The Wanderer

My old maps showed me how to leave Point A and head to points unknown

I left the east coast at the age of 23 with four cardboard boxes, a Playmate cooler and a map.

Actually, I had multiple maps, a fistful of TripTiks highlighted in yellow by an affable AAA employee—circuitous routes that would deliver me from Washington, D.C., to my new, uncharted life.

I had to go. For months, I'd been waking up with a knob of dread deep in the belly, a repetitive, minor chord of gloom. Yes, I had a good job. I met friends for beer on Connecticut Avenue and spent Sunday mornings sprawled on the grass of Dupont Circle, with a bagel and the Sunday Times. I loved my button-sized apartment, where I stashed my bicycle behind the futon and propped a 12-inch black-and-white television on shelves made of cinderblocks and pine.

When you're 23, it's hard to diagnose unhappiness, especially when your life bears the outward gleam of success. To my parents and editors, I was thriving: writing about cops and courts for The Washington Post, zipping from a methamphetamine bust in Spotsylvania County to a front-page feature about the most temperate D.C. summer in 22 years.

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But I could hear it, feel it: an insistent chime of restlessness. A sense that my life waited somewhere outside the Washington Beltway. A growing conviction that if I didn't leave now, I'd be shackled until I was gray. "You'll never go; you're the queen of bondage," a college pal said in April. By June, I'd given notice and packed the car.

I was headed to become a VISTA volunteer—like the Peace Corps, but in the United States and with only a one-year commitment—in Portland, Oregon, with stops in Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania; Columbus, Ohio; Chicago; St. Louis; Kansas City; Omaha; Denver; the Grand Canyon and Bakersfield, California, before wiggling up I-5 to a city I'd never seen.

"If you went any further, you'd be in the ocean," my mother observed, her voice tight with worry and regret. "Just be careful," said my dad. I unfolded my maps, showed them my route, even typed out a day-by-day itinerary of the friends' couches and youth hostels where I planned to bunk on the way.

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The maps were a lie. No, not exactly a lie. More like a ruse, a way of persuading my skeptical family (and some envious friends) that I knew where I was going. In truth, after two decades of following the path-more-traveled, it was map-lessness I craved.

In Ohiopyle, where I was the sole guest at a youth hostel near the Great Allegheny Passage, a middle-aged man (the son of the hostel manager) asked me to marry him. I said no. In Columbus, a goateed grad student took me out for beer and quoted Yeats: "The silver apples of the moon; the golden apples of the sun." I bought ramen—10 packets for a dollar in the supermarket in St. Louis—and stood at grubby youth hostel stoves, doctoring my dinner with cubed tofu and tomatoes. Anything could happen. A meal of catfish and a tour of one-room schoolhouses with a friend in Omaha. A drive from Durango to the Grand Canyon with an ASL interpreter I'd met just hours earlier; he taught me the sign for "connect," and when we hugged goodbye near the canyon's south rim, a double rainbow hurdled the sky.

The next morning, when I stood with a group of shivering strangers to watch the sun rise in ropes of gold and pink, a Japanese tourist took a sharp inhale. "Here comes it!" she sighed. I learned that the Colorado River had etched out the Grand Canyon at the rate of about one inch per century. Who needed to hurry?

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After two years dictated by deadlines—6 p.m., and that school board article had better be in editor Walter Douglas's hands—time pooled around me. I drove for eight hours, or fourteen, or none (sure, why not spend an extra day in Lincoln City?); I crawled into my sleeping sack when I got tired and woke without a clock.

At night, I unfolded my maps, their colors a little wan from days on the dashboard, their creases pliant as skin. I was a long way from home, the small, starred circle that was Philadelphia. At the same time, the maps made "home" seem arbitrary, a place one happened to be born, a tack stabbed into a scrim of endless possibility.

Could I seek refuge in Hyde Park? Find my tribe in Portland? Become a carpenter's apprentice and learn to frame walls in Northern California? How would I know when I'd arrived?

Ancient explorers feared and yearned for the unmapped world. Their imaginations were two-dimensional; sea monsters and cannibals, perhaps, lurked beyond drawn borders. A ship might sail right off the edge. They didn't know yet that the earth was round, that every journey is more loop than line.

My trip lasted three long, brief weeks. After a dusty night in Bakersfield—the only night I spent in a motel, and the loneliest—I got my first adult glimpse of the Pacific Ocean, and I stopped the car and wept.

Then I phoned the woman I'd spent weeks leaning toward, tiptoeing from, then leaning toward again, the one who had curled on my futon until 5 a.m., unkissed, the night before I left D.C., while a Windham Hill cassette played over and over. The woman who said, once we were a chaste 150 miles apart, "You know, I think I fell in love with you a little bit."

Recently, while digging in my Philadelphia closet for a stepladder, I found the plastic bucket of maps from that journey. Who needs them anymore, with GPS loaded into every smart phone, disembodied voices telling us when to turn left? "Recalculating. Recalculating," my phone bleats, while I make a U-turn on the Admiral Wilson Boulevard.

My old maps didn't talk. At least, not out loud in vaguely British accents. But they showed me how to leave Point A and head to points unknown. They noted where the jagged mountains lay, and that it was possible to pass through them unscathed. There were big blue roads and smaller red roads, greeny swaths of national forest and beckoning splotches of blue (skinny dipping in Lake McConaughy, anyone?). They whispered that I was not the queen of bondage. They promised I would find my way.

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