Every Place I Slept

Some of you may remember a post I did awhile back about choosing a thing to do in every place I visited. While I did take many photos of people taking pictures (more on that later), I also went ahead with my plan to photograph my sleeping arrangements for every night. Few of these photos are interesting on their own, but in aggregate they seem to tell a story. I hope you enjoy:


The Long Drive Home

Bear on BenchI’m going home.

That was my first thought as I scrambled myself out of sleep in my parents’ RV the final morning of my trip. Before long I could smell butter melting in a pan. The night before my parents had been discussing breakfast options, and my mom brought up the possibility of pancakes.

“We have the mix,” she said, “But I don’t think we have any syrup.”

“I have maple syrup,” I said. My parents looked at me. Even I was surprised to hear the words come out of my mouth.

“The people I stayed with in Ithaca make their own every year, and they gave me a whole jar,” I explained. I hadn’t opened it because I didn’t want it to go bad or have an unsealed jar of syrup bouncing around in my car, but it didn’t seem to matter with only hours left to go.

Wooden BlocksMy final stop was Leavenworth, a popular weekend vacation town for Seattleites. Leavenworth is a theme town, capitalizing on its German roots. The whole place is covered in stereotypes and kitschy paraphernalia, from the architecture to the decorative beer steins. I got into Leavenworth an hour before my folks and walked around for a bit. Despite living a mere two hours away, I’d never been. I saw the nutcrackers and the hats and the fairies. I saw more of those same damn decorative pieces of wood with white lettering in different sized fonts that spout cliches and grandpa jokes. Most of the shop employees were in costume. I went browsing for decorative glass figures in a store run by a Polynesian woman in a German blouse.

I met up with my parents for lunch at a local diner. My dad ordered the Schnitzel and I got a brat with sauerkraut. I made the wrong choice. Mine was sour. His was covered in gravy and came with a pretzel bun.

FairiesAfter saying my goodbyes to my parents I hopped back on Highway 2. It’s a road I know well, because it’s the one I always took to get to summer camp growing up. It’s also home to the small town of Startup which itself is the home of the very best milkshakes in the world. I have, on more than one occasion,  driven the hour from Seattle to Startup just to get a milkshake.

The final two hours of my trip had the potential for a lot of culminating actions, but I neglected all of them. I didn’t bother to stop at my summer camp to reminisce about days gone by. I didn’t stop for my favorite milkshakes in Startup because I was so full of German candy. I forgot to listen to the road trip playlist that I’d spent months reworking and remastering. I just sat in my car and drove, listening to podcasts and futzing with the cruise control. It was like any other day of my trip.

Seattle Sign PortraitI came home to a cold, clean apartment. My boyfriend was on a trip to Hawaii at the time, and I had the place to myself for a few days. I don’t remember what I did first. I don’t remember how long it took me to unpack. I don’t remember most of that evening. My notes on the day were routine, outlining a few details from Leavenworth and a scribbling about German candy. But I must have been feeling grand, because at the very end of my notes was this:

“The Journey is over. It has just begun.”

I Suppose They Don’t Call it Glacier Because of the Sunshine

I meet up with Mom and Dad at a campground just outside of Glacier National Park. As Dad gets everything settled with the rig (leveling, hookups, etc), Mom puts together dinner. Because it’s my folks, there are drinks and appetizers to start us off, and fresh baked cookies for dessert. It’s good to be properly camping again.

Man in ShadowDad and I take a look at the weather for tomorrow and start making plans. It’s not looking pretty. The forecast calls for clouds and snow and rain. We certainly won’t be going on any hikes.

I’ve been wanting to see Glacier National Park for a long time. Despite how many times I’ve been to Montana, I’ve never been this far north. I’ve seen photos though. I use them as my desktop backgrounds at work. The photos of Glacier are astounding, and they look like they’re from some other distant place, like the Swiss Alps or maybe the Himalayas. The whole reason I opted to go south first rather than east was that everyone told me the roads in Glacier would still be closed from winter if I went in the spring or early summer. Glacier was something of a grand finale for my trip – the place I’d always wanted to see.

Turning Leaves

We get a late start in the morning, hoping that the sun will come out and burn away some of the clouds. When we arrive at the park, and large sign tells us that Logan’s Pass is closed due to a snow slide the night before. There is one major road that runs through Glacier called the Going to the Sun Road, and Logan’s Pass is almost exactly halfway down the road. The ranger says they’re already working on clearing the debris, but there’s no way to know if it will happen today, tomorrow, or not at all.

We decide we might as well see what we can see, and take off on the Going to the Sun Road. The weather’s still foggy, and all the mountains disappear into the clouds. It’s beautiful in its own right, watching the mountainsides turn to mist, but it’s not like all those gorgeous photos.

Snowy MountainMom is in the backseat and nervous the whole time. She’s afraid of heights and the road is narrow, winding, and constantly skimming the cliff’s edge. Occasionally we hear a quiet “Oh jeeze” from the back of the car, and every time Dad starts to look over the side to check out the view she says, “Look where you’re driving, Chuck.”

We drive up as far as we can go, and there’s a light dusting of snow coming down just before the road block. We join the other tourists in a large turnabout nearby to take pictures. It really is beautiful, both in spite of the clouds and because of them. It’s also freezing so we don’t stay long.

On the way back we pull over to feast on the sandwiches Mom had made for us that morning. There are chips and homemade cookies to pair with them, and I can’t help but think of all the times during my trip where I decided that graham crackers counted as a meal.

