Embedded in the folklore of the nation, lies that wild legend of the great American road trip. Almost as soon as the dream of an interstate highway system was achieved, it inspired books and movies with tales of bohemian souls traveling similarly untamed lands. Eventually, these stories became the catalyst behind jaunts in the family station wagon, Spring Break adventures, and Vegas-destined debauchery. Anyone seeking the wild unknown could find it on the open road. Like many of my generation, raised on Hunter S. Thompson, Thelma and Louise, and so much television, I too craved my own rebellious narrative. However, myths have a way of smoothing over the troublesome details us mortals have to face.
Looking back on an incredible, frenetic journey, we find ourselves marveling at how much we were able to see and do. It can feel like years were lived, and at times, taken off our docket, in those two months. Humans are capable of such depth of feeling, and the urgency and unfamiliar nature of travel serves to heighten the experience. Moments of sublime wonder, elation, laughter, and profound connection interlace with annoyance, exhaustion, and fear. These are some of our highs and lows from our 6,000-mile trip.
I have never been particularly fond of camping, finding it to be a lot of preparation for the exaggerated payoff of an uncomfortable night’s rest, but I was prepared to make concessions in order to afford a trip of this scale. White Sands National Monument lacked the trappings of a typical campsite and our visit was both singular and breathtaking.
As we approached from above, the shimmering gypsum ribbon cutting through the valley foretold the rare beauty we were about to experience. Banks rise up on either side of the park’s single road, the sand perpetually herded back by diligent dozers. Sleds, bought from the visitor’s center, proved a more thrilling ride than expected as we slid off the towering crests. Tracks from the desert’s resourceful inhabitants littered the dunes, only to be erased by the wind. Small clusters of people dotted the crowns of the dunes to watch the spectacular show as the sun sputtered out behind the peaks of the San Andres Mountains. The moon rose, full and low, shining its spotlight on the reflective white sands and I stood admiring my night shadow as the lights of Alamogordo gleamed in the distance.
Some of my favorite moments are the ones that were initially the most uncomfortable. Standing in the pure darkness of the Mammoth Cave was terrifying. The dark was primal and tangible. It felt heavy, it felt conscious. I thought of House of Leaves. The experience was absolutely chilling, and I felt like a tiny, helpless child in an impossibly large void.
It reminded me of a bad trip I had on shrooms; just endlessly falling and dissolving into nothing, over and over. The people I had taken shrooms with that time were the antithesis of support, and it’s not surprising I was a mess for a few eternities. But Yvette’s hand was right there. Thinking back on the moment now, I feel a wave of calm wash over me. There was no malice in that blackness, only what I had brought with me. The memory of standing in the pitch-black of the cave, lightly holding my partner’s hand, fills me with serenity.
I have never been especially afraid nor overly fond of great heights, and my first glimpse of the Grand Canyon at Bright Angel Point left me breathless. I walked deliberately and quickly away from the edge after I had my fill and likely looked like I was speed-walking with an iron rod up my ass.
By the time we had visited the last vistas on the South Rim, almost a week later, I was unfazed by the depth of a potential plummet but still captivated by the sheer majesty of the canyon. The sight of it brought perspective on precisely how minute and insignificant humans truly are. Though we had many evening views of the heavens unimpeded by either clouds or light pollution, standing directly next to such a monument brought the hazed out pseudo-philosophy of poorly-written movies and college dorms screaming back down to the Earth’s surface, distilled and crystalline. The awesome power of nature wrought this edifice, beginning when our species was just a glimmer in a distant ancestor’s eye, and should we perish and vanish from the universe, nature will persist, long after our dust has been scattered.
While in Louisville, J had suggested a quick cross into Indiana to see the Falls of the Ohio. We arrived to find the river low and the falls nonexistent, but it turned into something much more advantageous. As a young woman, I briefly flirted with the idea of living as an archaeologist. In the Devonian period, that area had been located South of the equator, underneath a tropical sea. The low waters left the limestone fossil beds exposed, gray and chalky beside the shimmering river. The volume and condition of the fossils were overwhelming, and we were able to spend the entirety of the warm afternoon exploring them.
It is one of my great paradoxes that though I loathe the responsibility that accompanies owning cars, I love to drive them. We planned each route with maximum scenic potentiality in mind, preferring to leisurely take in the surroundings rather than make good time. As we wanted to remain open to opportunities as they arose, these directions were rarely finalized until moments before setting off for the day. That said, any road referred to as a Scenic Byway is not going to blindside people by delivering on the views. It’s pretty much what you came for.
Utah’s Highway 12 is famously beautiful and known for a particularly unnerving area of tight turns. Expectations were high as the state is littered with primitive, otherworldly landscapes, one more violent than the next. We navigated the rolling hills until reaching the small town of Boulder, where we began to ascend. We passed a ponderosa pine forest, a dusting of snow adorning the ground as we neared Mt. Boulder’s 9600 ft. summit. We were held up by a herd of cattle until a real live cowboy came to corral them from our path. We weaved back and forth through the steps of Grand Staircase-Escalante, the craggy cliffs changing hue, from pink to chocolate to grey to vermillion as we crossed through eons at 70 mph.
