I had my quarter-life crisis at 21. So, like countless rudderless youth before me, I decided to take a road trip, my first ever by myself, up the Pacific coast from L.A. to Seattle.

I learned many things during those two weeks. Like that you have to pay a premium to rent a car if you’re under 25, which might wipe out much of your savings and require a humbling call home. Or that if you don’t make reservations in high season, your car may be the only vacant room for many miles. I learned that camping alone in a deserted campground by the Pacific ocean sounds romantic, but that if you let your mind wander back to the Blair Witch Project even once, you’ll spend the night in deep realization that it’s a lot scarier when you’re not in the theater. On the upside, it taught me that spending 24 hours alone won’t turn you into Jack from The Shining.

There were also a thousand tiny freedoms: Blackberry milk shakes for dinner. Running on cold sand as the sun began to warm the world. Writing for hours, the way I did as a kid. I discovered that as an adult my time was my own to shape, stretch, fill, and savor, and I reveled in it.

And the coast—Santa Barbara’s bougainvillea-brightened streets, the fog-softened edges of Big Sur—was my copilot. When I think back to that time, landscapes pop up like images in a vintage View-Master reel.

A solo road trip provides you with total car DJ rights, yes, but also time to realize that maybe you want to go back to school for journalism (which is what I eventually did). I by no means had it all figured out when I crossed the border into Washington, but I did, finally, have a sense of direction. 

>>Next: I Meditated on the Plains of Kansas.