I Am Not Jack Kerouac
Published in Pluck Magazine
In the spring of last year, after Mardi Gras and in the midst of beautiful New Orleans weather, I bought an old Honda CRV, loaded up all my earthly possessions, and hit the road for the Great American Unknown. Before I left, my friend Lindsay took a picture of me posing by the railroad tracks, and I drove off into the sunset.
But that’s not really the beginning. Several months earlier – sometime in winter, I was sitting in the Hey Cafe, over caffeinated and at loose ends. I had moved to New Orleans after college just to experience that magical city. I had made great friends, but now I was hitting a wall. I had quit my non-profit job, and I was having a good time, but not much else. I feel compelled to note here that New Orleans is the kind of city where getting lost like this is almost predictable, where hanging out on your porch all day is not just tolerated but encouraged. It is beautiful and delicious and drunk enough that people disappear into its siren song and are never seen again. In short, I had to decide whether to fully crash on the rocks and maroon myself in New Orleans, or to sail on in a different direction.
So I took a notebook to an uptown coffee shop, sat down for a few hours, and wrote down all the impossible illogical dreams I could think of. Eventually, one stood out from the rest: I would get a jalopy, set out to explore the nooks and crannies of America, and figure out the rest as I went along. Perhaps I would even wear a khaki hat while doing so. I figured that 6 months was a solid amount of time – enough to see the country without losing my mind.
This is the part where I describe how I planned everything perfectly, created a flawless itinerary, and somehow outsmarted the universe. None of these things happened. In fact, if I’ve learned one thing about myself on this road trip odyssey, it is that I am physically incapable of planning more than 3 hours in advance. I made some efforts to research hostels, festivals, and landmarks, but these usually ended with a nap or some Hulu. Though I am an undeniably terrible planner, it is also borderline impossible to thoroughly research a long road trip like the one on which I was about to embark. America is too vast and unknown, too filled with national parks and sprawling metropolises, harboring places as different as Charleston and Seattle and all the nowheres in between.
To draw a picture of a stick figure in a jalopy is one thing, but to actually go through with the madness is quite another. In the end, my big mouth kept me honest – I had discussed my plans with too many people, and I would have been ashamed to publicly chicken out. My friends, for the most part, were encouraging, if not a little mystified. Why was I doing this? The answer was unclear, but the idea was exciting. My mother, on the other hand, was not so amused. After a deceptive period of calmness (which I now believe to be shock), we had terrible arguments, her main point being that I was going to be murdered on the side of the road on some moonless night by bad men who distilled their own whisky.
My original dream car was a VW Vanagon, but the gas mileage was too much. One memorable seller even spouted phrases like, “I keep a fire extinguisher in the back so it’s easy to get to when the engine catches on fire.” I decided on a Honda CRV because it got the same mileage as a station wagon, had four-wheel drive, and, most importantly, you could sleep in it. If I could do it all over again, I would buy a Honda Civic: something small with incredible gas mileage and easily replaceable parts. A small car keeps you honest.
I found the CRV on Craigslist in Louisiana, and brought a mechanic friend to check it out with me. It was a ‘98, had blacked out headlights and a shot transmission. I was in a hurry; I had given up my lease, and was ready to go. So against my friend’s advice, I bought the CRV- in cash on the hood of the car, an auspicious beginning. I packed way too much into it in those early days. I’ve since pared down to a bike, a tent, two sleeping bags and a sleeping mat, a clothes bag, a food bag, and a milk carton that carries books, electronics, and other miscellany.
And so on my last day in New Orleans, my friend Lindsay took a picture of me posing like a body builder on the train tracks that border the Bywater neighborhood, and I was off. From the beginning, I predicted that I would either freak out within 2 weeks and run home, or stay on the road for the full six months; neither one of these scenarios has come to fruition. I left New Orleans in May, planning to end around October. It’s March, and I’m still going.
