How a Literary Road Trip Helped Me Cope with Infertility
In 1960, John Steinbeck set out on a cross-country adventure with his standard poodle, Charley. More than half a century later, writer Kristin Wong did the same thing with her dog—and learned an unexpected lesson about the pain of uncertainty.
On an early autumn morning in 2019, the sun peeked over the mountains as I drove into Yosemite National Park. In the seat next to me was a copy of Travels with Charley: In Search of America, a travelogue by John Steinbeck published in 1962, in which he drove around the country with his standard poodle, Charley. My own dog, Murphy, was in the back seat. She was not a poodle. She was mostly a pile of shaggy, brown muppet fur. “What do you think?” I rolled down the window, and she stuck her nose in the air. The smell of crisp, damp sequoias filled the car. “The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always,” Steinbeck wrote. He called these trees “ambassadors from another time.”
I was pregnant. It was early, I had only missed one period, but I was excited. I had been trying for over a year. For so long, my husband and I swung between hope and disappointment. We were on the verge of giving up. But that month, we saw the faintest hint of a second line on a test strip. Our lives were about to change. I wanted to pull my own Travels with Charley and take Murphy on a road trip through the Pacific Northwest, from Los Angeles to an artist’s conference in Portland. The destination was just an excuse for an adventure. “It could be my last chance to do something like this,” I told my husband before we left.
During the drive, I wondered what kind of mom I would be. Would I be a helicopter mom? Would I be a dorky mom? Would I make dumb jokes, sing loudly, and embarrass my kid? I imagined one in the back seat: A chubby little face with wide, dark eyes. Plump, messy hands with outstretched fingers, grabbing at nothing and everything.
We emerged from Wawona Tunnel into the park, El Capitan in front of us—a view so stunning it seemed fake, like a desktop background. I found the nearest parking spot. “Ready?” I asked Murphy, and we dashed onto a shady trail. I took off my sunglasses to admire the redwoods. Ambassadors from another time. Maybe more than a travelogue, the book was a glimpse back to 1960s America. In one scene, Steinbeck meets a farmer and they talk about the Nixon-Kennedy election. In another, he notices the changing technological landscape, from vending machines to mobile homes, and wonders if it will make us more prone to instant gratification. He wrote about grassroots protests, divided politics, racial inequality—the book felt timeless, like a grandfather sharing advice. “We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us,” Steinbeck wrote. I loved that idea. An adventure requires you to surrender to the journey. Walking through the forest, I meditated on that and wondered, What would it be like to take that journey with my kid? I would teach them about trees. I would point out the pine cones. They would be too mesmerized by the birds to notice.
“Ow,” I said out loud. My stomach twisted, as if dull knives were pressing against my insides. It’s probably nothing, I told myself. Be optimistic! I focused on the sound of the forest mulch crunching beneath my feet. But like a strange car noise that only gets louder the more you ignore it, the cramps worsened. When no one was around, I pulled a hand wipe from my backpack and brushed it against my body. I was bleeding.
That night, I took a test and confirmed my pregnancy was gone. Or maybe it had never been. Maybe we saw what we wanted to see. I crawled into the stiff bed at my Airbnb and cried. What’s wrong with my body? Why is this so hard? I had done everything the right way. I built a career. I saved. I went to therapy. I figured out my own life before attempting to bring someone else into it. But I waited too long, tried to control too much.
I rustled through my bag for Steinbeck and woke Murphy in the process. She glared at me through her overgrown eyebrows. “I’ve seen a look in dogs’ eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt,” Steinbeck wrote. “I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.” But dogs don’t have the same burdens we do. They don’t belong to a species “clever enough to split the atom but not clever enough to live in peace with itself,” as Steinbeck put it.
We made it to Oregon the next day, my eyes still puffy from the night before. At the conference, a speaker took the stage, guiding us through a get-to-know-you exercise. The whole room was energized and filled with excitement. I sat in the back row, picking the lint from my pants, barely hearing a word. Why had I taken this trip? It seemed so silly now. What made me think this time was different? I wanted to go home.
The Pacific Northwest is like a fairy tale. Along the Oregon coast, the forest grows right down to the beach. Highway 101 cuts in and out of trees, and you can glimpse water glistening on the horizon. On the drive back home, we pulled into a picnic area. I took out my phone and captured the sunset. It was almost enough to make me forget about everything.
Our hotel wasn’t far. Just a few miles away, in Brookings. I grabbed my phone to map the route—only it was stuck, completely frozen on the view we’d just seen of the sun going down. Trying to restart it did nothing. I pulled out my laptop and searched for Wi-Fi. No luck. Steinbeck said people are so immersed in road maps that they never see the countryside. Now I had plenty of time to look at it. If only I weren’t so busy panicking. How will we get out of here? Will we have to sleep in the car? Where’s the nearest gas station?
