There is a logic, a rhythm, to a well-executed road trip. I’ve been planning this one for years, a manila folder the repository of scraps of paper with scribbled recommendations, ideas torn from magazines, notes on places mentioned on the radio, all building blocks for the I’m-no-longer-tethered-to-a-job road trip. My core skills are first-rate, veteran of two decades of family road trips evenly distributed between national-park-or-bust vacations and Army-family moving from post to post. And as I hurtle toward my six-decade milestone, the notion of a long meander across the country, just me and the dog, no flights to catch, no ticking clock inside me pushing to squeeze every possible activity into every available moment … seemed the perfect centerpiece for my 2020 plans.
The upside-down-ness of the world made the open road beckon more seductively in 2021, though I’d need to modify some plans. Spontaneous nights in crowded bars listening to local bands? Nope. Sojourn through the most politically polarized counties on my own personal unity tour? Maybe 2022. Lesser-known national parks, county roads, obscure historical and cultural sights, tiny regional museums dedicated to whatever took someone’s fancy? Absolutely. Books on Audible, abundant playlists on iTunes, paper maps and Google maps uneasy partners in the role of navigator. And a dog whose spring bouts of carsickness and automobile anxiety turned out to be 100% cured when I let him ride shotgun. Off we go, to meander, to race, to roam.
Along the way, thrumming under the sweeping vistas and quick-pull-over moments, is a fragile sense of pilgrimage, as the trip becomes as much about connection as about freedom. Friendly chats six feet apart across a gasoline pump were the antidote to my expectations of cold shoulders or hostile glances when my liberally bumper-stickered 23-year old Subaru rolled up on red state SUVs with The Other Guy’s slogans. Grocery store cashiers and AirBnB hosts with in-the-know recommendations for singing canyon hikes and tasty hyperlocal food trucks (Boulder, Utah) or the best chocolate silk pie in the lower 48 (Elk, Oklahoma). Conversations with my younger self, on the lawn of the Kansas high school where I graduated 40+ years ago, and with my ancestors, on the banks of the Yellowstone where five generations ago women and men pioneered. Mostly, and most importantly, the tear-inducing sweetness of touch, skin on skin with the more than two dozen family and friends who I am able to fling my fully vaccinated arms around, and squeeze.
After weeks of reuniting and reconnecting, back on the road for the northerly route westward and home. Long morning shadows dance ahead of the car as we swoop along curving country lanes, the rising sun at our backs. Mid-day record-breaking heat drives me to the nearest green space as respite after every fuel stop, the dog and I both thirsty not only for water but for the feel of grass under our feet, vulnerable and tender as humans pay a fraction of the penalty due us for our disregard of the planet. Hours exploring wildflower meadows and mountains raucous with life.
Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana. Miles and miles with no one else on the road, and then, as other vehicles approach—mostly local, mostly trucks, in this world of ranches and farms and tiny towns—I remember where I am, and without thought my hand lifts off the steering wheel. Sometimes the whole hand, maybe two fingers, sometimes just one. Always, a greeting.
Hello there. It’s summer, and it’s good to see your face.
Laura E. Bailey is a writer of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry, and is a happily active member of the volunteer team at the Hoffman Center for the Arts who believes that Manzanita is a magical place for a writer. Laura is currently at work on a novel that grew out of a Hoffman workshop.