I slept my first night in a hostel in Lafayette, Louisiana, the capital of Cajun country, and a nice first place to stop. Looking back, I think I was in shock that first day, and timidly climbed into my bed that night slightly in awe of the terrible decision I was embarking on. Things began to mesh a little more when I arrived in Natchez, Mississippi, north of New Orleans, along – you guessed it – the mighty Mississippi river. Antebellum Natchez had more millionaires than New York City (or so they claim) and the evidence is everywhere. The town is packed with gorgeous mansions built on the fortunes of slavery, and the houses stand as ornate and uniquely American tragedies.
Arriving in the late afternoon, I realized I didn’t know where I was going to sleep that night. I found the visitors bureau, asked for the nearest campground, and arrived about 30 minutes before sunset. Despite never once having handled a tent before, failure was not an option, and in one of the more victorious moments of my life, I wrestled with the tent and won. I then ate a dinner of pita and peanut butter, and lay that night inside my sleeping bag, humming with a feeling of possibility. I was practically Davy Crocket – and it was the first time I believed that I could actually pull this off.
I would like to state for the record that I had, if not a plan, than a perfect idea: I would travel counter-clockwise around America, hitting the cold states in summer and the warm states in winter. But of course that got blown to hell pretty quickly. I traveled up the Mississippi to Chicago, then rushed to Connecticut to see my friend before he shipped out to Iraq. From Connecticut, I went to Rhode Island, Cape Cod, Nantucket, and then rushed again to Asheville, North Carolina to meet up with a friend who joined me for a week and a half on the road. From there, I went thoroughly through the South at the height of summer, eventually emerging in Arkansas, and bee-lined to Glacier National Park in Montana before it got too cold. From there I went down the Rockies into Wyoming and Colorado, rushing to Los Angeles for Christmas with my family, and then up the West Coast again in January.
The first thing to remember about America is that it’s not Guatemala. Showers aren’t too hard to find, gas stations have bathrooms, you can always find clean water, and camping is much more prevalent that I though it would be. I sleep in a combination of places: my tent, motels, couchsurfing digs and hostels. Yes, there are hostels in America! And they are surprisingly good, and much underused.
I originally thought that camping would be dangerous, and motels would be safe. I spent my first few months huddled in my tent, clutching my mace in one hand, making sure my Leatherman knife was within reach. As it turns out, campgrounds are usually filled with retirees walking their dogs and families herding gangs of happy children.
Cheap motels, on the other hand, tend to attract a sad slice of humanity. Couples are always fighting, day laborers with thousand yard stares drink tall boys in front of their rooms, junkies blink uneasily from their doorways into the daylight, and prostitutes wander from car to room and back again. I always deadbolt my door, but in one memorable instance in Knoxville, TN, a pimp knocked on my door at 3 am demanding someone named “Susan.” When I looked to make sure the deadbolt was on, I realized it had been ripped off years ago. What can you do? Clutch your mace like a talisman and say that there is no Susan here, sorry. There is something exciting and hopeful about starting your day in a tent – and something equally sad and unfortunate about starting your day in a motel. As winter caught up with me in the Rockies, I have used motels more and more. I camped in 15 degree weather in Yellowstone, and decided that 15 was my limit, Davy Crocket be damned.
I generally spend one to three days in any given place. Pacing, as with everything, turns out to be the real key to the road trip. There are times when, for whatever reason, I will spend every night in a different town for a week, and am unable to understand why I feel so run down. I decide where I’m going the morning that I’m going there – even planning the night ahead seems too much for me. On the other hand, I now try to do a basic overview of a state when I first arrive. I use a combination of Lonely Planet, Google, and word of mouth. Maps overwhelm me, especially for the big places like California, so I draw my own to keep things in perspective.
It’s hard to tell what’s changed since I started this trip, but some things jump right out. I crave nature more, having seen an array of state and national parks. I appreciate the “old west” in a way I never thought I would, and places like South Dakota and Colorado are more historically fascinating to me than ever. I think about food both more and less – I am more than happy to eat spinach out of a can for dinner these days, but never use drive-thrus. I had only one rule for this trip from the beginning: no fast food. I knew that if I started eating McDonald’s in desperation, I would never stop. I have obeyed rather faithfully, only breaking it on the Jersey Turnpike (because, in all fairness, I didn’t quite realize that a turnpike had no exits.)