Eventually, I found a bar and stopped and asked for directions. After we arrived at our hotel, my phone even restarted. “Stupid phone,” I muttered, tossing my bag onto the bed. Stupid small town. Stupid everything. But it wasn’t the phone or the town or anything else. It was a reminder that Steinbeck was right. People don’t take trips, trips take people. “All plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless.” I began to regret ever picking up the book.
We made our last stop at a hotel in Bodega Bay, California, the next afternoon, just in time for a wine tasting. Exhausted from the last leg of our drive—and not one to pass up a free drink—I walked to the courtyard and found a table. A waiter poured red wine into my glass, and I held it up to my nose, pretending to know what good wine should smell like.
“Nice dog,” someone said. I turned around to see an older woman and her husband sitting at the table behind me. “What’s his name?” She squinted through her thin frames with an eager smile.
“Her name’s Murphy,” I told her. The woman apologized, and I assured her that Murphy didn’t mind. She asked where I was traveling from, and told me that she and her husband had spent time in Los Angeles, too, but now lived farther north. “Oh yeah?” I asked, turning my chair around. “How’d you end up here?”
Decades ago, the couple moved from New York to California. “You can’t beat it here,” she said, naming all the places they’d fallen in love with over the years: Sebastopol, Mendocino, June Lake. They wanted to be close to the mountains and start a new life for themselves. I imagined them as younger people with long hair and faded jeans, arriving here in a van, maybe, taking photos of the purple mountains and bright green vineyards and deciding this was home.
Once they settled in, they raised a family, who eventually left the nest to start families of their own, spreading out to different parts of the country. Finally ready for retirement, the couple built a farmhouse in central California. Not too long ago. It was the ranch they’d dreamed of owning ever since they stepped foot in the state.
“Did you get any wildfire smoke?” I asked. The past year had been especially hellish.
“We got more than smoke,” the woman said. She looked at her husband. When fires raged through the region, they had to evacuate. The good news was, they had plenty of time—they were able to grab their golden retrievers and drive away from danger. I pictured them rushing out of the house, jumping into the truck, maybe looking at their home in the rearview mirror as they drove down a dirt road and off their property. They made it out unscathed, physically, at least. But they also lost the home they’d worked their whole lives to build.
I listened in disbelief, unsure of what to say. “I’m so sorry” was all I could muster.
“You never know what life will throw at you,” her husband said. “You never know when you’ll have to start over.” The woman watched the red wine swirl in her glass, maybe seeing in it the fragments of what she’d lost. “I’m so sorry,” I said again.
“We all have our struggles,” she shrugged. “Life is a lot more bearable if you accept it for what it is.” She looked at her husband again. “At this point, we’re just along for the ride.”
You find peace in relinquishing control. It’s true for journeys, it was true for the couple who lost their home, and it’s true for my future as a mother.
Any other time, I might have brushed off her outlook as clichéd optimism. But battling with my own grief and worry, her words hit like a splash of cold water. A journey only starts once we recognize the futility in planning it—if we accept it for what it is, instead of what we wish it would be. “Only then do the frustrations fall away,” Steinbeck wrote. “In this a journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” People don’t take trips; for better or worse, trips take people. It wasn’t optimism at all; it was acceptance.
“It’s not so bad,” the woman smiled, dodging my pity. “Here we are, drinking wine on a patio with this view.”
Her words stayed with me. Accept it for what it is. A year later, I would think about them as I sat on an examination table at a doctor’s office, looking at a fuzzy white speck on a black screen. “There’s no heartbeat,” the doctor said, and she pressed a button so we could listen to the absence of one, just to be sure. What could I have done? I asked. The majority of miscarriages are out of your control, the doctor said. “In most cases, there’s nothing you can do.” Driving home from the doctor’s office that day, I tried to wrap my head around what I had lost, if I had lost anything at all. I was still trapped in the cycle of hope and disappointment. The only thing that felt soothing was the idea of acceptance.
You find peace in relinquishing control. It’s true for journeys, it was true for the couple who lost their home, and it’s true for my future as a mother. You are at the mercy of the trip, and grief is the price you pay for being hopeful. Of course, that evening in Bodega Bay, I didn’t fully understand that yet. I didn’t know there would be more grief ahead, more uncertainty to come.
“Well, cheers,” I told the couple, “to free wine.” We raised our glasses, and the dry evening breeze settled in as we sipped. It was a toast to the future, however unpredictable. And the next morning, Murphy and I got back on the road, ready to be along for the ride.