June 14, 2011 |  Category:   life remembering travels

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.

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  • carolyn June 14, 2011 at 5:25 am

    I was just thinking of this recently looking back on photos of a solo backpacking trip I took for a year when I was 28. I left with a ticket to Manila and one night booked in a hotel and the rest of the year was just decided upon spontaneously. My mother worried of course, but never tried to hold me back. That’s one of the things I hope I can do with my kids, but it will be hard! Gee, I really miss that girl who was so adventurous and free and open to the world. I wonder if I could even do that now if given the chance?

  • PInk Ronnie June 14, 2011 at 6:22 am

    Wow Jenna, thanks for the trip down your memory lane. I love and genuinely appreciate the way you share your stories…

    That comment you made about feeling like “the only Asian person” – I still feel that way when we do road trips to places outside of Sydney. I’m not usually aware of it, but on the odd occasion that I realise that I really am the only Asian person around, I sometimes do wonder how much I must stand out…

    Anyway, those pipis look amazing! Were they takeaway?!

  • Ana June 14, 2011 at 8:03 am

    I love the end of road trips, everyone is quiet and sleepy and expecting that moment to get home and sleep in their own beds. Sublime.

  • kristin June 14, 2011 at 8:07 am

    I finished high school early and moved to the former Soviet Union and lived there off and on for several years working in humanitarian aid. It was life changing for me and I, like you, can hardly recognize that 19 year old me…it’s good to grow older but also nice to remember the first big awakening, so to speak!

    Your posts on the Outer Banks makes me want to go there this summer (not too far off from me, I live in NC).

  • sarah June 14, 2011 at 10:51 am

    Jenna, this post run perfectly parallel with a conversation I was having just the other night. Trying to figure out how I survived such little sleep, horrible junk food, no routine or just downtime back in college… Now here I am with a schedule, reliable (yet boring) desk job, and it’s like the energy is zapped right out of me & I always find something to worry (or obsess) about. Sheesh, what I wouldn’t give to have the adventurous and carefree attitude of a decade ago!
    The pictures of your trip look amazing. These posts have been the perfect thing to hold me over until I head out on our own road trip next week. Thanks for that :)

  • Renita June 14, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    You will get ‘that’ back when the time arises … life is long and circular

  • Janine June 14, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    When we went camping with the kids the other weekend with our car and camping chairs and inflatable beds we were reminiscing about all the camping we did while backpacking in our early 20s – particularly our honeymoon (20yrs ago this August) interailing around Europe for a month. How did we get the tent, sleeping bags, cooker, towels and clothes into those two little backpacks? How did we manage to have such a great time?!

  • dee June 14, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    So enjoyed your post! I was wondering recently about that same issue of trusting the world–I traveled a year abroad solo after college (and I’m way older than you so phone contact was sparse). On a recent trip with my teen daughter I realized how rarely I feel relaxed on such a trip now—too caught up in what must be done, plans, timing.

  • Juliet June 14, 2011 at 5:04 pm

    jenna, thanks for this post; it brought tears to my eyes. helps me realize that spending 2/3 of life at work in an office is no way to live. missing family vacations, family reunions. it saddens me that we’ve never taken our 10 year old and 2 year old on a vacation because of my work schedule; it seems like the only time i travel these days with family is to attend a funeral. time with loved ones is not a luxury. it’s a necessity. your words are a reminder to gather ye rosebuds while ye may.

  • Ula June 14, 2011 at 10:41 pm

    A very nice post but also sad and nostalgic.
    That road trip sounds great…Just as you were back then, I’ve been for the past few years. I’m 23 and my life has been mostly about traveling, food and photography.
    Although I’m going to study in October I know I still want my life to be as it is. And I just hope that one day I won’t look back and think “how did I travel so carefree? I couldn’t do this again” :).

  • Natalie June 14, 2011 at 11:08 pm

    Hi Jenna! I’ve been reading your blog for awhile but have never commented. I really had to comment on this one though because it’s one of the most beautiful posts I have read…ever! I love your honest, imagistic writing style, and especially the wistful nostalgia in this piece here. I’m 20 right now and spent all of last year traveling, between 4 continents no less. I came home totally exhausted and burnt out, having experienced a lot and having taken many risks but also with a whole new shoulder of burdens and fears. Even though I’m younger than you and have very little distance yet to “reflect,” I still really relate to this and am afraid of the changes that come with growing up. But it seems that even as your life has changed, it has only bloomed and grown in beauty, so that assures me everything will be okay =) thanks for writing!

  • Caddy June 15, 2011 at 9:07 am

    Thank you for this post. I just graduated from university and am about to embark on my own adventure. Next week I’m moving for around month to staff a CISV camp for children from all over the world. I’m leaving my home and surroundings and basically am going to live and work with people I have never met and who don’t share the same first language as me. Somehow this post makes me feel better about my decision to move to this camp as oppose to applying and working right away.

    Sometimes we just need to take time away to discover more of ourselves.

  • Rebecca June 15, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    Hi Jenna, not sure about the other readers but I would love to read a post about any travel tips you might have accumulated during your college days! :) In any case, Ms C’s expression is so funny and adorable.

  • Jenna June 15, 2011 at 5:04 pm

    @Ula, it isn’t so bad getting older, you know :) just different, even if you don’t do the things that you did when you were younger anymore.

    @rebecca Ha, I have no tips. Really. It was more about attitude and lifestyle at the moment, rather than any specific traveling tips. We had no itinerary, hotel, nothing was really planned except for a few events or music festivals that we knew we wanted to hit.

  • Caroline June 15, 2011 at 7:25 pm

    Ah…. Beautiful post. Thank you! What an adventurous spirit!

    I also have thought about my carefree days of travelling, discovering, just *being* and wondered how that might inform me today because life seems so far removed from that…

  • Jennifer June 16, 2011 at 9:17 am

    Great post. My cross-country drive with my ex and our dog in a ’64 convertible VW bug was an amazing monthlong journey, with a lot of broken-down moments as well (we could’ve taken a Honda Accord, but where’s the romance in that?). There is something so American about the road trip — it makes you appreciate what a huge and varied country we live in. I love the feeling of packing up the car, leaving everything behind and just finding your way as you go.

    Thanks for bringing back some lovely memories.

  • Lola June 17, 2011 at 1:09 am

    such a great post. devoured every word of it. thank you for the inspiration.

  • K of Little Alexander June 25, 2011 at 6:42 pm

    Those long road trips and backpacking trips taught me just how much I’m capable of dealing with when the need arises. So now I try to maintain a certain naivety to life, knowing that if trouble comes I’ll face it, but I don’t need to out think it ahead of time.

    Perhaps I also get a certain joy from seeing that appalled look pass across all my motherly acquaintances faces when I tell them my plans (or lack thereof).