I always figured that the most daunting part of driving across the country by myself would be the boredom.
Almost every American traveler has a spot on their bucket list reserved for making the quintessential drive from coast to coast, and when we imagine that journey, we tend to picture a montage of moments — hitting the gas for the first time and leaving home in the rearview mirror, driving down the highway with the windows down and Rascal Flatts pouring out the speakers at an irresponsible volume, watching as the majestic Rockies rise up from the horizon to meet our gaze, finally parking the car at the beach and dipping our toes in the roiling Pacific as the sun sets on our adventure. It’s easy to forget that the journey itself is much more than the sum of those magical moments. In reality, it’s 40+ hours of sitting behind the wheel as flat interstate country rolls on by.
That, at least, I was ready for. What I wasn’t prepared for were the more intricate difficulties of life on the road. Like the constant battle between wanting to chug Pilot-brand coffee to stay revved on caffeine but not wanting to have to stop 20 times a day to use the restroom. Or the crushing ennui you experience when you realize you’ve just finished your last downloaded episode of “Radiolab,” and you’ve already played through your “On the Road” Spotify playlist six times. Or the humiliating, I’ve-been-duped feeling of being forced to stop for gas at the only station for a 100-mile stretch in the middle of the Mojave Desert — at which, displaying a keen grasp of the economic concept of supply-and-demand, the owners have raised the price to five dollars a gallon.
Or, better still, the sensation that surprised me the most — the feeling of displacement I experienced when I ordered pizza one night and the employee asked me for my address. For my entire life, the answer had been the same street and house number in Newburyport, a coastal town on Boston’s north shore. In a few days, it would be an apartment in West Hollywood, where I was headed on this road trip to start my post-grad life. But right now? I was a nomad, essentially, moving across the country with my dog and my Kia Forte, dragging a U-Haul trailer behind me with my entire life packed into it. I belonged to no particular place — which is a hard thing to explain to your delivery driver.
“Well, I’m at the Days Inn in Hays, Kansas,” I stammered.
“Yeah,” the voice on the other end of the line said, with an undertone that implied obviously. Hays isn’t a large town, seeming to rise like an oasis from the windmill-spotted plains of western Kansas. Most likely a good chunk of the orders the local pizza parlor receive are from people just passing through. “What room number?”
I realized I had no idea what my room number was, so I opened the door to check, at which point my dog, Lilly, immediately shot out of the prison that was our musty, dimly lit motel room.
“Shit,” I said. “I’m gonna have to call you back.”
Luckily Lilly didn’t get far down the raised hallway of the motel’s second floor, turning around the moment I called her back. I didn’t expect her to wander too much — there wasn’t exactly a lot to explore around there — but I understood her decision to bolt. She’s a runner, the type of dog who lives for the moment I unclip her leash at a fenced-in dog park so she can gallop free for the next hour. It was tough enough for me to be cooped up in cars and motel rooms for a week — I could only imagine how tiresome it was for her.
To be sure, I scheduled in enough time for us to stretch our legs. In Tarrytown, New York, where we stayed our first night with my godparents and their dogs, we went for a long stroll through the sprawling Rockefeller Estate. In Shaker Heights, Ohio, a gorgeous little city outside of Cleveland, we spent an evening exploring the town center while the setting sun cast a hazy glow over the red-brick sidewalks (Lilly also got to wait patiently the next morning while I spent 15 minutes backing the U-Haul out of a narrow, 30-foot driveway). At my college roommate’s lake house in Innsbrook, Missouri, just west of St. Louis, we trekked through the woods on an hour-long hike that saw her yanking on the leash constantly in an attempt to chase after the deer that crossed our path. And in the coming days, we’d spend our evenings playing in the massive dog parks of Castle Rock, Colorado, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, the sluggish humidity of the east giving way to the dry heat and wide-open expanses of the American Southwest.
But despite our end-of-day adventures, as well as our numerous bathroom stops and quick walks throughout each day’s mileage, Lilly still seemed restless — and I couldn’t really blame her. Because at the root of that restlessness, I’m sure, there was a little bit of fear. Dogs thrive on routine, and though we stuck to a fairly regular itinerary, this road trip was anything but routine. Her entire life was being uprooted. Everything she knew — all the parks we’d explore, the routes we would walk every day, the nooks she’d carved out for her daily naps in our home — was being left behind, and we were headed west toward an uncertain future. I understood her fear of the unknown because while I was excited to start my new life in LA, I had no way of knowing what I would encounter once I got there — and that made the ever-approaching ETA on my GPS just a little bit frightening.
Our final day on the road was our longest, a 13-hour marathon from Santa Fe to Los Angeles. Once we hit Albuquerque, the drive was a sprint across the desert landscape along I-40, all the way through the Mojave to the little town of Barstow, California, from which we descended gradually to our final destination.
As we barreled down the 5 outside of Santa Clarita, the U-Haul rattling ominously on its last legs behind us, I switched the media player off to focus on my final turns. But when the phone disconnected, the audio switched to a different output, starting up the CD that was still in the drive from a past road trip. Before I could flip the system off, the Eagles were crooning through the speakers.
“On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair / Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air / Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light / My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim / I had to stop for the night.”
Soon enough, we would be stopping for the night once more, though this time, we wouldn’t be hitting the road again in the morning. I peered through the city’s evening smog and made out the unmistakable outline of the U.S. Bank Tower miles ahead. We merged onto the 405 and eventually the 101, drove by Universal Studios and past the Barham Boulevard exit. This was the area I’d stayed in a couple years ago during a study program — the trip on which I’d fallen in love with this city and decided I wanted to live here. When we exited, I rolled the windows down and Lilly sat up excitedly, sticking her head out of the window to take in the new smells and feel the new breeze against her snout.
There would be new parks to explore, new routes to walk every day, new nooks to take our daily naps in. We just hadn’t discovered them yet. But we would soon. Because now, we were home.