There’s something about the idea of a road trip that’s so hopelessly romantic, so American dream. The thought of driving cross country through the endless plains of the midwest, the snow capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains, the spectacular coastline of the Pacific felt like a sort of patriotism I could get behind. It’s been done time and again, by our friends, parents, famous artists- it’s hardly an original idea. Still the American road trip is timeless, as though it’s a rite of passage, a coming of age for young Americans. It promises open roads and freedom, and was something I felt that I should do. It was my time, I thought, after all these years of traveling, to finally come home and explore the United States for myself.
The idea for the road trip sort of evolved as most of my travel plans do, with a few vague, day dreamy ideas that float around, teasing my mind for a little bit, until I inevitably come up with a random idea, completely spur of the moment, and just go with it. When I was living in Italy, I became fixated with the idea of perhaps working a season in Death Valley National Park in California or straight up just moving to Puerto Rico, until one night of restless insomnia, I came to the conclusion that I would be moving to Australia next instead. I got up the following morning started applying to jobs and a few months later I found myself on a plane to Perth. But that’s another story for another time. In this story, I was just finishing a season working at a restaurant on the Outer Banks. As fall came to an end, I found myself with a few months to spare, a decent amount of money saved, and a couple of friends willing to brave adventures with me. Rarely do these things line up so perfectly like this, and that probably should have been the first sign that this trip would turn into the quite the opposite experience. I had spent my summer contemplating my winter plans- moving to Hawaii, New Zealand, or a mountain somewhere in the far out west. The opportunities were endless so I decided, of course, to do none of those options. Instead, I opted for driving 3,500 miles across the country, 8 days in the car, near death experiences, braving the cold, panic attacks, vomiting, mental breakdowns and lots, lots of rain.
The plan was for my travel mates, Anna and Dave, to drive down from Philadelphia and meet me at my parents house in Maryland to officially set out early the next morning. The night before we left came quickly and unsurprisingly I found myself completely unprepared. I frantically spent that afternoon throwing whatever I felt I might possibly need for the next few undetermined number of weeks into my trusty green backpack, organizing my childhood bedroom, messaging far-too-long procrastinated e-mails to various old friends I knew across the states in hopes of having couches to crash on and searching for my passport (because you really never know where you’ll end up in these types of adventures) that I swore I knew I’d intentionally put it in a safe, unforgettable place that ended up being, while safe, apparently very forgettable. Basically it was the very typical day-before-i-go-off-and-wander scramble I’m all too familiar with. Needless to say I wasn’t phased, or even slightly unsettled when Anna and Dave showed up, not at midnight as expected, but at 3 in the morning. This was only slightly inconvenient because we were set to head out at 6 am in hopes of outrunning the gruesome monster that is rush hour traffic in Washington DC. As soon as they got to the house, I showed them where they’d be sleeping and left them there to get a few hours of rest. I spent the rest of the those early morning hours moving quietly around the house, getting things in order. It made sense for one us to stay awake to make sure we didn’t over sleep and, knowing that I probably wouldn’t be able to rest anyway, it made the most sense for it to be me. It’s always the same feeling the night before a big trip, the anticipation and excitement, mixed with exhaustion, creates a strange kind of high, a mellow adrenaline that lets me know this is it, adventure is coming.
Before the sun rose all three of us were awake, we dressed quickly and organized the car, said goodbye to my parents and headed out. The drive to St Louis was about as exciting as one could imagine a 12 hour, non-stop car ride could be. We drove through Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and finally through a sliver of Illinois, vaguely observant of the passing landscapes and neither awed nor surprised by them. As I’ve stated before, this trip, like most of my trips, was horrendously planned, leaving us with dwindling daylight and frantically trying to find a place to stay as we approached Missouri. Fortunately, the internet is a wonderful thing. In true millennial fashion, the three of us frantically scrounged through Couchsurfers, airbnb, and tripadvisor for possible places. We settled on a youth hostel, managing to get the price down to $50 for the 3 of us. I’ve stayed in hostels before, in many different parts of the world, and if you find yourself abroad, I would highly recommend it. It’s a unique atmosphere catered to young people traveling on a budget. The idea of living on a tiny bunk bed in a room shared with several other people may seem unappealing but staying in a hostel has its perks, especially if you’re traveling alone. Typically it’s a very friendly environment, filled with other young travelers looking to make friends and have a good time. Plus, the people who run hostels are bound to very quirky, to say the least. From my experience at this hostel, I’d have to say that hostel culture hasn’t quite hit the states yet, but it could also be because who the hell would visit St Louis, Missouri in the middle of winter. In the girls dorm there was only one other girl besides me and Anna. I never actually met her or saw her; she was gone when we arrived and sleeping any other time we were in the room.
After we dropped our stuff off, the hunger struck. We hadn’t stopped for a real meal all day, snacking on the random food my mom had packed for us earlier that morning. We figured we’d just grab some grub at a bar and hang out for a few drinks. Unfortunately, by now it was past 10 o’clock and it seemed that every kitchen had closed, which left us hungry, tired and cold in the middle of St Louis. A quick search and we were off to the first 24 hour diner we could find. I wouldn’t say I’m very judgmental when it comes to restaurants; I’m pretty much down to try anything and don’t pay much attention to the looks of a place. Even still, as we rolled up to the diner, squinting through the dirt smudged windows into the grungy interior, you couldn’t help but think “this place won’t be good”. Not that that stopped us. By then we were past the point of caring. When we emerged about an hour later, feeling a little greasier but full, it was well past midnight. At that point it was one of those choices where although we were tired and had to wake up at 6 AM for another 12 hr drive, we were only in St Louis for one night and would hate to miss an opportunity for a little adventure in a new city. It’s these sort of moments that normally make or break a travel experience. It’s those tiny decision that can lead to the wildest times. This was not one of those times. This time, we wound up in an area called The Grove and spent the rest of the evening in a little hipster bar with bicycles on the wall and waxed mustaches. Two beers in and we were done, it was clear tonight was going nowhere worth staying awake for, so we surrendered to our bunk beds. We rose again before dawn, packed up our stuff, left the keys in the mailbox and headed west. 810 miles down, 2,690 to go. Next stop, Denver.