When You Wander West by Heidi Fettig Parton

The first time my daughter Hannah wandered west, she ended up in Japan where, as an exchange student, she spent her junior year of high school. She is my oldest; she is, to date, my most adventurous child. She’s the one who climbed to the top of a tall slide not long after she learned to walk. I had my back to her for a second, and she was gone.

* * *

During the spring of her senior year of college, a friend of Hannah’s set the Dobby Gibson poem “Self-Reliance” to film. A clip of Hannah driving made it into the film. Hannah sent me the link a few weeks before she graduated. I watched it numerous times, riveted by the poem’s spoken-word power and the film’s generous images of youth on the cusp of adulthood. Hannah’s cameo in the film comes just before the reading of this verse from Gibson:

Head north long enough
and you’re eventually heading south,
but when you wander west,
you wander west forever.

My mother’s intuition told me Hannah would be leaving soon.

Hannah did leave; she left five days after graduating, when the main floor of our house still resembled the “give and take” room in Hannah’s college dorm, cluttered with Hannah’s own dorm cast-offs. Amid the wreckage, I found the kombucha homebrew kit she’d insisted on buying before starting college and a ceramic slow cooker standing next to three large paper grocery bags filled with assorted dried legumes. I assumed these were left over from the previous fall when Hannah had declined a meal plan in favor of dorm-room cooked beans. I am still not sure what she ate that semester; from the looks of things, it had not been beans.

Hannah left for Los Angeles with just her clothing and bedding — items that could fit easily into the back of her steadfast eight-year-old Nissan sedan, a gift from her dad and stepmom. On the morning of Hannah’s departure, I presented her with a mixed CD titled “Wander West,” filled with carefully selected tunes to accompany her on her journey. By then, I’d stopped trying to prevent Hannah’s adventures. I had learned through the years that it was best to let her go. But I told her, “You can always come home — if things don’t work out.”

* * *

“Leaving was hard, you know; L.A. was starting to feel like home,” Hannah told me, 10 months later, on the weekend I helped move her from Los Angeles to New York City.

“Interesting,” I said slowly; I had to let her words sink in. “You do realize you just spent the last 10 months dishing on L.A., don’t you?” Although she’d landed her dream job, casting extras for a Coen brothers film, Hannah hadn’t seemed happy. But, truth be told, I’d begun to suspect that she only called on the bad days, like the one when her car went missing.

“Mom! My car’s gone,” Hannah yelled into the phone. “I think it’s been stolen.”

My first response was a stifled yawn, which was likely my body’s attempt to regain balance in the wake of an adrenaline surge. It was after midnight in Minnesota and the ringtone reserved solely for Hannah had plucked me from a deep sleep.

Late-night calls from an emerging-adult child can never be good.

This particular crisis didn’t prove nearly as dreadful as the one my imagination had fabricated while flying down the stairs toward my phone. In the darkness, my muscles still held memories of midnight sprints toward Hannah’s infant cries; after all, it had only been 22 years.

A car. It’s just a car.

I breathed in deeply before asking her, “Did you happen to leave your car in a no-parking zone?”

The phone went quiet until I heard a wailing, “Noooo!” Seven hundred dollars later — after paying the ticket, along with the towing and storage fee — Hannah had her car back. I didn’t point out that this mistake cost her the equivalent of a full-month’s-stay at the room she was renting in Glendale. I’d entered the phase of parenting where one becomes more of a life coach than a parent.

A life coach has to carefully choose her words.

A few months later, Hannah called from a repair shop just off the highway. It’s hard to say, but I think the theme of her rant centered on the travails of car ownership — faulty brakes, that particular time — and the horrors of Los Angeles traffic. I remember how the conversation ended.

“Mom, I’m tired of owning a car. I belong in New York City.” She told me this with a surprising degree of clarity, but I wasn’t so sure that a change in ZIP code was the answer.

Instead, I told her, “Becoming an adult is difficult.”

Over the next few weeks, as Hannah continued to voice her belief that New York City was the panacea, I suggested she listen again to the “Wander West” playlist that I’d made (admittedly, the music might have held more meaning for me than it did her). I encouraged my daughter to touch base with the original reasons she’d felt compelled to move to Los Angeles; I suggested she check in with her inner voice to see if those reasons still rang true.

I can’t say for sure whether Hannah took my advice, but not long after her car broke down on the highway, she landed an unpaid internship with a Broadway casting company, located in New York City. She enthusiastically sold her car and, with the sale, planned to fund her unpaid admission into the world of Broadway — which she loved almost as much as the film industry. Like many other newly minted grads, Hannah was given a near promise of a paid position at the conclusion of the three-month internship. I kept quiet about my skepticism.

Who was I to rain on her parade?

* * *

Almost as soon as my plane landed back in Minnesota after helping Hannah move, I began to hear about her travails in the Big Apple. There was the stomach bug that hit before she knew her new roommates well enough to send them out for Gatorade; she walked to CVS alone, vomiting into a plastic shopping bag. There was the disappointment of the deflated air mattress left by the roommate who sublet her his room on the Upper West Side. There was the daunting task of starting over, making new friends, once again — apparently, New Yorkers were flakier, less genuine, than Angelenos. And there was the depressingly high cost of toilet paper.

You should know, I not only believe in the curative power of mixed CDs, I also believe in the calm found in intentional breath work, the magic of long, sauntering walks and the therapeutic value of creative nonfiction.