We stop to warm up in the lodge at the base of the park, and Dad and I try to figure out what else we can do with our day. On the map we see an interesting-looking road near the park entrance. We decide we should check out how bad it is when they say a road is unpaved.

Our mystery ride is bumpy and goes through fire-devastated areas, so there isn’t much to see. I mention that it’s nice to be with them, because I’d be too nervous to go on a bumpy road like this by myself.

“But now your mom can be nervous for the both of you,” Dad jokes.

River“Yep got that covered,” says a worried voice from the back seat.

We don’t see much else in the park, though after dinner Mom finishes a sudoku puzzle she’s been working on for three months. Small victories.

I can tell Glacier has the power to be exceptional, because it’s still great even when you can’t see most of it. Along with the city of Chicago and the entire state of Utah, Glacier National Park will have to go on my list of “just another reason to get back out on the road.” Perhaps that’s the best sort of finale a trip could have.

Budget for a Four Month Road Trip

Four years ago I was sitting in my office back at my old job when I made the decision to travel the country. I pulled up a handful of cities on Google Maps to see how long it would take. My list only included 14 cities, so the mileage came out to 7915 (this would be about half of the actual mileage). The driving time added up to 132 hours, or 6 hours a day for 22 days. Then I started to do the real math.

I speculated it would take me 120 days, and guessed I’d spend an average of $30 a night. I don’t know where that number really came from, but it seemed right considering some of my lodging would cost much more, and some of it would be free. I looked up the average price of gas in the country, added a few dimes, and came up with $1400 in gas.

Adding together my speculative figures I came up with a number close to $8,000, which I rounded to an even $10,000 to be safe. This was my goal, and I had three years to do it.

Lodging: $3,164.96

The most I paid for a bed to sleep in was $184.31 for a single night at the Sunset Inn in Provincetown, MA on the end of Cape Cod. I probably could have found much cheaper accommodations, but I hadn’t planned ahead and was feeling especially tired by the time I had to pick a bed. I chose the Sunset Inn because it was the first place I saw with signs for both vacancy and free parking.

The cheapest lodging (excluding all of the fantastic friends, family members, couchsurfing hosts and occasional free camp site) was camping for $8.32 at Chickasaw State Park in Alabama. I was the only one in the park, which was fortunate when a thunderstorm rolled in and I had to move my tent into the pavilion.

Food: $1,512.33

The most expensive single meal I had was split with my sister the night we got back to the top of the Grand Canyon. We had decided ahead of time that we would treat ourselves to the place we had been assured was the fanciest in Grand Canyon Village. It cost us $59 each and was the weirdest dining experience I had the whole trip. For some reason the front of house staff was in a constant panic. When we arrived at 8:13 for an 8:15 reservations, the hostess actually told us to come back in two minutes. Despite the frenzy out front, the restaurant itself wasn’t busy. It looked like a completely ordinary dinner crowd. Our waiter had a strange voice like he didn’t belong to any dialect, and the food was decent but not spectacular. I have no idea what was going on in that place.

Car Maintenance & Gas: $3,711.38

The most I paid for a single tank of gas was $59.40 in Michigan, but that doesn’t say much. I did my best never to get below a quarter tank, and often filled up just after hitting the halfway mark, so it’s likely that I just waited longer to fill up that day in Michigan. I can say that the highest single price per gallon was in the middle of the redwoods in California. I only bought enough to get me out of the area, as it was more than $5.50 a gallon.

The largest single expense was getting my driver’s side window fixed in Kansas City for a whopping $427.92.

Entrance Fees, Audio Tours, Overpriced Internet: $820.72

Biltmore (the Vanderbilt mansion) was the most expensive attraction at $69. The lowest (outside of free) was a $1 donation I made to the Old North Church in Boston.

Gifts and Souvenirs: $123.81

When you have to carry everything you buy, you don’t buy much. There are really only three things in this category:

1) Site-specific gifts for my couchsurfing hosts. I would pick up little candies and soaps along the way that were indicative of the places I had visited, then leave them as thank you presents for hosts later on in the trip. Friends in Oklahoma got dried fruit from Oregon, that sort of thing. Most people got honey sticks from Pike Place Market that I picked up before leaving, which turned out to be the easiest gift to transport, and the most forgiving of high temperatures.

2) Shot glasses. I have a large shot glass collection that I have been curating since I was 11 years old. I tried to be a bit more reserved on this trip, and purchased less than a dozen over the entire four months.

3) Postcards for Rob. Along the way I purchased postcards from the places I visited, then sent them to my boyfriend with messages that confirmed my well-being but suggested impending doom. “HAVE NOT BEEN ATTACKED BY BEARS YET.” “DID NOT FALL OFF A BRIDGE.” And my personal favorite for Roswell, New Mexico: “NOTHING HAPPENED.”

The cheapest postcards were $0.30.

Public Transit: $77.70

San Francisco wins for most money spent on public transport, with Boston a close second. However both are only in the running because their transit systems are so good I barely used my car.

General Supplies: $222.71

This is the category for hiking poles and contact solution, as well as replacements for broken sunglasses, broken cameras, and whatever it was I kept buying at Walgreens.

GRAND TOTAL: $9,633.61

I know my numbers aren’t precise (they don’t align perfectly with the bank statements), but they are within an acceptable margin of error. I won’t bother doing a line by line comparison because ultimately it doesn’t matter if I spent ten extra dollars on gifts or twenty fewer on entrance fees.

