When the meeting ends, people surround me with welcomes and talk of California. And the three women I judged? Each of them offers me a hug.
On my way west, in a push to barrel past Houston (I hadn't had my Texas-dissing epiphany yet), the flatlands finally give way to the rolling hills of Austin and I realize how much I miss my home group. My group knows me, cares about me and worries if I'm not there. I miss my sponsor, and I miss the people who call me their sponsor. I like following their lives and their challenges and joys. It's a massive, fluid extended family with a family reunion every single day. These are my folks.
With fatigue, rush-hour traffic and wrong turns, I nearly give up getting to a 5:30 meeting, but I really need it. The meeting place is in a complex of upscale office buildings, and I find about 15 or 20 people in one of three meetings going on. The large room has yellow walls and table lamps in each corner. Oak trees shade a wooden deck beyond sliding doors.
The leader shares that he has two years sober and sometimes he obsesses about people, or conversations, or things that happened and that he has trouble turning that off. He shares for about five minutes, then says he is rambling and he falls silent. As other members share, they relate how they handle obsessive thoughts.
I hear more psychotherapy than steps at this meeting, but I hear "the language of the heart," and I sink into a cushion of connectedness.
I awaken rested and refreshed at the well-manicured Fredericksburg KOA and head for a noon meeting at a nearby church. The room has light blue walls, stained wood wainscoting and nice tables and matching office chairs.
The meeting gets about 15 people, all middle-aged. After the normal readings, the secretary fishes out a blue card with further instructions, including, "Let your language reflect the quality of your sobriety." That's code for "Please don't swear."
The leader likens her recovery to the massive work that never seems to end on Interstate 10. She's not sure she has had what others have described as "the gift of desperation" and that worries her about her long-term prospects for staying sober.
It's a calm, spiritual meeting about how everyone needs to reach their own "bottom" and not compare it with that of others. One woman shares how she just moved here for a new job and her co-worker wonders why she already has so many friends around town. We laugh.
During the meeting, I glance over at a guy with one day sober. He leans forward, listens intently, and yet does not identify himself as an alcoholic. After the meeting, in the parking lot, the man tells me he came from a faraway town so nobody would know him but that he needs to unload something. He once worked in law enforcement and treated alcoholics harshly. It wasn't until he retired, started drinking heavily and got a DUI that he had to face his own demons.
"I was so wrong," he says nodding toward the church. "These are good people in here."
Back in Las Cruces on the way home, I feel a need for something familiar and head again to the Downtown Group. The mumbling guy is there, but he's not mumbling anymore. His clearing eyes make me think of a newborn starting to focus on the world around him. I wish I could be a part of his reemergence into life.
Casa Grande, Ariz.
Too tired to make it to Phoenix, I stop at Campground Buena Tierra, an enormous desert park in Casa Grande. As I drift off to sleep I hear both the big rigs on I-10 and coyotes in the hills.
The local meeting place, next to an alignment shop, has a large sign above the doors that says "The Miracle House." At the noon meeting, the room is raucous with laughter and fellowship of about 30 people. The tan walls are liberally covered with AA posters, announcements and this notice: No weapons.
After the readings, the leader shares so fast and furiously that I can't understand half of what he says. At one point he jumps up, and his arms fly up and down with his words. I wonder whether the whole meeting will be like this.
The secretary then asks whether anyone has a topic, and a woman shares calmly about Step 3 and the rest of the meeting is calm. Whenever a meeting focuses on the steps, it's a good meeting for me because we are "in the solution." This beats the incessant recitals of drinking stories or rants about current life that make for bad meetings.
A case in point: At this meeting, a newly sober woman says the government took some of the tax refund she was counting on and she thought of getting loaded (this is the problem) but finally said to God, "Bring it on, Bubba. I'm not going to my knees to have to get up again." (And this is the solution.) She then admits some of her plans for the money may not have been in line with God's will.
After I share, the man next to me shares that his dream in life is to be a beach bum and then he comes across people who live in California and vacation in Florida and it makes him mad. He looks at me: "I just met you, and I already have a resentment." And we all laugh.
By the time I reach Palm Springs, I decide to end my trip. I'll skip a meeting at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage. I'll pass up the famed 1,000-plus-strong Pacific Group at a synagogue in Los Angeles. I want my own meetings.
Finding a place to camp around Palm Springs is not easy. I pay $50 for a concrete strip, toss in the warm desert night and crave sunrise. Walking to the office to pay for my site, I pass shuffleboard courts, a pool and some people playing cards. It's an adult RV park, and the clerk tells me if I want to stay another night to just let her know. "We're a fun group," she says.
I already have a fun group, I think to myself, and I'm heading home to it.