On the Road

In late May, two weeks after the school year drew down, I drove south from the San Juan Islands to my home in the Bay Area. The drive, fourteen hours with an overnight intermission in Eugene, OR, began a journey on which I planned to drive quite a lot: some ten-thousand miles all told, on a trip that would neatly circumnavigate the country. The while, I would be researching state energy policy. It was a sponsored trip, a university research grant doled out in a single check for the amount of $2,750. An additional stimulus of $500 was to come at the end of the summer, as soon as I had submitted my research and earned the money.

In June and July, I worked my way from California to New York, beetling by a circuitous route across nineteen states and over thousands of miles of backroad highway. My trip plunged, first, into the sunstroked American southwest. Abbey country: Utah and Colorado, where landscapes are scrubbed Desert Solitaire pinks and purples and where, perhaps by some southwestern ordinance, every bookstore seemed made to own at least one signed copy*.

Sunset (not so pink) in Joshua Tree, CA, the last California stop before true SW.

Sunset in Joshua Tree, CA, the last California stop before the true SW.

As a guy who’s only ever lived by a body of coastal water (at the very least by a sound) I was beginning, somewhere in Utah, to go a bit crazy from the dryness. So, like a thirsty migratory bird, I winged my way northeast, stopping first in Texas before traveling up through the soggy South. Misssissippi, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas. State by state I absorbed then sweated back out the monsoon humidity of the region, the annual baptism of the South in mid-summer.

I arrived in New York in early August, days unshowered and tanner than ever, my skin crisped a yellow mud color. I had spent most nights** sleeping on the road in the back of my Subaru, a stalwart hatchback of some 200k+ miles whose back seats I had replaced with a platform bed. Four nights on a couch in a friend’s NY apartment, then, felt sadly palatial. The couch was not even very comfortable; it was simply not located in the back of my car.


The worn leather of an old wheel.

Four nights were all I had in New York. A nagging internal voice kept reminding me that certain parts of my research were yet-undone. I needed to get home, but I was on the wrong coast.

After some ribbing, I convinced another friend, Robin, to make the drive home with me across the three-thousand-mile width of the U.S.-of-A. We would travel through: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin (briefly), Minnesota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and, finally, Washington. In Washington we would stop, stay for a week before driving south to California.

As an aside, I have known Robin nearly my entire life. Our mothers met in a pre-natal group when we were yet unborn. We grew up together, in proximity until he moved to the East Coast in the first grade. We have managed a close friendship since then, upkept by summer visits and an annual backpacking trip.

The smell of gasoline in the morning.

The NY-WA stretch was, is, a long one. According to google maps, the drive alone would require just over forty- three hours of car time. We figured another twenty for sleep/gas/bathroom stops. A ratio of 3-1, driving-to-not-driving. Respectable and manageable. The notion of such speed across such distance had, we thought, a certain sex appeal about it. The appeal of crazy endurance, of comfort foregone for greater speed. Of two rugged dudes racing the very sunset across the spine of the country—of the evening redness in the West—of the lonely flatness of the American interior—of something like that.

Highway Morning

Morning on 90-W: The lonely flatness of the American interior.

And how better to transmit all that steam, we thought, than by an Instagram account?

On the 13th of August, departure day, we make the account. At precisely 1500hr (auspicious because it is the exact time we had planned to leave, which never happens) we pull out from Robin’s driveway. Our first post is a picture of my car with a sentimental caption, and it is yet fresh as we merge onto Interstate 84-W.

Robin takes first shift behind the wheel—first of many, many—and I look out the window, scouring our surroundings for second-post-worthy content. Something exciting, something sexy. I find very little of this: road signs with graphics a touch silly; advertisements one could not imagine would work on anyone; all sorts of funny looking humans, our fellow travelers. But nothing remarkable.

In the aggregate, spoken of in elevated terms—“thousands-of-miles,” “number-of- states”—our journey promised to be grand indeed. Peering around at the highway, no particular thing seemed worthy of it.

