Jessie carefully folded her favorite bell-bottom jeans – the raggedy ones that dragged in the dirt around her bare feet. They were worn out enough to be soft and comfortable. She’d sewn a peace symbol patch on one threadbare knee; a flower patch on the other.
She was packing all her bell-bottoms, even though space in her Bug convertible was limited. Among them were second hand store treasures and flea market masterpieces: denim jeans hand-embroidered with flowers; fitted hip huggers with pleated bell-bottom inserts and a colorful, fringed scarf belt; and a psychedelic, wide-legged swirl of lavender and lime paisley. Jess picked up the folded pants and stuffed them into a pillowcase. There. That would fit in the car’s miniscule front trunk.
It would have been more sensible to get a hippie bus she could sleep in, since the plan was to drive all over the United States and maybe Canada, too. But Jessie had to have a Beetle convertible. Nothing else would do. She had this thing about being able to take the top down. It was about sun, fresh air, smells, and feeling the places she drove through. She’d found her 1965 Bug convertible in Chicago that summer, plunked down five hundred bucks for it, and was on her way.
The bell-bottoms, the car – none of this was practical.
She didn’t care.
That was Jessie for you.
“Toledo, next exit.” Jessie Morgan steered the convertible onto the southbound exit ramp. In the thick of Detroit’s dreary Tuesday morning rush hour, hers was the lone car on the exit – a sunny, mustard-yellow speck arcing up and away from the gray river of V-8 sedans streaming along the Edsel Ford Expressway toward the city’s grimy factories.
The Stampeders’ “Sweet City Woman” came on the radio, filling the Beetle with banjo strumming. Jess turned it up and sang along, elated. A perfect soundtrack, she thought, drumming on the steering wheel in time to the banjo.
Robert Frost called this the road less traveled.
A butterfly breaking out of its cocoon and taking wing, twenty-year-old Jessie was headed for Lexington, Kentucky. It was September and too chilly to drive with the top down. Later for that. Excited to be leaving the washed-out factory metropolis where she’d grown up, she bounced along in her scruffy bell-bottom jeans. Detroit was an ashen brute where grim motorists drove alone in oversized land barges to mind-numbing assembly line jobs. It was the “Murder City.” Since the 1967 riot, Motown had been caught in a downward spiral of rage, frustration, and drugs.
For Jessie, Detroit had always been a foul mess. Better things were happening elsewhere and she couldn’t wait to experience them. It was fall 1971, a time of sex, drugs, rock and roll, hippies, birth control pills, students protesting the Vietnam War, back-to-the-earth ecology, and anti-capitalism. National Guardsmen had shot anti-war demonstrators at universities. Anti-establishment songs filled the air waves and young people were reading about spiritual enlightenment. Jess had packed Siddhartha and The Little Prince in one of her suitcases. Some called the hippie movement an intellectual renaissance. Others felt it was the end of the world.
As she drove toward Ohio, Jess had to admit that under her excitement she felt strange and scared. This was the first September in fifteen years she wasn’t going back to school.
She was finally breaking free.
In their dorm rooms, Jess and her college girlfriends had come up with the idea of traveling around the country working seasonal jobs. They would hit the road and have a blast, they said. During her boring sophomore year, Jess had decided to drop out. She had no idea what to major in and was sick of the pressure. She agreed with Timothy Leary: It was time to drop out, tune in, and turn on.
But Jessie’s friends had backed out. One couldn’t go because of her boyfriend. Another said her father would disown her if she went.
It was disappointing, embittering, to embark on this adventure alone. It wouldn’t be the same, travelling by herself. Thinking about her flaky girlfriends made her itch. She rubbed her olive green eyes with one fist and flipped her dark hair behind her shoulder.
Jess had decided that she’d rather hit the road alone than sit around wishing she’d gone. Determined to live life on her own terms, she was hell-bent on getting out there and experiencing things. Even scary things. She would push through her damned fears, take risks.
Maybe that was the definition of courage.
Honestly, she felt there was no choice. Jessie needed to find out who the hell she was. She would strip away everything familiar and see what was left.
She’d be free, the opposite of her inhibited mother and verbally abusive father. Of course her folks weren’t all bad. Dad was a good provider. An avid booklover, sometimes the thick, heavy volumes he loved fell on his face when he tried to read in bed at night. Mom was always there with good, homemade food. It must have been exhausting, cooking and keeping house for a big family.
Jess glanced at her rearview mirror. The leaden Detroit skyline behind her was punctuated with factory smokestacks spewing columns of curly steam into the gray air. Soon she’d be far away from all of it: her Irish Catholic family; her way-too-strict dad; her straight life.
Jessie knew she had a lot to learn, a long way to go. She tended toward blinding anger – free-floating wrath. It was as if she’d been born pissed off. Sometimes she suffered from Classical Migraine Syndrome attacks that made her horribly sick. When she was nine she’d had the crippling migraines once a week. No one had taken her to a doctor.
