Earlier this week, I found myself back in my old stomping grounds, reluctantly figuring out how to split the difference between what I want to do and what is the responsible thing to do. Among my visits with sympathetic pals and jonesing-for-the-holidays clients, I took an hour to quiz my accountant about how exactly to categorize this year's proceedings.
I am someone who never thought to have an accountant ... not just a tax preparer, mind you, but someone whom I will happily pay to allow me to fire questions at him. Questions like, "I'm pretty sure this refund doesn't count as income. Right?" And, "So, if I was in NYC for a week, do I claim meal expenses? ... What if I was driving through the northern half of the country?"
We've also established that we know people and places in common, so the business chatter was interrupted by discussions of medical issues, memorable folks, and events that have transpired since our last chat. Given that my Irish-American, round-cheeked, and grey-haired accountant is likely closer to my father's age than my own, I wasn't surprised when he burst out with the question I've heard so often recently.
"Did you ever fear for your safety?" He looked across the table at me, curiosity blazing. I felt as though I should invent a near-miss with a bear.
The less-than-exciting answer is: No.
Oh, I did sometimes think to myself, "Well, self, this wasn't the brightest choice." But those amounted to a handful:
- On a whim, taking a hard right out of Vancouver's Stanley Park and finding myself driving off a cliff onto the Lions Gate Bridge, on which I was very certain I was going to pass out and send myself and several other drivers plummeting to our deaths.
- Pulling off the highway in Tehachapi, California, to fill up the tank and hydrate, only to find a very sketchy gas station and convenience store, where a couple of unkempt gentlemen squatted in the shade outside the door, between me and my car. Nothing to do but wave and smile!
- Walking through the north end of Old Town Albuquerque in the late afternoon, when a muscle car pulled up and discharged a woman who went barreling into the shop on the corner while her two male companions leaned on the hood and stared at me as I walked past. I waved, smiled big, said hi, got a sneer and nod in return, and kept walking.
- Sitting on the couch of the Airbnb I rented in Nashville on my first night in the city, watching TV, I heard what sounded like gunshots, close enough that I considered hitting the floor and belly crawling away from the windows. Until a telltale hiss identified the neighbors' fireworks.
- Following the advice of my trusty Google Maps companion, I played mountain goat up the very steep and sheer side of a holler outside Hazard, Kentucky, chased by three locals with a total disregard for the 20-mile-per-hour speed limit and the cliff eating away at the white line.
Other than those few moments, easily diffused by a certain amount of deep breathing, friendliness, bravado, situational awareness, and humming "Dueling Banjos," I relied on the exact same common sense that told me I should hire an accountant when my finances started getting complicated.
What does that mean?
Well, I filled my gas tank whenever it showed it was half-empty, so I could fly right past the "Next Services 125 Miles" signs. I checked and rechecked routes ahead of time for obstacles and conveniences. I only stopped at large, clean, chain truck stops. And I scheduled my days to be sure I'd be locked in my hotel room, eating dinner, before full dark, which only failed twice on the whole trip, both times when I changed routes midway through the day. But neither the St. Louis suburbs nor Staunton, Virginia, were too worrisome.
My Airbnb bookings involved Google Street View, crime maps, former guest reviews, Superhost preference, non-primary residence preference (except Nashville), and a specific set of amenities.
Hotels? The criteria was pretty simple. National chains only. Interior hallways and a 24-hour desk (hard to find in parts of the country where exterior walkways and exterior doors to the room are common). And, because I was looking for good deals, 2.5 to 4 stars, with guest reviews averaging 8 or higher ... with free parking, free breakfast (almost always), and free WiFi (most often).
Of course, there were some regional awareness issues, too.
- Where is that wildfire going to be when I get to it?
- Am I in a tsunami evacuation zone?
- What are the prominent gang colors in Stockton, Fresno and Bakersfield ... and what am I wearing?
- What if there's an earthquake?
- Is anything at all visible in my car?
- Is my car locked ... really .... really?
- What if there's a tornado?
- How much glaring is just what these people look like and how much is directed at my New York license plates?
- How many folks here actually have Confederate flags on their vehicles?
- Where's that hurricane going?
- Is that black ice?
And there were plenty of places I'd love to have gone, but I didn't. Some based on time, but most based on awareness that I was alone, not properly geared up for various excursions, and female. Female who doesn't have much of a damsel-in-distress gene, but still, female. Not the best time to go wandering off into Yellowstone or exploring Crater Lake.
But the fact is, driving around the country is basically just a series of Sunday outings these days. Unless I'd been looking for trouble, I wasn't likely to find any.