Destination Undisclosed

AFAR media sent writer Nick Fauchald and photographer William Hereford on a two-day road trip in a Jaguar XFR without prior information about their destination. Their assignment: to find those unexpected moments that make us feel alive.

I am a planner, a guidebook collector, a maker of itineraries and to-do lists. For travelers like me, an impromptu trip is totally unnerving. Normally, I can't let go for a moment. Running from one meeting to the next, I find myself fantasizing that I'll lose my phone or I'll fall asleep on the train and end up somewhere I've never been before. If only I could be a little irresponsible, unaccountable, just for a day.

When I got invited to take an unplanned road trip in a Jaguar, I couldn't pass it up, in large part because my father is the biggest Jaguar fan I know. He lives 1,000 miles away, otherwise I'd be picking him up for the ride.

So I find myself fleeing Brooklyn with my friend William Hereford in the passenger seat one sticky summer morning. We open our glovebox to find the assignment envelope revealing our destination: Boston. We have 48 hours to get there. We're running away from home, with no schedule and no route? only a luxurious car and a full tank of gas. I am anxious and eager at the same time. As the giant rubber band that is New York City finally snaps into woodsy Westchester County, I'm glad I've brought Will along for the ride. As a professional photographer, he's disposed to the kind of spontaneity that yields amazing images; as a frequent travel buddy, this same quality has helped me get out of my comfort zone and break free of my over planning tendencies. You could say that Will helps bring out the brave in me.

"Hot dogs!" Will cries with the same urgency a passenger might use to warn the driver of a runaway baby stroller.

He's referring to Walter's, a copper-topped pagoda in Mamaroneck, New York, that's been around since the Wilson administration. Road food. We hop out to order a couple of split-and-grilled franks and milk shakes, then hurry back to eat our $8 meal inside an $80,000 Jaguar. The contrast is so striking that we're laughing like 16-year-olds on a joyride. And people are noticing. I'm not used to the attention our Jag attracts; it takes a few honks before I realize they are meant for us.

Will's camera lens is his compass; my stomach is mine, so we stop for a second lunch at the Mario Batali?owned Tarry Lodge in nearby Port Chester. At the table, I tell Will about my many childhood weekends spent hunting down and test- driving vintage Jaguars my father would find in the classifieds. I remember the smell of the leather bucket seats and the glossy wooden dashboards. I can hear the gurgling sound of the V12 engines and the way Dad would quietly ruminate when it was time to make an offer or go home empty-handed. He didn't say why he never bought one, but I think that it was probably because it would mean he'd have to stop looking.

As we drive through forested central Connecticut, Will has taken the wheel, and we make a wrong turn. I'm sure we're lost now, but Will just grins. He makes a sharp turn down a gravel road. My companion's observant eye has caught a small, still lake populated only by a teetering dock and a swimming platform some 100 yards out. He stops the car. "You first," he says. I balk at the thought; this is certainly some private property. We'll get arrested. The car will be impounded and we'll have to spend the night in county jail while some junkyard dog has his way with our Jaguar.

We're lost, but I actually feel fantastic. The lake is beautiful, it's 90 degrees outside, and what's wrong with a quick dip in the name of travel journalism? I swim out to the platform, the cool water steaming up around me toward the hot afternoon sun. I remember the days when I didn't worry so much about where or when I swam, only that water felt good and I needed to be in it as much as possible.

As we near the Rhode Island border, I'm so relaxed after the swim that I don't flinch when Will suggests, "Let's go shoot some guns." We end up at Addieville East Farm, where we wrangle a private lesson on the facility's sporting clay course. Will grew up shooting clay pigeons in Virginia; I can count on one hand the number of times I've held a gun. But our instructor shows me how to handle a 12-gauge and I'm plucking orange disks out of the sky in no time. "Just relax and let your hands lead you to the target," he says. I think about how his advice applies to our adventure behind the wheel today.

