The first time I saw Pittsburgh I knew I would leave her. She could be cold, nebby, and casually racist, but really, it was me. With so much out there to see in this world, I’ve never entertained the idea of being tied down to any one city. I’ve never had a car note, a mortgage, or a desire to settle down. While I appreciate the homes others have fashioned for themselves, I’m not quite ready for a long-term commitment.
I have an ongoing joke of a New Year’s resolution: all new mistakes. It’s a way to remind myself to take chances, explore new territory, learn to dig deeper. It’s a call to say yes to opportunities and have a sense of humor when things go awry.
My first road trip taught me a lot about traveling. I learned the size of an airport conversely correlates to the egos of the TSA agents working there. Found train conductors to be ultimate badasses who (after an appropriate amount of scolding) will help you jump moving locomotives when you moronically board one traveling in the wrong direction. Discovered that what qualifies as a town on Google Maps shouldn’t be relied upon to be an actual place, let alone one with refueling capabilities.
Staying with so many friends vastly improved my adventure. Every place has a story to tell and if you’re smart, you’ll listen. The people who opened their homes to me exposed me to things I could never have uncovered in just a few days. They were rightfully proud and enthusiastic to show me around, and their recommendations and insight led me to experience their towns as a local without spending countless hours on research. My memories are better for having had company in creating them.
I learned that people are far kinder than I give them credit for. That they’re helpful and eager to show you their way. I am not one to accept help without a fight. I dislike putting anyone out. From the hostel receptionist to the park ranger to the bartender to the bus driver, strangers inundated me with an outpouring of compassion, easy wit, and unsolicited directions.
There are whole swaths of the country that words just don’t do justice, and I was surprised to find beauty comprised of so many different strains. As the rocky cliffs of the Pacific coast morphed into cacti-crowded deserts, in New Mexico’s sagebrush-covered plains and Florida’s warm sands, I was enveloped by it. With each new landscape, my awe was reawakened.
I am an introvert and lack the stomach for frivolous talk. I can often be reserved around strangers. I realized that moving every few days sets the stakes for interactions comically low and found myself making friends easily. Being open to conversations made me more approachable than usual, and having a perpetually changing perspective gave me plenty to talk about.
However, it wasn’t always “wanderlusting” and “good vibes.” Moving around is both physically and mentally exhausting. Constant change means lots of time spent figuring out travel plans. Every leg added is another person you’re trusting to get you where you need to be, and execution isn’t always seamless. Where you will sleep or eat are things that can’t be taken for granted while you’re traveling. You’re continually processing new information, and zoning out is not an option (see train anecdote above). There were dull waits in bus stations with no one to watch my bag. I didn’t spend a night alone for nine weeks.
Y and I feed off of each other’s energy, and like two kids daring each other, we tend to up the stakes on our collective fate. Leaving Pittsburgh was a given. I had done all I had set out to do as a scrappy bartender, and Yvette had given Pittsburgh a few years and was happy to pursue other pastures, greener or no. Our exit strategy and timetable wasn’t altered by our restaurant closing, but the sudden free time certainly did leave us better prepared to leave Pittsburgh. While we have some amazing friends there, both of us were no longer happy to involve the concept of “Winter” in our lives, or at least consistently sub-freezing temperatures. Our original plan was to move to Texas, stay in the same lane, work the same sort of jobs. Somewhere along the line, largely thanks to the results of the 2016 Election and the absolute horror of an anti-intellectual, classist, racist, pussy-grabbing human latrine representing the free world, our destination moved drastically South.
We added a 6,000 mile road trip across the United States, inspired by a car we had no intention or ability to take with us, gifted to Yvette by her father, and our timeline fuzzed out into the horizon. We were off on a rocket, bound for adventure, and I felt at home in a way that wasn’t possible in 33 years in the Rust Belt. As a creature of habit and comfort (the textbook Taurus), I took to having my nest torn apart and made portable surprisingly well. I enjoy living on the move. I love seeing new places and being outdoors. I love sharing it with kind, supportive people. Like Bradbury, I stopped allowing my relationship with what nourished and sustained me to be colored by others. He rekindled his relationship with what he loved, collecting his beloved comics once more, joining Buck Rogers on his adventures once again, and that love continued to inspire him to his dying day. Even bombing down the highways, groggy in the mid-morning, I felt invigorated, as if I had just taken a plunge into the early morning water of some peaceful Canadian lake.
