The final day of my journey started quite similarly to many other days from the prior two months. I woke up alone, in a dingy motel, had a quick bite (if available), and hopped into my car with a cup of coffee, and went off in search of new things to see over the course of the next 12-16 hours of moving around. This morning was different though. By this point in the journey, I had been living as a nomad for a while. My dinner the previous night was a cup of noodles soup that I’d heated up in the room’s microwave. Breakfast was scrambled eggs in the microwave. I didn’t need anything else. I was a totally different person than the one that had left my apartment in New Jersey, my own version of Bag-End.
I did a quick inventory of all my stuff, made my sandwich for the day (to be eaten while driving, naturally), loaded up my cooler with ice from the motel’s dispenser in a plastic shopping bag, double and triple checked the bathroom and the room to make sure I’d left nothing behind, and hit the road for the last day.
When I’d first left home, I had no idea what I was doing. I just knew I wanted to head west and see whatever there was to see. I learned the hard way about things like calling ahead to get better rates at motels vs just walking in. I figured out a system to organize my clothes in boxes in the trunk and just load up a couple nights’ worth of clothes to take into/out of rooms instead of dragging my entire inventory in with me. I learned that when I stopped for gas it was also time to use the restroom while the car was filling up, because who knows where the next bathroom was and anyway – stopping in between gas refills was a waste of time.
I found out that most rest stops and gas stations will give you a cup full of ice for free (even the stingy places only charged around 25 cents) instead of buying a water bottle for a dollar. I learned how to make myself a hot meal anywhere – even places with no toaster/kettle/stovetop/etc.
I spent more money over the first two weeks of the trip than the final five weeks because of things I figured out the hard way.
I came to understand that the world I grew up in (New Jersey) is a totally different, self-contained bubble that is nothing like the rest of the country. I had grown accustomed to being around people and situations that had seemed crazy to me just a couple of months prior – and even if they didn’t really “get” me, I certainly got them. We’re all living in our own Bag-Ends and Shires, surrounded by things that make us feel at home. Getting out of that comfort zone completely changed the course of my life.
But mostly, I had become someone who was comfortable with who he was, even all alone. The knowledge I picked up essentially moving across the United States like a drifter in an old Western film have stuck with me even now that I have a family and a house. I don’t often have a need for those skills – but they’re there when I (or my family!) need them. Like knowing how to make do with whatever we have on a trip, and never ever missing the opportunity to see what’s around the next turn if it looks interesting.
And on that final day, feeling no exhaustion, I actually had one of my busiest and heaviest driving days of the entire trip.
Heading out of Roanoke, Virginia, I randomly stumbled across a place called Foamhenge, which was (sadly it’s been moved off public property) a replica of the real Stonehenge, complete with some insane theory about how it was created by the wizard Merlin. Just a perfect example of weirdo kitschy Americana that was so far from the world I grew up in, it might as well have actually been created by the real Merlin.
From there I stopped at Harpers Ferry, the site of the John Brown’s raid – arguably the spark that set off a series of smoldering embers that ignited into the Civil War. There, in that place of violence, I took a short hike through the beauty of the Appalachian Trail, up to a rock where Thomas Jefferson once stood. Standing there, looking at the Potomac River after two months of adventure, I felt like I had conquered America.
From Harpers Ferry I rejoined the Loneliest Road in America, Highway 50 in Maryland. On this side of the country it’s anything but lonely – but I sped across the Chesapeake Bay into Eastern Maryland and then Delaware.
I finally re-entered New Jersey just before sunset on August 18th, nearly two months after leaving home. My entrance into my home state came via the car ferry to Cape May. Watching the sun sink toward the ocean as a group of dolphins followed the ship, it was almost like sailing off into the west toward Valinor. Jersey sure is not quite the land of faerie, but the feeling of having accomplished an incredible quest was palpable.
In Cape May, I watched the sun go down for the last time on my trip and welcomed the Jewish sabbath with a challah roll I’d gotten from who knows where and the same bottle of Manischevitz I’d been dragging all over the country with me. I was treated to the most beautiful sunset of the entire journey, here in my home state, in one of the few places on the east coast where you can see the sun go down into the ocean.
I rolled into a gas station, and for the first time in months actually enjoyed the privilege of someone else pumping my gas for me. Maybe New Jersey is Valinor after all.
But even then I could not rest, as I still had my final two hour drive, this time on the Garden State Parkway to my parents’ house for a proper shabbat dinner and my first home cooked meal in 2 months.
I pulled onto my parents’ street knowing that this part of my life was over and while I would likely never experience this level of freedom and independence again, these experiences and lessons would stay part of me for the rest of my life.
Then I opened the door, got out of my car, walked up to my parents’ door, and stepped back into civilization like I was walking through a portal back into the real world.
As I sat down at the dinner table where a hot and delicious plate of food was already waiting for me, marveling at where I had woken up that morning (and every prior morning for weeks), I drew a deep breath…
“Well,” I thought, “I’m back.”