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.
At the sparse Benson KOA, in an Arizona desert valley, I call my husband and relay the news: It is not a dangerous world out here, but friendly and welcoming. And AA is awesome.
Las Cruces, N.M.
After my drive through the yellow grasslands of New Mexico, I pull into a KOA on a mesa overlooking Las Cruces. A sign in the spotless bathroom says: No Hair Dyeing! On my way to the Downtown Club for a 5:30 meeting, I pass brightly painted adobe houses with low block walls.
The meeting place is at the end of a stucco industrial building and has a 3-foot-high wooden "AA" above the door. Inside, the room is about 500 square feet with chairs lined up in the middle and chairs around the perimeter, where I sit.
The secretary, a put-together woman with an East Coast accent, starts the meeting by asking everyone to pause for a moment to remember why we are here and to think about the alcoholics who still suffer. In my home group, the Serenity Prayer follows this. But not here. She asks for newcomers and for visitors, and I introduce myself and get a reception of "Welcome" and "Glad you're here."
This is a step study, and we are on Step 10: "Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it." She reads the first two paragraphs and shares about it. There are about 20 people in the room, some in business suits.
To the left of me, a hunched-over man of 60 or 70 starts muttering. As his muttering intensifies, I think of moving to another chair, but two posters on the wall bear sayings of AA co-founder Bill W. about tolerance being the most beautiful thing and I don't want to appear intolerant. To the right of me, a man in full Army fatigues stands up. I expect he will ask the man to leave. Instead, he leans in and whispers, "Can you keep it down?" The muttering wanes.
When it's the muttering man's turn to share, he says a judge has made him attend meetings. He didn't like them at first, but with two months of sobriety, he feels good here. He is on Social Security and has a little job the next day installing a screen. When he's done sharing, Army Guy compliments him on his haircut, and the man takes off his ball cap and says the cut cost $12. In just this way, people who seem hopeless are helped back into the fold of everyday society.
There is some talk about road rage and tailgaters, and the secretary shares how she encourages other drivers to back off with a backward wave out the window. A man up front asks if she uses all the fingers on her hand and maybe that's what he's doing wrong. We laugh. Heading back to my mesa campsite, I think: If I lived in Las Cruces, this would be my group.
I make it to the Northeast Fellowship in El Paso about 10 minutes before the noon meeting, held in a club next to a piñata shop. Above a coffee cabinet hang a mirrored bullfighter painting and an American flag. About 40 people are present when the meeting starts.
The topic is the AA way of life. One man says that he's been sober well over 25 years and that if he were to drink he'd lose his family, and at his age, in retirement, family is everything he has. Another man says he was three years sober when his mother and wife died in a two-week period. He considered drinking because he handled it all so well without alcohol that he figured he must not be an alcoholic. That is the twisted thinking that keeps us coming back.
Toward the end of the meeting, a teary woman asks, "Where can you go where everyone wants you to be a winner?" A burly man next to her also gets teary when he shares his gratitude for sobriety. Before one man shares, he holds out his arms, looks around the room of smiling faces and says, "This is it. This is what it's all about."
The campground in Fort Stockton, Texas, is a needed respite from the 500-mile soul-deadening stretch between it and El Paso. I feel bad on that stretch, either because of hunger or bad juju. I search for vegetarian food in Fort Stockton but end up at the cheerful town center (a.k.a. Wal-Mart) where I buy an electric teakettle, a rechargeable LED lantern and a 20-foot extension cord. Back at camp, I enjoy leftover salad and tofu from my mini-fridge and finally feel grounded.
I arrive early for the 5:30 meeting at the Downtown Club and sit in my van observing the place. I have not been in a place this rough-looking since my early sobriety in Huntington Park and Bell Gardens. Spray-painted lettering on the crumbling stucco exterior proclaims "No Loitering" and "No Public Restrooms." Filled with irrational fear, I can't go in. I call the local AA hotline and explain my situation to a volunteer, who directs me to the nearby Club Twelve, which he says "has a lot going on."
The Club Twelve building is gray and nondescript with a big "Twelve" above a glass door. A sign notes that firearms are not allowed inside, where a plaque commemorates the club's history since 1949.
In a great room flanked by a bookstore and cafeteria, two men sit at a table with papers and the Big Book of AA.
Table lamps in each corner give the large meeting room a soft glow. Most everyone is well-dressed and well-spoken; these women do not dye their hair in KOA campgrounds. I arrive too late to introduce myself as a visitor, and for a while I'm relieved not to be a curiosity. As the meeting progresses, I want to announce myself because I haven't spoken with anyone for 18 hours. I share about my gratitude to AA for this tribe, this family, this fellowship. To have a room full of beautiful, functioning people listen to me is such a gift.
After the meeting, a crowd surrounds me. One woman envies my journey. Another invites me to join a group for dinner. But I have another commitment: to buy groceries and get to my campsite. The enormous San Antonio KOA is the nicest I've seen yet, with giant oaks and a creek with ducks. In the morning, I linger so long that an employee comes to remind me of the 11 a.m. checkout time.
