I just finished Red Room author Doreen Orion's QUEEN OF THE ROAD, new this month from Random House. I fully expected to love the book--and to connect with it at a personal level. I was not disappointed. Her story is a light-hearted romp with depth.
On the face of it, Doreen's story bears some similarity to my own. A female shrink, happily married and settled comfortably into her life, goes on an unexpected midlife journey, emerges transformed--and writes a memoir about her experiences.
There are differences, of course. Doreen's adventures center on a converted bus, piloted by her psychiatrist husband Tim, who has talked her into a cross country road trip. As a self-confessed "couch potato" who works at home, she has balked at the idea of spending a full year on a bus, no matter how luxuriously appointed.
My own journey started out more humbly: in a down-at-the-heels white Dodge van, with a singing Cajun tour guide at the wheel. And it was just a four day birthday trip to New Orleans with my husband. But that Louisiana swamp tour marked the beginning of a life-changing love affair with Cajun music. So I know for myself the liberating effects of stepping outside the familiar routines of our lives, whether it's for a long weekend or a year.
Doreen takes us on a wild and wacky yearlong journey through most of the fifty states. Our tour guide is a smart-mouthed "princess from the Island of Long" who spares no one (especially herself) in her tart observations, whether she's in the middle of a nudist RV park or an armed robbery. She's the sassy kid sister or cool best friend with a wicked sense of humor--the one who dares to say the things most of us keep to ourselves.
Consider her jaundiced view of the great outdoors. She has a face-off (more precisely, a "shoe-off") with a competitive bird-watcher at a Florida wildlife refuge. She pronounces hiking "boring" because the scenery changes so slowly. And then there's the priceless chapter on Alaska, where the fabled Mt. Denali is rarely visible at Denali Park, and the famous Dall sheep ("the friggin' sheep") turn out to be "little white dots on a hill." (The Alaska chapter was one of my favorites; it brought back wonderful memories of my first trip there, just last year.)
Doreen turns an equally sharp eye on herself. Early in the trip, she begins to question her attachment to the material trappings of life--especially her shoes (all 200 of them!) and her designer labels. Although I've never suffered from a shopping addiction, I did feel a twinge of recognition when Doreen quietly noted some of her other failings. She's a psychiatrist who runs short of compassion in her daily life. A writer who doesn't read enough. A loving wife who lets her affable husband do the housework--and who sometimes tunes him out when he goes on too long about his "projects." She catches herself looking down on people who seem "different"--like the RV park crowd--and finds people obsessed with a grand passion a little quirky. Then she begins to reconsider. Her worldview slowly starts to shift.
Make no mistake about it: This hilarious book is a story of personal transformation. Along with the humor, wacky stories, crazy characters, travel notes, and martini recipes, Dr. Doreen delivers some important life lessons. Like any good therapist, she has a light hand--and perfect timing. She waits until your defenses are down and delivers the message without being heavy-handed or preachy.
Doreen's major epiphany is not a surprise. It starts early in the journey, after a bus mishap. "Everything is replaceable." The material trappings that have defined her life are not so important. Everything follows from that.
At the end of the journey, Doreen is determined to hold on to "the bus thing." In a fascinating coda, she gives us a glimpse into how her life--and Tim's--have changed since the trip. While not dramatic, her shifts are significant and heartfelt. She offers a few more guideines: Feelings and experiences, family and friends, are more important than things. The journey is more important than the destination.
Simple truths, perhaps--but the important ones usually are. Recommended reading--for summer, or any time of year!
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders