IN THE LAST limping year of my first marriage, I joined The Caretaker Gazette. Escape lay before me. I could pore over the listings, imagining myself going somewhere, anywhere across the world. There was a cattle station in the middle of Australia — they didn’t need a house-sitter so much as a field hand who would accept payment in room, board, and adventure. There was a cliff-side home in Vanuatu that described diving from the back yard into the blue ocean, the friendly locals, the lack of any sort of transportation except bicycles and crappy motorcycles. I sent a few emails, hoping a positive response would be that which galvanized me — this time — into finally leaving for good.
Several years before the Caretaker Gazette, I had gone to Burning Man for the first time. In 2004, it was a white, wide expanse of salt flat, with a strange and bustling city plopped in the middle of it, and there were fewer articles about celebrities in dust storms. I was supposed to go with a friend, who was also my husband’s best friend (although in retrospect, it seems obvious that she was in love with him), but she got pregnant at the last minute and didn’t want to risk hauling a high-risk pregnancy to the middle of the Nevada desert, so I went alone.
Burning Man changed my life. My marriage had completely deadened me; I spent most of my time feeling miserable, but just assumed this was how marriage was supposed to be. Clearly, you just loved someone and stayed with them forever, no matter how unhappy you were. The trip to Black Rock made me realize there really was more in the world than what I was settling for: There was art, there were other people that saw lightness in the world instead of nonstop emotionless logic, there were people who listened to me and let me speak. Still, the idea of leaving what was already a 5-year-old marriage, with a man that I genuinely did love most of the time, felt insane and terrifying.
I had never been an adult without my husband — we got married when I was nineteen, and I moved directly out of my mother’s house in with him. I had never paid a bill or done a single adult chore that wasn’t tied up in our marriage. He was thirteen years older than me and hated to travel, while I had been going on trips since I was born. We negotiated that I could travel twice a year without him. Unfortunately, part of the deal was that he was resentful and sulky no matter where I went or how long I stayed.
Two years after my first trip to Burning Man, I filled out an application for low-income tickets to the event. They provided a certain number of low-cost tickets for anyone who could prove genuine financial hardship. We were encouraged to be honest and creative in our application. I sent a book of photos I had taken the previous year, with an essay that contained the phrase: “Please help me get to Burning Man so I can find a way to leave my husband.” They gave me the ticket.
Another trip into the blinding desert and I felt my heart loosen up a little bit more. When I got back, I wrote and obsessively read books about women traveling alone: Dervla Murphy, Rita Golden Gelman, even Eat Pray Love. I wrote a letter to Elizabeth Gilbert telling her that I related to what she described of her first marriage and how hard it was to leave when you were the only one who felt like something was wrong. She wrote me back. “Oh no, not you too!” I read stories of breaking away, of falling off mountains, of cycling through Afghanistan, always, always, alone…but I had no idea how to be alone.
I joined the Caretaker’s Gazette, and read the ads gingerly. I touched them and flitted away, like touching a sore tooth, too scared to go back and see what possibilities they might raise. I told my husband I wanted to leave, but I had nowhere to go. He begged me to stay. I stayed. Everything was the same.
One night, we were sitting on the couch watching TV, and suddenly, words leaked out of my mouth without my knowing they were coming. “I want a divorce.” Later, I told people that we broke up by accident because it wasn’t planned. It had just happened — although I had been thinking of nothing else for years.
I found an apartment — my first — and moved out, then six months later, I got in my car and started to drive, crisscrossing the country from Chicago to Oklahoma City to Amarillo, Texas. Everywhere I went, I tried on the freedom of this new life and took notes: The library in Slab City was currently unoccupied, and if you lived there, you could get your water from the gas station in Niland. You could sleep in your car behind the truck stop chapel outside Albuquerque and nobody would see you from the road. There was a small restaurant hiring at the edge of Cape Breton Highlands park, and they didn’t require experience. I drove through the flatlands of Kansas at 90 miles per hour, cursing the boredom, and just when I thought I couldn’t take another minute, saw the Rocky Mountains of Colorado rearing up in the distance. I had to buy snow chains to cross Donner Pass and repaired a tire in Vail. I traveled and traveled, and with every click on the odometer, I left my old life.
There were suddenly so many options, so many lives that I could try, that I stumbled over myself to find and hold them. The fear that had weighed down my shoulders for so many years was finally gone. I felt as light as a bird. I could fly anywhere that I could find.