”C’mon Thelma! It’s time to get this show on the road!”
Louise checked her pockets – keys, check – Big Red gum, check. Purse? Oh, yeah, on the table. Don’t forget that, that’s where you keep your money. Gonna need that on the way. Sunglasses? Yep, top of her head, don’t forget where they are – after all, your vision isn’t so great anymore, especially in bright sunlight. Speaking of her head… Gray hairs? Nope, not since her daughter had taken care of that with some well-placed color last night. Can’t have a gray hair on this trip. This wasn’t going to be for the faint of heart, or the gray of hair.
Louise ticked off the things that would be needed on the trip, one last time, in her head. Not taking much, just the most important stuff. Anything forgotten, would have to be bought on the road – or do without. This was going to be the trip of a lifetime, after all.
Purse, sunglasses, keys and gum already accounted for, she listed the rest of the baggage. Suitcase? Just the smallest. Pack light, and your heart will be too. Extra shoes for walking, and some sandals for the beach. A small cooler with a couple bottles of water, and diet coke, to save on drink stops. Pillow, light blanket, just in case there were no rooms available in whatever town was the next stop. Sleeping in the car wasn’t that bad, anyway. Especially if you found an out-of-the-way country road, and weren’t obvious about it. No one bothered you out in the country. But don’t tell the kids – they worry too much. Maps? Oh, yep, those were already in the car.
And a notebook and a couple of good pens. For the evenings, when everything from the day would get written down, to be savored at a later date.
Really, Louise wasn’t sure why she was really bringing the notebook, other than habit. The first trip had been fully documented with pictures, video, notebooks and scraps and bits of junk from everywhere they’d been. Thelma was the writer. The poet and storyteller. Louise was the photographer/videographer, the artist of light and shadow. Together they’d made quite a production out of their first trip down the Gypsy Road. They’d tried to capture every minute, in one way or another. Whether through still pictures, videos they’d made of them talking late at night, and funny things they’d seen; poems and stories that Thelma’d put in one notebook or another along the whole way, they’d tried to get it all down. “Epic history”, Thelma had called it, although Louise had seen that it’d been epic for them, it was pretty much just history for everybody else.
Their last trip had been full of fire and joy, fresh air and long nights full of stars. Cross-country they’d traveled for a full week out, and a full week back. And while it might not have seemed like very long in terms of travel time… that trip had been packed full, everyday, with people, places, faces, attractions. Enough to boggle the mind, and woo a weary heart out on the open road to seek the same adventures. Seven days of “westward ho”, hitting every roadside weirdsville attraction and bringing them to out into the light. Then seven more days of quiet reflection, soft laughter, and rehashing and refining their grand tour into something others might be able to understand.
It hadn’t been easy, because there was a small problem with translation: namely, no one but the two of them knew all of their history together. And, in order to get half the jokes, stories, and discussions, you had to have a sense of that past, before you could move forward into the present adventure. But, Thelma had done it, somehow. And people had seemed to enjoy it, even if some had walked out shaking their heads in confusion. Louise had just laughed through the whole thing, knowing how Thelma had caught, with her writing, all of the same feelings she herself had tried to capture on film.
But no camera now. No pictures on this trip. This one was just for them. Documenting this trip wasn’t the point. Living it was. One more time, before life pressed back in again.
Oh well, Louise thought. Joke ’em if they can’t take a…
“Now, Louise, that’s not polite”, she heard Thelma jokingly chide her.
“Alright, fine, but you know what I mean,” she threw back at her dearest friend.
“Yep. Always did. Ok, now, if you’re through rehashing the glory days? Let’s kick this pony, shall we?”
Walking out, Louise turned into the early morning sunlight and tacked an envelope to the front door for the kids. She’d told them that departure time was 10am, when really the car was leaving at 6. She knew that the goodbyes would be long and teary, at least for the kids, and she didn’t want that. Leaving the note was better. Their daughters would be mad, but they’d get over it. It was better to be 4 hours away when the girls got here and found out that they were too late.
