I have always enjoyed visiting new places and, more or less, living life by the seat of my pants, but I’m happy to to stop, breathe and take in the sights… for once.
I drove through Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California last month, enroute to Washington after three years in Baton Rouge.
Sometimes when I’m driving, I can feel my heartbeat coming through my t shirt. It is soft and rhythmic. The feeling is unsettling. My own mortality is gently beating under a thin piece of cloth, wrapped in a couple layers of flesh, cruising across state lines at 80 mph as semi trucks and other death mobiles weave in and out of traffic for 3,000 miles.
Rubato is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “a fluctuation of tempo within a musical phrase often against a rhythmically steady accompaniment,” like a heart palpitation. A quick search online describes the “unsettling” feeling of one’s own heart as rubatosis.
Another common term is “cardiophobia,” which is less poetic sounding.
Normally, the brain is able to filter out the beating. The heartbeat is always there, but our brains put the sensory emphasis on external forces, according to this article. (There’s much more written about this topic that goes into much more detail, such as this piece of light reading.)
This feeling has shadowed me for the last year and a half, at work, at home, on the road, during the weekends, everywhere. When the sensation wasn’t apparent, the fear of it lurked in the back of my mind.
I tried to diagnosis the cause. I have managed regular anxiety attacks since college, but my move to Louisiana precipitated an onslaught of fear. I don’t know why. I love Louisiana and I loved my life while I was there. But it felt like it was taking years of my life away.
So I’m starting over…
I left in early December after working for three years at a weekly newspaper. I worked in a small community on the West Side of the Mississippi River, just a few-minutes drive across the Interstate 10 bridge from Baton Rouge. The population wasn’t more than 30,000 people. Baton Rouge isn’t a big town, but it was a metropolis compared to the towns where I worked, like Port Allen and Brusly, Louisiana.
I was reluctant to take the job at first. It seemed like small fries, and it was. But my late-night drives through the swathes of sugarcane fields to and from town hall meetings and high school sports games gave me a sense of belonging.
Though I was a transplant and an outsider to the community, I had my place in it.
I had more than a few fleeting thoughts of settling down – marrying, having kids – while driving past some of the nice (and reasonably affordable) suburban neighborhoods. But I knew it wasn’t natural. Settling felt like quitting, and the idea ultimately left a bad taste in my mouth.
I do want to settle. Just not yet.
I needed to figure it out. I needed to listen to what my heart was telling me.
I’m not saying that my bodily functions dictated my decision to leave a secure job and my girlfriend. I had been job hunting for more than a year and I wanted to find something closer to home. I also missed my friends and family. I missed the cold, rainy weather. I missed the mountains and the Puget Sound.
I was aware that the fear and anxiety that haunted me wouldn’t simply remain in Louisiana. But staying there also felt wrong.
I managed to squeeze most of my worldly possessions into my truck. I flew a friend down to make the trip back with me. I wanted the company and I also wanted someone to make sure I didn’t have an anxiety attack and drive off the side of a mountain.
Our plans were tentative: Drive sober, stop frequently, keep a loose timeframe. Generally, we were to drive hard and fast through the Southwest until we reached California, then take our time up the Pacific Coast Highway. The only obstacle in our way was a wildfire burning up the area north of Los Angeles.
I dreaded the thought of breaking down in the Southwest. Fortunately, it was a straight shot and we sped through without issue. West Texas, for all of its emptiness, was beautiful. We were pulled over once by a Texas Highway Patrol officer for driving 5 over (it was 80 mph). We stayed in a small town called Sonora the first night. We hoped to make it to at least Yuma, Arizona, the next day (right along the California border) but instead stayed in Tucson. We drank Coronas at the Lodge on the Desert, a pueblo-themed hotel, until 3 a.m., woke up hungover – three hours behind schedule – and made our way to Los Angeles.
Things changed when we got to California. Being back on the West Coast felt like a burden was lifted from my shoulders. I can’t explain why. I felt safer.
The third day we woke up in a hotel near Huntington Beach and walked the pier in the morning. It was good to see the Pacific again. We planned to take California slow; to drive up the coast and across the hills of Wine Country.
We drove to Ventura, which was covered in a haze of smoke from the wildfire. All the traffic was headed south, under mandatory evacuation orders. My car, and a handful of emergency vehicles, seemed to be the only ones traveling north. My friend, Jason, found this exciting. I didn’t. We stopped for directions and advice at the tourism office in Ventura. The hills just behind City Hall were scorched black. We were given masks. Boy Scouts packed up a delivery truck full of supplies and aid for evacuees. Helicopters buzzed overhead.
We cancelled our slow, peaceful drive up the coast and instead blitzed it for 15 hours up Interstate 5, all the way to Northern California, where I planned to stay with family. We arrived in the misty town of Arcata at about 2 a.m. It is one of my favorite towns I’ve ever been in. We cooled off for an extra day in Arcata and made for Washington on day six.
America is huge.
It amazes me that I can drive for five days, from Baton Rouge, to Los Angeles, to Seattle, more than 3,000 miles, and every person that I meet identifies as an American, in their hearts and minds. The same can’t be said for most regions of the same size.
I’ve been asked lately where I want to travel, and I have a really hard time answering that question.