Photos and Text by Amanda Nichols
In the chair wrapped in an afghan, she is twenty-seven. She is fierce and fiery, unpredictable and driven. Her hair is wildly untamed. She has an apple loaf baking. Because she likes the way the oven floods the kitchen with heat. Because she has a kitchen now, a yellow one, and she’s learning to like to bake, to sit in the glow of the oven light and watch the thing rise. It’s her favorite color, yellow, and she took it as a good omen when she signed the lease one month ago. In the chair tonight, she is trying to sit comfortably with stillness – the biggest feat of her life – and she hates it. Inside somewhere in the depths of her gut there is the persistent urge to plan another trip – to Alaska maybe – and it jabs her every once in awhile like heartburn. She wants to turn to a clean notebook page, pull out her laptop and pens, write a plan for flights and hostels and ferries, to live her present life in the distant future. In another time she would have – without doubt – but tonight she sits with the afghan and the screaming silence and bakes an apple loaf. She hurts and she swells with it, but she sits. She is hopelessly fidgety, infested with anxiety, and I’m sitting here tonight thinking of all the things I both love and hate about her. Because she is mine, forever and always after all, and she’s all I’ve got.
I’d wanted the West. I’d wanted a car packed with enamelware and cast iron pans, a handful of hiking clothes, a loose plan that followed rivers and cerulean lakes and towns I’d only ever seen in movies. I’d wanted to smell like campfires, to stand in canyons and mountain trails and gas stations in the middle of America, to zig-zag around the western United States like a true vagabond. I’d been reading too much Thoreau and Into the Wild, and I hadn’t done much else the previous six months but plan and dream and talk about the trip that would be the Great American West.
And I’d done it, because I was good at dreaming up things and following through with them – sometimes too good. I’d spent the years since graduating college traversing around the country, living out of cars and tents in the Hawaiian jungle, weaving myself in and out of working and saving money in Pennsylvania. I’d rejected conformity, gone to college out of politeness to my parents, laughed at the nine-to-five, and spent most of my adult life living out of backpacks and rereading Kerouac. There was nothing I’d loved more than that kind of lost, on the road, mixtape feeling, and, after being sedentary for a year saving up, I’d chosen the West to be my next adventure. I bought a cheap tow-along camper in February, and by early June I was leaving Pennsylvania in the rear view mirror with my kind-of-plan and saying Tetons, and Missoula over and over again because I liked the way they rolled off my tongue.
I was Amanda. I was the map on the wall, the little one under the table and dreaming. I was the one contriving another grand plan some late Tuesday night in the dorm room, my straight-A, ever-so-practical college roommate totally convinced to buy a pickup with me and drive south after graduation. We’d sell turnips from the bed of the truck. We’d wear cutoffs and fall in love with country boys.
And I love her deeply. Because she is who I am at my core, and who I know I will always be, in some way or another. But it is not June anymore, and in my last hurrah on my great American road trip that lasted three months and eight days and spanned 16,000 miles, something in me broke. And while it is still fresh, even after being almost four months back, I am beginning to understand this one cold, undeniable truth: I am more comfortable with risk than stillness.
The West couldn’t quench my thirst. In fact, I’d been learning – and denying – over recent years that no grand trip could. I’d spent the six months before the trip planning, and when the trip finally came it felt old in a matter of two weeks. I found myself planning what my life would look like when I returned home. I was replacing the present with plans for the future. I was living in a small, artsy town in Pennsylvania that I loved all those months before I left, and yet I wasn’t really there.
The West was quieter than I’d imagined. Or perhaps it was the voices in my head that were louder. There was lots of lonely, idle time I didn’t factor in when I’d been dreaming up adventurous hikes and late nights in pubs with interesting locals. In the early mornings I would run along dirt campground roads backdropped by majestic mountain ranges, I could not peel that ugly truth from me that all the stuff I’d been running from in Pennsylvania had tucked itself neatly in the back of my head and come along. And one early morning when sleep left me too soon, I wondered aloud why I was so uncomfortable with idleness. What, after all, was I running from? And all it took was that: the speaking of the thing that was for so long hushed. The demons were out. I’d said them, and now they swarmed me.
