Finding the Ocean – Chapter 1

One year ago today, on September 1, 2017, I did something a little crazy. On a complete and utter whim, I took off on a 4,700 mile road trip to go find the ocean. Just me… and the dog. I woke up that morning with no plan or agenda, and by 3:00 PM that afternoon, I was on my way.

Over the next several weeks, I plan to take you along on this crazy, spontaneous road trip that ended up being a healing and soul-inspiring journey for me. I hope you’ll follow along…


It was the Friday of Labor Day weekend.

Exactly one year earlier, on that very same Friday, I had received a call from Patty Wetterling that stopped my heart and changed my world forever. “They found him,” she told me. “They found Jacob.”

The next day, the rest of the world found out that – after 27 years – Jacob Wetterling’s remains had been found. Danny Heinrich had led authorities to the place he had killed and then buried Jacob… in a field just outside Paynesville, Minnesota… about 15 miles from my house.

In the year that followed, I grappled to make sense of all that had happened. I tried to make my world right again, to move on, but I couldn’t. I was stuck and struggling, and the truth was, I was absolutely dreading the upcoming Labor Day weekend. I didn’t want to think about that horrible day in the courtroom… the day Danny Heinrich confessed to murdering Jacob. It was September 6, 2016, the Tuesday after Labor Day, and after an entire year, I still couldn’t think about it without crying.

I had just spoken to Patty a week earlier. I called to find out how she was doing, knowing that Labor Day weekend would be especially hard for her and her family. With strength and resolve in her voice, she told me she wasn’t going to let Danny Heinrich ruin Labor Day weekend for them, too. “October 22nd is hard enough,” she told me. “That’s all he gets. We’re keeping Labor Day weekend.”

I loved that, and it was exactly what I needed to hear. In that moment, I realized I wanted to keep my Labor Day weekend, too. I wanted to forget… to make new happy memories in place of the horrible ones I couldn’t shake from my head.

And so, with all that swirling through my head, I revisited this crazy idea I’d been contemplating ever since I’d turned 16 and gotten my driver’s license. I still remember sitting behind the wheel of my parents’ Buick LeSabre… staring off into the sunset and thinking to myself, “You know, if I just kept driving, I would eventually hit the ocean.” It was an intriguing thought, and something that had stuck with me all those years since.

I’d shared this wacky idea with my husband over the years, but for the past few months, I’d actually been considering it more and more seriously. What would it be like to just cast aside all my commitments, deadlines, and other people’s expectations? What would it be like to just get in the car, start driving, and see where I ended up? The thought was incredibly enticing.

So, on that Friday, I started piling a few clothes on the bed, thinking that if I just got a bag packed, that might prod me along toward fulfilling this dream one day. I was behind on laundry, so my pile included an odd assortment of things that I normally don’t wear. But, it was a start, and in reality, I knew I couldn’t just take off on a whim, anyway.

Or could I?

My pile kept getting a little bigger. If I went west, toward the mountains, it might get cold at night. I’d better bring some pullovers and a down vest. And my hiking shoes, just in case I decide to do any hiking. Oh, and my swimsuit.

Soon, my pile started to get so big that I decided to grab a small suitcase. When I pulled it out of my closet and opened it up, I noticed I had one of those hanging toiletry bags that I’d received as a freebie somewhere along the way. I opened it up and inspected it. That might come in handy if I need to stay at a rest area, I thought. So, I started filling the compartments with a toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, soap, shampoo, conditioner, etc.

It was about this time that my husband, Ross, came home from work. I walked out of the bedroom with a crazy smile on my face.

“What are you doing?” he asked me.

“Packing,” I told him. “I’m going to find the ocean.”

“Yeah, right.”

Although he’d been hearing me talk about this for years, I’d never gone so far as to actually pack a bag before.

I smiled. “No, really. What have we got going this weekend? I really think I’m going to do this.”

He sort of laughed/snorted at me and headed down the basement to shower.

I kept packing as I pondered some logistics. We didn’t have any extra money, so I’d need to figure out a way to do this for cheap. I decided I could stay at campgrounds and sleep in the car. That sounded scary. Maybe I could bring the dog.

“Zoey! Do you want to go on a road trip?”

My wildly exuberant black lab bounded over to me, as if she’d been sitting there the whole time, just waiting to be asked.

Ross came back upstairs and announced he needed to run to town.

“I’m really going to do this,” I said again. “I’m going to find the ocean, and I’m bringing Zoey.”

He looked at me then, eyebrows raised, and realized I was serious. “Which direction are you going?” he asked me.

“I don’t know. What do you think?”

I didn’t want to go toward Florida since I’d already made that road trip many times. Any other time, Texas probably would have been my first choice since I’d never been there, but the recent destruction from Hurricane Harvey had taken that option off the list.

“Why don’t you head east?” he suggested. “It’s the closest.”

Ross had been an over-the-road truck driver before I met him and knew every major interstate like the back of his hand.

I pondered east for a moment.

New Jersey shore? Too scary.

Martha’s Vineyard? Too fancy.

Hilton Head? Too expensive.

I couldn’t picture myself camping with my black lab at any of those locations.

“I think west,” I said. “Maybe San Francisco.”

I really hadn’t given this any thought until that very moment. I’d never been to San Francisco before. Maybe I could go through Salt Lake City and visit my niece, take a side trip through wine country, drive along the Pacific Coast Highway, then come back through the mountains on my way home. It sounded like heaven.

Ross started rattling off all the routes I could take to get to San Francisco, but I stopped him.

“I don’t want directions,” I said. “The whole point is to just drive until I hit the ocean. I’ll just point the car in a general southwest direction and I’ll figure it out as I go.”

He laughed, rolled his eyes, and asked a few more logistical questions. I’d forgotten all about the fact that he would be leaving for Montana the following Wednesday. His aunt had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, so he and his brother were driving their dad out to see her before she got much worse.

“That’s perfect!” I said. “I’ll meet you in Montana on my way home!”

He sort of laughed/snorted again. “How long do you plan to be gone?” he asked me. “That’s a long drive.”

“I’ll meet you in Montana on Thursday,” I said, not having any idea if that was even possible. “Now give me a kiss before you leave for town because I probably won’t be here when you get back.”

After Ross left, I marveled at this man I had married. What other husband would ask so few questions and pass such little judgment? After 23 years of marriage, he knew me well enough to know he couldn’t talk me out of something once I’d made up my mind. It was best just to let me do it and, if necessary, help me pick up the pieces in the aftermath.

I grabbed our soft-sided YETI cooler and a reusable grocery bag. I packed six yogurts, some hummus, carrots, celery, goose jerky, Wheat Thins, raisins, two jars of homemade salsa, a bag of Tostitos, a jar of peanut butter, and a frozen loaf of bread. At the last minute, I also grabbed two bags of frozen peaches and one bag of frozen strawberries, figuring they would help keep the cooler cold.

Next, I filled a two-gallon Ziploc bag full of Zoey’s dog food, along with seven Milk Bones. I grabbed my laptop, a case of bottled water from the garage, a pillow, and a blanket. Then, I loaded up the dog in the back of my Ford Explorer, and I hit the road.

I was really doing this. It was time to go find the ocean.

Next time… “A general southwest direction and a bird on a sign post”


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3 Comments

  1. How exciting! Looking forward to reading more about this Finding the Ocean adventure.

  2. Can’t wait for more! Love this idea!

  3. I’ve always wanted to do this too – pick a road and just drive to see where it leads me. I’m looking forward to hearing more about your adventure!

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