Reporting from Interstate 10—I creep through Los Angeles traffic on Interstate 10 toward my destination: an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting a couple hundred miles east on the Arizona border.
My goal for this trip in the winter of 2008 is to drive from California to a conference in Florida and back, attend AA meetings in seven states and see how they differ — and how they don't.
I have two fears: that a low-budget camping trip is dangerous for a lone woman and that I'll end up hating the AA I find outside my local group. Without the one place I've felt most at home the last 28 years, where would I be?
Traffic thins and I-10 tapers to four lanes, past wind farms and snow-dusted mountains. Night comes on, and my world narrows to blacktop and strips of tumbleweed. I begin to groove with the road — me, my mighty Ford conversion van and the big rigs whizzing by.
FOR THE RECORD:
AA journey: An article in the Jan. 2 Travel section said Alcoholics Anonymous forbids the use of last names in its meetings to protect members' privacy. AA does not discourage the use of surnames among members, but its traditions say that members' anonymity should be maintained in the media and that members' surnames and identifying photos should not be used at the public level. —
Ten minutes late to the 7 p.m. meeting, I pull up to a Lutheran church in a working-class neighborhood in Blythe, Calif. The meeting (which, like all AA meetings, forbids the use of last names, to protect members' privacy) is in the center of a cavernous room where 15 men and one woman sit on folding chairs surrounding four tables. A gray-haired man gets me a chair.
The leader, a well-groomed, middle-aged man, tells his story of drinking and despair, driving around the desert with a pillow and the clothes his wife had thrown at him, trying to figure out what to do. He got help from a sponsor and now has 18 years of sobriety. The group listens raptly.
Only after many years of sobriety could the speaker go back to the nearby Colorado River, the spot of much drinking. My own memories of the river include partying all night, passing out in the back seat of a car, and coming to in the 100-degree heat, sweaty and hung over.
The leader then chooses a topic: a higher power and why you need one. This is listed as a "newcomers meeting," and nearly everyone looks ill at ease. At my own first meeting in 1982, I felt as shy as Boo Radley, having lived for years in the dark basement of my addiction and shame. The fear that propelled me into recovery was the unwelcome idea of reaching the age I am now with a wasted life behind me. But AA's mention of God, of a higher power, filled me with dread.
At this meeting, one man with decades of sobriety explains it like this: He believes in a god but figures most people don't. And the god he knows wouldn't create a program accessible only to a limited number of people. I think: "Wow."
When the meeting ends, I head for the local KOA campground on the bank of the river. The air is cold, the sky awash in stars and I sleep beautifully on the van's fold-down couch.
Driving through the Arizona desert, I pass statuesque saguaro cactuses and parallel mountain ranges with pinnacles, mesas and buttes.
The Alano Club in Tucson, a former church, looks a bit tattered. Alano Clubs are not affiliated with AA but offer space for meetings and often find more affordable rents and mortgages in downtrodden parts of town.
In a small meeting room, a woman about 40 asks me to help wrestle plastic tables into a square. The meeting eventually gets five men and four women, and I don't have high hopes for it. But I am mistaken.
Two people in the meeting are hurting. A movie-star-handsome man with red-rimmed eyes says he cannot stop drinking, and he begins to cry. A woman in a red hat, who says she has known him for years, puts her arm around him and hands him some tissue. She says people who keep getting drunk think they have all the chances in the world, but in truth many people die "out there." I know this is true.
A woman says she used to be sober but has not been to the club in two years and was afraid to come back. During those years, drinking and smoking crack, she would duck when she saw anyone from the club around town. As she tells her story, crying and wiping her eyes, I feel close to my own higher power. The world I barreled through all day distills down to this warm cocoon of love and attention. Tears well up.
The topic for the meeting is Step 2: "Came to believe a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity." I share my own struggle, as God never did what I prayed for, like bringing my drunken parents home from the bar, so I figured God hated me. Getting sober, I had to rework my understanding of God. Now I am an atheist, and my god is the whole energy of the universe. I tell the two struggling people that when they spoke, I felt god in the room. After the meeting, the struggling woman gives me a long, tight hug.