My journey across the country, from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, started at 5 a.m. on a Friday morning. At least, technically. More philosophical people would say it started much earlier. I had just walked in my college Commencement Ceremony only 12 hours prior. After that, I said goodbye to my parents. My mother hugged me tight, holding back the tears in her eyes, and said something about not knowing the next time she’d see me. They drove away with the majority of the contents of my apartment loaded up in their small car, leaving me only a single suitcase. I tried to see their eyes looking out the rear view mirror for the daughter they were leaving behind, but all my stuff was blocking it.
I grew up in Pittsburgh and moved to Philadelphia to go to Temple University. I never really felt connected to to my college city. I never called it home. For four years, I felt like a visitor. That is, until I was about to leave it for good. When my parents left, I sat alone in my empty bedroom, without even any sheets on my bed, and realized that a significant part of my life was there. Four full years of growing, learning, evolving and now I was moving on. The words my mother had said earlier, “Who knows when I’ll see you again”, echoed in my head as I said goodbye to my closest college friends, all of whom had been with me since the beginning of freshman year.
I don’t know how I slept that night. So many thoughts raced through my head. “Am I going to be able to do this? Can I really just jump into a car with two other people and drive across the country in four days? That’s insanity. Why didn’t I just choose to fly out there? Why am I going at all?” I’ve seen more horror road trip movies than inspirational ones. I briefly considered the possibility that I’d be killed by a psychotic truck driver like in Joy Ride, or have my tongue eaten by a winged demon who wore a trench coat ala Jeepers Creepers (He drove a truck too, didn’t he? Truckers are the worst.)
Though I was desperately wishing I could pause time just to catch my breath and regain my bearings, time doesn’t stop for anyone. So my journey began at 5 a.m. My friend Lauren, who was also leaving everything behind and moving to Los Angeles, and her brother CJ, who was just along for the ride, picked me up an hour late. They had stopped for coffee when CJ realized he forgot his phone at home. Our first setback.
Philadelphia. Pittsburgh. Chicago. Cawker City, Kansas (home of the Biggest Ball of Twine). Colorado Springs. Las Vegas. Los Angeles. That was our route. We set off to follow it just as the sun was beginning to rise. Light crept slowly over the Philly streets as we drove. I remembered the day I moved to Temple. My parents and I got in around the same time we were now leaving. Life isn’t linear, it’s circular. My sadness dissipated as I realized nothing ever really ends, it just molds into a new shape.
I’d driven the length of Pennsylvania countless times before. It’s beautiful. Maybe I’m biased because it’s my home state, but you’ve really got everything: rivers, mountains, valleys, plains, forests, tunnels. It was a six hour drive to Pittsburgh, but as I’d grown accustomed to it, it felt like nothing more than a sneeze to me. When we reached Pittsburgh, we stopped at my parents’ house for a brief refueling. My Dad was waiting with coffee and muffins. We ate. I said goodbye again, to him, and to my dogs, who didn’t quite seem to grasp the emotion of the situation, and then we were back on the road. Chicago bound. Nine more hours of driving before we could be finished with the day.
Ohio is boring. Honestly, it is. Not as mind-numbingly boring as I’d later learn Kansas is, but there’s really not much of note to talk about. I’d made this drive before, as well. My brother lives in Chicago, and it was to his apartment that we were heading for a place to spend the night. The whole first day of our journey was entirely familiar to me. So I apologize to any Ohioans that may be reading this but I’m just going to fast forward to Chicago.
If you’ve never been to Chicago, you should go. Make sure you drive into the city rather than just flying into an airport because Chicago has this road called with Skyway which is a short but beautiful sight. It really does feel like you’re driving into the sky.