I was told I’d spend a third of my money on gas, which was true. I expected the total would be between $8,000 and $10,000, which was also true. My original estimates for food and lodging ended up being switched – I overestimated the cost of food and underestimated the price of a campsite. My original gas estimate was off because it was based on the wrong mileage (once I plugged the correct mileage number in it was almost perfect). I also vastly overestimated the cost of “fun.” Turns out a lot of fun is cheap or free.

To me, staying under ten grand for a four month tour of the entire country is pretty good, though I doubt I’ll be selling any copies of “How to Do America on $79 a Day.” And in the interest of total honesty, there was another $1000 that I spent on reusable supplies like my tent, sleeping bag, backpack, etc. But I’ve already used most of these things again since returning (and will certainly use them more in the future), so it’s hard for me to count such items as trip expenses. That’s a slope that gets slippery fast. I bought shorts right before I left, are those trip shorts or my own shorts? Do I have to count the other pair of shorts I took, even though I’ve owned them for years?

I could have easily spent thousands less than I did. All it would have required was a bit more planning, and few different choices, and an alternative outlook about what kind of trip I was on. I could have couchsurfed more and saved hundreds on lodging. I could have eaten in my car more and saved on diner food. And I could have decided that I’d rather spend an extra day in a national park than a few hours touring a deadman’s indulgent home. I could have driven less and stayed in each location longer. But these aren’t the choices I wanted to make for this trip, and I was willing to spend the money.

I make this point because I don’t want anyone to confuse my budget with THE budget. You can do America on a lot less money, and many have. I spent $10k and could have easily spent half that. Ultimately the money doesn’t matter, as is often the case with money. And don’t forget I would have spent $6,000 over the course of four months back home, just putting in my normal expenses for rent, food, etc. After asking how I managed to take four months off work, people always ask where I got the money. But the cost of travel is what you decide it is. You decide if you need a hotel or a hostel. You decide to eat at world renowned restaurants or street corner hot dog carts.

The only thing that’s difficult is that you have to decide.

Must See List, Revisited

Several months before I left on my trip, I made my Must See List. The places on this list were places that I felt I had to see. Now that I’ve seen them all, which ones were worth it?

Arms Stretched1. Grand Canyon

This was a highlight of my trip, and is consistently one of the first things I bring up when people ask about my adventures. However I can’t separate visiting the Grand Canyon from hiking all the way to the bottom and back. And I can’t separate the hike from being there with my sister, which was a huge part of what made it so fun. So I can’t tell you whether or not a simple trip to the edge of the Grand Canyon would be worth it. I can tell you that pairing up with a good friend and doing something you weren’t sure you were capable of is a definite must-do.

2. Niagara Falls

If for no other reason, I’m glad I saw Niagara because I was finally able to correct my childhood picture of the place. When we’re little we often get an image of famous places in our minds, and so long as nothing directly contradicts them, the images stay. It’s strange to think one could have a false image of Niagara. There are so many photos and videos and scenes from movies. But I had somehow managed to turn everything about 90 degrees clockwise, and switch the Canadian and American sides. Now that the mental image has been righted, Niagara seems like a real place, and less like a something I saw in a dream.

3. San Francisco, CA

I’ve always been told I’d love San Francisco, and I did. I had a great time there. It reminded me a lot of Seattle. Too much, it seems, as part of the charm was lost in its familiarity. I suppose it’s nice to know that if I ever had to move, there’s another Seattle out there waiting for me.

Alabama Theater4. The Deep South

Perhaps in my head I thought I’d find myself driving along a dusty road and happening upon an old general store with hillbillies on the porch. While I’m sure such places exist, my time in the South was more nuanced than that. It wasn’t what I was hoping to find, though it was exactly what I was looking for. I was hoping to find a dynamic and interesting landscape on which to set future fictionalizations. However what I was looking for was a perception of the South that wasn’t based on movies and books. I was looking for some deeper truth that’s harder to swallow and harder to sell. That’s exactly what I found.

5. Roswell, NM

I suppose I saw Roswell as a sort of X-Files pilgrimage. I had to see it to pay homage to a younger version of me, a girl who loved the paranormal and the mysterious. I’m not sure I could recommend it as an important stop for anyone without a similar past.

6. Memphis, TN

I honestly can’t remember why I had to see Memphis. It’s a famous city, I suppose. Graceland, perhaps. Or maybe I just wanted to to hear Walking in Memphis where it was meant to be heard.

7. Glacier National Park

I was very excited about Glacier, and I had the whole trip to look forward to it. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to see most of the park due to bad weather and a rockslide. While I enjoyed my trip and what I saw was lovely, I don’t really feel like I’ve been to Glacier National Park yet. I’m hoping to plan another trip to Glacier this summer or next, maybe with my boyfriend and my parents.

Entrance Sign8. The Oregon Vortex

I can’t justify telling others that they must see the Oregon Vortex. I do feel that everyone should see AN Oregon Vortex. What I didn’t realize before this trip was that these supposed “vortices” and “mystery spots” are all over this country. Most Americans are probably less than a four hour drive from one. They’re weird little tourist traps, and you don’t have to believe in them to have fun. Just come with a smile on your face an enjoy nature’s magic show.

With all that said, I thought it was time for an updated Must See List. So here it is – a few places I went to that I think everyone should get a chance to see:

1. Arcadia National Park (specifically a sunrise from Cadillac Mountain)

2. National Music Museum in Vermillion, SD

3. Crater Lake National Park

4. Mountain View, Arkansas (be sure to drop by on a summer weekend to hear the musicians playing all over town)

5. National Holocaust Museum

6. Yellowstone National Park

7. Savannah, GA

8. Highway 61 along the Mississippi River

Call Your Mother: Safety Advice for the Solo Traveler

Be easy to follow but hard to track.

