Reflections On The Road

PART I: Journal Excerpts

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My road trip journal & sticker collection.

Monday, November 21, 2016, Treasure State Hostel, Bozeman, MT
          From Spokane this morning, I started driving down Ye Olde I-90 and found myself in Idaho almost immediately.  Was driving in and out of mountains all day, through rain and a little snow.  Was staggered by their beauty, as always.  Even pulled over right on the I-90 to take pictures a couple times.  Saw at least one other guy doing the same.  I feel a sort of kinship with fellow travelers who pull over when awestruck by the sheer beauty of the landscape.
          I was also amazed by all the different kinds of conifers covering the mountains.  They reminded me of something.  It tugged at my brain until I could name it: When I was in grade school, for choir concerts they would put the whole class up on risers, tallest in back and shortest in front, so every proud parent could see their child’s tiny face peeking through the crowd.  Aww, trees—I’m so proud of all of you!  And proud to call this turquoise planet my home.
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Conifers near Wallace, Idaho.

Thursday, November 24, 2016, AirBnB in Sioux Falls, SD
Regarding Yellowstone—
          Approaching the park and exploring within it, I was overcome with a sense of awe, of reverence, of sacredness.  In the car I was playing Josh Groban’s first album all the way through, which I haven’t done in a long time, and as I listened to “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” when I could get past my queasiness toward Christianity, I felt that the song was very suited to the landscape.  It has a kind of power and an… epic-ness to it.  And I thought, if Jesu is the joy of man’s desiring, then what is the joy of my desiring?  I thought about how I have teared up at every national park, I who suck at outward emotional expression, who can only cry by cutting onions.  And the answer that came to me was: Wilderness.
WILD (untamed) ER (increasing) NESS (the state of)
Wilderness: the practice of fostering what is untamed.
          I called my mom later on the dark drive to South Dakota, and she told me that when she was a kid her family went on a western road trip, but they mostly went to Catholic shrines instead of national parks.  I thought: the national parks ARE my shrines, and this drive my pilgrimage.  Alleluia.
          I have never in my life felt more patriotic than I have on this trip.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt “patriotic” at all before.  But, let me say this: I love my country.  And by that I don’t mean its laws or its government—I mean the land itself, and the people who care so deeply about the land that they have fought to preserve it for future generations.  And the thought that I might have gone my whole LIFE without witnessing these wonders is terrible and preposterous to me now.  This year, I know what I am thankful for: all of this.  For all of the slim possibilities that converged to allow me to be HERE, under the crazy stars, among the Crazy Mountains, breathing with the bison.
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Bison close-up.

Friday, November 25, 2016, my friend’s apartment, Pleasant Prairie, WI
On the road, I feel hyper-sensitized, alive and awake and aware in a more profound way, and small interactions can shake me to my core.  At times I am seething with emotion, cruising down the highway, letting every song resonate through me.  It occurs to me that I’d like to redouble my efforts toward my old challenge.  I am so much more than I manage to appear.  I want to exchange some of this reserve (which I have in droves) for courage and vulnerability.
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Crossing Montana.


PART II: What I Did and What I Learned

If you ever find yourself with a car and not much to do, I highly recommend driving off to random places.  There’s so much to see!  Everything is an adventure!  If I didn’t have a car I might have considered crossing the country by train, but the nice thing about driving is that it forces you to stay aware of everything around you, so you’re able to appreciate even subtle changes in scenery.  Before this trip, my mental map of the United States was pretty roughly sketched out:us-map-pre-trip
It’s difficult to picture places in detail when you haven’t actually been there.  Now, I have sights and sounds and people and experiences to fill in a lot of that space.  Reading about it isn’t the same as going there and being able to make your own observations.  For example, I went to Tucson specifically because I’ve read a lot of Barbara Kingsolver, but the Tucson I met wasn’t much like the one in her novels.  (A lot of time has passed.)  If I hadn’t gone there, I would have gone on picturing the Tucson of the 1980s.

This was my first time traveling alone, aside from taking a day’s drive to visit friends.  I planned it a chunk at a time.  The most helpful websites for planning where to go, where to stay, and what to do were:
Roadtrippers – helps you plot out routes and easily see which cities have hostels.  It will even help you calculate how much gas money you’ll spend.
AirBnB – great for finding cheap places to stay where hostels aren’t an option, even last-minute.
Couchsurfing – great for free places to stay and meeting locals, but best to use this one well in advance.
Workaway – helps you find arrangements where you work part-time in exchange for room and board.  If you want to spend a larger chunk of time in one place without spending a ton of money, this is a good way to do it.  (You do have to pay for a one-year membership.)
WWOOF – similar to Workaway but specifically for farms: free room and board in exchange for farm work.  More options during the growing season, and better for rural areas.  (Again, you have to pay for a one-year membership.)
National Park Service – if you’re going out west, you should go to some national parks.  It costs $80 for an annual pass and it is well worth it, as the parks cost between $10-$30 to enter otherwise.

I made this trip in a 2011 Ford Focus.  At various points, I had between 0 and 2 passengers.  I packed:
– a plastic bin full of clothes for all weather
– boots, sneakers, sandals, Crocs (a stupid-looking but oh-so-useful piece of footwear)
– a box full of non-perishable food I kept in the trunk, along with a dish, a bowl, a cup, silverware, and a tiny camp stove
– a cooler that I could fill with ice from gas stations and use as a car fridge
– a tent, which I didn’t end up using since most of the places I went were not very warm
– sleeping bag, pillow, blanket
– craft supplies and books
– stationery and stamps for writing to people
– a bucket full of shower stuff
– a dirty-laundry bag
– a square box of tissues that fit in the center console
– DSLR camera and point-and-shoot camera
– car chargers for phone and iPod
– laptop

My technology use is stuck around 2006, but I have to say that this was one instance where a smart phone would really have come in handy.  When I needed to find a laundromat in Spokane, for instance, I had to punch “Find Point of Interest –> Café” into my GPS to get to a Starbucks where I could hover outside with my laptop in the passenger seat running on battery to use Google Maps.  I made it work, but it was kind of ridiculous.  The GPS, at least, was super helpful, except in northern New Mexico where it got pretty confused, and any time I asked it to help me find a gas station.  I landed at a working gas station about half the time, but the rest of the time it was either a convenience store that didn’t sell gas or a gas station that was no longer in operation.

Before I set out, I loaded up my iPod with songs, made a road trip playlist (which I honed as I went), and downloaded a new audio book.  I figured I would get super bored with all that driving.  Not so!  I only got through about 8% of the audio book.  Most of the time I surfed through radio stations, intrigued by what people were listening to in each place I passed through.  I liked to scroll through all the numbers to take surveys of how many Christian, country, classical, hip-hop, classic rock, and pop stations appeared in each place.  I also pulled over to take pictures so often that at times it was hard to get through a whole song.

Driving alone is glorious.  I pulled off at every “vista point” without worrying that I was annoying my passengers.  I listened to whatever I wanted and had conversations with people on the radio, again, without annoying anyone else.  (Sometimes I listen to things that piss me off on purpose so I can argue with them.)  I also took a bunch of pictures while I was driving.  It’s probably not a great idea, but I was focused on the road—I just held up the point-and-shoot camera, pressed the button, and hoped for the best.  95% of them came out terribly, but at least they jog my memory enough to recall what I was trying to photograph.


I’ve been back for over a month now.  It’s been hard to adjust to the mundanity of daily life again, but I suppose one cannot spend one’s whole life in motion.  On the bright side, I’ve officially kept my 2016 New Year’s resolution: to blog at least once in every month of the year.  Let’s see if I can keep it going!