I know exactly where I'm going when it happens. I know which exit to take. I imagine the feeling of the bend of the exit, the curve around the dairy barn that leads to a deeper grove of trees that soon reveals a Christmas tree farm on my left and a field of sunflowers on my right, both of which end in a graveyard and then the town - Yellow Springs, Ohio.
I could see it in my mind an hour ago when I got into my car without my camera, a book, our GPS or even my journal. I was prepared to not be prepared for the worst case scenario then as I am now.
I want an adventure.
The grey strip of highway advances before me. I am excited. An afternoon outside of the city. An afternoon away from routine. Who knows what will happen! I need this so badly, I think to myself, over and over again with each cornfield I pass.
So when the car suddenly sputters and won't accelerate past 50 mph, I'm not phased. It's failing on me, I think. I can handle this. The car slows down and within seconds it becomes much harder to speed up. It feels like the engine will stop on me at any moment as I'm holding close behind a semi. I think of the saying "driving the bus into the ditch" and stare forward.
The exit to Springfield, Ohio appears in less than a minute. Thank you, I say to the angel watching over me. After a call to my husband, AAA and my friend who I'm supposed to meet for lunch, the panic starts up. I'm in the middle of a strange place. The gas station where I am is perfectly normal. I realize it could be worse. But people look at me funny, as if I'm wearing a sign that reads - My car is dead. I'm lost. I'm freaking out. I want to go home. I know you can't help me. But I want you to know what I'm thinking anyway!
Food. I pee, grab some potato chips and an iced tea and pace, waiting for the tow truck. When my friend drives past the gas station without seeing me, I smile. Oh, there is some lightness in me and some serendipity in the day, I think, for it's a sheer coincidence that she's driving this route to meet me for lunch as I look up from my bag of potato chips to see her when I do.
The mechanic is white-haired, newly bronzed from the spring sun and kind. We can help you. That's what we're here for, he says. His wife sits in the passenger seat of the tow truck. She looks content this afternoon. I wonder if I broke down just to give them more work today. My friend offers to come with me to the shop. We agree to grab some lunch at some point. My panic cools with her presence.
I am glad she is with me. The shop is in the middle of nowhere. Stalling at the side of the highway at a gas station is nothing compared to the strange distance we travel to the place where my car will eventually get fixed. Past rows of white homes with hay-colored grass and no trees to grace the front yard with shade, I recognize a certain kind of poverty, one specific to the small towns of Ohio and the Midwest.
A lunch of iceberg lettuce, turkey cold cuts rolled up into little cylinders, well-fried bacon and bleu cheese dressing later and it's confirmed - my car won't be fixed tonight. I need to come back another day. They still don't know what's wrong.
My friend offers to drive me home. I am so thankful for her. I wonder if I broke down just so we could have more than lunch together. We spend the car ride back to my house talking about the difficulties of having children and what it means to be ambitious as an artist.
The next morning, as I'm walking back in the early heat from the market with my bag of groceries, I get a call. My other friends are planning to drive to Yellow Springs on Sunday. They'd love to help me out and take me to get my car. It should be ready by then, I tell them, still not knowing what the problem truly is. The mechanic called the day before, told me how they needed to take it out for a ride to test it, yadda, yadda, yadda. I panic when I think of this - someone driving my car on a back road at 70 mph. But then I remember the white-haired mechanic and his wife.
Our trip to Springfield is fun. We pack into the car, tell each other stories and laugh long and hard on the way out. We take the same exit I was so thankful for two days ago. I lead them to the location of the shop. Down the back roads we travel. Where the heck are we? my friends ask. Are you sure this is right? Where are you taking us?
After we revive my car, we decide to visit Yellow Springs for lunch. I'm happy for this day - to have my car, be in the presence of friends and, now, finally taking my trip to Yellow Springs. We venture down more back roads. And that familiar exit I know so well and its bend - we don't travel that way. We witness even more poverty. Our hearts sink. This unknown way spits us out onto what now seems like an idyllic road into today's choice of town. I realize I'll never think of YS in the same way, having seen the poverty of the surrounding farmland.
We are thankful. Our trip was filled with plenty of luck. And as I call it to memory now, there is a sense of fondness for everything about my journey. It was the best of both worlds for me to visit YS and spend time with my friends. I wonder, too, if my car broke down so I could have that time with them to laugh and share in our gratitude for what we have, broken cars and all.
I wonder, too, if my car broke down to remind me of something I was forgetting, as I stared out my window during work each day. That it's in the getting lost that we are found, and not just because we summon up courage and fortitude when we find ourselves trapped in a strange place. We find ourselves, too, by the light of kindness in others.
I spent time that day, when I didn't know whether or not my car was going to take me home, seeing and being seen in a strange place with people who were kind to me and curious about me, as I to them. That kind of isolation within compassion did something to me. Above the shock and panic, it allowed for a certain amount of wonder and the softness that comes with it.
I think to myself now, Your story will reveal itself to you in the moment, if you listen. What you were trying to lose in the beginning turns out to be different in the end. What you were focused on as the problem in the beginning has become your solution. You see by being seen in a strange place.
You will be found. Adventure awaits.