If you intend to make your travels public, consider making them tardy. During my trip I never published any post about a city I was still in. When I did post things immediately relevant, I kept the details purposely vague. The whole world doesn’t need to know where you are when you’re traveling alone with several thousand dollars worth of camping gear and electronics in your car.

Train yourself to be startled correctly.

The vast majority of pickpocketing and street theft relies on the victim being too distracted to notice what’s happening. The most choreographed of these crimes often involve startling the victim, since it tends to draw focus from even the most diligent of travelers. This is why I’ve trained myself to put a gentle hand on my bag whenever something happens. And I mean anything. Subway finally arrived? Hand on bag. Ticket taker is here? Hand on bag. Tourists need their picture taken? Hand on bag. Any time there’s a change in my surroundings I confirm that everything is where it ought to be. This alone is enough to ward off most potential thieves. Pickpockets aren’t usually in it for the challenge. Don’t be an easy mark.

Hide everything so it looks like you’ve got nothing to hide.

My car was a thing of beauty by Trunkthe end. I had managed to fit almost all of my stuff into my trunk, which meant the cab looked like it could belong to anyone. I made the vehicle as pedestrian-looking as possible. I never left valuables in the cab unless I could conceal them under something innocuous. I also did my best to never open the trunk at the a location I intended to park it. I didn’t want anyone to see me walk away from a car full of goodies.

Make sure someone will come looking for you.

Before I left, I gave my boyfriend the passwords to my email and CouchSurfing accounts. If he couldn’t get a hold of me and was worried something had happened, he could easily look up who I had been communicating with most recently. I tracked where I slept every night in a spreadsheet, and I shared this with both him and my parents. I updated it regularly, and at any point they could pull it up at home and see where I was staying that evening. I’ll admit I wasn’t very good at calling my mother specifically (I don’t like talking on the phone), but I made a point to stay in contact with people back home on a daily basis, if only through facebook.

Befriending strangers isn’t a bad idea either. If you’re going on a hike, talk to a ranger first (the park may even have a check-in program for solo hikers). Ask the hotel manager where the best attractions are in town, and make it clear which ones you’re leaning towards. More than actual safety, there’s real piece of mind in this. If I were to be injured or abducted, there are eye witnesses who can say when they saw me last and what I said I was about to do.

Be like NASA and assume the worst.

I recently heard an interview that Commander Chris Hadfield did on Fresh Air. Terry Gross asked him about being scared in space, in light of all the danger. Commander Hadfield explained that no matter how scary the situation gets, no problem surprises you in space. As an astronaut you spend months beforehand working with the ground teams to think of ways you might die. You go over every disastrous situation from every angle to determine the best solution. Then you assume the first and second solutions fail and you come up with a third. No matter what happens to an astronaut in space, there’s a good chance he or she planned for it some 12 months back.

DangerWhile I don’t think you need to pour over every possible danger, planning your reactions is a great way to guarantee you’re prepared. Let’s say you’re worried about getting a flat tire in the middle of no where. First you’d probably try to fix it yourself – do you have all the supplies you need in your vehicle? Maybe you’re worried you won’t remember how – could you watch a video on youtube to refresh your memory? Perhaps your tools will break – could you bring extras of anything? Maybe the spare is flat too – do you know who you’ll call to get roadside help? Perhaps your phone battery is dead – could you get a car charger? Maybe you don’t have service – do you have shoes that could handle a long walk?

The list could go on forever, and mine often did. But once you know you’re prepared to do things like walk by yourself for miles, recover copies of everything in your wallet, and palm-heel an attacker until he deciders you’re not worth it, a lot of problems aren’t so bad. You don’t have to be a safety nut to be a safety guru. Just live your life, pay attention, and every once in a while, call your mother.

The Things You Miss When You’re On The Road: Part Two

About a month before I left on my trip I wrote a post listing the things I thought I would miss during my travels. Now that I’m back home, I thought it was time to review my predictions.

1. Bathrobes

There’s no question that I enjoy lounging about in a bathrobe for hours on end. I’m doing it right now as I write this. But I didn’t miss it on any conscious level. Since I was never sleeping in a stable or familiar place,  the idea of being especially comfortable or lazy never crossed my mind. Bathrobes aren’t just a means to comfort, they are a luxury of it.

2. Watching movies

I confess to watching a movie or two while on the road. I say confess because it seems a shame to spend time watching a movie, which will always be there, when one could be exploring a new and different place. What’s more, most of the time I was watching movies I’d already seen before. But I love the screen arts, and a person only has so much energy. Every once in a while I found myself in a place that didn’t particularly interest me, and curling up on a motel bed with a good movie seemed to be just what the doctor ordered.

3. Having a second monitor for my computer

I certainly missed this, though not for the reason I thought. I thought it would drive me bonkers to lose all that screen space and be forced into seeing only one application at a time. In fact the screen space didn’t bother me – my neck did. A laptop is so much smaller than a human. It asks the fingers and eyes to move their focus to the same point, and I often found myself closing up like a clam shell when sitting at my computer for too long. I had to keep remembering what one of my college professors once taught me: “The computer comes to you, you don’t have to go to it.”

