“Do you need to call someone? Let them know where you are and what happened?” The guy in the driver’s seat asks. The darkness is nearly finished settling and the snowy peaks in the distance are quickly disappearing. A truck drives by every 10 minutes or so, but the road is fairly empty.
“No, I’m good,” I tell him, fiddling with my hands, eyes roving out the window. What I don’t tell him is that no one knows where I am.
This was three weeks ago when I got my car stuck on a rock in Colorado at about 9,000 feet with no cell service while I was listening to the new Olivia Rodrigo album on repeat. It was a whole ordeal that ended with a campfire and a drunk guy telling me that my name was stupid (fair), but, miraculously, no lingering consequences.
One of my most questionable traits is my habit of disappearing. I slip away from parties without saying goodbye, I go hiking by myself without telling anyone where I’m going, I’ll turn off my phone sometimes for entire days because I don’t feel like being reachable.
To disappear is to be alone, forcibly so. It is to remove yourself from society and press your aloneness tightly to your skin until it chafes and aches and burns. It is a confrontation with yourself and your place in the world, or sometimes the lack of it. To disappear is to become unreachable. It is to explore how your identity and thoughts shift when you are alone in a larger, more immediate sense. Sometimes I feel empowered when I disappear and it is just myself existing in the sunburnt hollows of the world, adventuring and exploring. Other times I just feel lonely.
I’ve only had a couple of big time disappearances, moments when my leaving causes other people stress, when my return is greeted with scowls and blossoming anxiety. But usually my disappearances are small. Usually they go unnoticed.
The act of disappearing is multifaceted. First, it is a flex of independence. Go because you want to go, Cheryl Strayed wrote. Because wanting to leave is enough. I disappear because I can. Because I am floating and wild and to be a woman alone and leaving feels like a scrap of bravery. Because aloneness feels like something to develop and cherish and I am always trying, always striving, to be better at it. I leave because I can. Because there is no one to tell me don’t go.
But that is the other side of disappearing—the longing to feel tethered. To feel that there is someone else on the other side of the rope who will pull you back out if the cave gets too big and dark.
Sometimes I disappear just to see if anyone cares. Sometimes I want to be missed.
It is like this, you see. It is spring break and I’m at Myrtle Beach, but it is April and the ocean is cold and the sky is overcast but somehow I’ve managed to get a wicked sunburn nonetheless. I meet up with friends at a bar but they don’t have room for me in their car when they leave, and I insist that I’ll be fine, that I can walk back. So I do. Drunk walking—or, ideally, running—at night is one of my favorite feelings, so I walk back beneath the light-faded stars, winding through unknown neighborhoods. My phone at the time did this stupid thing of shutting down randomly when it got below 20%, so I look at a map of where I’m going, try to memorize it, and then shut my phone off to save it for emergencies. And then I am alone. I’ve disappeared. I wobble a little when I walk, but I walk with purpose, with aim. Some guy and I are in that hazy, what do you want from me, flirting phase, and I can’t decide what I want to do. I think he’s a bit of a douche and maybe not worth my time, but when we went backpacking together he asked me about my favorite books, so I think about him and my stupid twisted feelings as I walk back to our rented house, and the night watches over me, and I try to seem way more sober than I am so I am not an easy target, and I make it back unbothered and my friend, the sole other girl of the trip, confronts me immediately, where were you? I’ve been texting you, and she’s annoyed but she gets it. She too disappears.
To disappear is to become someone else. Even if just for a little. Even if just for a moment.
I feel it all as I sit in this stranger’s car in the mountains of Colorado. I feel a little stupid that I didn’t tell my parents where I was headed, but I also feel stupid that I am 28 and they are the only ones who routinely care about that kind of stuff. Should things be different? The older I get, the more people settle, the more attached they become, and the more adrift I feel. The loneliness swells in these moments. But just like drunk night walking is one of my favorite activities, wilderness late night campfires with strangers is one of my other all-time favorite highs, and the guys are gentle and kind and I know they are trying hard to make me feel comfortable, and we talk about relationships and traveling and this medicine woman one of the guys met along the AT, and the night feels pleasant and safe and I find Hercules effortlessly in the sky and the thing about disappearing is that the moment becomes all yours. The stars the night the drunken conversations where people reveal too much and then slink away early in the morning, embarrassed by their honesty. The moment claims you. You don’t have to share it. You couldn’t, even if you wanted to.
I pack up my tent the next morning and think about stopping by at the guys’ site and saying goodbye, but the sun is up and everything feels different now. So I say nothing. I disappear.