North Carolina:  Back Home Again.

I’m writing this a few months after my return to Asheville from my road trip.  After highlighting specific states and sections of our country, I’d like to take a little time to reflect on the trip overall, now that I’ve had a bit of time settle into home and put some more prolonged thought into it.

The whole trip spanned from August 4 till September 16, hit 18 states, and covered 8,600 miles, according to my odometer.  I estimate only 20% of my drive was spend on interstate, and most of that was east of the Mississippi closer to home.  The first week and a half was spent traveling with Kim, and in a lot of it ways was the best part of the trip, not only because of having her company along the way, but we were more interactive with her family and friends, and explored at a more leisurely pace.  Once I dropped her off in Minneapolis to fly back to Asheville, that’s when I began my long solo trip, and that’s the core of the trip that I’m reflecting on now.

Traveling solo, I began my intention of sleeping in my Prius.  Though I had never done it before, I was confident that I could comfortably do so, and largely I was correct.  My inflated 6 foot mattress fit snuggly in the back of my car with the back seat laid down and the front passenger seat pushed forward.  It made for a comfortable bed for El Guapo and I, a lot like a dome tent, albeit one with big clear windows, so there wasn’t much sense of privacy.  I knew that Wal-Mart parking lots are often used for overnight parking/sleeping, and I drove through a few of them at night and saw all the RV’s and campers parked there, but promptly decided it wasn’t the right place for me – too public and too much light coming from the lamplights.  I generally found darker, quiet, and safe places among country waysides, boat launches on lakes and rivers, trail heads, rest areas, and a few dirt roads that just went nowhere – places where El Guapo run around and I could get up in the middle of the night and take a leak without bothering anyone.  Yet, the coziness I felt in my more isolated nooks was a catch-22.  It was less likely that anyone would happen upon me the more remote and alone I parked, but if anyone DID happen upon me, the more suspicious we might look to one another.  And so the thing that was often “uncomfortable” was more my mind than my body, as I slept with a constant awareness that I was in a publicly accessible area, in the back of a car with clear windows.  But I never had any issues.  Generally, I got up with first light and was on my way before drawing any daytime attention to myself.  I would totally travel that way again.

I loved the flexibility of taking each day as it came and just seeking out a place to park and sleep as I felt like it when darkness sat in.  I didn’t have to worry about making advanced reservations, finding dog-friendly lodging, spending money, or even unpacking/loading luggage.  It took me just a few minutes to move a few things around, brush my teeth, wet-wipe my face and feet, and crawl into bed.  Even if I was camping, I would have lost hours setting up and breaking down gear.  So, the Prius turned out to be a pretty good sleeping shell; I would only try to rig up some more privacy covering in the back windows for nothing else than the peace of mind that comes with feeling hidden.

The late summer / early fall season during my trip was the ideal time to travel.  I saw the start of harvest in the plains and the beginnings of fall foliage in the Olympics and the Rockies.  The only downside was a very dry summer which allowed for an outbreak of forest fires throughout the Northwest, such that the mountains often looked like the Smoky Mountains through the haze.  But mostly it was a great time as the summer crowds were starting to wind down, but the days remained relatively long and warm enough that I basically lived in my chacos and re-wore my swim trunks and shirts too many days to count.  There were some colder days and freezing nights, more than I expected, largely due to the higher elevation around Crater Lake, The Tetons and Yellowstone, so my few long sleeve shirts and down jacket got more use than I thought they would.

While my car provided an ample bed, I had to be strategic in keeping myself clean.  Fortunately, I was frequently near lakes and rivers where I could take a dip with my Dr. Bronner’s biodegradable soap, though I often felt like homeless person looking for a discreet place to privately bathe in a “public” area.  My warmest bath was on one of my coldest days in Stanley, Idaho where I greatly enjoyed the hot springs along the banks of the Salmon River.  So I enjoyed the seasons on the road, but made sure to be back in Asheville in time for the fall, my favorite time of the year.  If I do another long road trip in the US, I think I’ll do it down the Appalachian corridor following the fall foliage as it progresses South.  Not only would such a route north to south prolong the experience of fall, but it seems like that’s when local festivals are at their height, so it would be a ripe cultural season.

A big part of my motivation for going on the road trip was not just to experience the variety of landscapes in a trans-continental drive, but to experience the array of humanity along the way.  Before going, I envisioned myself constantly striking up conversations with local people, El Guapo acting as my ice-breaking wing man.  I had a repertoire of songs I could play on my ukulele that I could sing at local open-mics or even busking on the street if I felt so brave.  I thought I might use social media to learn of local meet-ups for running groups, contra dancing, or music jams like I’ve participated with in Asheville.  In all of these pre-trip aspirations, I fell very short of my own ideals.  Sure, there were times when I met interesting strangers, re-connected with friends, family and work connections, and I joined in on some local social events, but the overall tone of my trip was aloneness, even when I was among crowds.  I didn’t stick around any communities very long, and on many days the only conversations I had were with people I was ordering food from, which I would eat by myself.  I suppose to have had more social interaction in my windows of opportunity, I would have had to be aggressively outgoing, rather than the quiet, drifting observer that I tend to be.