4. Refrigerators

I certainly missed having regular access to dairy products, but for the most part my limited selection of food items didn’t bother me. When staying with people I usually enjoyed either a home cooked meal or dinner out. When left by myself in a city there was usually some special diner I’d been told to try. In light of all the restaurant food, simplicity in my personal meals was welcome. The truly problematic thing wasn’t the lack of a refrigerator, but the abundance of ovens. My car turned into one on a daily basis. This meant I was not only limited to items that didn’t need to be cold, but ones that could stand extreme heat. After failing with several different foods that would have been fine in my car in colder months, I found myself eating nothing but Top Ramen and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Even this might have been fine if it hadn’t been so impossible to find quality wheat bread. I’m spoiled living in Seattle. The mere presence of Whole Foods and PCC in your area means you’ll always find good bread at even the cheapest grocery stores. This isn’t the case everywhere.

5. A great range of clothing choices

I didn’t miss this, not even a little bit. It was nice to have so few options, and to know that I couldn’t make much of a bad decision considering I only had so many decisions available. I only had one pair of jeans and one pair of pants. I only had a handful of tops and a couple pairs of shorts. My shoe selection was based on utility alone. It was fantastic. It’s how I imagine life is for men.

6. Always being able to immediately wash sticky things off my hands

This was less of a problem than I anticipated. I am, in fact, quite good at not touchy sticky things to begin with.

7. Comfortable temperatures

I did not find summer in the Deep South to be especially uncomfortable. Perhaps it was because I’d spent so many years building it up as the worst thing in the world. Yes, it was hot and humid, but I expected it to be. There were a few times when things got a little sweaty, but it was nothing I hadn’t signed up for. I don’t remember ever being especially uncomfortable as a result of the temperature, save for a few times in the mountains when I got very cold.

8. Days that don’t require planning

I certainly did miss this. I suffered some serious planning fatigue over the course of my trip, especially in the second half. In the future I probably won’t plan solo ventures that last longer than two months, unless they involve a lot of sitting around on beaches or following someone else’s schedule. We take it for granted in our boring, every day lives, but there is serenity in waking up and knowing exactly what you are supposed to do.

9. Seattle rain

People thought I was mad. They asked me what I missed about home, and I told them I missed the rain. I worked so hard to make them understand, to be an ambassador for the Seattle Shower. They knew Seattle was a rainy city (it was always the first fact anyone could muster about the place), but they saw it strictly as a negative. That’s because rain in the rest of the country is awful. It’s unpredictable. It can arrive at a moment’s notice, and be gone minutes later. It’s hard and thick. You can get truly soaked in the rain after only a minute or two. In Seattle, you always know when the rain is coming, and it’s usually pretty light. It’s also refreshing. It’s interesting. It smells good. Seattle is well known for its rain, but it is a type of rain most people don’t even know exists: the good kind.

10. Familiarity

I missed the ease and routine that comes with familiarity, but I didn’t have a problem with unknown streets or unusual people. Besides, I had personal familiarity. I knew my car inside and out, where everything was and the condition all my items were in. I developed a certain amount of routine in my writing and posting. I suppose I found as much familiarity as I required.

When I first made this list, I speculated that the things I would miss the most would be things I wouldn’t even think of until I had to go without them. I didn’t realize how much I’d miss good wheat bread. I missed my bed – not for its comfort, but for the fact that I never had to find or create it. But on the whole, I didn’t miss much of anything. I worry that it sounds callous, like I have no appreciation for my home and the people and things that make it what it is. That’s not it. I suppose it’s because I knew I’d soon be back. I pushed my focus to the things that I had in the moment, and assumed everything I might wish to have would be back in my life again soon. The truly important things were waiting for me, and everything else turned out to be so much window dressing. It’s a good question to ask every once in a while:

What will you miss?


When It Counts

My boyfriend spent several years of his childhood living in Europe. His family always said that it counts as visiting a country if you go to the bathroom there.

I’ve been asked many times how many states I visited on my trip. I always struggle to do the math, and often find it’s easier to work backward. I count the states I didn’t visit. But even this isn’t as easy as it seems. For example, I can say for certainty that on this particular trip, I never set foot or wheel in the following states:

North Dakota
West Virginia

So that’s a list of 10 states, meaning that I visited 40 states on this trip. But it’s not as easy as that. I’d always wanted to know how quickly a person could drive across Rhode Island, so I never got out of the car the entire time I was there. I did the same thing in New Hampshire, but that was because there didn’t seem to be anything worth stopping for. Does that count?

BenchI ended up leaving Madison a day earlier than planned, so I decided to swoop down to Dubuque, Iowa after a brief detour in the northwest corner of Illinois. I was probably in Illinois for about 20-40 minutes, though I do believe I stopped to get out of the car and stretch my legs. Does that count?

My first night in South Dakota I slept in Vermillion, which is just across the river from Nebraska. It was so close, I went ahead and drove my first hour of the day inside the Nebraska borders. I got out at least once to take a picture of a tiny Statue of Liberty, and nearly ran out of gas I was so far from civilization. Does that count?

I’m starting to think that whether or not it “counts” is based less on time or distance, and more on what you expected the place to be. I spent the night in Iowa, and took a couple hours the next morning to see the local museum. I even went to the Effigy Mounds National Monument, though I’ll admit that the heat kept me from hiking up to see most of the park. The point is, I put in my time in Iowa. I slept there, I talked to people there, I went to the bathroom there, I spent money there, I have memories there. But in my mind, Iowa isn’t the roads along the west bank of the Mississippi River. Iowa is that great stretch of boring farmland in the middle. Iowa isn’t Dubuque, it’s Des Moines.

