I’m not much of a road trip guy. Never liked them. The cost of all the inefficiency and discomfort never seemed worth the reward of - what? Getting to eat snacks in silence in a minivan?
Or maybe it’s because of all the things that have gone wrong. Once, during a family road trip to Las Vegas as a kid, I got a gushing bloody nose in both nostrils at once. When I was 25, I stranded my Zipcar on the highway from Chicago to St. Louis because I was so busy singing I forgot to get gas. A few years later, alone on New Zealand’s southern island, I stopped my Corolla, for maybe two minutes, to take in the warmth and breathtaking coastal views before climbing back in to find the car had taken in a swarm of blood-taking coastal sand flies. I still have scars on my ankles from that one.
So you can imagine my surprise when last September, nearly six months into the pandemic, my wife Jaime and I decided to drive all the way across the country. We had come back to our apartment in New York after spending the previous five months sheltering-in-place near our families in California, but needed to head back West so I could officiate Jaime’s sister’s wedding. We reasoned driving back gave us a chance to both declutter our apartment by moving a car’s worth of stuff to California and also allowed us to do something we’d never otherwise experience. Two birds, one pandemic. Plus, being locked in a room alone together had apparently gotten to be too much space, so we thought we’d try locking ourselves alone in a car instead.
We weren’t the only ones. Like other activities that were fueled by the unfettered, focused leisure provided by the pandemic, driving cross-country had a bit of a moment in 2020. It helped that unlike sourdough starters, gardening, and cross-stitch, doing a cross-country drive means you get to, you know, go somewhere. And you could get there fast - for the first time in America’s motor history, there was basically no traffic anywhere. In fact, the Cannonball Run, the fabled race from the Red Ball Garage in New York City to the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach, first completed exactly 50 years ago by a team driving a modified ambulance, had its record time unofficially broken seven times last year, and by a previously impossible margin.
Our own drive was actually almost exactly a Cannonball Run - our apartment in New York is so close to the Red Ball Garage that I coincidentally walked by it the night before we left, and our destination, Huntington Beach, was just 30 miles south of the Portofino Inn - except we were driving slower. Much slower. We had about three weeks until the wedding, and we intended to use all of it.
Though I initially imagined our trip would follow a stochastic path of spontaneous whimsy, it turns out a cross-country drive has one thing in common with wedding officiating - you can technically wing it, but it’s probably best for all parties involved that you plan ahead. Luckily, while my wife is good at a lot of things, her strongest wins-above-replacement activities are most likely planning and packing. In the time I’ve known her, Jaime has planned more than one wedding with less than two weeks notice (not ours, thankfully). For flights, she somehow packs food in carry-on luggage in inventive ways others wouldn’t dare to dream. The first time we met, she filed three entire pizzas into her bag like legal briefs in an accordion Pendaflex. Once, she brought whole watermelons, plural, in a Longchamp Le Pliage. Another trip she divided a huge container of salsa into dozens of tiny cups to skirt the airline liquids rules on a technicality. Just this last month, she brought an entire 12” birthday cake and eight pounds of bagels and cream cheese on the outgoing flight and brought back an open tray of farm-fresh strawberries in her rollerboard on the return leg. It’s like traveling with a very hungry David Blaine.
True to form, Jaime planned and packed our road trip within an inch of its life. For the route, she plotted a path across the North and then down through the Rockies that hit as many National Parks and monuments as possible, crossing 17 states over nearly 5,400 miles of driving. We wouldn’t need to sleep in the car or bathe ourselves in hand sanitizer in old motels because she strategically placed our stops so we could stay at, to quote her, the “nicest hotels possible along the way.” For our vehicle, she cycled through Sprinter vans, moving trucks, and RVs, before settling on an all-wheel drive SUV. Even then, it was cripplingly expensive to rent it in New York City, so she scheduled to swap it out for a cheaper one at our first stop in Pittsburgh to shave thousands of dollars off the cost.
For our car - a Buick Enclave, a vehicle I enthusiastically endorse for the expressed purpose of three weeks of driving with your spouse - she prepped a massive Yeti cooler and supplemented the Enclave's console with a blur of screens meant for both navigation and roadside Zoom meetings: three smart phone mounts, a Garmin navigation system, and a satellite phone just in case we drove off a ravine in the Grand Tetons. She strategically packed our luggage to make it easy to unload at our daily stops, preventing our car from being ruinously robbed of, say, my blonde telecaster and 7’ duffle bag filled with shoes bought in Japan. For my part, I saved scores of podcasts and playlists for us to listen to, but it turns out when you have to drive nine hours a day, every day, “silence” quickly becomes preferable to 16 hours of Dan Carlin yelling for about the history of samurai Japan or cycling through 150 songs from the 70s about the American heartland.
Here is where I have to point out that for a drive as long as this, one of the primary concerns is what you’re putting into your body and how it’s coming back out again. For food intake, we were highly successful - we managed to only eat fast food twice, both times at Burger Kings, one on the first night as it got late somewhere outside Allentown and another on a particularly quiet stretch between Dickinson, North Dakota and Great Falls, Montana. Otherwise, we slowly dipped our toes back into indoor-dining. In Pittsburgh, we tentatively ate steak and eggs at a brunch place in our hotel. We then stopped at an old favorite in Chicago called Bavette’s. Between the Badlands and Mount Rushmore, in Rapid City, South Dakota, we ate two meals in twelve hours at a surprisingly phenomenal restaurant called Tally’s Silver Spoon. By the time we got to central Montana we were reckless enough to order a corndog and chicken fingers with a beer at Trixi’s, a dusty roadhouse where no one wore masks, the waitress rolled her eyes at me for not being familiar with the particulars of local microbrews, and a hardscrabble farmhand gave me a long, unbroken glare from the bar for nearly the entirety of our stay.
