The guardian finger.

I don’t believe in protective angels, but one sits on the passenger seat of my ’97 Mercury anyway. It doesn’t have wings or much of a holy glow — it’s a drab sage green and the size of a big sandwich. A plastic, skeletal index finger bends on the top of an outline of a gently cupped hand. “THE FINGER,” it helpfully explains below the display. Only Dan Tabish would hand me an anatomical visual aid and call it an angel.

Dan is a print shop owner, inventor, troublemaker, frequent medical miracle, art collector, oddity collector, and one of my parents’ dearest friends. Bald, gruff, and often shirtless, Dan could easily be cast as Hit Man #2 in a movie. He’d promptly be fired when his one line “Where’s the goddamn money, Bruno?” would be replaced with a string of stories about Montana in the ‘70s, the explanation of his latest scar, and suggestions for plot changes that would really make this puppy sing. His life is full of legendary, shocking, wandering tales and he knows how to tell ’em. He’s the sort of kind-hearted rascal a writer dreams of inventing, but I’m more than happy just to know him and get a story or 20 for the road.

Dan lent me The Finger, christened the car The Meat Machine, and named himself my parole officer. I’ve been traveling across the U.S. since the beginning of May and The Good Finger’s Lord knows I need all the help I can get. We’re an assortment of oddities — a Grand Marquis with a grill guard, a woman with a big bolo tie collection, and a blessed fake finger — so Dan fits right in as a long-distance guide.

The author, with Mercury.
The author, with the Mercury. Photo by Bart Nagel /

The road is full of decisions and angst about whether you’re doing the right thing. Sometimes it’s just about what to eat or where to stay; other times you drive past a green-goateed man on a bike with a handmade “Show me your p*ssy” T-shirt and you really regret not taking a picture so you turn around and spend the next 10 minutes chasing that weaving mirage down Eureka, California, streets.

You have a lot of time to think about what you want and need on the busy gaps between cities and the one-lane twisting highways down the coast. If you need coolant, you’d better find it; if you want a novelty cinnamon roll, no one says no. Matters of the body are simple things — your belly rumbles for food and you grumble for sleep. Needs and wants can align in one satisfying ruben split as the sun comes up in Las Vegas. This, of course, is not so simple with matters of the mind.

The gap between what you want and need can widen and take on a life of its own. The damn thing can crystallize into a hard, lumpy truth in your shoe, the kind that makes you wince and limp when you’re in the middle of your favorite dance move.

This was the case for me late this winter in Seattle. I wanted nothing more than to quietly cast aside that stone and go on with the most fulfilling relationship I’ve ever been in. I’d spent five years with a very good man. He made it his mission to know my wants and needs. He could tell you what songs I’d put on repeat before I ever heard them and when I needed to go to bed long before that sleepy, distant look of mine set in. He never anticipated the need to leave, though.

So I tried to ignore what I needed in favor of what I wanted. It worked for a while until it just didn’t. I sat up in our bed and was honest. We discussed my need, measured its shape, and tested its borders. We talked about what it meant and didn’t mean, its vagueness and certainties. We sat with it and we cried about it. When it was clear that it wasn’t going away, I packed up a life that I loved and unraveled everything I found good and comfortable.

Voicing one big truth doesn’t give the rest of your life clarity. Honesty might win a look of admiration or two, but “don’t kill the messenger” is a phrase for a reason. I said my part and pulled the rug out from under myself. I started spinning through a time where wants and needs became unfathomable riddles. Basic functions were neglected until my body gasped for sleep or a meal. I spent days eating nothing but free office cereal and forgot dinner until midnight. I started losing weight without trying, which sounds great until it happens and you’re staring down at the scale wondering where you went.

The clouds covered the ocean and caught the colors of the sunset and it felt like we were on the edge of all that is known and holy. I drank a dark and stormy and felt anything but.

Now that I’ve been on the road, my hips are a bit softer and my mind is a little quieter. My parole officer was wise to order me to eat well and locally. I’ve been catching up with a lot of good friends, and shared meals have been a cornerstone of the trip. It’s an honor to dine at a friend’s favorite restaurant in an unfamiliar city. Sometimes the kindness of a home-cooked dinner is almost too much for this sore heart to take.

A pal and I cobbled together a meal from what was in my trunk and in her bright Santa Barbara kitchen. We chatted over fresh berries and a stale granola bar until she was late for work.