Perhaps that’s why it’s easier for my to say that I went to New Hampshire and Nebraska, even though I barely did anything there. My experience in those states matched my perception of them. I went to Nebraska and I saw farm land. That’s what I assume most of Nebraska to be. I don’t think of native burial mounds and river museums when I think of Iowa. When I look back on those experiences, it’s as though they must have happened somewhere else.

Back to IowaForty is a nice, round number, so I think I’ll stick with it. Were I to remove every state I was unsure of I’d be down to 35, which it still round but not as much. The other thing to consider is when I might count them in the future. It was easy to not count every state for this trip, since I knew I wasn’t going to visit all 48 in the continental United States. However I’ve already been to Ohio and Indiana, and one could make a solid argument that I’ve been to Colorado. Hawaii and Utah are both states I’d like to see within the next 5-10 years, which leaves only five out of fifty. Once you start getting that close, it becomes nothing short of a mission. Kentucky and West Virginia are right next to each other, and I’ve got a friend who’s itching to have me see Louisville. A few choice members of Rob’s family are moving to the Washington D.C. area, so Delaware isn’t much of a stretch, and I’ve always been a bit intrigued by those cruises up to Alaska that are regularly pushing off from the Port of Seattle.

I guess the point is that whether or not I want to count it is entirely up to me. If I never make it back to New Hampshire but I visit every other state, you can be certain that I will count it. I guess that means I only have one problem left.

Anyone know a good reason to go to North Dakota?

American Road Trip Playlist (updated)

It was a year yesterday that I first published my American Road Trip Playlist. For a while it was one of my most popular and most visited posts, probably because “road trip playlist” is an astonishingly common search term. In the original post, I only had eight songs on my playlist. By the time I got home, I had fifty. You’ll notice quite a few songs are place-specific. It’s extremely gratifying to listen to “Sweet Home Alabama” when you’re in Alabama. Here’s the updated list, including a few retellings of the original eight.

1. 1000 Miles Per Hour by OK Go

This song is number one for a reason. Before I even had a list, this was on it. I hear the chorus and I want to throw away my whole life and drive east without purpose or destination.

2. On the Road Again by Willie Nelson

3. Memphis in the Meantime by John Hiatt

I don’t even remember who told me about this song. Maybe it was someone I stayed with, maybe it was a stranger in a diner. I’d never heard of it, but it was a song about going to Memphis, and that’s where I was headed when this person mentioned it. The first few times I listened to the song I didn’t really get what it was about. It was only after I spent the night falling asleep to the sound of bluegrass in Arkansas that I understood the musical change that happens when you cross the border into Tennessee.

4. King of New York from the Newsies Soundtrack

5. I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) by The Proclaimers

6. Leaving Las Vegas by Sheryl Crow

“We can listen to ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ while we’re leaving Las Vegas!” So were the words my sister said to me when we made the plan to have her fly to L.A. and drive with me to the Grand Canyon. On the road out of California I threw on The Very Best of Sheryl Crow, and my sister insisted that we skip “Leaving Las Vegas” until we were really leaving Las Vegas. Two days later we were already an hour out of town before we realized we’d forgotten to put on the song.

7. Open Road Song by Eve 6

And for a moment I love everything I see and think and feel.

8. Route 66 by Natalie Cole

After much consideration, I decided to go with the Natalie Cole version of this classic song. When you are cruising through those tiny towns where 66 is still Main Street, it’s hard to listen to anything else.

9. The Boy From New York City by The Ad Libs

10. Home Sweet Home by the Paradise Valley Band

No link on this one I’m afraid, I got this track off a 1980s recording of the band my folks were in during the 1970s. It’s one of my favorites off the quietly produced album, and I played it almost every day from somewhere around Nebraska until I got home.

11. Wouldn’t It Be Nice by The Beach Boys

Really, anything by the Beach Boys sounds good in California.

12. Rock’n Me by the Steve Miller Band

A classic rock song you might not know you know. Not only does it name a lot of destinations, it’s a good grove to wake you up if you’re starting to suffer from the third-hour-of-driving slump.

13 & 14. Baltimore by The Clintons (the original recording from Who Invited Roger as well as the bootleg Jereco Sessions)

15. Lubbock or Leave It by The Dixie Chicks

This song has some real history. Back in 2003, the lead singer Natalie Maines made a comment during a concert about the group’s personal opposition to the Iraq war, and how they were ashamed that President Bush was from their home state of Texas. The backlash was incredible. Patriotism is so ingrained in the culture of country music, and in those years especially patriotism meant standing behind the president. Their 2006 album Taking the Long Way addressed the controversy, including this song about Natalie Maines’ hometown of Lubbock Texas. I starting listening to this song in Texas, but I found myself putting it on a lot. It’s good for when you’re ready to get out of wherever you are.

15. Soak Up the Sun by Sheryl Crow

16. Cruz by Christina Aguilera

I was never that into Christina Aguilera growing up, but one year my sister gave me the album “Stripped” as a present. She told me when I opened it that she knew it was a strange gift, but that she felt I might actually like it. She mentioned one song in particular that reminded her of me. I was confused when I heard it. It was a song about taking off, something I always felt was her dream, not mine. Perhaps it was the line about “living it, leaving it to change.”

17. Sault Set Marie by Mick Sterling with Kevin Bowe and the Okemah Prophets

See note.

18. California by Joni Mitchell

19. I’ve Been Everywhere by Johnny Cash

I think memorizing the words to this song is going on my Bucket List. I’m getting better at keeping up when singing along, but I’m still not even good enough for karaoke. My desire to sing it grew each time I passed through a place listed in the song.

