On Becoming Roadkill

© 2007 by Joanna Biggar

They called us the ‘Thelma and Louise’ of journalism. But when we first set out in 1993, doing America for our Washington-based wire service, we weren’t quite up to the part. Though she took to calling me Thelma and I took to calling her Louise, we were really just plain Ann and plain Joanna, unarmed, harmless and quite unlikely to kill.Roadkill.jpg

That was then. Soon enough we were ready to kill— each other. It wasn’t just that I am tall but she is taller, that I was on my way to becoming bi-coastal, while she was already seriously bi-polar (as likely to be found in the North or South Pole as North or South Carolina). And it wasn’t just that her sporty little red Acura said “Forty and divorced” while my beaten-up red wagon said, “Divorced with kids.” It wasn’t even, strictly speaking, that she is a Carolina mountain girl who believes the basic food groups are caffeine, nicotine and bourbon and that driving into dawn is fun, while I am your basic Californian, believing in beaches, wine, a.m. beauty rest and that a bare-bones room includes a spa. What nearly drove us to homicide was that she is a photographer, chasing the light, and I am a writer, chasing the word.

There were many lessons to be learned. They flattened us so often, we came to call them roadkill. Then the definition expanded. It grew to mean not only what we found, but what we did, what we ate, what we became – and on bad days, what we looked like.

Roadkill is a disorienting concept. Sometimes it encompasses the simple need for geographic realignment, such as when we looked up to see we were at the corner of Baghdad and Grapefruit, moving right along toward the intersection of Deglet Noor and Bliss. Our impulse was to cry out: “Where the hell IS this, and what are DOING here?” The answer to the first part — the reality check — we could get from a quick glance at the map. The second, but tougher, question, had an unfailing answer. We were doing what we were always doing, getting the story.

That simple act frequently required major effort just to avoid going astray.

Because of time and budget constraints, we often practiced what Ann dubbed “drive-by shooting,” praying that light and necessary interviews would magically line up like a perfect page layout so we could get in and out of one place and on to the next.

But for the most part, not going astray meant in the most basic way doing whatever it took to get to the story. Hence we trashed cars by driving them into the mud and sand, turning interiors into the middle-aged equivalent of a girls’ dorm. We also hitched rides — in pick-ups, rowboats, an ill-fated tuna trawler, and a canoe that carried us through a reptile-infested swamp. Once, pursuing wild horses across the open plains, we rode stylishly in the back of a flatbed truck outfitted with plush leather seats lifted from a Cadillac.

Sometimes, driving through America’s potholes, with the wind and the weather, or the strange yellow light of a tornado on the horizon, Rush on the radio, Ann smoking furiously and me Coughing with Meaning, we got down to bedrock soul-searching. Like the timeless question from that old Ladies Home Journal column: “Can this marriage be saved?”
Meaning, of course, beyond the California Yankee and Carolina Belle trying out friendship, the working marriage between writer and photographer trying to create the story.

In both instances, the answer was already a given. It was, even on that very first trip down the California coast, when we were about to trash our very first car loaded with essentials: my stuff — old blue suitcase, road maps, sunscreen, towels, notebooks, laptop; her stuff — duffel bag, one black cosmetic kit including hair conditioner that promises to make your hair carry on even if your brain goes dead, contact lenses, a bunch of cameras, and about 350,038 rolls of film, though I may have miscounted. (I should have gotten the hint when I visited her Capitol Hill apartment once, and she offered me a refreshment, then opened the fridge to the appalling sight of a bottle of bourbon and about 1 millions rolls of film).

But it was in my car that she started in with these annoying questions, such as: what were the tires like and did I have gas and had I had the oil changed in the last hundred years? Then she said in her kind of off-hand way, “Oh, hell, darlin’, I’m sure you’ve got it all together. Even the emergency tools.”

“You mean like this?” I said, pulling out the corkscrew I always keep on the driver’s side just in case. Then I hit the accelerator, lurching off to find stories for America’ s senior citizens. And she hit the country music station, pronouncing for the first time in our recorded history: “OK, kiddo, we can do this. ”

Joanna Biggar lives in Oakland and is a teacher, writer, and traveler whose special places of the heart include the California coast and the South of France. A professional writer for more than 25 years, her poetry, fiction, personal essays, feature, news and travel articles have appeared in hundreds of publications.