

Spence and trees

Tall tree


And we got a stamp for our crisp new passport book, which makes me feel like a giddy 8-year-old collecting neon Lisa Frank stickers all over again.

I’m kind of obsessed with it.

And by “kind of,” I mean I now carry it around with me “just in case.” Just in case I happen upon a national park during my work day in suburbia.

Passport book

It’s the little things.

And I’m just thankful to be alive, so #stampsforeveryone.

Sequoia, you did not defeat us!

(But I’m never going back there.)

(I have white hair now.)

Words and roads

Road 1

I take the familiar roads too fast sometimes — but only because I know them as well as the long line of freckles on my right arm. When you’ve spent your lifetime in, near or along a patch of land, that landscape impresses on your skin. It becomes you.

Roads hold a strange fascination for me. I love maps, love staring at the constellations of streets that can take you from point A to winding point B. I got my driver’s license as soon as I was able, popping behind the wheel of my dad’s old Toyota when I was 16, and the freedom of driving — of being out, being loose — isn’t something I take for granted.

When I was commuting to college, cars whizzing along the haphazard Beltway, I remember driving home on an unusually warm winter day. Bright sunshine bleached long lines of salt on the roads; warm air beckoned us to crack our windows. I was young, rather brokenhearted . . . still processing the end of a first love. A two-hour round-trip drive is a long time to be alone. Though music couldn’t always clear the mind, I played it — Jimmy Eat World, Maroon 5, Death Cab for Cutie — on loop.

To my right was a sedan driven by a businessman, tie loosened and shirtsleeves rolled up. Slowly, tentatively, the other driver stuck his left hand out of the window. The wind caught between his fingers. He made a fist, opened the fist — like he was trying to hold it.

At the time, it was an incredibly hopeful sight.


It’s strange the memories that return to you — little moments that invade when you least expect them. I usually listen to audiobooks in the car, spending my short commute lost in stories, but yesterday my book ended before my drive did. I dug around in my dashboard for a CD and found Maroon 5 — an old album I hadn’t listened to in years.

I thought of the tired businessman reaching, hand extending into the sunshine. I thought of winter ending, the thaw and hope and promise of something new.

I sang loudly along, voice hoarse with the near-forgotten lyrics.

But they were still there. They trickled back, one by one.

On each other’s team


Tuesday was one of those extraordinary days we get just once or twice each winter: a freakishly warm afternoon conjuring memories of spring. A delightful tease. It’s disconcerting at first — weird and unnatural, really — but you dig around for flats, shuck off your bulky coat and bask in the oddness. Knowing it’s fleeting makes it all the more exciting. You choose to revel.

When I left the office that night, heels clicking against the sidewalk, I looked up at a burning sunset that followed me all the way home. I was driving into that sunset, it felt; dusk was mesmerizing. And eerie, too, knowing how temperatures would plummet from 65 to 30 overnight. Like any good one-time aspiring meteorologist, I’d been following the winter weather reports for days . . . and sure enough, a snowstorm blanketed D.C. and its cozy suburbs by yesterday afternoon.

But this was Tuesday — the calm before the storm. I met my husband without a jacket, arriving in the crowded pre-storm grocery parking lot after driving with the windows down. I thought about my college commute, driving up and down the Beltway with Jimmy Eat World and Death Cab for Cutie cranked high. I remembered once sailing across the Solomons Island bridge with my sister, the Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” playing so loud our voices strained to match Brandon Flowers’ every note.

And there was more — so much more. I once had a tradition of playing John Mayer’s live album — especially “Why Georgia” — as soon as the weather began to warm, and hearing Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing” takes me back to riding the Tube around London alone. I played it constantly when I got back from my long weekend in 2009, trying to recapture the rush of moving independently through a foreign city. My city.

I miss music. I hadn’t really connected that until Tuesday, when I took a brief leave of Longbourn to enjoy the simple pleasures of the radio. My audio book didn’t fit my warm January mood: unexpectedly sunny; defiantly free. Scanning through the stations, I eventually found Lorde and OneRepublic . . . and for a second I didn’t feel so out-of-touch, so removed. I knew all the words.

And I sang them . . . loudly. As loud as I could.

Because I was alone — but not lonely.

Because spring really isn’t so very far away.

So I-270 and I aren’t friends, and probably never will be


I’m totally spoiled.

For the last five years, my commute has been . . . an excruciating, horrible, soul-crushing ten minutes. Maybe fifteen at busy Christmastime (like now), or twenty when the weather is bad (those two or three mornings in winter). My drive is a familiar one: down the same narrow streets I cruised as a teen, through the center of town, past the post office and 7-Eleven and office parks. Same parking spot. Door to door, I’m at my desk before I’ve even processed what the morning-show DJs are discussing.

Last week I was given a new adventure: training at company headquarters. I’m excited to be transitioning to new software at work — and never hesitated to get on board. I like learning new skills and challenging myself. It was fun to be taking notes again, feeling like I was in school — forcing my brain to think differently, acquiring new ways of doing what I’ve always done. After three days, I felt really comfortable with the software . . . and excited about moving forward.

Only problem?

Training was in Gaithersburg. Fifty miles — and many snaking lanes of traffic — away.

In anticipation of the journey, I covered myself in war paint — or, um, chocolate. Worried I would get stranded in the D.C. Beltway’s notorious traffic, something I know all too well from commuting to the University of Maryland years ago, I loaded my passenger seat with drinks and snacks. My trusty GPS easily got me from point A to point B, and I made great time every day. What I worried would take me two hours wound up taking just one or so, and the trek home — in rush hour traffic — wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected.

I mean, it was still an hour and a half. But it could have been worse. Having grown up in Maryland and listening to a few traffic reports in my day, I’m well-versed in how awful 270 can be. So while we’re not friends and probably never will be, I’m thankful the congested roadway stayed open enough for me to get in and get out without too much bother. We only slowed a few times — and never came to the grinding halt I remember from driving to school.

After just three days of making that commute, though, I’m sipping Diet Coke at my own desk with a sparkly new appreciation for how good I really have it — and how I shouldn’t take my local job for granted. As a college commuter, I was used to running the roads, getting snarled in traffic and planning everything around whether or not I’d be able to get home from College Park — but this? On I-270? This was a whole new level of crazy. If I’d ever doubted how fortunate I am to work locally, that solidified it for me.

Though I did enjoy listening to an entire audio book — Devan Siphon’s The Wedding Beat — on my drive! Tore through that baby. And I definitely polished off more than a few of those snacks, too. Like, all of the peanut butter M&Ms and that huge bag of trail mix.

That was my early Christmas present to myself.