20. San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in You Hair) by Scott McKenzie

21 & 22. Like a Rolling Stone (both MTV Unplugged and Highway 61 Revisted)

When I first decided to write a blog for the trip, I needed to pick a name. I went straight to this song, which seemed absolutely perfect. However every line I thought might make a good title had already been used by someone else as a title for something else. No Direction Home. A Complete Unknown. Rolling Stone. Sigh. I found my title elsewhere, but that doesn’t make the song any less perfect. There’s nothing like Bob Dylan to remind you not to think too much of yourself.

23. Steve McQueen by Sheryl Crow

24. Highway 61 Revisted by Bob Dylan

I had the pleasure of listening to this song on repeat while driving down highway 61.

25. I Love L.A. By Randy Newman

26 & 27. Walking in Memphis (both Brown Derbies and Billy Joel, though I really ought to get the Cher version)

I can safely say that listening to the song Walking in Memphis while in the city of Memphis was one of my life goals. I first heard the song when it was featured in “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” one of the best episodes of my first television love: The X-Files. The first time I saw the episode I had no idea what was going on, because we were on vacation in Puerto Vallarta and the whole thing was dubbed in Spanish. But when I saw Mulder offer his hand to Scully and pull her up to dance, well, 13-year-old me flipped out. Over time I developed an appreciation for the song outside the context of this one episode, until the day I found myself on Beale Street in Memphis, just like in the song. And I was walking by a bar that was pumping the live music outside onto the street, and there it was. Walking in Memphis, while I was walking in Memphis.

28. Truckin’ by The Grateful Dead

Lately it occurs to me, what a long, strange trip it’s been.

29, 30, & 31. Santa Fe & Reprise from the Newsies Soundtrack; Santa Fe from the Rent Soundtrack

I talked a bit about this once before, but I never actually went to Santa Fe. It doesn’t matter though, because neither of these songs are really about Santa Fe. They are about escape, freedom, adventure, and hope – all things I got plenty of in my travels.

32. Motorway by The Waybacks

It’s unlikely you’ll find footage online of The Waybacks performing this song, but it’s well worth looking. I bet you didn’t even consider incorporating a tuba into a Kinks song.

33. Down in the Valley by The Head and The Heart

I almost didn’t bother downloading this one, but by the end it was one of my favorites. California, Oklahoma, and all the places I ain’t ever been to.

34. New York Minute by The Eagles

35. Everybody’s Got a Home But Me from Pipe Dream

There were certainly times when this song seemed too sad for my journey. I wasn’t without a home, I was merely far from it. But there is something to be said about traveling from place to place, constantly seeing people in their own home towns and never seeing yours. The recording I have of this song is the 2012 Encores! Cast, which includes a few snippets of the dialogue normally spoken during the song when it’s performed as part of the musical. Before she breaks into the final chorus, another character tells her, “I guess you’ll land on your feet somehow.” She confidently tells him, “I am on my feet.”

36. Goin’ to New Orleans by The Waybacks

37. Jackson by Johnny Cash

38. The Shot Heard ‘Round the World by Ween (from Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks)

I had this song stuck in my head for most of the way between Virginia and Boston. Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill, Yorktown. Every time I saw a city or place named in the song, I heard the voices of Ween in my ears.

39 & 40. Good Morning Baltimore (both the original broadway cast and the film version)

41. America by Simon & Garfunkel

My sister was shocked when I said this song wasn’t yet on my playlist. By the time she found out, I was already somewhere in the northeast, maybe as far along as Toronto. She told me the best place to listen would have been while driving on the New Jersey Turnpike, but she assured me that I would pass through plenty of other places that would still work. Personally, I fell in love with it driving through Michigan.

42 & 43. Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again by Bob Dylan (both the Hard Rain version and the one from Blonde on Blonde)

44. The One I Love by Greg Laswell

Every playlist needs a song that’s both up tempo and bittersweet. Even if you’re not really running away from anything, it’s still the perfect song for solivagants.

45. California Dreamin’ by The Mamas and The Papas

46. St. Augustine by Band of Horses

I doubt this song is about the St. Augustine I visited, but the way they sing the words “St. Augustine” is positively haunting.

47. Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd

48. Savannah by The Waybacks

This song is about a woman, not a city, but it is a beautiful thing to hear when you’re driving into the city. I’ve got four versions of this song in my iTunes, and it just so happened that listening to all four in a row added up to the precise driving time between my campsite on Skidaway Island and a nice parking spot just south of Forsyth Park.

49. Down South in New Orleans by The Band

Live’s a pleasure, and love’s a dream.

50. Mississippi by Bob Dylan (Dixie Chicks cover)

This song is the reason I went in the first place. Well, not exactly I suppose. It started with a short passage in Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader about a cat that got lost in Russia. That gave me an idea for a novel about a young woman who traveled around America (by necessity, not choice). The more I thought about the novel, the more I found sources of inspiration, like the Dixie Chicks cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi.” I found the lyrics to be beautiful. It felt like the song had been written just for my protagonist.

I sat down one day to write one of the scenes that was to take place in Mississippi. I started to type something about it being hot and sticky. I stopped. Where did that come from? All the people who’d told me that it was hot and sticky in the Deep South, I supposed. I had no idea if that was a good way to describe it. In fact, I was sure it wasn’t a good description by virtue of the fact that I’d heard it a million times already.

I stopped writing. I thought of all the places I wanted her to go, and I had nothing. I knew nothing of these states. I couldn’t imagine what worth I could bring to the novel if every location I put my main character in was going to be a regurgitation of things other people had already said. That was it then. If I wanted to write it, I’d simply have to see it all myself.

