It’s been a good 8 or 9 years since I did a proper road trip and this drive down to North Carolina was probably as close to a road trip as I’ve taken since then. As tedious as it is to sit that long in a confined space (and doing it with kids probably brings on a whole new dimension to the word “patience”), there is something really lovely, really romantic, even really American, about seeing parts of the country from the windshield of your car (as a side note, Mia kept track of all the different license plates we saw on the road during our drive from NY to NC and back, and we tallied up plates from 40 different states. Cool, huh?).
I’m feeling particularly nostalgic these days because this summer is the anniversary of something meaningful. It was 20 years ago that I left NY after quitting school in my junior year and embarked on the longest road trip of my life. I think back to that person who was so trusting of the world and hardly believe that was me. What is it about youth that makes us so adventurous, so not afraid? When I was 20 I did not plan things. When I was on the road for 8 months I didn’t worry about money or where I’d be sleeping that night (basically it was like any parents’ worst nightmare). I would make and sell jewelry at various venues and find seasonal work like picking blueberries with other migrant workers. I met a lot of people on the way who invited me into their homes, slept in tents and spent way too many nights sleeping in the car, deciding which of the lesser 2 evils we would subject ourselves to that night: being eaten by mosquitoes in order to catch a breeze in the stifling summer heat or sleeping in a suffocating car with the windows closed so we wouldn’t get eaten by mosquitoes. I spent time in Upstate NY, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Quebec, a month camping in the woods around the St. Lawrence River in Canada, and ended up in Ohio on that particular trip. I would then eventually move to the Northwest after the traveling was done.
It wasn’t my first time on the road. As soon as I finished my first year of art school, I left the city to travel around in a car for the first time for a few months. I spent the bulk of that time camping in Vermont, where we were stranded because our car broke down somewhere in the Green Mountains. It was during this trip that I hitchhiked for the first time, catching rides between Brattleboro and Bennington when we needed to go into town for more supplies. From where we were camped, however, we could walk to a road where there was a little convenience store, miles from anything else. We would buy pickles and potato chips and sit on the stone wall at the end of a lake on the other side of the road with our snacks (have you tried them together? Delicious. Trust.) I don’t think my friends and I really cared when our car would get fixed. We had no other commitments. The next summer I did my first cross country road trip. It would be the first of 3 times where I’ve driven across. We made a long stop in Minnesota to camp for 2 weeks and this is where I saw my first bear up close. I also adopted a kitten there and he traveled with me for the next 2 months before settling in as a city cat when we got back to NY. From Minnesota we drove further west and it would be the first time I saw the Pacific Ocean, via the Oregon Coast. This is why Canon Beach has my heart.
These are the years I’m sure that my mom would like to forget. It probably wasn’t easy for her, though I didn’t understand it at the time. There were no cell phones then, no email or text. I would call home periodically from a payphone when I remembered. She couldn’t stop me from traveling, but I know that neither she nor my dad were fans of it. Now that I have the hindsight, however, to look back on that time I know how important this period was in my life. These were the years where I really let go after being so intense and focused in high school. I let go of my competitive, type A personality and just trusted in life and didn’t get caught up in plans or the details of travel. I may have reverted back to my competitive, type A nature once I decided to go back to school to finish my degree, and certainly by the time I moved back to NY, but for those 3 years I really was a different person: a city kid who learned how to build fires even in the rain, who could survive in the woods for weeks at a time with just a backpack and a tent, who drove through just about every state in the country and saw the way people lived outside the city she grew up in, who experienced for the first time and became keenly aware of what it felt like to be the only Asian person in the places that she was traveling.
We didn’t travel at all or take vacations when I was a kid, so those road trips were easily one of the best experiences of my life. They were life-changing. I was taught to be so academically focused growing up, but there are life experiences that can never be taught in school. I think the thing that strikes me most about those years was that I was never worried or afraid. I think back to some of those memories and think I would never be able to travel so carefree like that now. I’m not even sure how I did it back then. I don’t know what happens to the brashness of youth and why we lose that as we get older, but sometimes I wish I could get even a little of that back.