Your Steps Alone

In the airport, waiting for another delayed flight, and Jerry Garcia is singing in my earbuds. When you’re waiting for a miracle. I find myself reflecting on the things we wait for, and the roads we take.

About thirty years ago I took my college degree, two suitcases and a back pack full of journals and got on a plane from Newark to San Francisco.  My best friends took me to the airport and waved goodbye at the curb, after sharing the end of a joint for courage. I curled up in a window seat, crying for approximately five of the six hours, in sheer panic. I had turned down my law school acceptances at the last minute. I had no job or clear path and no discernible reason to leave on that day, August 8, 1986. Just an internal divining rod that seemed to point as far West as the country would allow.  I had visited San Francisco once. I’d read Kerouac’s On the Road, tasted Napa Cabernets and hugged a real Redwood tree not far from where the Grateful Dead lived. (!!)

Neither New Jersey’s pastoral green fields, nor their gritty cities could satisfy me any longer. My sister waited for me on the other side of the country in a spiffy new red VW cabriole. She was prepared to share her apartment, friends and adventurous spirit.


“It’s just for a year,” I told my parents and friends. Just a year, I told myself on the plane. You’ll go home again.

I didn’t know I’d meet my husband the night I arrived in San Francisco, my face still tear soaked. That the fog rolling in and out across the water would become the blanket of my days; that I’d raise small fine humans who grew up to the rhythm of the Bay; that my parents would follow me and finish their lives watching the sunset over this golden city; that my childhood friend would join me for a weekend and never leave. That we would all go on to play trivia together on Tuesdays nights. . . That I would become a true Californian, slowly shedding ski jackets for flip-flops.

Had I known what I was embarking on – a whole life – would it have been easier or harder to get on that flight?

Now my oldest son prepares to take the reverse geographical leap, heading off to explore life in Manhattan. He might be back in six months, clear that it’s not for him.  It’s New York – loud, expensive, intense and winter is. .. well, winter. Or he might dig into New York the way I did with San Francisco. He’ll eat the cannolis of my childhood, build campfires in the Catskills, fight for a spot on a sweltering NJ beach day and run downtown for half-price tickets to the theater. With any luck, he’ll jump on one of those stages himself.  I’ll enjoy the ride as his observer for as long as he chooses to stay, visiting as much as possible.

When I arrive back East, the same friends that took me to the airport years ago will be waiting, ready to share a glass of wine and continue our endless conversation. They always are. Three thousand miles and thirty years hasn’t made a dent in our closeness.  They will be my son’s New York family.

I went with these friends to see Jerry Garcia perform a few days before I left New Jersey. We sat on the grass on a balmy August evening, singing along, feeling the bittersweet moments before parting, like sweet fruit about to spoil. Someone slipped a cassette tape into my hand for the trip across the country, a live Jerry tape. A passport of sorts.

On the plane ride, Jerry crooned and I cried as the tape played over and over.  Together we travelled to my new life.

There is a road, no simple highway

Between the dawn and the dark of night.

And if you go no one may follow

That path is for your steps alone.

Ripple in the water

When there is no pebble tossed

Nor wind to blow.

You who choose to lead must follow

But if you fall you fall alone.

If you should stand, then who will guide you?

If I knew the way, I would take you home.