Long Haul

A lot of writers secretly want to be pastry chefs.

I found this out when my husband, Nick, got his first baking job. When I told my writer friends about it, a higher-than-expected number of them sighed and said, “That’s my dream job, you know. Someday I’m going to move to a small town and make muffins.”

I think it’s because baking is so far removed from what we do — so tangible and real. When you write online for a living, of course it feels great to finish an essay or have an article go viral, but when you close your laptop at the end of the day, all your work disappears. How satisfying it seems to make something as simple and miraculous and real as a loaf of bread, to watch flour and yeast rising on their own time, impervious to the whims of the Facebook algorithm or the 24-hour news cycle.

A few years ago, I was working from home writing viral pop culture news for a few websites, and I got really into bread baking. Looking back, I realize these two things were almost certainly connected. I had found an old Italian bread book at a used book store and was testing new recipes almost every day, kneading and shaping dough in between urgent, quick-hit articles about Kardashians and viral videos and Kate Middleton’s hosiery choices.

I remember I was proofing a braided Sicilian loaf when I got an assignment for a fast turnaround piece about Kendall Jenner wearing a dress to a party. That was the whole assignment: I had 30 minutes to spin, “Kendall Jenner wears thing to place” into 500 entertaining and cogent words that sounded fresh and exciting and like, well, news.

As far as gigs go, this certainly wasn’t the worst, but it also just wasn’t a real story. I banged out a half-hearted first paragraph and walked into the kitchen to look at my bread rising on the sheet pan, waiting to be brushed with an egg wash and sprinkled with sesame seeds.

My article would live online forever, and the bread would be gone tomorrow, but the bread felt more lasting, somehow.

Except for that foray into baking, my own back-up career fantasies have always been of the peripatetic variety. “If I wasn’t a writer,” I tell everyone who asks (and many who don’t), “I would be a truck driver.”

Whenever things get hard, at my job or in my life, I retreat to the detailed and layered alternate timeline in my head where I’m a long-haul trucker.

My call name would be “Big Mama” and I’d be a popular fixture on the CB radio dial, known for doling out hard truths couched in folksy sayings to anyone driving close enough to hear them. At heartland truck stops, I would drink black coffee while doing Thursday crosswords and quoting Zac Brown Band lyrics to justify my own questionable choices.

My suitor in Sioux Falls would beg me to stay, to settle down and create a real life together. “Sorry honey,” I’d say, tapping ash off my cigarette and squinting toward the Interstate, “but I was born for leavin’.”

I know, logically and intellectually, that trucking is not a perfect or romantic career, that the reality of it is grueling and lonely and monotonous and nothing like my escapist fantasy.

But at the same time, being in motion makes everything feel like a fantasy. It blurs reality the way 60 miles an hour transforms fixed objects into impressionist paintings flashing across the passenger window.

The last road trip I took was a few weeks ago, to Oxford, Mississippi, for a solo writing retreat. I had booked an Airbnb in the basement of an art gallery outside of town, and my goal was to write 3,000 words in two days. About halfway through the drive, I lost cell service and the only song my phone would play was, inexplicably, Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up.”

So I listened to it for an hour and a half.

Anything repeated so earnestly for so long starts to seem profound, like a sacred chant or spiritual affirmation, and for nearly two hours on the winding back roads of rural Mississippi, Juvenile became my sage.

Girl, you looks good, won’t you back that azz up
You’se a fine motherfucker, won’t you back that azz up

I passed Dollar Generals and rusty gas stations, no other cars for miles. The sun sank beneath the crest of a hill and spilled hot pink light through the pines as I contemplated the phrase “dick bandit” again, and again, and again.

After you back it up, then stop
Then wha-wha-what, drop drop it like it’s hot

I imagined Juvenile’s voice coming through a crackly CB radio. I’d driven far enough away from everything to lose my playlist of choice. Maybe Juvenile was doling out some hard truths to anyone close enough to hear them. Maybe I was a chosen one.

Call me Big Daddy when you back that azz up
Girl, who is you playin wit? Back that azz up

(Or maybe not.)

By the time I rolled into Oxford Square, it was dark and mostly dead, but I found a gas station deli just outside of town that was still open. I ordered a sandwich and sat down at a big community table with my notebook to outline some article ideas. I was hungry and grateful to be there, but a part of me, as always, was a little sad to arrive at the destination. I wanted to keep driving.

When the server dropped off my food, he asked what brought me to town. I told him I was on a writing retreat.

“Do you write for a living?” he asked.

“I do.”

“Wow,” he said. “Living the dream.”