Six thousand miles and more than a month into my solo U.S. road trip, my sunburned, bug-bitten, tired self finally realized that traveling alone, even in my own country, was not what I had imagined.
I had just finished graduate school and was looking for a detox from the schedules, deadlines, and chatter. So, when I set out from California on what would eventually be an 8,000-mile road trip, the only plan I had was simple: to not make a plan. Following endless strings of power lines and not stopping until I hit an ocean was enough of an itinerary. But for all of my lack of planning, I had plenty of ideas for how my travels might go.
There was this picture of a mid-century America in my mind, a seemingly untouched landscape dotted with retro gas stations, drive-in theaters, and chrome-plated diners. I’d be like Thelma or Kerouac or McCandless. I’d sleep in rustic motels, make friends with the locals at the town pubs, drive alongside mesas, and wind my way through those so-called lush forests. I’d go whitewater rafting, hiking and surfing, and I’d become fit and tan. And, despite my perfectly working air conditioner, I’d drive with the windows down in the middle of summer and willingly listen to a crackling radio.
It was an image of a country that I had only been acquainted with in movies and books. I aced American History 101, I spoke the language, I even dropped in and out of new cities from time to time, but I had never really traveled in America. The U.S., in many ways, was foreign to me. And, actually, so was I.
Taking on the country mile by mile not only highlighted my unfamiliarity with America but also with myself. I knew I wasn’t a fictional film character or the infamous subject of an epic road trip story. Instead, I would learn that the person I was at work or home or among friends or family wasn’t entirely me either, but rather slices, versions of myself that were tailored to various daily routines. Traveling alone, I would realize a part of me that I wasn’t able to usually. Alone, I could hear myself think. My thoughts and my decisions stood out against my new surroundings. Without knowing it, I had been living on autopilot, and getting into my car doing some driving had been exactly what I needed.
Not that traveling by myself was always cathartic. The fantasy of spontaneously cruising around a mid-century America often lost out to the currently reality that hotel rooms and excursions like summer whitewater rafting should have been reserved in advance. There were days I remembered that I hated driving, days with lots of U-turns where I’d forgotten why I was so against using a GPS or smart phone. There were days where I drove all day and didn’t say more than ten words, and days where my dwindling bank account and frozen credit cards made me feel helpless. But there were those other days where I’d drive over a hill and see that seemingly untouched landscape and the road laid out in front of me, completely free from the confines of a movie’s camera frame. There were the bartenders and motel managers who shared pieces of their lives with me. There was the man who toured Hemingway’s house with me in Key West and the woman who hiked to the Delicate Arch with me in Moab, all because we were lone travelers and in the same place at the same time. There was swimming and hiking, fly fishing and drinking. There were mesas and a Salvation Mountain, abandoned towns and Las Vegas. And in between? Lot of driving—and fewer power lines than you might think.