I sent Hannah a copy of Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That,” the one where Didion explains how, throughout the course of her eight years of living in New York City — years that spanned much of her 20s — she moved from enchantment to loneliness to disillusionment. Didion’s words weave with serpent-like power through this narrative; oh so subtly, the reader experiences (almost firsthand) a heart shift away from New York City and the idealism of youth. The essay is at once compelling and sad, nostalgic and profound. I thought, perhaps, reading the essay could save Hannah eight years of floundering in the dark, that, perhaps, she could magically bypass the hard lessons of her 20s and jump straight into the wisdom that comes with one’s 30s.

* * *

When Hannah’s internship ended, she did not get the dangling carrot of a paid position. She had used up her cash reserves and, flat broke, she returned home to live for the first time since she’d left for college. And Hannah let us all know how miserable she was to be in Minnesota; she wanted to move back to L.A. immediately.

“I can do casting on this indie film a friend of mine is making,” she told me.

“Indie — as in work for free?” I asked, but I didn’t wait for her answer. “You’re going to have to pay your own way back to L.A. Perhaps it’s time to look for a job that uses your college degree.”

“My Japanese degree is useless,” Hannah informed me. “I think I’ll get a bartending license — it’s the way everyone supports themselves in L.A. — I’ll pay for it myself.”

“Yes, well, that’s a relief. I mean, since I paid for your college and all.”

Cost of college education: $104,000.

Cost of bartending school: $350.

With her bartending license in hand, Hannah spent the summer in Minnesota waitressing.

Apparently one needs experience, not just a bartending license, to land a bartending job.

Nearly every night, clad in restaurant black, Hannah went off to the Asian bistro where she sometimes would speak Japanese with the sushi chef — I tell you this only so you’ll know that her Japanese degree wasn’t all for naught.

At the end of August, I came home from a weekend up north to find a used car — its steadfastness yet to be proven — sitting on the curb outside our house. It was already pointing west.

Over the 2015 Labor Day weekend, Hannah drove out to L.A. for the second time. I’m pretty sure she’d lost the CD I’d made to accompany her first trip. Conveniently, a room at her former rental in Glendale had opened up. She landed a job waitressing at a new sushi place in Burbank. (I was a little disappointed to learn that the sushi chefs at this restaurant spoke Spanish, not Japanese.)

Maybe I was being a parent, not a life coach, when I emailed Hannah an excerpt from Gayle Pemberton’s essay “Do He Have Your Number, Mr. Jeffrey?”:

“Perhaps there’s something about L.A. that makes working unlikely jobs — jobs your parents send you to college to keep you from having to do — all right and reasonable, since very little makes sense there anyway, and surviving means bellying up to the illusion bar and having a taste with everyone else.”

Lest I sound disappointed (or worse, passive aggressive), I added, “You’re a survivor.” I hoped my message came across as encouragement.

* * *

During her second winter in L.A., Hannah seemed to be making steady progress toward adulthood. She called me less frequently. And (this is really hopeful), sometimes, she called to tell me about her good days, like the day she attended the movie premiere of the Coen brothers film that she’d worked on the year before, or the first day she cleared $300 in tips, or the day she gave me a “just because” kind of call, brimming with joy while hiking at Runyon Canyon.

Could it be that L.A. really is her home? I thought, while trudging in my own heavy boots through knee-deep snow.

Near the beginning of spring, Hannah was offered a desirable (and paid) extras casting position on a film in New York City. She asked my opinion on whether she should go.

“You’re 23 now. Trust your decisions,” I told her, but I couldn’t help adding, “If you go, I think you should store your car in L.A.” Because everyone needs a life raft, a way back down a ladder that led to unwelcome vistas. This may be especially true if one possesses the kind of spirit destined to wander west.

– “Self-Reliance” by Dobby Gibson. Copyright ©2016. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

– The Joan Didion and Gayle Pemberton essays referenced here can be found in The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, curated by Phillip Lopate (Anchor Books, 1995).


Wander West Playlist
“Chris’ California Trip” — Michael Brook

“Going to California” — Led Zeppelin

“I Got Love for You” — Michael Franti and Spearhead

“Midnight on the Interstate” — Trampled by Turtles

“Wide Open Spaces” — Dixie Chicks

“Going Down the Road Feeling Bad” — Grateful Dead

“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” — Bob Dylan

“On and On and On” — Jack White

“Pink Rabbits” — The National

“A Long December” — Counting Crows

“What Do You Hear in These Sounds” — Dar Williams

“Coming into Los Angeles” — Arlo Guthrie

“Hollywood” — Jackie Greene

“The Bare Necessities” — Phil Harris and Bruce Reitherman (“The Jungle Book”)

“La Vie Boheme” — “Rent” Cast

“Tiny Dancer” — Elton John

“Freedom at 21” — Jack White

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” — Rolling Stones

“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”— Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell

“Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” — The Velvet Underground

“Sunporch Cha-Cha-Cha” — Dave Grusin

“Los Angeles at Night” — Michael Brook


Minneapolis-based Heidi Fettig Parton is the mother of two emerging adults and one still-malleable school-aged child, born with hearing loss. She is currently an MFA candidate at Bay Path University and has published in Elephant Journal, The Mighty and MindBodyGreen. She is working on a memoir that tells the story of divorce, transformation and burnt underwear. Her motto: “When all else fails, read poetry.” Every day, Heidi gives thanks that she can turn on the faucet and access drinkable water; she thinks clean water is one of the most important and grave issues facing the world today and volunteers as a steward of the St. Croix Watershed. Follow her on Twitter @Heidi_Parton.