In high school, Neal used to say that after graduation he was going to go on an epic road trip and never come back. We used to joke about it until I realized he was serious. We were seniors and still trying to figure out if we wanted to do the whole college thing. The only thing we both knew for sure: We had to get out of Ithaca. For Neal, that meant this road trip. Once graduation came, I had a decision to make. Hell yes, I decided to go.
First things first, Neal and I knew road trips cost money and that we didn’t have any. We were already working, but had to step it up. That summer, we worked 3 jobs and all the hours we could. We saved up about $2,000. The plan was to start off safe: Neal’s mom was driving to Arizona to stay for the winter, so we planned to follow her out west.
When the time came, we quit our jobs and left in a sparsely packed 1992 Honda Accord. It was January 2004 and gas was about $1.15 a gallon. My grandma, bless her heart, took us to Sam’s Club before the trip and bought us bulk road snacks. We had huge buckets of laffy taffy, beef jerky and pretzel sticks. (Believe it or not, they lasted us the whole trip.) Other than food, we had our sleeping bags, a tent from Walmart, a notebook and a Rand McNally Atlas. It was time to go.
That first night we slept in the car at a Walmart parking lot in Virginia. We had driven over 7 hours and rode over the blue hills at sunset. That night it got cold, like, really cold. We cuddled uncomfortably in the back/front seat (pushed all the way down) of the Honda wrapped in our sleeping bags. There was ice on the inside of our windows the following morning. We learned a valuable lesson that night: leave the windows cracked so condensation can escape your car when you need to sleep in it. This would be the first of many nights sleeping in that cramped car. We didn’t care; we felt free.
Continuing down the east coast, we made a hard right before the Florida border. We had never been to Alabama, Arkansas or Mississippi and our introduction to this region wasn’t great. Entering Alabama, the stench of the oil industry hit us. We also started seeing dead dogs on the side of the highway. This area didn’t redeem itself until we spent a weekend in New Orleans many years later.
Our first hiccup was in Texas. Around Austin, a brick flew off a giant truck, bounced several times down the highway, and punched up into the underbelly of our Honda. Luckily, it only left a fist-sized hole in our exhaust. Neal and his mom’s boyfriend, Daniel, fixed it with a piece of iron scrap and an arc welder. That DIY worked pretty well, actually.
All patched up, we kept going. Texas is as big as they say it is and I think it took us two nights before we hit New Mexico. I remember sleeping on the side of the road next to these vast ranches. One night, it got so cold we had to sleep in the camper Neal’s mom was hauling.
We stayed a night in a $20 hotel in Roswell, New Mexico. The town’s street (yes, only one), was lined with alien-head street lamps. The waiter at Pizza Hut, the sole restaurant in town, used his hand instead of a notepad to take our order. The hotel bathroom had a huge hole in the roof of it. You could say we were slummin it.
The next day, we explored Gila National Park and slept on the campgrounds there in a tent in 20 degree weather. Gila was densely forested with waterfalls and creek beds. It was in Gila that we realized the southwest was something special.
When we finally got to Arizona, we stayed for a little more than a week. We were about an hour north of Phoenix on a ranch with no running water. That’s right, we stayed in the desert for over a week without a shower. We also panned for gold, explored abandoned mine shafts, and hiked a lot. We rode 4-wheelers and sat by campfires.
There was no shortage of wild adventures on that ranch. We went to a guy’s house one day. It was actually a hut in the middle of the desert that was covered in cats with fleas. His walls were lined with DVDs and guns, but he was a nice guy.
In the mornings, cows would trample past our tent. (I unabashedly chased them into the surrounding hills.) Nights were spent reading by flashlight (The DaVinci Code) or playing either gin rummy or crazy eights. Meanwhile, coyotes howled at the moon and the stars bloomed like some bouquet of luminescent intergalactic flowers across the skyscape in a way neither of us had ever seen before. We were dirty, but we were having a blast.
Once we couldn’t stand to be around each other’s stench any longer, we splurged on a hotel. That may have been the best shower of my life. The water ran black.
