Alison Miller doesn’t know exactly how long she’ll be staying in San Antonio, but it’s already longer than expected.
“I was planning to leave tomorrow, but when I woke up I just knew I needed to stay a little longer,” Miller said Monday.
Why? She couldn’t tell you. And that doesn’t scare her too much. She’s following the same beckoning voice she’s been following for the last month and a half, and it has guided her well so far.
That voice, Miller says, is her husband, the now-deceased retired Air Force Master Sgt. Chuck Dearing. Dearing, whom Alison calls “Handsome Husband” on her blog, died last April of an aggressive form of sarcoma. At the time of his death, the couple had been married for 23 years. The last four of those had been spent on the road, “happily homeless.”
In their little, red Ford Escape, Miller and her Handsome Husband had traveled the contiguous 48 states with a National Parks Pass and access to the Family Camps (“Fam Camps”) on military bases around the country. A friend had warned them that this much togetherness would drive them crazy – that they would find themselves bickering across the country.
“We reveled in our time together!” Miller said.
Miller grew up in a military family, so the concept of “home” had always been nebulous for her. Going out on the open road simplified matters. They kept an address for junk mail in New Jersey, but that was as close as they got to permanent.
“Because we lived on the road, we were each other’s home,” Miller said.
After his death, Miller was homeless in a new way. In addition to grieving the loss of her true love, she was now adrift. One thing she knew was that she could not abandon the road, or it would mean losing her husband entirely. She had to keep doing what they loved doing.
During their final days together while he was in hospice care, the couple agreed that Dearing’s cremains should be scattered across his favorite places. He specified three – Crater Lake, Crazy Horse, and Little Big Horn – and told her that she would know the rest, planting the seed for the journey that is now underway.
What Miller understands, however, is the weight and power of grief. She’s not glib about moving forward. Some things, like traveling in the little, red Ford Escape were just too hard. So she bought a new one, had it custom-painted pink and bought a small, teardrop-shaped trailer to match. Her personal mantras are emblazoned on the rig, as well as on her body, which she has had tattooed with the theme from her last days with Dearing. When people would call them during his final days to ask how it was going, Miller would respond: “There’s nothin’ but love here.”
Why pink though?
“I know if it’s all pink, Chuck can find me,” Miller says, confident that Handsome Husband is watching and smiling as she journeys. He didn’t want her to mourn in black.
She’s right. It’s hard to miss. But the pink has had another unexpected blessing in its hue.
“Grief is isolating. Being on the road is isolating. I needed something to draw people to me,” Miller said.
People often don’t know how to approach the bereaved, for fear of saying the wrong thing. But Miller’s pink house on wheels begs you to ask about her journey, which began with a sprinkling her husband’s ashes in the Dry Tortugas.
All along the way people have unexpectedly approached her, heard her story, and told her theirs. She has collected love stories and survival stories from far and wide as her journey resonates with others through her blog, Facebook page, and growing media attention. It pulls her out of isolation, bringing the story telling, hugs, and connection that keeps her engaged in life.
As she drives, Miller is literally applauded by passengers of passing cars. Truckers and bikers give her the thumbs up. She receives emails from widows saying things like, “If you can do this, I can get up this morning.”
She understands this sentiment well. When I ask her how she is doing emotionally at this point in the journey she is forthright.
“Every morning I suit up, I show up, and I let the day unfold,” she said.
For the epic nature of what she calls her “odyssey of love” for Handsome Husband, there are also quiet moments of personal reckoning; when she sees a landmark from her previous travels with her husband or hears a song that they played on the open road. For all the new loves, there is still the loss of her true love. But rather than withering in grief, she’s moving through it, opening up to the goodness she encounters. She’s living in the present moment.
Miller is gaining purpose as she goes. While each day is guided by intuition, she sees an overarching story weaving together across the asphalt. She’s also facing one of the great fears that comes with losing ones life partner: self-sufficiency. Miller was always the passenger, and now she is learning to be the driver.
The journey that started in Key West in the company of her son has progressed from Fam Camp to Fam Camp to friend to friend. She lets the military bases know she’s coming, bringing a veteran on his final journey through. She’s been amazed at the hospitality of the military family, and hopes that any publicity on her journey garners will boost support for veterans as they feel their long-term security in jeopardy because of cuts to retirement benefits.
The short-term logistical goal for this leg of the journey is Arizona, where two of her four children live. She plans to sprinkle some cremains at White Sands, another favorite destination. “Head west” is the only item on every day’s agenda and she has no deadline for getting anywhere in particular. When JoAnne McKinley, whom Miller had met only once, reached out and offered her a brief reprieve from the long hauls and trailer sleeping, the answer was yes.
That’s how the pink rig came to be parked in the driveway of Grace Cottage, a short-term rental property in Dignowity Hill operated by Juan and Barb Garcia. McKinley was renting the renovated cottage through Airbnb, an online platform that connects travelers to hosts, and welcomed Miller to join for a night or two before heading to a Fam Camp at Lackland Air Force Base.
True to the name of the guest house, Miller feels that her stop in San Antonio has been just that, a moment of grace. She is taking a rest before what will undoubtedly be an emotional journey up I-35. Miller was born in Ft. Hood, and on their first road trip together, her husband took her back to her birthplace for the first time. He then took her to the Lavender Festival, one of her favorite memories.
“He was so joyous to see me so excited,” Miller recalled.
During the short time she’s been in San Antonio, Miller marvels at the encounters she’s already had and the opportunities to share stories. It’s no surprise that her ultimate goal is to make a living teaching others how to move forward in their grief, and how to start over. When this journey is over, she said, Miller and her daughter plan to start a group that does just that.
One of the great gifts of time spent talking with Miller is inspiration for how to live in the present – even when we are not grieving. I left Grace Cottage feeling more present, more thankful, and somehow more full of life.
Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey, and is a frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.