By 10:30, Louise knew that she’d made the right decision. 4 messages in the last half hour.
“See, Thelma? They’re pissed. And they’re going to keep leaving messages until we answer them.”
“Aw, let them stew a little. They know nothing’s happened to us. We just left early, is all. Jess and Taya will calm down when they realize there’s nothing they can do. And they’ll talk Sammi around, at least to a quiet roar. Maybe they’ll remember, finally, that we actually are older than them, and can take care of business our own way. Just like we’ve always done, right?”
Louise heard the words and breathed a little easier. She actually was right. They’d always gone their own way. In everything. No one had been able to dictate their paths to them since they’d first become friends in high school. At least, not for long. It really was a miracle, considering everything they’d been through, but they’d always had each other’s backs. High school bullying, romantic triumphs… followed inevitably by romantic failures. The one true constant in their lives had been each other. Even when they’d been separated by distance, they’d still been there, waiting for the right moment to pop back up and catch the other before she fell too far.
“But you know, Thelma, the years are catching up with us. And we’ve so many more miles to go.”
But she was talking to the wind. Turning her eyes back to the road, Louise focused on their next destination. Call the kids. She’d do that when they stopped. They should’ve settled into the idea by then. After all, it was too late to turn back now.
Angela Well – near Miles City, Montana.
Such a tiny little place they’d stopped at, the natural hot spring was plopped down in the middle of some farmland, outside of a tiny town called Angela. The farmer who actually owned the property hadn’t fussed about them visiting the well, and they’d had a huge laugh about the tiny minnows living in the warm water near the edge. It had been great to soak after a long day of driving.
And it was going to be great to soak tired muscles today, too. After all, they were20 years older than the last time. Maybe she wouldn’t be able to really get into the water, but she could at least dangle her tired feet, let them recuperate.
After that, the days seemed to start to blur a little around the edges for Louise. Town after town, tiny, funky diners and pit stop attractions. One after one, revisited after all these years. Angela Well was just the start. Before long, they’d hit Pocatello, Idaho and the Museum of Clean! Louise had laughed so hard back when Thelma had originally found that spot for them to go, she’d almost pulled something. After all, it was an old joke about Louise’s OCD and affection for bleach. They’d spent half a day in Pocatello, both in the museum and just generally catching their breath. Portneuf River… Louise remembered. They’d camped there that night, pouring themselves out, emotionally, next to the river. Telling each other secrets. Some they hadn’t even known about each other, or themselves. It had been a good night, full of stars and tears and laughing, and finally, the deep sleep of the recently unburdened. Definitely stopping there again.
And onward… Humboldt National Forest near Elko, Nevada, had been a revelation. Trees, trees… forest forever. And the 2 of them just wandering in it. Lush and green, a little frightening in its size, Thelma had broken down in tears at one point.
“I wish I could just live here, Louise,” she’d said then. “Sometimes, you know? I just wish I could wander off, into this forest, or another one like it, somewhere, and disappear. Just go… Poof! And no one would know, you know?”
“I know, Thelma. Sometimes it would feel easier, I think. Start over, fresh. Somewhere without the past always hovering like a damn buzzard,” she’d said back. And meant it, wholeheartedly.
“Exactly. You’ve got it just exactly right.”
Finally, they’d realized that they were going to have to leave, and both teared up a bit. Leaving the cool, dappled light of the trees behind them, they’d climbed back into the baking heat of the car and driven on.
It was good to see the trees again, Louise thought, afterward. She’d almost forgotten how small they’d felt then, how easy it would be to just wander off and get lost. But the memories all came back now. And even though her car wasn’t baking hot enough to cook eggs today, she could still smell the hot vinyl in her memory. Feel the scratchy, sweaty upholstery on her legs, now grown so much older than then.