After we got clean, we started up the west coast, finally on our own. We drove through Yuma to LA — through LA’s multi-colored smog — to Bakersfield and Sacramento. Sacramento was nothing to see, but nearby Whiskeytown Lake and Shasta Trinity National Forest were fabulous. The sun sparkled on the lake and glimmered off the emerald green river as we twisted through the mountainside. It was a gorgeous way to get to Redwood National Forest.
Sitting among the redwoods was a humbling experience. Redwoods are the tallest trees on Earth! They are fire-resistant! We were two dumb kids sitting in awe at these amazing natural skyscrapers. Throughout this area, we saw elk by the dozens and fell deeply in love with the west coast.
We got a glimpse of Mount Hood driving through Portland. I had read about there being a lot of young people counted among the homeless in Portland. Runaways who found refuge there. I have wanted to go back since this drive and have yet to make it.
Halfway through our trip, we got to Seattle, where my brother lives. We stayed with him and my then sister-in-law. I got my first Coldstone Creamery ice cream down the street from their apartment. (I couldn’t stop eating Coldstone for years afterwards. I sought it out everywhere I went. I finally got sick of it after living in Phoenix where it was always accessible.) We also went to the Space Needle. We wanted to go to the rock and roll museum, but we were getting strapped for cash.
After Seattle, we went through Idaho. This was the first snow we’d seen and it was bad. Huge trucks had chains on their tires. Not us. We were in our little Honda Accord with all season tires and a dwindling bank account. I learned to trust Neal’s driving that day as 18 wheelers jackknifed in front of us and he navigated the snowy road. It was the end of January and we really needed to drive south to warmer climates!
I drove once we hit Nevada. Don’t tell anyone, but I hit speeds of 100 miles an hour. The road there is long and straight. You can see for ages. We were almost sad to see Las Vegas in the distance, but also extremely excited. We drove the main strip and marveled at the lights on the casinos. It was oddly magical at the time.
After Vegas, we went to the Hoover Dam. There, a guy tried to convince us to go to Mexico with him. We were smart enough to say no. We went to the Grand Canyon instead. In the winter, all the trails are closed in the Grand Canyon, but you still have to pay $20 to enter. We didn’t have a lot of money left, so spending that $20 just to walk up to the edge was so disappointing. We were salty about paying that $20 for years. Maybe I still am. We also paid a lot of money to stay in a hotel nearby. For a long time afterward, we said “so what” to the Grand Canyon feeling tricked by its hype. We’ve been again since and it really is grand, but it will always be a little sour for us, I think.
We were getting seriously low on cash at this point. Time to pack it in. We took highway 10 on our way through Texas, and took 40 on our way back. This meant we saw Oklahoma and had a stop in Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis was nice. We ate at a Cracker Barrel because that’s what we thought you did on road trips. Oh, the food poisoning. We know now that that is just part of traveling, but at the time, we completely swore off Tennessee and Cracker Barrel.
In any event, we kept going. This time south to Florida. We were running on fumes at this point. Almost out of money. We got to my grandma’s near Tampa and lived off Grandma for a wonderful week. We saw manatees and ate strawberries. What better way to end this epic road trip?
On our way out of the south, we stopped at the Georgia Pig. I wouldn’t eat there now (as a vegetarian of course), but we thought it was so cool then. A biker barbecue joint where they cooked pigs in pits (whatever that means!). We also stopped at South of the Border in South Carolina. We lol’d a few times and got back in the car.
It was late February when we got back to Ithaca. The trip was supposed to last for nearly a month longer, but man, we were broke. We got our jobs back and got back to the grind.
Our lives officially started on this trip. We had survived out on our own; we were adults now. By April, we saved enough money and moved into an apartment with a roommate. Everyone told us that we’d never go to college if we did this road trip, but we started at the local community college that fall. We got a cat too, Sophie. 15 years later, Sophie is sitting next to me as I write this. I can’t believe we did it at 18 or that anyone let us, but I am so glad we did. You know it was a good trip when you can remember this much of it after so long. Of course, we also got bit by the travel bug and haven’t stopped since. These days we don’t sleep in our car, though!