Thirteen thousand and ninety-nine miles.
Thirty-three states (and two Canadian provinces).
Countless bottles of water and Naked juice.
It's been nearly three weeks now since the end of my journey around the country, and if it weren't for this blog and a few hundred photographs (not to mention an increase in my Visa debt), it would seem like it never happened. Almost.
The idea to take this trip came from a conversation I had with friends of my parents when we visited Scotland for Christmas of 2005. The couple, being retired and with all of their children out of the house, took to excursions around Europe, collecting fine wines and cheeses from across the continent. The places they had seen sounded amazing; the history and culture, the food, the spectacular vistas. My desire to travel and explore, which up till then had really only fueled my tendency to take long ways home or explore back roads around where I lived, intensified. The great European vacation from so many books and movies would be mine, I decided.
But really, I thought, why Europe? What had it to offer in terms of unexplored territory that my own continent didn't? I have lived my entire life on the West coast, venturing north and south of Oregon, but rarely further east other than layovers in Newark or Chicago. There was so much to see without even crossing an ocean, why not take advantage of what is in my backyard first. Because honestly, I knew next to nothing about what the United States really felt and looked like outside of TV or movies.
And so, I began planning. I graduated that June and took a mini trip with Scott for a week; a blazingly fast, week long tour of a couple states close by. From that trip, I learned one of the most important rules for an enjoyable roadtrip: don't rush it. If you are always in a hurry, always trying to get to your next location, you'll miss a lot of the country at 80 mph.
The idea for my own trip took a backseat in my mind for more than a year afterward. In the fall of 2007 I was working at an internship at Intel and began to feel antsy again. Maybe it was the sterile corporate environment, or perhaps the frustration of driving the same 10 miles of highway day in and day out; the stagnation, the overwhelming feeling of uncertainty about my future or what I really wanted, feeling stuck in a rut. I desired to break out, explore, drive miles of empty road. I desired to get away. So I sat at my computer one afternoon and haphazardly plotted a course across the country, choosing destinations that I always wanted to see, or had heard about, or just sounded interesting. The exact route was unimportant, the idea was to improvise if necessary.
I started tossing the idea around with some friends and family, getting reactions and advice. Winter was approaching, and considering I was scheduled to work until mid-January as well as not wanting to get stuck in the snow crossing the Rockies, I decided I would leave in the Spring.
For the next few months, I refined my plan, talked some more about it, and above all just waited. It began to feel like one of those amazing ideas you have that simply would never materialize, whether due to lack of opportunity, lack of resources, or a lack of will to really follow through. March rolled around, and then April. I left for another trip to Scotland for yet another wedding two years after the first, my dream still unfulfilled. By the time I returned home, I had less than two months remaining on my lease. Another excuse to for me to wait. June, I thought, I can leave right at the beginning of June after I move.
Near the end of May, tightening funds and a new romantic interest forced me to reconsider a June departure. I've waited this long, I thought, whats another month of two. Plenty of time to save up enough to comfortably cover the trip.
Summer came, and summer slipped away like so many other things. I found myself in the last week of July with no more reasons to stay, no excuse to put off leaving any longer. I had made the decision to return to school in the fall, so my window of opportunity was ever shortening. Without really realizing what I was getting myself into, on August 2nd I packed my car and turned east.
I don't think I was ever really sure what I would accomplish on my trip. I can throw around cliches about finding myself and discovering America, about the great American Road Trip or a quarter-life crisis. They're all true in their own ways, but were more so as unintended results rather than reasons to go. When I try to be honest with myself, I think it was mostly a desire to escape for a while. With no creative outlet or focus in life it is easy to become bogged down; with nothing to work towards or particular reason not to it is easy to stop moving. I felt bogged down, slowed down, from the past two years.
My solution was to drive away. I've always felt at home in a way out on an empty road, even driving alone. I find it relaxing, almost comforting. Call it a consequence of introversion.