We make it to Providence, Rhode Island, in time for a quick dinner at Farmstead, my favorite restaurant in the city. There, chef Matt Jennings draws from the adjacent cheese shop for his cheese- and charcuterie-forward menu, while his wife and pastry chef, Kate, makes the best biscuits Will and I have ever tried. I envy their slow pace of life, and you can taste their commitment to it in the food.

As the sun reaches the Providence skyline, we head to the center of town to witness WaterFire, an annual feat of public art that involves 100 pyres of wood set ablaze at the intersection of three rivers. Will hands me one of his cameras and lets me play photographer for a few moments, and suddenly I'm no longer a participant. The wood is set on fire by torch-bearing boats, releasing fluttering ashes and a sense of awe over the crowd. I'm capturing their many expressions. The moment is mine.

Soon after we're back in the car, we're blasting the Dropkick Murphys' rowdy "I'm Shipping Up to Boston" as we make a beeline for our destination before midnight, and I try to recall the last time I had the music up that loud. We find one of the city's few late-night menus at Gaslight Brasserie, where we celebrate our on-time arrival to the big city with a platter of oysters before checking into our hotel, the regal XV Beacon. Will does it up by turning on both the air-conditioner and the in-room fireplace, and I hit the pillow with an empty mind, no internal chatter, for the first time in a long time.

The next morning, we find our car parked outside of the hotel's Beaux Arts entrance. Window-dressing, I suppose. When I press the start button, the car roars to life like a big cat waking from a long nap. We've fulfilled our assignment; the road home is ours, and we are going to take our time.

We decide to take a more southerly route home, along the Rhode Island coastline and through Newport before heading down the Connecticut shore. On the way to Newport, we stop for lunch at Evelyn's Nanaquaket Drive-In, a pond-side clam shack in Tiverton that serves a proper, unadorned lobster roll, a dozen clam preparations, and a curious, custardy regional dessert called Grape-Nut pudding.

As we eat our meal at a picnic table, we notice a sharply dressed, venerable-looking man gazing at the water with an expression that couldn't have been calmer. Will reaches for his camera and asks the man if he can take his portrait. It turns out he's a legendary Madison Avenue art director. He's charming and chatty, and revels in the opportunity to share his favorite nearby spots for escaping the summer crowds. He's excited for us, and I wonder if he sees in us the spirit of his own youth. On trips like this, there's no better guidebook than a friendly local.

We pass through downtown Newport and follow the Ten Mile Drive, a scenic ocean-side route past behemoth 19th-century mansions and the city's rocky shoreline. We roll down the windows and inhale the salty Rhode Island air. Will parks the car at the southernmost tip to take some pictures of the racing yachts sagging across the water, and I walk down to the beach.

What happens next will eclipse the entire trip for me: I look down at the stones beneath my feet and flash back to 1985. I've been here before. My family rented a house here one summer when I was six years old. The water was too treacherous for swimming, so I spent my afternoons skipping stones out into the ocean. At the time, I couldn't get over how many perfectly flat rocks filled the beach; I thought I'd stumbled upon some secret natural treasure. My personal record was eight skips. I tasted my first oyster that summer. I pick up a stone and wind up. Seven.

We leave Newport and surrender to the highway, looking forward to one last stop before the New York tractor beam pulls us in. I exit the highway in Guilford, Connecticut, and we pull into what looks like a giant backyard cookout. A maze of red picnic tables surrounds a giant fire pit, with pink lobsters and bluefish in foil packets sizzling over the flames. This actually started as a casual clambake in the 1940s and has since become an open-air restaurant called The Place. I am giddy to have found the spot, and I get that late Sunday afternoon feeling when you've successfully achieved a way to prolong the weekend.

I order plates of grilled corn and barbecue chicken. I think back to my father's ongoing quest for the perfect Jaguar. For him, as for us, it wasn't the destination that mattered. It was the journey. I vow to find more time to honor small moments. If the first day of our road trip felt like running away from home, the second feels like reluctantly shuffling back. We take our time eating dinner, knowing that the next stretch of highway will be our last.