My bile of the human spirit is my anxiety, and it was a nasty cocktail that haunted me over the years. We all have our demons, especially the overly sensitive artist types like myself, and anxiety is very much mine. I have a difficult time sitting still, keeping a lease, a relationship, a single moment that my hands and my mind are not fidgeting. I am constantly avoiding the stuff that comes up when we sit and we listen to the screaming quiet inside. I’d been fascinated with Buddhism, and yet I could not for the life of me practice their coveted mindfulness. And I’d become an expert at diverting all the ugliness I didn’t want to face. I’d used traveling as a distraction, and every time I’d returned from a trip not totally satisfied, I’d simply plan another one, and day by day, year by year, I’d played tag with my demons.
Until I couldn’t anymore. Until it broke, quickly and suddenly, until every fun house mirror was nothing but my own screaming face, and there was nowhere to look but at her.
And she was ugly. She was crawling with insecurity, starving for love and stability. She was terribly uncomfortable in her own skin. She was mean and carried bitterness toward a man that loved her deeply. She wanted to pluck the overly sensitive artist that was her soul and tie it to a chair, fleeing so she could live without it for a time, to go about her day like the disgustingly happy women who have Facebook-timeline lives, completely content with a nine-to-five job, a husband, a once-a-year vacation to the Jersey Shore. She wanted to abandon herself, to live like the people with the put-together lives that don’t crave or yearn or ache or fall madly apart in the middle of Montana.
She was ugly, and as much as I didn’t want to look, she was everywhere.
I came home. I tried to unpack my summer in a way that sounded lovely, but something big had happened to me out there in the West, and there was no grace or loveliness about it. I knew well that the mountains and the great, carving roads were mere selfless backdrops to my own self-realizations, and for the first time in my entire life I had looked my demons in the eyes. Maybe I was mature enough to see them now; maybe I was too exhausted to crane my neck in avoidance one more time, or, maybe they’d just finally caught up with me. Either way, they had arrived, and, after squirming and screaming and loathing the inevitable, I opened my door in defeat and for the very first time I let them in.
Please, I’d said, exhausted, sit. Let me look at you, ugly thing. Let me hold your hands and show you compassion and love and see what is so terrifying about you that I cannot sit idly, cannot enjoy a summer’s road trip without wanting to escape from my own skin.
I found a tiny apartment in that small, artsy town in Pennsylvania that I love. It has huge built-in shelves, deep windowsills, and a yellow kitchen. And I am here determined to live where my feet are. Now that the hype of the summer’s travels are over and the beautiful fuss we make of October has passed I am left with little lesser known November, stripped and unapologetically barren. In this month, the layers are peeled back to reveal the bones of what’s been there all along but we like to cover up. And in the month I usually lament over, I am trying to listen to myself and love her as I would a dear friend. Because there is beauty in stillness, in quiet, empty moments. And I’m trying very hard to not fill them up anymore. She was so ugly to me when I finally faced her back in the Montana morning, but I know with patience and with forgiveness I will someday find beauty, and with it, hopefully love.
I bake. I journal. I bought a calligraphy pen because I’ve wanted one since I was a little girl. Because I am learning to listen to the artist in me, because it is November and my world is finally quiet enough that I can hear myself. And while most of it stings, some of it is beautiful, and all of it is necessary.
Alaska can wait. I am on another adventure now, the most terrifying kind of all. And there is madness in these walls, and there are nights I want to disappear into the darkness, and there are so many moments I long to be the conformist with the nine-to-five who doesn’t yearn or ache or feel anything too deeply, but I know I am inevitably Amanda, the invincible, fidgeting dreamer. Because someday when I’m on that Alaska adventure I want to breathe the air deeply and see the mountains and the mountains alone, not the demons crawling around inside of me. I deserve that. Pain is better than numbness, and where my feet are placed today is better than where they might be tomorrow. And I am committed to learning this in the little yellow apartment because she is mine, forever and always, after all, and she’s all I’ve got.