I was in a place I didn't much like and needed change. What better change than a new city every night? What better escape than to put thousands of miles between me and where I'd been? It may sound horrible, but we all escape in our own ways every day. Getting lost in music, a TV show, a book, movies, video games, hikes, alcohol, drugs. Some are obviously more productive or destructive than others, but each one offers us time to forget for a while, to be somewhere or someone else. I would get my escape, and as a bonus I would see the country I had lived in for 24 years and perhaps discover some things about myself along the way.
I've seen mountains so beautiful no words I write could describe them. I've been in uncomfortable situations, maybe even dangerous situations, lost and alone. I've stayed in hostels, hotels, motels, and guest houses; slept in my tent and my car, on couches, air mattresses, floors, and friends beds. I arrived in Sturgis during Bike Week and New Orleans during Southern Decadence. I've watched sunsets that took my breath away and others that I barely noticed. I've seen a full moon rise over the Atlantic, red as blood. I've fled swarms of insects in Montana and Mississippi and I've been bitten more times than I can count. I've seen the Milky Way on a night so clear I could swear there was naught above me but open space. I saw friends I hadn't seen in years, and met some for the first time. I've tried to remember, and tried to forget.
It seems that I, as well as most I talked to, had the idea that I would have passed through a fundamental, material change upon returning. I've been back for more nearly weeks now, time enough to try and digest my experiences and perform some serious introspection. And to what conclusion did I come to, you may be asking? ("Of course I ask that," you say, "why else would I be reading your epilogue?"). Am I better off having spent the better part of two months crossing the country? Am I different now than before?
Well, yes and no.
My trip served the purposes an extended absence can, answered the questions I had that it was able to. A part of my motivation was to search for any other place in the country that could feel like home. I traveled through a wide variety of environments; sweeping open lands, mountainous regions, the farmlands of middle America, big cities, small towns, tourist traps, holes in the wall, deserts, urban jungles. Could I picture myself living in these places? Mostly, yes. I was hard pressed to not find at least something appealing about everywhere I went. But was it home? Did I feel that indescribable feeling of comfort and belonging? Why not? What was it about Portland that kept drawing me back?
The saying is tired and cheesy, but there is truth to it; home really is where the heart is. After you stop groaning, stick with me for a minute while I explain what I mean. Sure, Portland is great, there are lots of things to love about it. But Boston was great too; Austin had an amazing atmosphere; Nashville was more fun than I expected from the capital of country music; Portland Maine, Cleveland, Bozeman, Whitefish, Santa Fe. I could go on, listing (nearly) every city, town, or village I stopped in and come up with a reason to stay. But home is more than a place, more than your address or where you sleep each night. Home is a state of being, home is your friends and your family. Without that, you're never truly home. That is what I finally figured out on this trip.
"Is that it? That was all you got out of seven weeks of driving?"
Of course not. I also learned that this country is giant. Hell, driving across Texas alone took me about four days. On a less facetious note, the time away alone gave me more than ample opportunity to think, to reflect, to let my mind wander. I mentioned this in a previous post, but it deserves repeating: when you're mind wanders, it rarely wanders the direction you want it to. The world is full of triggers to memories; a car, a song, a town, a name. Even single words can stir up thoughts you'd rather not have again. And eventually, all of my thinking of thoughts converged to conclusions. Perhaps not resolutions, but conclusions that are more satisfying than questions.
This may sound like the vague babbling of a madman (and that it may be), with talk of thoughts and triggers and wanderings. The important part is not what particular conclusions I came to about particular thoughts, rather that too often I don't take the time to truly reflect. I push down thoughts or feelings to "deal with" at a later date that rarely comes. I doubt I'm the only one that does this. Sometimes it is necessary to get away from the distractions and activities we do, force yourself to be truly alone with nothing to do but think, no one to talk to but yourself.
You can call it finding myself if you like. I'm not sure I'd go that far.
Which, of course, brings me to the latter part of my answer about whether I have changed or felt different. Early I talked of feeling a need to escape for a while, and how this trip was partly a result of that. The problem with a circular route is that eventually you come back to where you started. And everything I had left behind to escape from was waiting for me, slightly annoyed for being ditched.