I spent a sunny afternoon with former colleagues and their families in Berkeley. They are talented food journalists, so the conversation bounced between the stories of what we’d been up to and what we were eating. The juice was squeezed from the fruit of a citrus tree across the yard; the chocolate was grown in Hawaii by one editor’s mother. A kid painted in the nude and a toddler managed to overturn several bubble makers. I took advantage of all the distractions by eating much more than my fair share of fantastic Bay Area cheeses.

In Oakland, an old friend and his new fiancée made breakfast tacos. As we ate, I noticed that they had gotten matching tattoos after knowing each other for just a few months. I brought it up and we laughed and filled up; they were so sweet on each other and the food was so satisfying that the mood couldn’t be anything but celebratory.

Of course there have been bland and solitary meals, but that doesn’t make them boring. I ate peanut butter and crackers out of my trunk while cars whipped by on a cloudy afternoon in Big Sur. Sweet strangers offered a free place to stay over burgers in Colorado. Kevin Bacon kindly agreed to a photo in front of the Merc after we hit up the same Marfa, Texas, food truck.

The Meat Machine, with a side of Bacon.
The Meat Machine, with a side of Bacon.

I’ve had countless meals just to fuel up, but desire and gluttony have found their ways back into my life, too. No one needs to eat steak at 10 p.m. at Chez Panisse with five hilarious, sharp women, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

So my body is a little clearer about what it wants and needs. My mind still struggles at times, though. On my first evening in the Big Sur, I asked a camp ranger for a good hike I could make in an hour before the sun went down. He pointed out a trail and I pulled into the parking lot.

The Meat Machine and her cow catcher gather quite a bit of attention. The conversations tend to follow a similar pattern: “Are you an undercover cop?” men shout and I make a joke about busting them. They ignore my line in order to make a similar joke and then they ask where I’m coming from and going. Whether it’s a bespectacled guy at a campground or a heavily tattooed gas station worker, it’s a simple kind of flirtation at 20 paces and I enjoy the talk and repetition and driving away from it all.

In this particular lot, though, I pulled up next to a truck and the mood was much different. “What is that?” the middle-aged man in the cab asked. I explained and made a joke about the cow catcher being good for hitting deer and scaring Californians. “I love it,” he said. I said thanks and he repeated his line. As I put on my hiking boots, I looked up and he was still staring. His face held no kindness. I couldn’t tell if he had it out for me or the Merc or both, but I moved the car across the parking lot out of his sight and started the hike.

The guide hadn’t mentioned that the trail had a small river you had to wade through. I was hungry to see the coast so I took off my boots and socks and rolled up my pants. I was cold and wet and had just gotten down the path and into the hike when I realized I didn’t have my keys. “Ah, screw it,” I thought. The meadows were golden in front of me and I wanted nothing more than to warm my legs and explore. I made it another 30 feet before I stopped again.

I love my car. I thank her when she chugs to the top of a mountain pass; I laugh when we squeal past much younger cars at green lights. The thought of her sitting vulnerable with the keys on the seat with that creep nearby was too much. I turned back and we gunned it out of there. I parked her in a well-lit lot and parked myself at a table facing the Pacific in an expensive restaurant on a cliff. The clouds covered the ocean and caught the colors of the sunset and it felt like we were on the edge of all that is known and holy. I drank a dark and stormy and felt anything but.

Dan hasn’t told me how or why The Finger is an angel, but I do know what it’s come to mean to me. I’ve felt exquisitely, powerfully alone on this trip. There was the moment when (cover your eyes, Mom) I was running out of gas and flying across the Oakland bridge at sunset and it was so goddamn beautiful and scary that I was shouting. I felt it again in the hot silence of the Mojave Desert when I was calculating whether the Meat Machine had enough fuel to make it to a gas station. And the feeling gripped me on that hike when I knew what I needed to do and it was to face that cold river with no reward.

Whenever I stop myself from doing something dangerous, like running a red light, or remember to do something necessary, like fill up, I give an appreciative glance to The Finger. It’s a reminder of actual and extended family, of the people who worry for me and cook for me and who would be really pissed if I got hurt doing something dumb.

Given The Finger is an anatomical display, I also think of bodies and the hard but breakable things under our skins. They give us form and structure, yet we only seem to remember them when things go wrong. The Merc’s bones were exposed when she hit a deer going 75 in Eastern Montana. Mine became more apparent when I forgot how to want the things I needed. She’s got her grill guard now; I’ve got a stun gun, The Finger, good friends, a pocket knife, and the Meat Machine.

Darby Minow Smith is a Grist editor. She plans to spend time with family in rural Montana when she’s had enough of traveling. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

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