I scribble the directions on a sheet of lined paper. Most of the turns I know, since I regularly drive the first two-thirds of the way to the store.
Nevertheless, I’m nervous. If I’m driving some place new, I usually take my husband Richard along. He’s gone today, so I’m making the drive alone.
Down Sonoma Avenue, then up Yulupa, is easy. I make the left turn onto Hoen. No big deal. After that, I turn on Newanga, winding uphill past tall old trees and homes with sprawling lawns.
I enter the park and slow down. At the guard station, I flash the yellow pass we keep in Richard’s car.
That’s when I panic, not sure where to go. I need to keep moving, as cars are idling behind me. So, I turn right. I see that I’m on my way to the parking lot.
When I step out of the car, I stand for a moment and look around. It’s only February, yet the sun feels warm, not a cloud floating in the sky. I silently congratulate myself, heft the olive-green daypack on my back and start to walk.
The trail is gravel, wide enough for two cars. To my left, Spring Creek dampens a tumble of gray rock. After a month and a half without rain, the creek runs low. Ancient gnarled oaks drip pale green moss. I’m fighting the urge to shout, I’ve made it here by myself.
Every time I glance across the creek at the rolling hills, chartreuse from the soaking rains that came down in December, I get the urge to smile. At this stage of my life, when most women are playing with their grandchildren, I am finally growing up. Keeping me imprisoned in a helpless pre-adolescence was a shameful truth. I didn’t know how to drive.
The youngest daughter of a depressed alcoholic mother and a generally absent dad, I entered marriage at the age of forty-nine equipped with what psychologists call learned helplessness. I didn’t know a thing about money. I barely cooked. I’d hardly ever lived alone. And I couldn’t drive.
Gradually, I absorbed pieces of my husband’s knowledge about how to live as an adult. Some days, I stand outside myself, amazed that I’m finally growing up.
It’s been five years since my husband taught me to drive. Even now when I drive some place new, I replay the ride in my mind, as if I need to relive it to believe I was the driver.
Before I could drive, and even now when my driving remains a chore for which I must grit my teeth, walking has meant freedom. A single woman most of my adult life, I dreaded weekends, especially Sundays, which felt like yawning envelopes of time whose purpose was to remind me I was lonely. Anyone who doesn’t drive knows that Sunday is a desert when it comes to public transportation. So on Sunday, I walked.
In San Francisco where I lived for a very long time, I climbed, nearly ninety-degree hills found in every neighborhood. Days when the fog burned off, I would enjoy views of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. I can’t remember what went through my mind on those walks but I imagine I made lots of plans that would one day unfold and banish the loneliness and depression.
It didn’t occur to me on those lonely Sundays that I actually enjoyed the solitude. That bulb wouldn’t go off until I met my husband. Once I had a guy I liked – and soon loved – who had all the time in the world to spend with me, I found out. Not only did I like being alone, I needed that alone time.
There was one small hitch, though, and here’s where my mother’s influence again entered my life. How to be alone and separate and be together and separate were two more things my mother failed to pass on. Instead, she taught me if I let a person into my life, that person would devour me. And the moment I tried to separate, I would feel abandoned and alone.
I am happy to report that my husband and I are the best of chums, even after two decades of constant companionship. Early in our relationship, I passed on my passion for walking and hiking to him. I also confess that I have relied on him too much, to drive me here and there and fill empty hours with friendship and conversation.
Today he is spending time with his younger brother. So I am left with the old feelings of abandonment and loneliness threatening to drag me down.
But I promised myself today would be different. I promised myself I would drive to a place I only visit with my husband. And here I am, crossing a bridge over Spring Creek and beginning to hike on the other side.
A few minutes later, the wide gravel road narrows and becomes a mud and rock-strewn path. The open sky disappears, as massive Redwood trees shade the trail. I set one foot down in front of the other, stifling a smile.
Threads of sunlight filter through the trees, dappling the path, and lighting quiet pools below, coloring them aquamarine. Other than the quiet crunch my fat red walking shoes make stepping on small rocks, the silence is only broken by a jay’s occasional cry.
After years of powering myself along on trails, this is the first time I’ve hiked alone. I have backpacked in the Virginia hills outside Washington, D.C., and Big Bend National Park in Southwest Texas. I once hiked down the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon and straight back up. I have been on spectacular day hikes in national parks, walking across steaming lava on the Big Island of Hawaii, as well as making my way up to where glaciers start on Washington’s Mount Rainier. If I were to list my happiest times, nearly every one would have been hiking a remote trail.
I am not in a national park today, but in a county park, on the southern border of the small city where I live, surrounded by rolling hills and lush valleys known for producing world-class wines. Nevertheless, the woods and solitude and the gummy soil that clings to the soles of my walking shoes make me feel as if I’ve traveled a long distance from home. And then I realize that I have. For more than the sadness my mother passed down to me, she gave me fear. She taught me not to try anything new, because I would only fail.
Even now as I breathe in the cool fresh air and congratulate myself that I’ve brought myself here, I worry that I’m not safe, a woman hiking alone. A young man hiking in this park three weeks ago disappeared. Flyers with his picture are posted on information boards. I’ve hiked long enough to know the cardinal rule: do not ever hike alone.
But I continue on, telling myself only a bit further. This park is safe, I think. Once in a while, a female jogger or hiker passes me alone.
I take myself up to where the trail levels out and decide it’s best to turn around. On the way back, I pay fierce attention to where I place my feet, not wanting to twist an ankle on one of the slick rocks.
Before long, I’m back on the wide gravel trail in the sun. I haven’t tripped or fallen. I haven’t been mugged.
The sun is high in the sky. I think how easy it would have been to let my fear take over and force me to stay home.
On the drive back, I turn into a shopping center close to my house. Ever since moving to this town seven months ago, I’ve put off buying a full-length mirror. I’ve been avoiding the mirror, I understand now.
Without a long enough mirror, I’m forced to ask my husband’s opinion as I try on shoes before we go out. For some reason, I think I’m ready to see myself now.
I study my reflection, all the way down to my red suede-covered toes. The old mirror I tossed into the Goodwill pile before moving flattered me into believing I was thinner than I was. Seeing a more true reflection, part of me wishes I’d hung onto my old fantasy mirror.
But then I recall how I used to starve myself when I was young. My appearance did nothing to make me like myself or feel loved.
It’s taken a long time, but I am finally starting to accept even my weakest and most immature parts. I manage to fit the long mirror into the back seat of my compact car, start the car and drive myself back home.
Patty Somlo’s books include The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil), Finalist in the International Book, Best Book, and National Indie Excellence Awards; Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), Honorable Mention in the Reader Views Literary Awards; and the forthcoming Hairway to Heaven Stories ( Cherry Castle Publishing). She won Honorable Mention for Fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest, received nominations for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays. She lives in Santa Rosa, California. www.pattysomlo.com or on Twitter at @PattySomlo.