So why am I still going? Honestly, most of the time I don’t know myself. But there is still a sense of delinquent joy I feel every time I get in my car and decide to drive somewhere new. I am not Jack Kerouac, and a neo-Neal Cassidy isn’t going to pop up in these road adventures anytime soon. If anything, I think I’m living more wholesomely than ever. A long road trip is less romantic than one would think, while at the same time it has (for me at least) revealed pieces of America that I never even really thought could be true. Buffalo are real! And they’re called bison, by the way. Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee actually exist. There are manatees in the waters off of Georgia. You might actually get stuck in a blizzard going over the mountains of Colorado, so keep a sleeping bag in your car. And of course, don’t forget your mace.
Roadtrip Dos and Don’ts
Over 2010 and 2011, I went on a long road trip around America. I had some good times, some bad times, and made a lot of mistakes. And so through a series of mundane errors, I discovered a way of road trip life that worked best for me. So here’s a list of painfully basic rules I’ve compiled for future road trippers. It’s my advice for the American wanderers. Good luck to you – and may you make your own far more colorful blunders.
1. Never, under any conditions, wander to an unknown town with a nice name. If it’s called Pleasant, Rose Mountain, Happyville, you will live to regret it. Wander to Hicksmith. Trust me.
2. Don’t get hungry. I know it sounds dumb. Everyone gets hungry. It’s even good to be hungry! Maybe that hunger nicely mirrors your own hunger for life (which is why you went on this damn road trip in the first place.) Don’t do it. Hungry people make poor decisions, or just plain survival decisions, which doesn’t include absorbing and admiring the life around you. And it really is much harder to gauge your hunger when you’re alone in your car, because it creeps up on you softly. The colors dim, your mind might clear a little, but your twitchy anxiety will make up for whatever new level of consciousness you think you have achieved. I have routinely had a feeling at 5 pm that life is just not worth living and that I should just pull over on the side of the road, curl up into a ball and end it now. Because it is a big world, and I’m a little person, and what’s it all about? And then I notice that I haven’t had anything to eat since 9 am. Which brings me to:
3. Snacks. Snacks are key. And snacks are key because not eating McDonalds is also key. Don’t get me wrong: there was hardly a secret BBQ joint I left untouched in the South, but there’s a difference between great food that will give you a heart attack, and terrible food that will give you a heart attack. So when you’re on a two lane highway for 300 miles with no real lunch prospects in sight, you need to be prepared.
4. Don’t watch TV. And really, this is the rule I broke with the most abandon, because it’s right there, in your seedy hotel room at midnight in the middle of nowhere, staring you right in the face. And what could it hurt, just one episode of Bravo’s “Drunk Feral Ponies Competing for the Love of Ray Jay”? It won’t hurt at all! You deserve this! But traveling is about experiencing new things, making yourself vulnerable enough to be changed for the better, or some bumper sticker saying like that. So if you end every day watching the same sitcom bullshit you grew up with (because lets face it, it’s comforting) you’re not being true to the path you set out on.
5. Take the two-lane highway. At all costs, even if it looks boring, and avoid the big interstates. There are whole oeuvres (Blue Highways, etc.) written about this very choice, and it’s consistently the best one I made throughout my journey. On the last leg of my trip down California, I had to take Superhighway 5 for a while through Shasta, but then cut off to a small grey road barely visible on my map. It turned on that this road was unpaved most of the way, with wildflowers blooming on both sides for about 50 miles. There were calves startled to see a car who ran to their mothers. There were goats grazing by streams on hillsides filled with lupins. It was amazing. I forgot my snacks, and it was still amazing. Take the small roads, you will never regret it.