This is where I make some grand revelation about not being able to run away from problems and all that good jazz. We all know it, we've heard it untold times before. I'm going to skip it. I have nothing new to bring to that table, there is no easy solution there. I may have returned with new perspectives, new experiences, renewed feelings and hope, but that doesn't change what I left behind (both mentally and physically). It does, however, help me now with doing what needs to be done.
As well as all the mental turmoil I seem to have gone through (and I must apologize to you, poor reader, for you must feel at this point that my trip is turning into a bad emo song), I also learned some fun facts along the way. Behold, the List of Facts!
- Internet is everywhere. EVERYWHERE. When even the podunk motels in the podunkiest towns are offering free wifi in every room, thats when you realize the future is now (queue the booming voice over "In the twenty-first century, the future has arrived!").
- Planning a trip spontaneously is fun and all, but for some activities you really just need to be prepared. For example, you can purchase a National Parksannual pass for only $80. Yes, this would have saved me money.
- Tourist traps are called so for a reason. Beware the boring, overcrowded, overpriced monuments and museums (I'm looking at you Mt. Rushmore, and runner up Rock n Roll Hall of Fame).
- Sturgis: Leather chaps + bikinis. Enough said.
- Motel prices rise on Friday and Saturday nights by an incredible margin. Avoid if possible.
- Sometimes toll roads are just a fact of life. Carry spare change and a couple of bucks just in case.
- If you're tired enough, you can sleep just about anywhere.
- Good microbrew beers can be found just about everywhere, although sometimes they are referred to as craft beers.
- French Canada is seriously French. Seriously.
- Portland, Or > Portland, ME
- Driving in major metropolitan areas leads to high blood pressure.
- Motel 6 provides exactly what you need, is usually the cheapest, and actually less sketchy than you may think.
- Museums in DC are completely free. They got something right there.
- Pumping your own gas > Having someone else pump your gas
- Wikitravel is your friend on the road.
- Music is always better live.
- Insects are always better dead.
- My blood tastes better than Graham's to mosquitoes.
- Waffle House is never a good idea. Never.
- Blogging is easier to do regularly than journaling because you have the illusion of writing for a captive audience.
Was it worth it? The time, the money, the misadventures? Had I a time machine and could deliver myself a message three months ago, would I still advise myself to go?
Would I do things differently, knowing what I do now? Perhaps, but for all the mistakes I made and missteps I took, the least I can say is that I learned from them. They also make for good stories.
The title of this post, "If we could only see us now" is one of my favorite quotes, and comes from a Thrice song (those who know my musical tastes will probably say "what a surprise" with very sarcastic intonation). It has stuck with me over the years because it always feels relevant in my life. I've interpreted it as a comment on how we never really know where we will go in life, and often wouldn't believe where we end up until it happens. If we could only see us now, would we still act how we do? If we could only see us now, what would we have changed?
If we could only see us now.
The sunset on the first day of my trip. It was beautiful.
First experiencing the feeling of not knowing where I'll be sleeping that night.
Walking through a field in Montana with the Linns at dusk, the grasshoppers springing up around our ankles.
Feeling disheartened and overwhelmed after Glacier, being less than a week in.
Driving through the night, under a cloudless a moonless sky.
Feeling truly lost for the first time.
Company after a week of solitude.
Remembering, and it being a good thing.
The bartender at the Harbor Inn in Cleveland.
Discussing the origins of altruistic behaviors, among other topics.
Watching the moon rise on an Atlantic beach.
Getting no sleep whatsoever at a hostel in Boston.
Being alone again, on the opposite side of the country.
Seeing a police officer smoking a cigar, on the job, in New Orleans.
A Texas shaped sink in a Texan McDonald's.
Sunset over Whitesands.
Realizing that Death Valley may actually defeat me.
Driving on familiar roads for the first time in six weeks.
I'm working on the final two installments of the epilogue. The next will be a collection of photographs, most of which haven't been seen yet. It'll be done "when I finish working on it" (hopefully less than another three weeks).
After the epilogue, I plan on continuing this blog. Life is interesting, and interesting (and odd) things seem to happen everyday. Or maybe I just attract interesting (read: odd) people. Either way, I can't help but feel there are stories there.