It would seem if I wasn’t participating in as much social interaction, then I was devoting more time to my solitary leisure pursuits, but that wasn’t the case either.  I barely touched the books I brought to read.  I think I only got my ukulele out once to play.  I brought both my inflatable stand up paddleboard, Eno hammock, and fold-out lawn chair as resources to help me relax outdoors away from the car, but I only got them each out a few times.  Whenever I did get out one of these “take time for leisure” items, I found it hard to escape the compulsion to keep moving and progressing down the road.  It was a restless irony – feeling like I needed to slow down to deepen my experiences and yet feeling like I needed to speed up and get it over with because I was starting to suffer from experience fatigue.  I often felt like I was doing things and visiting places for the sake of checking them off my list, rather than actually enjoying them.  It helped when I decided to take Northern California and Nevada off of my to-do list, and go ahead and start heading back East, but even then I felt the nudge to keep moving faster.  It was challenging enough to take time to write, organize my photos, and maintain this blog.  This trip, and some of my other trips this year, have shown me that I really don’t know how to take a vacation.  I have trouble being physically and mentally still.  My days were full.  I was either driving, sleeping, strategically exploring, or hastily writing about it.  I grew weary of always being occupied with myself.

So, I wasn’t living out well my own pre-expectations of the trip – neither in socializing nor solitude.  But I wasn’t the only one who underwhelmed my expectations.  El Guapo’s love for exploring and curiosity for smells, sites and people was an inspiration to do this trip in the first place, but he grew weary of the road probably even more than me.  Oh how he was zealous to be in the car when we first loaded all the luggage, and did not want to be left out, but he’s kind of a homebody that needs a familiar home base and routine.  He of course remained my faithful companion throughout, wanting to be wherever I was, but it was A LOT of time in the car.  And since dogs aren’t allowed on the trails in National Parks, I had to leave him in the car a number of times when I did some quick runs/hikes.  I broke the rules several times and took him to some secluded areas and then saved my longer trail runs for national forest trails where he was allowed to go.  There were moments of excitement when he saw strange beasts (buffalo, elk, and bear) from the car window, and the time I let him run free as a gleeful terror in a prairie dog field in Wyoming.  But for most of the time, his temperament was melancholy and uneasy.  His appetite waned and he became noticeably thinner.  I’m glad I got a lot of great photos of El Guapo and I amid some amazing scenery, and those will help me relish and remember the freedom and adventure of our trip, and not so much the weariness of travel and how much we both were ready to come home and be among familiar faces.

When I left Asheville to start this road trip, I often held up Asheville as sort of a litmus test to the cities and towns I visited, to see how they were progressing, or how much more Asheville could progress.  I looked for those revitalized warehouse districts and neighborhoods that young professionals and hipsters had crowned cool.  I visited local breweries and eclectic restaurants wherever I could find them, happy to find that many are dog-friendly.  I made use of urban greenways, dog parks, waterways and pedestrian zones.  These travels indeed made me further grateful that I live in a beautiful and creative mountain city, but it also showed me that Asheville is not that unique.  It’s more a product of national trends, than it is a product of some unique local revolution.  But at least those are good trends that add spice to our city and increasingly make it a desirable place to live.  Interestingly however, the businesses and parts of town that I’ve enjoyed more in Asheville since I’ve gotten back are probably the places I enjoyed more on my road trip: the true local haunts.  Not so much the upstart restaurants and microbreweries appeasing flaky young patrons and their social media approval ratings, but the old diner or bar that’s been there before all of them.  As much as I like all the new and creative things blooming in Asheville, there’s something redeeming to know that I don’t have to drive far to visit a neighboring mountain town, or a nearby stretch of un-gentrified highway, and have a greasy meal or, god forbid, a macrobrew on a budget among generations of local blue-collar patrons and employees, at a place that has long given up on the pretense of being trendy or cool.  That’s the kind of place that makes me feel rooted and connected to a grand America.

One of those books that traveled with me the whole trip, but was barely opened, is the book that served in part as inspiration for the trip:  Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley”.  Now near the year’s end, I’ve finally gotten around to finishing it.  It reminds me how much more I could have written in this bog – that there are experiences, stories, people and thoughts that I haven’t adequately composed.  But then I am also reminded that to tread this world with the gumption to keenly observe your experiences and craft meaning from it all is a heavy burden to carry.  It also takes time to put it to ink.  And I’m afraid that in so aspiring, holding aloft your memories of said experiences, you may actually be detracting from participating and enjoying them in the moment.  I think Steinbeck would agree.  So I gladly bring this toil of writing to a close.