We reached my brother’s apartment at 7pm, technically 8pm for us ESTers, but a huge perk of driving West is being able to go back in time. The sun was starting to set and a cool breeze was blowing. I stood on my brother’s porch as he got out his keys to let us in and I realized something: I didn’t have any keys. Not to an apartment, not to a car, not even to my parents’ house. This shocked me at first and I felt an instantaneous wave of panic, like I must have left something behind. Then I took a breath and on the exhale I felt something else. I felt free. When I reached Los Angeles, I’d be given new keys, to an apartment, to a mailbox, to a car. I’d regain responsibility and ties to the world around me. But right there, on a cool night in Chicago, I was keyless. Rootless. Transient. I strongly recommend getting yourself into a situation where you feel like that. When you realize how little external things you need, you inversely realize how much you always have internally.
That night was rough for our small group of travelers. Lauren was exhausted. She hadn’t slept at all before we began our drive and she wanted to be back on the road again by 4:30 a.m. All she wanted was to take a shower and find a quiet place to sleep. CJ wanted to explore Chicago. My brother wanted to be a good host. I wanted to make everyone happy. We ended up only going out for a quick dinner and then coming back to the apartment. I’d been to Chicago before and I really just wanted to spend some time with my brother before I succumbed to exhaustion. Lauren got to shower and go to sleep. I think CJ might have been disappointed but c’est la vie, right? I only took one semester of French so I’m just assuming that’s appropriate.
We left at 4:30 a.m. I said goodbye to my brother. I wished that goodbyes would stop happening. I’d faced them over and over again in a 48 hour period. I wasn’t sure how much more I could take. But the ability to be rootless and transient doesn’t come without a price.
This day of driving was by far the worst. We were going out of our way to stop at The Biggest Ball of Twine in Kansas simply to break up the monotony of the drive, because there is nothing else in Kansas. On top of that, we were aiming to be in Colorado Springs by nightfall. All in all, that would be 17 hours on the road. As there were three of us, we planned to each drive two shifts of three hours. I guess we followed through with that. I don’t really remember. That whole day is a blur of flat farmland. We spent a lot of time in Iowa, of which I remember nothing. Then we went briefly though Nebraska. We stopped for gas here and dear lord, was it high. Like, above $5.00 high. My only theory is that so few people want to stop in Nebraska that they have to milk the people who do for all that they’re worth. I know I’ve offended everyone living in at least four states by now, but c’est la vie, right? (Again: one semester of French).
Does this make you want to cry tears of boredom? If your answer is no, look at it for 17 more hours
Finally we made it to the Biggest Ball of Twine. It was kind of amazing. Cawker City is like a ghost town. It’s all boarded up buildings and dirt roads. Everyone on the street (and by everyone I mean like, two people) say “hello” to you like you must live there. Just as we arrived at the Biggest Ball of Twine, an older woman drove up and asked if we were the people who called her asking if we could add on twine to the ball. We weren’t, but we did so anyway. So I left my mark in Kansas. Remember me to the Biggest Ball of Twine when I die.
I’ve lead a meaningful life now
I drove the rest of the way out of Kansas. You know those “amber waves of grain”? Amber paints too pretty of a picture. And that song doesn’t tell you that’s literally all there is. I remember that we listened to a lot of Beyonce to make it through this day. We went through a huge storm. Full bolts of lightening were striking everywhere. I love thunderstorms so I was fascinated. But I’d also never seen such aggressive skies. “Look for funnels!” I instructed, paranoid about a tornado. Luckily we made it through safely and funnel free. The next day we’d learn about the devastating mile wide tornado in Oklahoma City, and that several had touched down in Kansas that day, as well.
We reached Colorado Springs after the sun had already set. We stayed at a Holiday Inn and slept a full 8 hours. It was heaven. When we awoke, we were met with the site of the Rocky Mountains outside our window. It had been too dark to see them the night before. We drove to the Garden of the Gods, an observatory within the city. We walked amongst some of the smaller rocks, in the shadow of the mountains. Until this time, I’d been underwhelmed with the drive. I’d expected it to be life changing but wasn’t truly feeling connected with the experience. Garden of the Gods changed that. Even breathing the air there felt different. We left later than we’d planned. It was hard to pull ourselves away from the immense beauty. Rocky mountain majesty, indeed.