One should not be shocked to find a scenic byway to be scenic, but UT-12 isn’t just a scenic byway. This rough, irregular land was the last frontier to be charted in the lower 48, so harsh and remote that a road through it was not completed until the 1940s. UT-12 isn’t just the scenic route, it’s the only one, and the difficulty of forging it becomes clear as you enter the stretch known as the Hogsback. Here the mesa narrows to a thin spine with steep drop-offs on either side. The curling ribbon of road is suspended high above the canyons, creating a vision both awesome and terrifying.
Saving the Pacific Ocean for the finale of our journey was a beautiful counterpoint to the climax of the Grand Canyon. As it was a major milestone for those who migrated across the plains and mountains, so too was it for me. The trip had seemed so distant and impossible; for years and years it was nothing more than an abstraction, something other people did. After years despairing that I would never see more than one ocean in my life, I had finally joined some secret club, a confederacy of individuals who didn’t surrender as easily as I had in my youth. The fresh, salty air and warm Pacific sunset was the beginning of a new story and a fresh pursuit of living. The waters were a baptism, the sands a sacrament.
Going back to those moments on the beach, I have an intense feeling of interconnectedness. Everyone everywhere was my tribe, and everything was going to be alright. These feelings are fleeting, quickly chased away by the stubborn banal realities of daily life, but it’s an ideal I hold close, a feeling I am in constant pursuit of.
With so many highs it was difficult to choose favorites. On a different day we might name another place. How does one judge descending into the New River Gorge against wading in the Colorado’s frigid waters on a Glen Canyon beach? What makes learning about the one-armed, explorer, cartographer and general badass John Wesley Powell any less intriguing then witnessing Native American dance? Is the culture of the Puebloan people preserved at Bandelier National Monument any less important than the sculpture gardens at the Nasher Center? Is anything more beautiful than stumbling upon the expansive crater of Valles Caldera at sunset, or watching J look upon the Pacific Ocean for the first time, or having a cool lake to ourselves on a sweltering Texas day?
That said, It’s not surprising that J and I considered the same three moments to be our lows. In restaurants, managing guests’ expectations is paramount. It doesn’t matter how exceptional the steak tartare is if they think they’re getting a hamburger. All three episodes were moments where our eager anticipation for an experience was crushed by the reality. Though in our case, the universe was serving us some straight-up roadkill.
As we entered I-65 through Cave City we were elated. Mammoth Cave had been so much more than the boringly-named historic tour had led us to hope, and Nashville, one of our favorite cities, was just an hour and a half away. We had gained an hour in the time zone change and could be eating barbeque by seven. Just twenty minutes from the city it became clear the car had other ideas. The first two hours spent waiting for a tow on the side of an interstate are legitimately terrifying. The vacuum created by each car as it speeds past actually rocks the car you’re in. But living in a heightened state of anxiety is exhausting, and eventually, you just want a sandwich and a nap.
It was a long, annoying night, a crap situation amplified by poor weather and empty stomachs. But as we Ubered the last few miles to our Airbnb we held hands, relieved that it hadn’t been worse. The plan was to run the old car into the ground. An all systems failure was expected, though not quite so early into the trip. I had planned for this, put general contingencies in place. We had handled things as best we could.
The next day we secured a rental and had the car towed to an adjoining repair shop. The situation was going as well as could be asked. Until we went to pick up our car.
There are a lot of people who would be excited by the opportunity to travel cross-country in a brand new, $80,000 SUV. I am not one of them. I consistently request the smallest, cheapest car available when renting. I know exactly how big my sack is and don’t need to spend triple on gas to prove it to strangers. The length of a large U-haul, the Chevy Suburban is a massive piece of machinery, too large for city parking, too low for off-roading. It is an expensive, gas-guzzling minivan in truck’s clothing. I’m a woman of action, and I went back in to politely demand a trade, but it wasn’t happening. It was the week of Nashville’s Food and Wine Festival and everything else was rented.
I walked back to the car, climbed into the driver’s seat, and commenced with a meltdown. J tried to reassure me. There were rear and side cameras to aid with parking. Technology had improved considerably in twenty years and the mileage was almost identical to that of the old car. I needed to get it together. I had been able to deal with all the real shit and here I was acting like a brat because I didn’t like my rental car. I looked around. I had to admit having a working radio would be pretty dope.