Travel invites a lot of platitudes. Bouncy-haired influencers are fond of posting sayings like, “We must take adventures in order to know where we truly belong.” They think they look soulful plastered over beach scenes in artfully curled font. I think finding where you belong is just as much about knowing yourself as finding a place that suits you. Travel consistently tests you as a person, and though that growth isn’t always easy, I was eager to share it with J.
That first trip I stayed with friends and in hostels, only using hotels for a brief stretch. As a twosome, neither option was ideal, and even the most budget-friendly motels were going to add up over the course of two months. Hotels in the Four Corners region were particularly scarce, as it is predominantly Native land. After ascertaining that any trip through Moab was going to have us spending at least $100 a night on accommodations, I concluded we should camp.
The fact that it was my suggestion would confuse anyone who knows me. I went to fashion design school in Manhattan. Hiking is the one style of boot I did not own. As a child, camping was something I was forced to do, a distraction from time I would have preferred to spend reading. I don’t buy puffy vests or polar fleece. I don’t own gear. I’m a woman who doesn’t wear leggings in public, let alone go days without a shower. J may now wish I hadn’t taken to that quite so well.
J is an Eagle Scout. He is resourceful and attentive and was determined to make a camper out of me. I was resolved to see Arches National Park. With a borrowed tent and a healthy dose of denial, it was settled.
We carved out a swath of 14 states, gobbled up a lion’s share of National Parks, gazed upon monuments natural, hilarious and historical. Our road stretched into unknown territory as we departed Pittsburgh, in countless hours and endless highways. Lacking the appropriate goat to sacrifice, we offered ourselves to the Travel Gods. The journey, like an endless summer, is an epoch unto itself. It’s something we’ll dissect and study for the rest of our lives. Considering it from the beginning stretches and warps time all over. The journey will always be endless as you relive it, until it’s over, like a roller coaster ride you bound up from at the breathless conclusion to race back into line.
We decided not to plan our stops too far in advance. I’m not very good at letting anyone tell me what to do or when to do it, even if that person is me. I like the chance to explore things organically, as they unfold. I want to be able to scout out an interesting detour, pull over at an overlook, wander aimlessly. Planning is tedious work, and ultimately limiting. It eliminates one’s ability to linger. Sacrificing that so as to adhere to some schedule past me had designed would render the whole trip pointless.
We generated a list of cities and an approximate timeline. We would revisit a few places, but also seek out the new. We secured a National Parks Annual Pass (the single smartest acquisition of the trip). I was somewhat more prepared than the last time. I had even procured a driver’s license!
It was going to be intense. We would get heated, and lost, and run dangerously low on fuel (twice), but we were doing it. We were inspired and hungry and restless, embarking on a journey of all new mistakes.
The Great American Road Trip, something that once seemed like an impossibility to me, was over, just like that. Keeping a photographic and written account of the voyage is the only thing keeping it from all blurring together. We spent two months on the road, and there were singular moments that seemed to hover, like hawks coasting on thermals in slow circles, timeless stretches demarcated by a smile or a joke, or the dwindling light of the sun, making way for a blanket of stars. So many monumental challenges that stood in front of us as we left the safe harbor of my parent’s home in Cleveland now blow in the wind like the inconsequential trivialities they truly were. Even the shock and pain of surprises and travel woes that assail every journey faded almost immediately after we had bested them. At the end of the day, we’re both well-salted restaurant veterans, and we’re not afraid of a damn thing. We’ve put out countless fires, both physical and meta.
If we tend to goad each other into progressively larger challenges, this trip managed to trump both of us; hardly a day goes by now without discussing a new adventure. As much as we saw, it was all in travel-sized samples. There are countless hours yet to be spent on the New River or Colorado, not observing from above, but coursing through it on a raft. Mammoth Cave is the largest cave system on the planet, and we spent only a few hours inside. So many places left us wanting more.
The desert sank its hooks deep into me, as much as I love the lush forests I grew up with. With familiar cities like San Antonio and Nashville, this was to be expected, but places new to us like Hot Springs, Memphis, and Louisville all had more stories to tell. Some of our best moments were had in nowhere bars or restaurants or remote campgrounds, places too far from the interstates to be noticed by most. Traveling is a series of happy accidents, even if our chill is sometimes nowhere near Bob Ross levels. It’s an important lesson that we continue to retrace every day.