Really, though (to be ponderous and altogether less fun), no journey is taken in the aggregate. The aggregate, after all, is an aftereffect; a glittering highlight reel that requires the forgetting of lots of unsexy things—speed limit signs, off-ramps never taken, one-pump stations in anonymous, sad little towns. The aggregate is a retrospective deal. It is only in retrospect that a huge stretch of common driving—a series of McMuffins, refuels, farts—can take on the high romantic quality of the trip, the quest: of the Big, Sexy Journey.

We bought dinner here, sandwiches: two patties, a piece of roast beef, nothing else.

We bought dinner here: two patties, a piece of roast beef, nothing else (no mustard, even!).

The journey (the Big, Sexy Journey (BSJ)) is the story of whatever you want it to be. You can be who you want, on the BSJ, so long as you have a good imagination and are creative with your camera, pen, etc.

Perhaps on the BSJ you are a drifter type. The BSJ is for you the story of a rambler. You are a study in hip, chilled-out nonchalance. Neck bandanna’d, man-bun pinned up sloppy, obscure tee dusty from the wear-’n’-tear of the road, your vibes are alive, on the BSJ, and resonating in all the right ways.

Otherwise on the BSJ you are a wandering sage, a poet taking the temperature of the Heartland. Or else the BSJ is more cynical: You are a sneering anthropologist, gathering about you a sneering ethnography of the towns (cultural voids) along the highways linking East Coast to West-.

Robin and I finish our drive, 3,012 miles in total, in fifty-three hours, arriving in northern Washington a bit more than two days after departing from New York. We do this by stopping exactly nowhere interesting, except twice in South Dakota—once at the Badlands Nat’l Park and again at Mount Rushmore.

The Badlands National Park, South Dakota.

The Badlands National Park, South Dakota.

If we had taken more time for own Big, Sexy Journey, perhaps it would have been sexier than it turned out to be. But our BSJ was flaccid indeed. These inane things, among other inane things, comprised it: fifteen gas stations, 1/3 of Steven King’s The Stand audiobook (a 62-hour-long beast), and a nearly constant patter of dull but diverting conversation.

When we turned off the engine for the last time in The Evergreen State, our Instagram account was populated by exactly one more photo than it’d been when we’d left The Empire. The new addition was a picture of a dusky, alien landscape in the Badlands, SD, the only really remarkable shot taken during the entire trip. Not shown: three-thousand miles of westbound highway 90.

Not shown, at least, until now.

Somewhere in Ohio (or was it Pennsylvania?), I started to shoot footage. Mostly from the passenger-side window. Of passing trees, passing cars, the passing road. A gas station. A rest stop. Another gas station. Another gas station. Another gas station…

Another gas station...

Another gas station.

After working the footage for a couple of days, I made a film of the trip. Having never made a film, this project was a bit out of my wheelhouse, but nevertheless fun to do. The agenda of the film (that is to say the agenda of its creator, of me) included all the usual goals of travel stories: to relay some version of the truth—to make a narrative at once universal and unique—to tell a story.

Yes, this: to tell a story: to string bits and pieces—images, noises, scenes—together into something more than a mere collection of parts.

What departs our travel story from the typical one is the nature of the parts we did collect, those which made the final cut. If other travel stories have a range of parts—some smooth and some sharp, fun because the collection is so eclectic—ours is like a bucket of wing nuts: repetitive, hard to lift, possibly beginning to rust from last week’s rain.

This film focuses on the parts of the drive usually cut from the journey. It lingers for sometimes uncomfortable durations (in mimic of a real drive) on the stretches where absolutely nothing of note happened at all.

This film is very boring; that is basically the point. I hope you enjoy it, though I expect you to not.

*I had left my copy (unsigned) at home and, though I’d already read it, I bought a new one out of a weird feeling of peer pressure, only to not pick it up once over the following months.

**—with the exception of an unmentionable two in Jackson, MI, when the air had been so palpably wet that I caved, rented a motel room and watched Grimm, perhaps the all-time worst show, late into the night.