In the years BC (Before Children), my husband and I did one of those wild, spontaneous things that terrify your parents no matter the age: We both quit our (good) jobs in Seattle, stuffed all our worldly goods (three-quarters of which were books) into boxes, and set off on a month-long road trip across the U.S. Our destination: New York City. Our route: a week down the West Coast, hang a left at Los Angeles, two weeks across the South, hang another left at Savannah, and a week up the East Coast. We only ever mapped a few days and hotels in advance, hoping to let friend recommendations, local inspiration, and the almighty whim be our guides.
We learned quickly that we didn’t want to drive more than six hours in a day—life on the road is a Bruce Springsteen song for about three to four hours, and then it turns into a stretch of monotony punctuated by gas stations. We also tried not to drive at night after a particularly harrowing final mile into Arizona’s Lake Powell, in an uncommon downpour in inky desert blackness. Note to self: Spend enough time crossing deserts and you will get rained on.
The race was, most certainly, not on. From Seattle we cut down to Astoria, a fishing village and the oldest settlement west of the Rockies on Oregon’s northernmost coast. It’s now an artisanal-coffee hub and gateway to a very lovely, leisurely drive along the state’s coastal Highway 101. I would wager that parts of it rival California’s Pacific Coast Highway—a bold statement I get to make after having driven both multiple times. (Such snobbery!) In between the competing scenic drives are gorgeous stretches of fog-covered coastal dunes, redwood forests, and river and wine valleys so rolling, so Tuscan, you forgive the clichés because they’re true.
Through the month of September, we spent days in San Francisco, Carmel, Cambria, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Lake Powell, the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff, Santa Fe, Odessa, Austin, Houston, New Orleans, Jackson, Montgomery, Atlanta, Savannah, Charleston, Raleigh, Virginia Beach, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, the Jersey Shore (our native land), and finally, Manhattan, our new home. Along the way we met up with dozens of friends who hosted us on dozens of couches and guest beds; ate the best green chili enchiladas (Santa Fe’s the Shed) and breakfast barbecue (a truck stop east of Houston) of our lives; watched the sun set over the Painted Desert of Arizona, the Mississippi River, the Vegas Strip. We caught a “Friday night lights” high school football game between Odessa and Midland in West Texas and reckoned with the ongoing battle for both civility and civil rights at MLK museums in Montgomery and restaurants in Savannah.
Some of my happiest travel moments were on this road trip, and not just because we were funemployed twentysomethings encountering new things every day. It was also the quiet moments taking in the breadth and depth of our country: I felt shocked I could cross state borders without showing a passport, given the topographic and cultural shifts from state to state. There is such natural beauty through the Pacific Northwest’s evergreen forests and the Southwest, with its red rock mesas; when you spend a month crossing the country, the lyrics to “America the Beautiful” start to make a lot more sense. Even at times when the government feels like it’s failing us, or neighbors can’t agree on the basic tenets of citizenship, a trip across the U.S. can renew your faith in this place we call home. It did for us. Though we wouldn’t have had that chance if we hadn’t slowed down to look.