“Time to press on, old girl. We’re almost there,you know. Just one more state.”
A fantastical destination 20 years ago for them, California had assumed almost mythic status as their ultimate goal. But, no huge cities for their endgame. They’d headed north after hitting the state line, and – when they stopped… they were in Eureka, California. Eureka! Exclamation point! A fitting end to the journey, they’d spent time at the Carson Mansion, a delicate-looking ornate Victorian edifice, looking like something out of an exaggerated version of the Gingerbread house in the Hansel and Gretel stories. But Thelma had adored it.
“Always wanted to live in a Victorian house, you know, Louise.”
“Be a bitch to clean, though, Thelma.”
“Ah, but, if I could afford to live in one of these monstrosities, I should have enough to hire you as my maid, right?”
“Damn straight. You wouldn’t use enough bleach.”
After that, the only thing to do was to make themselves feel even smaller, and go visit the sequoias. Sequoia Park Zoo, the absolutely oldest zoo in California! The trees had indeed made them feel small, like children again. And Louise and Thelma had giggled like girls as they rode down the slides that came right out of the gigantic trees, built in like mechanical legs that might somehow allow the trees to get up and wander off some dark and eerie night.
But, they knew that childhood was, if not totally gone, at least something they had to carry in their hearts, instead of wearing on skinned knees and smudged faces. Time to finish the westward push, and figure out what it was all about.
They’d ended the day at College Cove. Perfectly secluded, and, with the cooler in tow, they’d spent their last night on the west-bound Gypsy Road there. Beautiful cerulean water lapped the shore gently as they found a spot to rest. The whole trip had culminated in this, and they wanted to make sure they got it all down, exactly how they’d seen it. Filling in all the blanks, drinking and watching the sunset, Thelma had worked in the notebooks while Louise made sure to capture the light. All golds and coppers, which finally turned the air crimson, Louise remembered all the pictures she’d taken, the videos she’d shot there. It had seemed so right, to just move about in this place, without speaking. Reverently. Just watching the sun set, silently. Both of them too awed with the finality of it to utter something they knew would end up inadequate to the moment. And it had seemed to stretch out, interminably, for days, magically extended to make sure they’d catch it all.
When the darkness had finally poured itself around them, comforting and familiar, they’d started filling in the verbal blanks. Talking about the journey, about the things they’d seen, experienced. Revelations and revolutions, they’d spun the globe around 7 times, driven to this magnificent place. By who knows what, they’d been almost pulled here. Knowing that the next morning they’d have to turn around, and head for home. Real life – it seemed so distant and distorted now. Who would they be now, when they got back to where they’d come from? Neither of them seemed to know, at the time.
They had discovered that, while you eventually do have to go home, you don’t necessary leave any of the journey behind. It all trailed along behind them like a comet’s snowy tail. Brilliant and sparkling, at least to them, it had been an epic thing, this trip. Louise remembered the bits of comet dust, starlight, that had filled their eyes all the way home. She’d captured that in pictures, as well. The Gypsy Road had led them to the universe and back. College Cove was simply where they’d realized it.
And, it was to College Cove that Louise finally pulled the car to a halt, glad to her very bones to have finally arrived. It was time and past to have done this journey. She just wished they’d been able to do it every year. But Thelma had been right when she’d said that would break the magic, make it common. And they were nothing if not uncommon women.
“C’mon, Thelma. Time to unpack.”
“Sure, you get the beer.”
Louise kicked off her sandals when she reached the beach, and waded down into the gentle water, feeling the warmth of it lapping at her ankles. This, this was the moment she’d been driven to, just as she and Thelma had been driven here all those long years ago. This moment, and no other.
And, just the same as it had been 20 years before, the sun, glowing in its own halo, began to set… and Louise poured Thelma’s ashes slowly into that patiently waiting ocean.
“One last trip, my old friend. I promised.”
“And you never break a promise, not ever.”
“Not one made on the Gypsy Road, no.”