Our first night in Nashville was very fucking far from ideal. Three hours waiting on the side of a busy highway, then the dread of driving a car rattling out its impending demise, followed immediately by the feeling of isolation and despair as Y managed to get the dead hulk into an abandoned lot on inertia alone. It was raining. We were scared, angry and exhausted. Events had ignored our plans completely, leaving us to cobble together new solutions. Our Airbnb situation would have normally been a hilarious distraction and minor irritation, but for a short time it felt like everything had gone to complete shit. The sun eventually peaked out, and after bounding through a series of hoops, we were back in the bright and beautiful Nashville we love. It’s actually fortunate we had the biggest disaster of the trip so early on. After dealing with that, we were absolutely fearless.
The second major blow came while attempting to take a stroll through a park in Austin. After a short walk through the woods, we agreed we were hot and ready to move on to our next adventure. Unfortunately, that’s all we could agree on. We had very different ideas about how to find our way out, and neither of us was willing to concede being right. As the situation intensified, I found myself too enraged to even speak, feeling I had been purposely led off-course by J’s need to preserve his ego. Once literally out of the woods, I sat on a bench overlooking a series of serene, lily pad-covered ponds, alternately crying and collecting myself while J tried to feel out if it was safe to come near. We somehow managed to get past this and enjoy the day, but were unable to ever resolve the argument, still each believing ourselves to be right.
We’re both stubborn individuals. We’re accustomed to often being the smartest in the room, especially in our previous careers. It can be very difficult for us to cede authority, especially when we’re so convinced of the validity and truth of our position. We managed to let an incredibly silly disagreement about a stroll in a very small public park in Austin turn into a jungle safari when neither of us would back down. Fighting with your significant other is bad enough, but when you’re the only people you know and the place you’re staying doesn’t have an extra bedroom to pout in, it puts things in perspective very quickly. I won’t promise we’ll never get into a fight about something so inane or ridiculous again, but we have definitely learned how to swallow our pride and back down a lot easier. No one likes taking a bite of the shit sandwich and apologizing for being a bad person, which encourages working towards creating situations where that doesn’t have to happen.
Instead of recognizing Vegas for the oasis in the desert it is, five days of flashing neon had given us a false sense of our proximity to civilization. We left food-stoned, eager to get to Joshua Tree to see some of the sights before setting up camp. As we turned into the Mojave National Preserve we were struck by the fiercely beautiful landscape. Neither of us had realized we would cross it on our way, and the rugged hills and endless rows of Joshua Trees were breathtaking. I had glanced at the fuel gauge as we entered the preserve. Immediately, I mentioned I wanted to stop to fill up, but mostly just as a precaution. We still had almost a quarter tank, and I thought we would be fine.
As town after town revealed itself to be little more than a railroad crossing or a mirage, I began to get worried. We were losing fuel at a rate far quicker than expected. I then realized my error. I had grown used to the Suburban’s 30-gallon tank. The Jeep, which we had acquired that morning, obviously held less.
Things were growing dire when we came upon a park ranger. She kindly pointed us towards the nearest gas station, 30 miles in the wrong direction. It was a tense, silent half hour, and though we were well below E as we pulled into the station, we managed to do it on our own steam. Having a relative monopoly in the area, prices were exorbitant and our detour meant not only could we forget about reaching the visitor’s center in time, but we would have to forfeit our scenic route in favor of the highway in order to make camp before dark. Having to sit next to your partner while they are seething over something you have done is terrible when you’re not stressed out about walking through the desert to get gas. J did his best to recover, but having to sit basking in his disappointed was rotten and made me feel small.
Running on gas fumes through the Mojave Desert unfortunately eclipses a slice of the road we both should have been spending appreciating nature, rather than tensely eyeing the asphalt and the blue dot on the GPS, moving grindingly slow toward salvation. In an event like that, placing blame is irrelevant. It doesn’t help or change the situation, and it’s the sort of rancid acorn that can fester and grow into a mighty oak of resentment. That’s not to say it was sunshine and lollipops in the car. I was livid, and it was all I could do to keep my mouth shut and glare at my phone and the gas station shimmering far in the distance.
Travel is a series of challenges, and bawling out the person I love for something I could have just as easily prevented by peeking at the gas meter before settling into the passenger seat would only have added to the challenges in front of us, and likely created worse ones down the road. It’s a lesson I’m still not too thrilled about learning, and I’m not quite finished with it, but I know the next time something equally tense happens, I may have a lollipop or two up my sleeve.
A car is a vital tool for a road trip, and any journey where your car breaks down is going to get a little bumpy. There were tears and fights and long, tense silences, but overall we chose to embrace things with a sense of humor. It is said that distance is all that is needed to turn the tragic into the comedic and we would agree with that. In a little more time, maybe we’ll even joke about Austin.
The good of our trip far outweighed the bad and we feel lucky to have experienced it together. Our great American road trip may not have been a myth, but in ways, it was so much more. We saw a great deal of this impressive country and it awakened an exploratory desire within us. We’re already planning new adventures and creating new memories to share around the campfire, even if we’re the only ones retelling the tale.