Ten years ago, on this day, I set out on my most epic adventure.
Ever since I was in a child, I had dreamed of driving to California to see the country. This all started when I was about 10 years old and my cousin Chilik came to visit us from Israel. Him and his friend bought a used car for next to nothing and just took off for the west coast, returning a couple of months later. Growing up in New Jersey (and really only leaving to visit family in Israel) I was fascinated by the concept of just getting on some sleepy suburban road and following it all the way to the end. I would look off into the distance and fantasize about just what was out there.
As I grew older, and the prospect of being able to actually do something like this became more real, my friends and I would talk about doing a road trip after we graduated high school in 2000. But this idea kept getting delayed and by the time my friends were ready to pull the trigger a few years later, I was firmly ensconced in a demanding call center job where taking vacations was highly frowned upon.
But then, in 2010, after tiring of that world, I blew that life up to go back to college and have the experiences I missed out on after working 60 hours a week for 10 years.
I’d never really had a summer vacation since I always had summer jobs ever since I was 9 years old (when I would help my dad at his printing business), and even the year I went back to school, I had to take summer courses in order to graduate the following year. But I still had 6 weeks with nothing to do for the first time in my life. So I decided to re-visit the idea I’d first wanted to do with my friends 10 years before.
Problem was, as a 27 year old guy, all of my friends were working, and most were married already. No one was willing or able to disappear for an entire summer.
Faced with the prospect of either going alone or not going – I made what at that point was the most momentous decision of my life. Most people (myself included at the time) would not be enamored by the idea of driving thousands of miles with no one to share the load with. Not to mention the true abject loneliness of being thousands of miles from your friends and potentially going for days at a time without any human contact.
But I did it. And it was the best decision I ever made.
Over 12,000 miles between July 9th, 2010 and August 20th, with a plane ride back and forth from Los Angeles to DC in the middle. I drove three different cars, flew, took boats, and trains. I visited over a dozen national parks, saw dozens of cities. I visited friends I hadn’t seen in years because they moved away. I crossed the Mississippi, Missouri, and Columbia Rivers (sometimes more than a few times). I went through 34 states, and one misguided accidental trip into Mexico. I stayed at dozens of motels, campgrounds, and friends’ couches. I got to see almost all the landmarks from the Oregon Trail game (and you know, the ACTUAL real Oregon Trail!), which I followed for much of the westward journey. I actually got to see the interior of a nuclear missile control facility. And really this is barely scratching the surface.
Was it difficult? Lonely? Sometimes dangerous? Absolutely – all of the above. In the coming days and weeks I’ll relive some of my adventures and close calls from that time of my life. And it is true, there were certainly low points.
Being alone means you’re ON your own. There’s no one to bounce ideas off of and ask for advice (especially if you’re in a place with no cell service). So like, there’s no one to talk you out of driving 3 hours out of your way to see the World’s Largest Ball of Twine in Cawker City, Kansas, which you get to at 12 am and then have another two hours of driving through literal corn fields before finally finding somewhere to crash for the night. Or following your GPS’s directions and getting trapped on a literal sand dune and needing the border patrol to dig you out. Or running straight at a multi-ton bison to scare it away from your car…
And life on the road is tough. Like imagine driving for 10 hours nonstop but for gas, and then finding the only motel in town has no vacancies so it’s on for another 2 hours to the next motel that may or may not have the same problem. Ugh. Especially when you know you’re in for another day of 10+ hours of driving the following day. Many days I would eat all my meals in the car, while driving. Hoping to God that the next gas station you see will be open because if it isn’t, you don’t have enough gas to get to the next one or the previous one (which anyway was also closed). Pulling up to a campground as the sun is going down and realizing you’ve never put up a tent before and have no idea how to do it. Ending up on the wrong side of a road closure in Yellowstone National Park and having to do the entire 100+ mile loop to get back to where you’re staying. At 1 am. Going 30 MPH and having to stop short when wildlife literally would jump out into the road.
So yeah, not all pony-rides in May sunshine to be sure.
But man, the first night I was driving in Kansas, I could see stars through my windshield (inconceivable in NJ). So I pulled over, shut the headlights off, looked up at the sky, and got my first ever view of the Milky Way. Even more amazing, I was surrounded by fireflies, so the effect was being unable to distinguish where the sky ended and the ground began. And no one there to tell me what to do. No parents, no bosses, no teachers, no traffic, no distractions. Just me, on the prairie, with a 360 degree view to the horizon, stars stretching in a dome over my head, with glowing green dots all around. Simply euphoric. I must have stood there for an hour or so but it felt like an eternity – like time just stopped.
I’ve often gone back to that moment (and others like it) in times of challenge and near despair. Even the bad moments from the trip have given me strength – because if you can handle living out of a car for six weeks and mostly subsisting off of peanuts and sandwiches, it really changes your perspective on what you need in order to be happy.
And the confidence that I developed for travel – especially adventure travel – on that trip is what gave me the strength to backpack my way through Europe the following year and then all of my amazing adventures with Ariel. I was changed in the most profound way – the guy who came back to New Jersey, was not the same guy who left.
Changes fill my time, baby, that’s alright with me
In the midst I think of you, and how it used to be
With apologies to Led Zeppelin, who obviously wrote this song about a woman – the thing I still think about 10 years later, is the open road. Things have certainly changed – and that’s all right with me. But sometimes I think back to that time in my life and how it used to be. And while I’m happy with how everything has turned out, I still miss her… the open road.
Ten years gone, holdin’ on, ten years gone
Ten years gone, holdin’ on
10 years gone, still holding on to the memories and the feelings… but the road will never be the same for me again.