Driving up to the Post Oak Club at 5:30, I want to get pictures of the exterior before dark. The meeting room is in the basement of a nice five-story tan brick building, and in a basement garden area several members see me with my camera. When I come in, a guy tending the snack bar nods toward my purse: "Do you have a camera with you?" I admit I do. He grimaces. "This is AA. You can't take pictures here." I stiffen. "I'm perfectly aware of that," I say, and mention my years of sobriety. He says there are rules: No cameras are allowed in the club. Of course, it makes sense. Without anonymity, AA is not AA.
I take my camera back to the van and decide to try another meeting where I won't feel like an outlaw. After getting lost and stuck in traffic and discovering my normal-height van won't fit in a parking structure, I decide to get the H out of Houston.
On the way to the KOA, my stomach hurts, and I blame the guy at the counter. I told him I was traveling. Why didn't he ask me where I was from? Where I was going?
I search for a carwash to remove the road grime from four states. As the amazing LaserWash performs its magic, a thought arises: Maybe I should do a 10th Step inventory on the Post Oak experience. At first, I remain focused on the "jerk" at the snack bar. But I force my attention to my actions. That is the crux of the AA program. Suddenly I realize I have been arrogant and self-important. I walked into that club like a superior being so when I was challenged about the camera, my conceit raged. Are you questioning
I call the Post Oak Club and apologize for my behavior. The guy says, "Oh, no, don't worry about it. I never gave it another thought." Afterward, I feel good. And behind my alcoholic drinking, that's all I ever really wanted.
At the campground north of Houston I find a tidy, flat lawn with RVs parked on it. This place is no longer part of the KOA franchise because KOAs require camping sites and accommodations for children and these owners wanted all RV spaces. "We kicked out the kids," the proprietor tells me, adding that his rates are lower than at KOAs. But the $33 fee is among the highest on my trip.
Lake Charles, La.
I finally get out of Texas and find my way to a 1 p.m. meeting in Lake Charles, on a street lined with giant oak trees. This South City Group has a permanent space in an Episcopal church, in a classroom facing a grassy courtyard.
Inside, a quiet group of 20 sits around a square of folding tables waiting for the meeting to start. The secretary has a nice
accent. He can't find the preamble, so he skips it. He asks whether anyone knows where they are in the "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions" book, copies of which are in front of each chair, and someone thinks they are on Step 3. When one man reads a passage about broken relationships with families, his voice cracks. After he finishes, everyone says, "Thanks for reading," and I hear compassion in their soft voices.
After the reading, each member speaks of how he or she developed a relationship with a higher power and with family members. I mention struggles with my family and how I learned to be happy with the love and forgiveness I find in AA. There is a gentle sweet flow here. This place really fills me up.
As I'm leaving, a small woman in overalls introduces herself and pulls me in for a hug. I realize that's the first hug I've had in several days. I could use more just like it.
I arrive for the noon meeting in a little white house with a covered porch next to a door company. Inside are tan walls with royal blue trim around the windows. Two ceiling fans rotate slowly. The 40 or so chairs fill and about a dozen more people stand in doorways.
The leader shares about his new fear of flying. His wife told him: How about trusting that God you're always talking about? And when he looked out the window before a recent flight and saw a big AA on the tail, he figured God wouldn't let this plane crash. The room filled with laughter.
He then shares about an AA member who just died, a popular clergyman. I read from the framed obituary passed around. Someone had pasted a six-year sobriety medallion behind the glass and written in black marker: "He came to AA to find God." The leader tells a story about how the clergyman came up to him at church and whispered, "This is not an AA meeting, so put more than a dollah into the … basket." The room roars again.
The sharing that day is all about this man — how each speaker met him, how they served in the food line he ran, how he said this or that to them. We AAs really know how to honor the recently deceased. There are typically impromptu memorial services at meetings shortly after a member's death, whether they died sober or drunk.
The New Orleans KOA lies west of town in Jefferson Parish. The proprietor tells me the camp was filled for more than a year with post-Katrina workers. She puts me in a spot right next to the office, and I feel safe.
But I sleep restlessly, worried about getting work done on my van brakes, which had begun a dim grinding sound in New Mexico and escalated to a full-blown screech. As is the habit of the alcoholic mind, my first thoughts are extreme: Do I junk the van and fly home? Try to buy a new van? Sell it? On the phone my husband asks: Why don't you just get the brakes fixed? Still, I worry about getting ripped off.
In the morning, I ask the guy at the KOA desk for a recommendation, and he suggests a mechanic just down the road. As the mechanic walks around my van, he pauses at the AA circle and triangle sticker I'd bought in San Antonio, taps it, and asks, "You in this outfit?" We each have more than 20 years in AA. My fears abate. Like many other alcoholics, I've worried about many troubles in life, most of which never happened.
Winter Park, Fla.
