When things get too big for you to handle, when the pains and pressures of life wear you down, when you're facing a really tough challenge, maybe the toughest in your life, what do you do?

I don't know about you, but I run away.

I was almost finished with high school. Thankfully, it looked like I would be graduating, although not with any kind of honors. I had squeaked through the system, leaving little bits of flesh and hair caught in the gears, but I was nearly free. The wonder and glory of adult life lay spread out in front of me to the horizon, throbbing faintly with the promise of new hijinx and adventures.

And then it broke down.

I have been, throughout my life, susceptable to a certain type of unreasonable, unstoppable panic. I am seized by a certain impulse, usually to escape, and I follow it uncontrollably, not knowing where it will lead me or caring. Three days before the graduation ceremony, it hit me again. In the grip of an implacable fear, I packed up my hiking backpack with food, a change of clothes, a sleeping bag and a waterproof tarp. My plan was to walk to California, getting there in time to meet my best friend, who would be attending UC Santa Cruz. I allowed myself three months to walk down the coast from Seattle.

I wrote letters to the people I cared about at the time, leaving them and, for some reason, all my CD's on my friend's porch. Then I hopped on a bus to Tacoma.

My mother was out of town; helping out with the Special Olympics. I left a terse note, something about exploring America before I died.

My plan for the first day was to make it to Olympia, where I was sure I could find a place to sleep. However, I took the wrong exit while I was walking on the freeway and wound up on some backroads to the west. I walked for hours, through a town called Roy, where I had just missed the rodeo by a day.

As I walked, I fantasized; I could have run away with the rodeo, changed my life completely. I sang odd, repetitive songs, as loud as I could sing them. There was nobody around. A car pulled over to the side of the road, a station wagon, back seat filled with detritus; front seat with a mid-30's man and a little girl I assumed to be his daughter. They looked like they'd been driving for a long time. I declined a ride.

I wound up, nearly 15 miles of walking later, in Yelm. The sun had long set, and I was falling apart tired. I laid out my tarp in a secluded corner of a Key Bank drive-through enclosure, rolled out my sleeping bag and fell asleep, waking every five minutes at the flash of headlights from a nearby video store. Clarity was brought with sleep; the feeling of panic had passed. All I wanted now was to get home. I woke at 4:00 AM and turned north.

A local bus pulled over by the side of the road, and I rode it to the freeway, where I walked for hours, thirteen miles to Olympia, my original target. I found the Greyhound station with my instinctual homing sense and paid the $10 ticket.

At the end of the day I was back in Seattle again, feet hideously inflated with blood, smelling like dead animals, collapsing in tears at my mother's feet.

Girls I had held longstanding crushes on lost all respect for me for coming back; I had taken the easy way out.

And I had.