If you had told us on January 1st, 2017 that in a year we would have traveled across the country and written the bones of a book about it, we both would have taken a shot or two of Mezcal and laughed into the void of running a restaurant. Getting out of our patterns and ways was a big adjustment, but looking back on all of the chapters and stages in our journey, it’s very easy to see how much of our time before the trip was just so much treading water.
As a child, I dreamed of becoming a writer. More accurately, the dream was to be a poet/prosecutor/archaeologist who traveled the world, was a volunteer firefighter, and sang tortured pop songs a la The Misfits from Jem and the Holograms. My singing voice never quite lived up to the pink fishnet gloves I rocked so proudly, but I have, in some ways, accomplished much of the rest. Travel has given me an opportunity to explore diverse cultures. I can’t help but be a vocal advocate for what I believe is just. My work running restaurants has charged me with putting out fires both figurative and literal. Yet I never attempted to pursue my dream to write.
I have one of those accordion files stowed away, filled with bits of paper. Cocktail napkins, restaurant checkbook receipts, and the torn corners of magazine pages mingle yellowed and brittle, saved for some wry turn of phrase or absurd moment scribbled upon them. These were my notes to myself for the story I would write, one day when I was less busy.
Busy, as is often the case, was an excuse I made for myself. We’re all busy, but the things that matter get realized. I have always presumed myself capable of anything (except snowboarding, which seems like an endeavor devised for the sole purpose of inflicting pain on me in the most humiliating fashion). I am bright, a quick study, and willing to force my body to keep moving despite its nagging protests. I don’t allow myself to subscribe to a fixed mindset, but writing always felt subject to one’s inherent creativity, and the talent which had come so easily when young, was now elusive.
I was the girl who devoured books. I was editor of my Literary Art Magazine every year. A shocking percentage of my friends are published authors. None of this was enough to convince me I had a story worth telling.
I was excited by J’s suggestion we keep a record of our adventure, less so by the idea of making it public. I wasn’t the writer, he was. But the man has an aptitude for convincing me to do what he wants and his near-constant enthusiasm is infectious. Remembering the epiphanies I had come to during my previous road trip, I began to feel encouraged. I might not be a real writer, but at least I could be sure I would have a story.
Through this entire journey, J has pushed me to my limits, often against my will. In his desire to drive my development, it seems he is every bit as capable of ignoring my protests as I am. I have been frustrated, cripplingly uninspired, and overwhelmed along the way. My progress has stalled and my interest has waned. It has been difficult and humbling and at times strained our relationship, but he hasn’t allowed me to quit. Six months in, I’m just starting to have confidence in what I can do. The gains from where I started are becoming ever more tangible. There are good days and there are bad, but I’ve learned that what makes you a writer is doing the work. I have taken a long road to get here, much longer than 6,000 miles.
Having big dreams can be paralyzing; the first step is always the hardest. The launchpad can be an awfully comfortable place. If you don’t keep up a good rhythm, every stuttering step is the first. Our trip gave us a quantifiable measure of our efforts and forced us into constant motion. Possibilities that were never truly locked are now broken wide open.
There’s nothing we can’t do provided we take a step moving forward in the right direction. In November, I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I had participated before but never came close to crossing the 50,000-word finish line. I did it in 22 days.
If I hadn’t just finished a trip across the United States, that first step, the first few words, would have tripped me up, the same as it did so many times before. My capacity for self-sabotage has been diminished because I have first-hand physical proof of what a journey entails. We know the importance of every step along the way, start to finish. Horatio Alger would be proud of us, though he might not approve of some of our behavior. We have it on good authority a certain shark-hunting Doctor is likely smiling in the wind.
Leaving friends and family can be an impediment to long-term travel for some. Still more are kept bound to the places they were raised. I’m often amazed by how often I hear people complain about the weather where they live, as though there is no alternative to enduring it. Some people assume their only choices are to stay near the ones they love festering resentment or callously break their hearts. I’ve always believed you have just the one life to make the most of, so you better live it in a way you won’t regret.
The people who love us want us to pursue the things we feel are right (and if they don’t, you may not want to spend all that much time around them anyway). It can be hard to leave our friends, but I’ve found that time does little to distill the way we feel about each other. Maybe I’m particularly lucky, but I find myself able to pick up right where I’ve left off. Having friends dispersed throughout the country is just another excuse to travel, and infrequent visits ensure we’re focused on one another when we get to be together.
As our former home shrank in the rearview, so too did some relationships that I thought would have been stronger. I am of the firm belief that it’s better to know where you stand with people than the alternative. I don’t enjoy the prospect of wasting my time on those who don’t value it.
Life’s too short to not focus on that which sustains you, including those you surround yourself with. My goal in life is to add value to the human experience, and having an albatross around your neck can make that more difficult than it needs to be. Traveling long-term with your partner will help you discover exactly where you stand with each other. We are very fortunate to have found that it’s right next to each other.
In its way, travel is a drug. People predisposed to its addiction find themselves resistant to sating, building up a tolerance with each mile. My first big road trip left me hooked. So much so that I impulsively went to Toronto within a week of returning home to Pittsburgh. Though the responsibilities of my job were able to keep me tethered for awhile, I was itching to take advantage of my first opportunity, whenever it came.
J was no stranger to travel himself, but had always done so with a specific purpose behind it. Going on a camping trip or attending a cocktail conference is distinctly different from roaming the country in search of whatever is interesting. Even though J initially agreed to add a road trip to our South American venture, he became increasingly agitated as I systematically tacked on stops to the loose itinerary. I would argue that a hundred-mile detour was nothing when already traveling so far, and begrudgingly, he would concede. I’m not sure exactly when, but we weren’t too far along when it became clear he was up for every adventure. I had my first convert, though less devout in the belief that every overlook must be exalted. For better or worse, he’s now the one barraging me with ideas for trips. He’s seen the shadows for what they are and isn’t willing to go back to staring at a wall.
For some, the Great American Road Trip is exotic, big game, to be hunted and bested, mounted like a trophy. For us, it was the beginning, the prototype of the life we want to lead. It was something we wanted to befriend, to find the secret scratching spots behind its ears. The US is its own ecosystem, and every line on a map a different species. The vast stretches of the upper Midwest, the endless forests of the Northeast, the towns that dot the Gulf Coast; all are beasts we would love to study. Not to capture, not to claim as a spoil-of-war, but to reveal more of the tapestry of humanity. There is no upper limit on the knowledge and experience to be had, and our aim to see just how far we can stretch our own. One of my favorite parts of the trip was discovering the myriad threads that tie humanity together, whether it was the creation myths of the Pueblo nations or commiserating with the bartenders we met along the way.
The US, as vast as it is, is still just one country, and the prospect of being somewhere far from our frame of reference, with so many supposed alien qualities just seems like a dare to find the commonalities. The fundamentals of human needs may differ in the means, but they always have the same end in mind. Exploring those methods may help us to refine our own and better appreciate the simpler things in life.
Having traversed an entire continent, the thought of exploring a different nation, no matter how foreign it may seem on the surface, is not quite the stretch it seemed before. Ecuador and its neighbors are in our sights, and we’ve both separately long-held dreams of Spain. Japan, somewhere down the line, will be a destination, along with countless others. The places themselves may change, but the intent remains the same. There’s far too much out there to ever be hemmed in by specifics, too many possibilities to be paralyzed by the thought of choosing. We’ll never see the entire planet, but we can certainly try and sample everything on the table that sits before us. We’re very hungry.