“It must be established as a law that adventure in itself does not exist. Adventure is in the mind of the one who pursues it, and no sooner is he able to touch it with his finger than it vanishes, to reappear much farther off in another form, at the limits of the imagination.” -Pierre Mac Orlan
I didn’t realize how much I love and embody America until I left it and I didn’t realize how big it is until I traversed it.
For a long time, I regarded traveling as this self-contained, stand-alone thing, just like any of my other hobbies. But it is not; it is infinitely more all-encompassing, all twisted up and enlaced with life itself. There can be no away-ness without also having a sense of home. They are necessary corollaries. Yin and yang. They balance and complete each other. I used to buy into all those annoying cliches about how “home is where your passport is” and similar backpacker mentality codswallop. While I respect and acknowledge the importance of (youthful, solo) travel and the flexibility to build a life anywhere, it took three continents for me to realize that, for me, it is bullshit. America is home.
I am American, through and through. In these troubled political times, this has come to mean many different things. For better or for worse, America has always meant wide open spaces and larger-than-life metropolises. America is hustle and grit, but also kindness and tolerance. America is where, from northern Maine to southern California, if you greet someone with a smile and a “hi, how are you?” you will get a smile and some pleasant conversation in return. America is tall trees and terrifying deserts, walking dogs on green grass, cookouts and camping with loved ones. America is mountain hikes, evening bonfires, and all-out breakfast feasts. America is also one biiiiig love affair with the car. As far as I am concerned, it is the greatest of all American institutions: the road trip.
The seed that flourished into my Great American Road Trip was a very simple but very difficult truth that came from a very small voice in the back of my mind: I just wanted to be home for a while. In Sweden, my friendly openness was construed as fake. In Spain, my ineptitude with the slang and the humor left me feeling like a boring, stupid shell of my former self. I wanted roots. I wanted friends who shared my language and my values. I wanted to play pickup sports with like-minded strangers and I wanted to a eat damn real American cheeseburger whenever I please. I wanted a semblance of stability. At least for a while.
So I found a job out west, enlisted a partner in crime, and hit the road.
It all began at O’Hare, which is the worst airport in America, possibly the world. From there, it went steadily uphill, all the way to Iowa City, which was surprisingly cool. I expected a sleepy college “town” in the flyover state, with too many cornstalks and some weird accents. We were dumbfounded by how hip the place actually was, and found ourselves wanting to spend more time.
Nebraska was a blur. A big, flat, dark, deserted blur. One I am happier forgetting to be quite honest. It was around this time, coming up on Lincoln at 4am, (that horrible time of night when you start questioning every decision you’ve ever made,) that the gravity of my impending adulthood began to hit me. For the first time ever, my life is not being inherently incrementalized. Everything I had ever done up until then had a clear, delineated end date. Arizona didn’t.
But the end of Nebraska (almost) made it all worth it. After driving literally all night and scarcely crossing the Colorado border, seeing morning’s first few rays on the Rockies right in front of me was awesomely humbling. We took a break, stretched our legs, and Ian made good use of the light.
From there, it was all the way to Denver, where we found a lovely little farmer’s market, a dope dispensary, and a perfect hammock spot. Also some other lovely little surprises.
Forgive this probably unpopular opinion, but I found Denver pretty unimpressive in comparison to the rest of Colorado. Maroon Bells has been on my bucket list for ages, Leadville was unexpected but awesome, and even just some random spots on the side of the highway were worth pulling over for an hour.
Colorado, in my mind, embodies THE WEST. For some reason, in my mind, I see it as more impressively rugged and wild than California or Arizona. I have always been drawn to the pure unabashed majesty of mountains as well. I think it was a combination of the thin air and the relief at surviving Nebraska that gave me confidence. I was and am a long way from home and my beloved Great Lakes, but maybe the mountains will make up for it? The closer we got to the final destination of Scottsdale, the more anxious I became about diving headfirst into what could end up being a lifelong commitment. My mind found a way to dread even the best case scenario: what if I end up loving this job so much I want to keep it forever? How will I manage to reconcile that with my desire to drop everything and travel that always boils just beneath the surface?
Utah was perhaps my favorite surprise along the way. It’s trippy and funky in all the coolest ways, especially when you get to see the absolutely insane geological diversity. The rocks there rock, especially the red rocks and arches by Moab. We did the Corona Arch hike and it was absolutely unreal.
From there, it was a pretty straight shot to Scottsdale. It gave me a sense of horizontal vertigo to drive Great lakes Coast to almost Pacific Coast while trying to reconcile the nation’s relative infancy with its truly mind-blowing natural age and diversity. While traveling Europe, I found it adorable how small people thought America was. Once, while conversing with a Brit in Iceland, I was talking up Michigan (like I tend to do) and he said, “I’m going to Boston next month for work. Maybe I’ll swing by Michigan too.” The thought is laughable, given they are separated by about 15 hours driving. To put it simply, this place is huge. Amazing. Diverse. Barren. Lush. Beautiful. And you just don’t get it until you do it. I watched the landscape change from green with rolling hills around Lake Michigan, to tree-lined city streets in Chicago, to the flat plains of Iowa and Nebraska, to the dramatic and craggy peaks of the Rockies in Colorado, through the canyons and yellow aspen trees, toward the mesas of Utah, between the red rocks of Moab, over the mountains and around the pines of northern Arizona and down into the valley of Phoenix. It was simultaneously amazing, terrifying, and freeing to realize how big this country is and how little we all matter in comparison. It was a good road trip. The only thing holding it back from “great” was the brevity. The Great American Road Trip requires at least a month, many more spots, and at least a few nights spent in a National Park.
So here I am in Scottsdale, Arizona. 2,152 miles and 13 tanks of gas later. Embarking on the next great adventure: the closest thing in my mind to a “real life” that I probably ever want to have. Let’s see how long I last.
Below are the songs that wouldn’t leave my head during the drive. #home