These days she was often caught up in irritable bitchiness. In short, she was too much like Dad. Dad! The last person she wanted to be like.
But there it was.
Jess flipped her hair back again and reached for a cigarette. She would change, or die trying. Actually, she’d already made changes: At Western Michigan University, she’d quit wearing makeup or shaving her legs or wearing a bra. It took a while to get used to looking at her own jade, almond-shaped eyes – like Mom’s – in the mirror without the heavy black eyeliner she’d become addicted to in high school. All in all, she felt good about her looks, except for her nose. Jess had her dad’s Irish pug nose.
It was inner change she craved. Jess wanted to re-create herself, getting rid of the parts she didn’t like – the angry, unkind, uptight parts. Out from under the pressures of school and home and church, she hoped to grow into her whole self. She’d expand her mind and learn things only life could teach, peeling away the layers of crap. Jess would become a better person – more open-minded, loving, and calm.
Oh, to be calm.
She’d tried living at home for the summer, resuming the same job as last year – as a Good Humor ice cream girl. As summer jobs went, it was a good one that paid well. But when she got out on her route, she’d felt as if she’d been driving around that suburban neighborhood all year. Meanwhile, Dad had driven her nuts at home.
So she’d run away.
Mom was ironing as Jess explained why she was leaving. Hell, Mom understood better than anyone how difficult it was to live with Dad. Then Jess had caught a Greyhound back to her college town, Kalamazoo, where she had a few connections. Her former boss from the dorm cafeteria had introduced her to the nearby Lake Michigan shore and a cool resort town called Saugatuck. He’d helped her get her first waitressing job there. Jessie had rented a room from a family and gone to work.
Saugatuck. An old-fashioned village on the Kalamazoo River, it sat amidst the rolling sand dunes along Lake Michigan. Some called it the “Art Coast of Michigan” because of the many galleries and studios. The hand-cranked Saugatuck Chain Ferry took people across the river, where they could walk to Oval Beach or climb Mount Baldhead.
Jessie loved Oval Beach. It was rated one of America's Top Ten great beaches. When Jessie’s sisters Jen and Janet had visited, she’d proudly shown it off. They’d ridden horses down the beach, swam and floated in Lake Michigan, and taken in the view from Mount Baldhead.
Most of her Saugatuck summer, though, Jess had worked. On breakfast shift at the Coral Gables, she’d learned that her customers were happy if she kept the coffee coming. Trying to save money for her first car, she’d picked up odd jobs in addition to holding down her full time one. She’d had her heart set on a Bug convertible. When Jessie had saved enough, she took a bus to Chicago and found her Bug convertible at a suburban car lot. Crazily, she’d never driven a stick shift before. The salesman taught her how, right there in the car lot.
Then she was on her own, in the middle of rush hour – on Chicago’s infamous Dan Ryan Expressway. Not only was Jess unfamiliar with driving a stick shift, she didn’t have the convertible top down correctly. It sat too high, blocking her view of anything behind her. Then she’d had to figure out which lane to get in for the toll booths.
Jessie was so freaked out, the toll booth guy had asked her if she was OK.
“Not really,” she’d replied.
He’d encouraged her to pull over and wait by the booth until the traffic eased up. What a nice guy. She’d rested there, sipping on some coffee he’d given her.
Later, enjoying the sunset as she drove through spacious countryside, Jess had gotten into the car’s rhythm. Watching a round, amber moon come up over misty fields, inhaling the wet-dirt scents of farms and woods, she’d fallen in love with the little convertible. She’d left the top down, feeling cool pockets of night air on her skin as she made her way back to Saugatuck.
Jess had gotten attached to the beach town. Maybe someday she’d live permanently near the Lake Michigan beaches with their soft sand that squeaked when you walked on it. She could see herself eventually settling down close to the towering, wind-whipped dunes and clear water.
Her favorite way to relax in Saugatuck was bobbing in Lake Michigan on an inner tube, riding the waves as she gazed at the honey-colored dunes. Then she’d stretched out on the silky, hot sand. A grove of birch trees appeared to grow out of the sand on the sheltered side of the tallest dune. That was the dune she and her sister Jen had perched on, drinking wine and watching an ominous thunderstorm march across Lake Michigan toward them. Then they’d run for the shelter of the car.
She glanced in the rearview mirror again. Now the flat terrain was the same behind her as it was in front. Trees and bushes dotted the area alongside the expressway. It took a while to get out of Detroit’s downriver suburbs. Exit signs listed Romulus, Wyandotte, Flat Rock. She’d take the expressway through Toledo and then find a smaller highway south from there. The traffic was thinning as the day warmed.
Jess hoped she’d find a decent temporary job in Kentucky. James, her oldest brother, was in graduate school at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Having him near would give her a safety net of sorts. She saw Kentucky as a stepping stone, plus autumn in Bluegrass Country was bound to be interesting.
From there, she’d figure out where to go next. Most likely it would be south, for a warm winter. That sounded good.