Have you ever been on a road trip?
When I was little I thought nothing of venturing into the street, walking alone to my friend’s house, or running out of sight of my parents.
I spent a childhood filled with sidewalk hopscotch, soccer fields, and playing Robin Hood in the woods behind my primary school. As an adult, I seem to be interminably trapped inside walls and under roofs. I can be found most days running from the shelter of parking garages to the shelters of brick, stone, glass, and metal. I catch myself always trying to dodge the elements: sleet, snow, rain, or too much sun. I wondered recently what happened to my love of open spaces and my passion for the “freedom” of the outdoors. Stuck in the safety of routine and indoor attractions, could I embrace again the spaciousness of plein-air?
To test myself, I took time off and embarked on that most classic of road trips: a jaunt from the eastern shores to the western coast of America. I began my journey from the heart of Manhattan and planned to finish at the doorstep of some friends in San Francisco. In between these two pinpoints, I would stop at the houses of schoolmates, relatives, and other companions who were willing to put me up for a few days and show me around locally in Cleveland, Chicago, Denver, Santa Fe, and Las Vegas. By passing through big cities and small farms, I hoped to immerse myself in the proverbial American open road, to experience a second childhood of living outdoors.
For someone bent on being outside and “free,” I repeatedly checked the strength of my phone signal as I left New York. As the roads became less congested, I became more interested in maintaining some toehold on society. Feelings of frustration that I couldn’t update my folks about the weather patterns in downtown Des Moines bubbled to the surface. The inability to text photos of a cat sunning itself at a local grocery store in Lincoln, Nebraska filled me with sadness. At mealtimes, I was inexplicably drawn to the sound of televisions at diners and bars. Behind the wheel it became an obsession to find a static free local radio channel, however brief its survival. Any news of the world seemed immensely important now that I was truly in the middle of nowhere.
In between my stays with friends and family the towns, cities, and villages I drove through all melded seamlessly. If asked, I would not be able to tell you where Trinidad was or if I passed Grants before Gallup. Random facts which I considered significant were recorded on the backs of receipts. They are a reminder of the makeshift games I played on the drive. One of the gems I collected was that the population for a town somewhere next to a creek and after a mountain range was twenty-five. If the road sign was correct, this was less than the total members of my family! Intrigued, I instigated a road marker game on my trip.
A second pastime was to spy as many different state license plates as I could. My grand total came to thirty-six of which I was proudest of spotting Alaska while driving through New Mexico. License plates soon gave way to colored cars, windmills, and finally cows. Brief unsuccessful stints of “I Spy” rounded out the mental recreations with which I beguiled myself. I could have learned a new language through audio instruction or listened to my playlist fifty times over, but there was a joy both unadulterated and soothing in my trivial pursuits. These childish pursuits made my road excursion more memorable.
Catcher in the Wheat
The icing on my road trip across America is that I really did get to play outdoors again. Instead of having my mates and kinfolk show me around skyscrapers and capitol houses, I asked them to come play with me in the great outdoors. We skipped pebbles on a late afternoon where the city of Cleveland meets the shores of Lake Erie. We played tag one morning in Chicago’s Millennium Park. We climbed the slopes of Clear Creek County’s mountains all day in search of goats. We counted the stars peeping out from behind a mesa rim one night in the desert near Pajarito Plateau. When I finally saw the last of my friends in San Francisco, I could boast that I had roamed through America’s landscape.
The road trip was an education in returning to some place they told me I couldn’t: my youth. For two weeks, I engaged in the recreations and amusements I enjoyed as a kid, rekindling feelings of freedom and endless possibilities. As I was playing hide and seek in a wheat field somewhere along the way I realized my journey had allowed me to untether from my indoor attachments. I no longer yearned for online status checks or searched for cell towers. The road trip also showed me the simple pleasures of recreation, a lesson I had forgotten when I crossed into adulthood. Playing is not just a privilege of youth but a necessity in my sunless, rote driven existence. When I return to the East Coast, I will again be inundated by the blinks, beeps, and bright lights of a life indoors. However, there is a swing, a seesaw, and a slide in a public park not too far from my home where I intend to spend my weekends. Until then, there are three thousand miles of open country for me to explore on the ride back home.
BESPOKE TRAVELER TIP #15
“A brief but full maintenance check on your car by a trustworthy mechanic prior to departure makes any road trip more playful.”
For more advice, check out Into the Blue.