6. Drive slowly. Stop rushing, start looking.
7. If it’s not for you, it’s not for you. There are places I lingered for weeks longer than I should have, intent on rooting out every last square mile of Somesuch County in some misguided attempt at thoroughness. You can’t do it all. I repeat, you can’t do it all. So with your limited time and resources, focus on the places you actually want to be, for whatever reason, and don’t be too hard on yourself. I admit that I lingered in terrible Florida, and I have no shame about it. I have ended my road wanderings after a year without having done Texas or the Southwest, which is what’s actually shameful. But now I’m broke and tired, and I could have fit that in if I had cut the fat in other places.
8. Watch out for the rut. One would think that living footloose and fancy-free would mean a different schedule every day. And sometimes it does mean that. But other times (most of the time, I’ve found) you create your own schedule because that’s what humans do. Ironically, getting into a rut on the road is easier than getting into a rut in real life, because there’s no one around to check your bad habits, and you can indulge them completely. I’m not sure I have any good advice about how to de-rut, but just know that the danger is there.
9. If you are West of the Mississippi, check your gas tank like a crazy person. You can get away with a lot on the East Coast and in the South where towns are close together and gas stations are plentiful. But chances are, at some point, you will be in Montanaa on a LONG stretch of road with no foreseeable destination, and it will slowly dawn on you that you’re going to get stranded. It’s a bad feeling.
10. Beware of the car bubble. On a long trip, day dreaming time is a blessing and a curse. Sure, you have a lot of luxurious “me” time. Then again, you can (and will) get lost in your own head. For me at least, this made the highs higher and the lows lower – in short, its easy to lose perspective on where you’re at and what you’re doing. This is part of the Car Bubble Syndrome. Keep reminding yourself that the point of driving the car is to get out of the car. But the terrible truth is that the car bubble is safe and warm, a second cousin to TV. It has your music and your daydreams. It’s a haven and a prison, and you must resist it with all your might, because it can take you over.
11. You need to process. In Travels with Charlie, Steinbeck writes about how he took time each night to process his day’s journey, and how this “thinking” time is important. I’m glad I read that before I started my trip, because “processing” what you’ve seen or heard or tasted, good and bad, is the most important thing you do all day, and you have to do it every day to maintain any kind of sanity. When you don’t process, it shows, and you get that detached feeling that pictures are just flickering by that have nothing to do with you. This is another reason why TV is so terrible – it’s unwinding without the processing.
12. There are hostels in America! Use them! But couchsurfing is always better. Motels are the worst. The. Worst.
13. Chattiness is key. And by chattiness, I mean chattiness with anyone – the gas station clerk, the waitress, the hostel owner, the park ranger – whoever it is you run into, talk them up a little bit. Even if you’re one of the shy quiet ones, do your best, because the most trivial conversation can change the direction of your road trip. There are people you can’t help but talk to throughout your day, and these people are the locals of whatever area you’re in. How’s the weather? The beach looks so nice from here! I have a dog too! It’s probable that nothing will come of it (besides a necessary and kindly interaction with the world, of course) and that they will give you terrible advice, but they might tell you something amazing that you would never have known if you hadn’t asked the guy standing next to you if there was a good breakfast place around here.
14. Pack light. Pack like you’re going backpacking, and you don’t have a car that can carry the weight of your poor decisions.
15. Exercise. But it’s hard. Because you’re in a different place every damn day, and how the hell are you supposed to maintain some kind of schedule about that kind of thing? Maybe you ran cross-country in high school and you can run five miles a day in any terrain – well done. But if you were more of an Academic Decathlete, just do your best. When you’re spending significant time in a car, a little bit of sweat will go along way. I have a friend who went on a road trip and just walked himself ragged – that works too.
16. Know when to fold ‘em. When the road trip is over, it’s over, and it ends without even consulting you. I personally had no idea when to fold ‘em. It was a friend who told me, point blank and without frills: “You’re done.” Even then, I told him he was dead wrong, that he didn’t get me, and that he didn’t know what he was talking about. And then I woke up 2 days later and realized that yes, in fact, I was done, and it was time to go home.