Stick with me baby, anyhow. Things should start to get interesting right about now.

Lesser Known Curses of the Solo Traveler

I still had most of the day ahead of me when I settled in at my campsite at Little Sand Point. The campground is one of many surrounding Piseco Lake in the Adirondack Mountains. With plenty of time to spare, I asked the man working the ranger booth about nearby hiking. He recommended Panther Mountain as the go-to destination, since the trial head was just down the road from camp. I went back to my car and started to put together my hiking pack. It was almost lunch time so I made myself a sandwich to eat at the top, and added a few extra snacks and two bottles of water (one for the hike and one for the sandwich). And of course my usual hiking gear: binoculars, sweater, pocket knife, first aid, etc.

I parked at the trailhead and saw a pair of elementary schools kids pulling up with their grandparents. Their group would end up passing me on the trail, as would a man with a baby carrier on his back. When faced with the prospect of being passed by a four-year-old who was insisting on climbing the whole thing by herself, I started to wonder when hiking became so hard. I made it up and down the Grand Canyon, what had changed? Was it because there was too much in my pack? Had I been spending too much time in my car this week? Why was it suddenly so hard?

Families on a HikeI decided to take the difficulty as a sign, and an opportunity. I’ve always had trouble being too focused in hiking, looking at my feet instead of the scenery. I sat down on a nearby rock and let the four-year-old and her parents pass me. I took a sip of water and admired my surroundings. After a bit of time I started up the mountain again, but when I saw the little girl, I stopped. I had decided I would go no faster than the four-year-old. She would be my pace car.

When I finally made it to the top, an area known as Echo Cliffs, I was the only one without children and/or a baby. I took a seat on one of the large, warm, flat rocks and ate my lunch while taking in the view of Piseco Lake. It was clear from the conversations the young boys were having that this was not their first time to the top. I started to wonder if I had psyched myself up for a hike, while everyone else saw it as a fun walk. Perhaps I should have taken fewer things with me. At the same time, I was hiking alone. That freedom comes with certain responsibilities. I can’t afford to be unprepared. I had no way of knowing how crowded the trail was, or how close assistance would be.

View of PisecoPerhaps the real lesson is the futility of comparing yourself to others. Had I been alone on the trail, I probably would have felt nothing but accomplishment upon reaching the top. I wouldn’t have wondered if other people would be able to do it faster, or if knowing the area would have changed my preparations. I would have just gone on a hike, as I’ve done so many times before. I shouldn’t let other people’s hikes damage my own. Perhaps that’s the curse of the solo traveler: you’re always alone, and you’re never alone.

I drove back to the campground and decided against renting a canoe. The day before, looking out upon the quiet beauty of Brown Tract Pond, a solo canoe ride sounded heavenly. But at Piseco the lake was too big, the waves too large, the wind too cold. This is yet another curse of traveling alone: your standards for enjoyment shift. Had I been with other people at Piseco Lake and got invited to jump in a kayak with them, I probably would have done it. Paddling around with friends will be fun almost anywhere. But by myself, Piseco didn’t look fun. Brown Tract would have been fun. It was peaceful and still and nestled far away from boaters and skidoos. I suppose it seemed like a lake worth paddling alone specifically because there was no one around. But there were so many people at Piseco, a solo canoe ride just sounded like work.

I considered going for a swim but opted to stay on the dock due to the previously mentioned wind, waves, and cold. No one else was swimming anyway. After a nice chunk of time sitting around doing nothing I decided that tonight was a good night for s’mores. I had been engaging in a complicated relationship with s’mores on this trip. Every time I started a campfire I wished I could have had a s’more. It’s a Pavlovian response to campfires I’ve spent years building up. But I had limited space in my car and no other use for marshmallows. Graham crackers make for a good road snack and I can make any number of chocolate bars disappear, but marshmallows only ever come in one size of bag, and it’s always too many to eat by myself. However we all have our breaking point, and by the time I hit Piseco Lake I was sure I didn’t want to watch another campfire go by without roasting a marshmallow or two.

Piseco LakeI went to the tiny nearby store and picked up my supplies: a box of graham crackers, two chocolate bars, and a bag of too many marshmallows. I looked around to see if I needed anything else and a woman asked where I had found the s’mores fixings. I pointed to the bottom shelf in the corner and she discovered that I had grabbed the last bag of marshmallows. The clerk told the woman and her family there was another store about ten miles to the north that would probably have some in stock. I bought my groceries and walked out to my car. I looked at my big bag of marshmallows.

“Well this is stupid,” I muffled to myself, and went back inside. The father of the family was standing near the door. “Do you need a whole bag of marshmallows,” I asked him, “or would half a bag work?”

“Half a bag would be plenty,” he said with hope in his voice.

We went out to my car and I portioned out half the bag into a ziplock . He gave me a dollar for his half of the marshmallows and thanked me. I couldn’t have imagined a more elegant solution to my excessive marshmallow problem.

I had more logs than usual so I started the fire early. I found a nice, solid stick and used my pocket knife to whittle it down into a high quality s’mores utensil. I ate my dinner. I waited. Something that we don’t often consider is that sitting around and watching a campfire is only fun in a group. Watching a fire by yourself produces a finite quantity of enjoyment. As the coals of my fire finally began to make themselves known, I started on my s’mores. I ate four of them, which is more s’mores than I ever recall eating in one sitting while growing up. I would have eaten more if I could have. But maybe that’s the other curse of the solo-traveler: it’s easy to overeat when you don’t have to share.

I should have bought more chocolate.