The dim headlights of my pickup strained against the darkness of the moonless night, but they did little to illuminate the dirt road ahead. The needle on the speedometer moved higher and higher, and with every bump and rattle beneath the wheels, I felt a jolt of adrenaline surge through my body. I didn’t know what was real and what I was imagining. “Breathe,” I told myself, in an effort to calm the pounding in my chest. This road, this piece of desert — it all seemed as familiar as it was strange and foreign. Slowly, the adrenaline receded, and I regained control of my foot, which had been pinning the accelerator to the floor. “This isn’t Afghanistan,” I told myself. Again, “This isn’t Afghanistan.” And with that, the spell was broken.
As my truck slowed down, the torrential rush of gravel under the tires quieted and then stopped. My trembling hand reached for the emergency brake. My only thought was, “Now what?” The empty desert peered back at me, as if also waiting for the answer to my question. The screen on my phone flashed, “No service.” But for the faint smell of sagebrush coming through the open window and the sound of the gently idling engine, the world was empty.
I felt completely and utterly lost in a way I had never experienced before. The illusion I had kept up since leaving the military – that I could function – was now shattered. Perhaps I could still pretend Afghanistan hadn’t affected me, or maybe this was the beginning of a long downward spiral. I saw both paths laid out in front of me, but I couldn’t tell which one I was moving toward.
My hand, already knowing what had to be done, released the emergency brake. “Breathe, you can do this.” I thought about how insane this would have looked to someone watching, this scene of a man whose nerves had abandoned him. But no one was watching. My only witness was the desert. I tried to concentrate on one action at a time: turn the truck around; retrace my route; find the paved road, find the highway; turn westward toward home. As the road carried me into the mountains and toward safety, I dared to take a final look in the rearview mirror, and I saw the desert. Down there, just a few hours before, something inside me had broken for a moment. I turned the volume on the radio all the way up, and what had happened seemed to melt away. At least for another day, I would ignore it.
Bradley Frye served six years in the United States Army. At UC Santa Barbara, he is majoring in economics, and he will graduate in 2020.