In terms of coming out the other side, I had assumed we’d encounter an unending stream of nasty gas station bathrooms, so it was a pleasant surprise that roadside gas stations throughout most of the country, which are used as refueling stations for truckers, have relatively luxurious facilities. But Jaime also had back-up plans, of course - a foldable, plastic, full toilet with bags of coagulant powder and a pack of underwear-lining pads for emergencies.
And there were close calls. Outside of gorgeous Arches National Park in Utah, where we hit the first traffic we’d experienced for pretty much the entire trip, I was caught dangerously close to wetting myself, and decided to have my first and last go at using one of the pads. I now know the strange indignity of trying to coerce your body to soil itself followed by the quiet, slow crescendo of panic as you feel the pad filling to capacity while you’re not nearly done adding to it.
There were other minor emergencies, too. My mouth, for example, had a pretty disastrous trip. Somewhere between Chicago and South Dakota, where the slow climb to the Rockies begins, I started having debilitating pain in my teeth from an apparent sinus infection. That was granted sweet relief by prescription medication we picked up in South Dakota - where they had very congenial pharmacists and also the most Clorox wipes we would find for months - but then I shattered my right rear molar while eating a tortilla chip ten days later in New Mexico.
Then there was the night we drove through an empty Sturgis, South Dakota, just a few weeks after its annual bike rally became a super spreader event that caused 250,000 COVID cases in the Harley Davidson Extended Universe. Perhaps because we were mesmerized by the extreme Sturgis-ness of everything - the massive statues of motorcycles made from parts of smaller motorcycles, the startling answer to the question “How many local businesses can be motorcycle-themed?”, the unnecessarily huge sign that simply read “MOONSHINE” - we fatefully didn’t stop for gas. Unbeknownst to us, there wouldn’t be another gas station until we crossed an unpopulated 200-mile stretch of countryside. And while our car estimated our gas would take us 230 miles, in a cruel twist of arithmetic, we’d soon learn it overestimated by exactly 30 miles. For the final tense 50 miles, we shut off everything in the car except the engine and the headlights, and I gripped the wheel and prayed in silence that we’d get close enough that I wouldn’t have to run any more than 3 miles in the pitch black. When our Enclave finally, thankfully crawled into the gas station, massive insects swarming in the hot night, we discovered we had barely more than a quarter gallon of gas left.
Other depressing realities washed over us like a slow boil. At Yellowstone, our nation's educational crisis was on full display when a mother asked her pubescent son, “What’s a bison?” and he very incorrectly answered, “I’m pretty sure bison is the Indian word for buffalo” (for those keeping score, “bison” are the animal in North America, and they are incorrectly called “buffalo”, which is an animal native to Asia and Africa). They were both taking pictures of said bison with smart phones connected to the internet.
It was also two months before the Presidential election, and Jaime and I learned just how blanketed the country was with Trump paraphernalia. Ominous billboards, homemade signs, billowing flags, car decals, t-shirts, hats, and, somewhat ironically, COVID masks - the populations were sparse, but the per capita analytics were off the chart. In fact, the first Biden-Harris sign we saw was a tiny post on the front lawn of a home all the way in Santa Fe, New Mexico. If you squinted hard enough, you could almost see why someone unfamiliar with bison, let alone the concepts of population density and the electoral college, would be skeptical of the election.
Still, we didn’t encounter any trouble. I assume this was partly because I was sporting the scraggly beard of a toothless gold prospector, or because many days I wore a navy t-shirt for post-hardcore band The Hot Snakes that features a graphic of a snake slithering through a pair of handcuffs. Older tourists loved to enthusiastically ask me, “What is ‘Hot Snakes’?!”, only to be nonplussed when I answered, “A punk band from San Diego!” instead of, “an 8-chan group supporting police unions!”
Despite some of the horrors, America remains exasperatingly beautiful at a startling scale. The highlights were unending. Driving through the Dakota plains as they erupted into the banded formations of the Badlands. Breathing in the wild ambition of the expansive sky in Montana. Baking in 90-degree heat in North Dakota and then two days later standing in fallen snow at the top of an ice-capped mountain pass in Glacier National Park. Sprinting through erupting geysers and glassy, rainbow-hued thermal pools in Yellowstone. Shafts of light from the setting sun bursting through the Tetons. Getting up before daybreak to hike (Jaime, who doesn’t like hiking, hikes like George Michael Bluth walks) through Utah’s Arches National Park, whose ancient majesty I grasped in my heart if not in my brain (seriously - do you understand this?). Winding through the desert mesas and saguaro cactus in Arizona.
In the Badlands of North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt Park, we encountered a pack of muscular wild horses, startlingly colored and majestic. They posed, silent and regal, with the wind off the plains whipping through their manes and tails. We snapped some photos, and lingered, alone, to watch them, stoic reminders that this country can still be wild, beautiful, and free.
But before long we drove on. We had a plan to stick to.