Interestingly, my favorite part of this picture is the segwayist at the bottom
Then we actually drove through the Rockies. There was snow on the ground. Snow! In May! Positively astonished by it, CJ felt the desire to see how cold it was outside. He rolled down his window just as snow began to fall from the sky. And the window got stuck. The window. Got stuck. Let me tell you, it was as cold as you’d expect it to be when snow is falling. Even colder considering we were moving at least 60mph. I’m not sure how long the window was actually stuck. I think it felt a lot longer than it really was. Eventually we went through a tunnel and the window magically decided to work again.
The next state up was Utah. I drove through the majority of it. When we entered, there were a lot of signs that said “Caution: Eagles on Road”. I kept my eye out the entire time but didn’t see a single eagle. Another disappointment. Utah is eerily fascinating. It’s all desert and craters. I didn’t see one town or even the most remote sign of civilization. Who lives in Utah? Does anyone? There were supposed to be Mormons somewhere, but I haven’t the faintest clue where. I don’t remember where Area 51 is located but I felt like if I veered off the highway at any time, I might just come across it.
By 11:30 p.m. we had passed into Nevada and hit Vegas. Again, Nevada is a big empty desert, so we could see the lights of Las Vegas from miles away. It looked like we were up in the sky, driving into a patch of stars. At Vegas, we stayed with family friends of Lauren and CJ. They lived in a gated community and had an absolutely beautiful home. We slept well that night, weary travelers offered generous comfort. We took a brief stasis from our journey the next day, spending it in Vegas. The woman we were staying with worked at the Palms Hotel so she got us in for Buffet brunch. We saw all the casinos and stopped at the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign. At night, we got all dressed up and went to The Ghost Bar, a night club on the top floor of The Palms. It went out onto the balcony and we were able to really look over the view from the top. It was a Monday night, so the club wasn’t too crowded. We sipped our drinks and looked out over the city.
Drunk people on a balcony! Vegas is full of great ideas!
And then we gambled. Or, I should say, CJ and Lauren gambled. I basically set a pile of my money on fire. I lost. Again and again. At many slot machines and at a Blackjack table. A very kind dealer even tried to help me, to no avail. At one point, I had about $100 in tokens that I’d won, but I hadn’t learned anything from that Kenny Loggins song so I didn’t know when to walk away. Like me in Chicago, my money was transient.
We got home pretty late considering we were leaving at 5am the next morning, but it was worth it. And besides, the drive was only 5 hours, which was absolutely nothing to us by that point. Or at least, that’s what I thought before I left. Driving to Los Angeles that day actually felt like the longest ride, even though I managed to fall asleep for part of it. I don’t think I mentioned it before but I can’t sleep in cars, so was awake for 98% of the time we were driving. That 2% would be the miraculous hour I managed to sleep on that last day. Maybe I was hungover from The Ghost Bar, I don’t know.
By noon on a Tuesday, we’d arrived in Los Angeles. We had made it. We’d listened to every song on all of our iPods by the end, but we’d made it. Three 20-something year olds. 3000 miles. 40 hours. In 4 days. And we survived. Better than survived, we’d made it through peacefully. We didn’t have a single fight. There was some unspoken tension that first night in Chicago, but that turned out to be the worst of it. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t take that drive back for anything. I got to see so many things I thought I’d never see. I realized in Vegas how lucky I was. My dad asked me to send him all the pictures I’d taken because, in his words, “You’re getting to see so many things I’ve never had the opportunity to. You’re 22 and you’ve made it farther than I have ever even come close to at 62”.
I wouldn’t say I learned a lot of life lessons but I will say this: I never felt afraid or out of place anywhere that we went. I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be. This showed me that you can make a home wherever you land. As long as you’ve got solid ground below you and a vast sky above you, you can find a purpose and a specific beauty every place, even Kansas. Home isn’t something you leave behind. It’s something you take with you and plant. It grows out of your heart, down your spine, through your feet, and into the soil. If you ever have the chance to experience that, I suggest you take it.