I blast through Mississippi and Alabama and into my Orlando conference, then slip away for a meeting. I arrive late at the noon meeting, which is in a strip mall next to a Chinese food take-out place and a dry cleaner. The parking lot borders a garden area with picnic tables and a sign that says "In memory of Barefoot Joe."
It's so dark and quiet inside that I doubt for a minute that there is a meeting. But down a long hallway and in a dark room I find some people. The room has 75 or so chairs and about 15 people. A middle-age man is sharing that he had a series of heart attacks he didn't tell program members about. He now knows how nice it is to help someone and that he denied people the opportunity to help him. As a friend told him, we don't come to AA to see through each other but to see each other through.
The energy in this room is subdued. The leader tries to get people to share by saying, "So everyone's happy, joyous and free today?" It's a beautiful, sunny Saturday beyond the plate glass, and we sit silent and seemingly sullen in a dark smoky room. He tries again: "Does anyone want to share who doesn't want to be here?"
That inspires a man who just got out of a treatment center and is having trouble getting his new apartment set up and, being an alcoholic not far from the bottle, he naturally feels like drinking. His mind told him a meeting would do no good at all, but he came anyway and now feels less like drinking. After he shares, his cellphone rings and he leaves.
A woman shares her sobriety date — 1999 — and says she never came to AA because she asked the Lord to take away her desire to drink and he did and the Lord can do anything and thank the Lord. I'm not sure why she's here.
Then a man shares about how he didn't find what he was looking for in churches and that it seems to him that church people don't have much faith. The woman looks over at him, scowls, and shakes her head. Whenever anyone in the meeting mentions church again, she has little reactions to it, looking up at the ceiling, pursing her lips. Anyone sensitive about negative church talk would find AA meetings troubling. Ironically, generous churches provide many of our meeting spaces.
When I introduce myself to share, a man with a buzz cut blurts out: "You're not from Berkeley, are you?" Turns out he's a former Marine with a beef. At the end, the leader says, "Let's join hands and sing 'Kumbaya' for the visitor from California." I'm steamed about this wholesale dissing of California, and I stay peeved until about a week later, driving through West Texas, when I realize, embarrassed, that I do the same with Texas. And I resolve to stop.
With my Orlando conference concluded, I head west. I don't know what to expect from a meeting at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday in a small town in Alabama. The room is at New Beginnings Church of the Gulf Coast, across from Family Dollar.
Past a large meeting room, which I'm later told fills for meetings several nights a week, I find in a back room a kindly older man who says I'm just in time for a cup of coffee. He explains some oldsters don't like driving at night so they started this afternoon meeting. A young man with a Cajun accent arrives. He needs to attend four meetings (judge's orders) before he takes off on a shrimp boat in a few days. Two young women arrive who just moved to the area and hope to be regulars here. They also have court cards. I'm opposed to AA signing cards from the courts. I think it gives the wrong impression that there is some formal connection between AA and government (there is not). I also believe the practice violates the very premise of the AA program, that you have to be absolutely desperate (as I was) for a change of life in order to do the work required. But so many have come to sobriety through the courts that a teeny possibility exists that I am wrong.
After the readings, the leader says he's troubled that someone he cares about was seen drunk at a meeting. He says three men he sponsored have died in ways that suggest alcohol was involved. And he's sad about the whole thing.
An older man says he got "plum sick and tired" of his troubles from drinking. Another says he passed out drunk on a train track and got hit by a train. Still, he didn't stop drinking until several years later. Now he's content in life, but it's "journeyman contentment." He's not a master at it.
The secretary shares last and says the only requirement for AA membership is that you have to have had your "ass whooped" by alcohol and you have to accept that you've had your ass whooped.
Afterward, I help a woman choose some pamphlets she can show to her counselor, and I leave quickly. As I pull out of the parking lot, I see one of the men outside the door, looking around. Looking for me? Why did I bolt out of there? They had me as a guest, and I left without thanking them. That's just rude, and I regret it.
The Gulf Coast Group meets in a white, stand-alone building with a large parking lot. I find a large room inside with about 40 people greeting one another and hugging. A big man with a box of sobriety medallions in front of him calls out to me: "Hi! How ARE you? Good to SEE you! So GLAD you're here!"
Maybe I am jealous of this group's energy because I find myself harshly judging three women for their pointy bras, deep cleavage and overall sexiness.
After the readings, the leader says he wants to learn not to take himself so seriously. He looks serious. Sharing turns to the topic of laughter and how important it is, especially in the depression that followed Hurricane Katrina, which decimated this area.
Halfway into the meeting, a frowning young man takes the chair next to me. He holds his court card in front of him with both hands as if to indicate, "I'm only here to get this thing signed."
One man shares that when he was "out there," the only thing he laughed about was when he smoked pot and his friends looked like monkeys. The kid beside me laughs in spite of himself.
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.
Back in New Orleans, I splurge on a night at the funky, vintage Le Richelieu Hotel in the French Quarter, one of the only hotels in the area with on-site complimentary parking. And with a big van to deal with in a neighborhood of tight streets, that is golden.
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.