Note: “I’ve never been able to stay in one place for too long. I decided to put the real world on hold and take a road trip to find things to love in the United States. My travels begin in Mount Pleasant, Michigan and will take me to the west coast and back. In about three weeks, the three of us will be stopping in Chicago, Illinois, Denver, Colorado, Moab, Utah, Redwood National Forest, Newport, Oregon, Yellowstone National Park, Badlands National Park and then back to the mitten state. These are the trials, tribulations, and travels of what happens there and in between.”
We were about 100 miles into our 5,000-mile trip when the “check engine” light turned on. We hadn’t even left the state, and already panic had ensued.
The little yellow engine glared at us the entire way, but by the time we were returning to Michigan, I had completely forgotten about it.
Along with worry, a lot of other things slipped away from us over the course of the three weeks we spent on the road. We completely lost a sense of time, eventually adhering to the rise and setting of the sun as our clock, as it was the only reliable clock we had.
As any camper knows, your worry of hygiene eventually loosens up after spending more than a week in a tent. The Colorado River served as a shower for us, and wet wipes were our only hope in less watered areas.
The most surprising loss, however, was a serious hit to all of our egos. After sitting at the base of a canyon, nestling yourself in a redwood tree, and silently watching a herd of elk, your attitude doesn’t seem to matter as much.
The outdoors is often our best teacher, though lessons are mostly indirect and vague. I’ve noticed in myself and the two I went with that we’ve been cracked open a bit. Nicer, weirder, and less concerned. The hospitality of complete strangers also had a great impact on us—we were cut a lot of slack along the way, and it was understood between everyone that this wasn’t just a free ride. These are things you have to pay forward.
Living in the outdoors with the same two people for an extended period of time also had some interesting effects. This was brought to our attention in South Dakota, when we had been on the road for about two weeks.
We were driving through the Black Hills National Forest, and it started pouring. Lightning struck about 200 feet away from us and our windshield was a sheet of water. There was no way we were setting up a tent in that weather.
We pushed on past the black hills to Rapid City, where we decided to wait out the storm once we found out it was supposed to pass over. Our next thought was pizza, and we quickly hurried ourselves to a sports bar.
This is the type of place where there are no windows, mini slot machines line the walls, and a number of highly-boozed men play the air drums at the bar. We moved from three tables before we finally decided where to sit, and in a stupor we realized we hadn’t been in public in a long time.
A week after our arrival back home, that feeling hasn’t gone away. The outdoors flips some sort of ego-less switch in our brains that becomes permanent after a certain amount of time, and magnified at first glance.
In matters of preparation, we did pretty well. There was nothing we badly missed, nothing that was left at home that would have made our trip significantly smoother.
We did, however, underestimate our gas money. Sure, my pint-sized car gets 35 miles to the gallon when it’s just me in the car, but we didn’t factor in the three of us, a full trunk, and a jam-packed car top carrier. We ended up getting about 28 MPG, which put our total gas money at $830, a full $230 more than we budgeted for.
Luckily, the $10 a day in spending money we planned on was usually too steep. On days spent camping, it was difficult to spend that much money at a gas station. Of course we bought snacks—the bagel chips we made were gone by the time we hit Oregon and we had so many baked peas that the smell now makes me nauseous. I even discovered a secret craving for beef jerky that had laid dormant for years, but never had to panic about running out of money.
I never had to worry about running out of clothes, either. That was the only thing we all agreed we had brought too much of.
This trip was always about me finding new ways to love the United States. I was bored with this country and didn’t feel compelled to explore. I always wanted to go further, to a different country or even continent. That changed, quickly.
My perceptions began to shift once I realized how immensely different each state is, and how much there is to explore in each one. As soon as we crossed the Nebraska border to Colorado, hills began to emerge from the ground and the landscape was vastly different.
After the Rocky Mountains started to thin out, the colors turned from green to grey, and as soon as we hit the Utah border everything flattened, immediately. It barely resembled the Colorado we had just been through. Every border we crossed sparked a change in surroundings, beautifully illustrating the diversity in land that exists in the country.
Every place we went, we would have liked to spend more time there. With our tight schedule, we had to fully pack every hour with exploration, and there was always more we could have seen and done. This country is chock full, and it takes throwing yourself into it to appreciate that.
I’ve been asked over and over what the best part was, and I still can’t come up with an answer. There were moments at each location that made each stop “the best part.” Tromping through snow in Rocky Mountain National Park while in shorts was a surreal event. Watching the full moon rise and light up the canyon on the Colorado River in Utah was an experience that will be hard to top. Sitting in a knot in a redwood tree the size of a semi-truck at sunrise while watching a herd of elk eat was one of the most peaceful experiences I have had to date. Looking at anemones and urchins in the Yaquina Head tide pools in Oregon only deepened my fascination for marine life. The dramatic patterns and formations of the Badlands threw me for a geologic loop.
The beauty of a road trip is the ability to cover so much ground in such a short amount of time, to truly travel to a place instead of just flying above it. Every minute in the car, every dollar spent on gas, and every bug bite is worth it to spend time outside exploring new places to connect to—and eventually to go back to.
Images by Chelsea Hohn