This essay originally appeared on Medium.com.
After reading my recent essay about “The Value of a Grown-up Gap Year” in Moms Don’t Have Time to Write, many people asked, “But, won’t you tell me where you actually went on this road trip?” And even as I nodded, “yes,” in my heart I knew where we went wasn’t the point. I’m a little sheepish coming clean because last summer I tried to be positive, claiming from the cocoon of our quarantine bubble that the universe handed down the perfect opportunity to press pause, the perfect opportunity to sit still. But you know, it was damned hard. Last summer I wrote full of optimism how I was appreciating home life and when we were finally able to travel again, it would be inspired by curiosity and not because I needed to escape. Well, I’d be lying if said escapism didn’t play at all into our recent six-month road trip.
Maybe it was an expression of freedom, or, said another way, a need to demonstrate control. But in the end, the work-from-home mandate gave us choices that I wanted to take advantage of. My husband was game to work remotely as in “really remotely,” knowing 1) I’m my best self on a road trip and 2) to make sure I came back. Haha (but not really). In all honesty, neither of us had seen our country’s interior up close, most of our travel consisting of airport arrivals and departures with drives directly to some destination or another. We never got to pull out the map and make a plan, to see how everything is connected.
So where did we go? I could tell you, “Places we could be outdoors every day.” I could also say, “Someplace I wouldn’t get dragged into memory half my waking hours. Someplace generically furnished, the cleaning and de-cluttering not my responsibility, closets I wasn’t tasked with packing, upholstery that I didn’t feel obliged to have cleaned. We went somewhere that that wasn’t around the corner from my in-laws apartment, my in-laws who had both recently passed, and whose windows my husband couldn’t look at without getting a pit in his stomach, which basically meant every time he walked the dog.”
So, we staged our home of twenty years for sale, recycling, donating and discarding and on November 13, 2020 we were off. Fully masked with lots of hand-sanitizer, bikes strapped on the back and golf clubs in the roof box, one dog, and enough food to last several days, our car pulled onto Boston’s southeast expressway as we set off on a journey with no end in sight. We had some family and friends we hoped to pay visits to along the I95 corridor, breaking the drive into nice little chunks, making it feel like we were on any typical weekend and not the beginning of an epic road trip. Because the truth was, in those early days it would have been easy to look at each other and say What have we done? Just heading to Kiawah, SC where we had booked a one-week Airbnb. No big deal, nothing more than a one week vacation.
Tip one: Even if someone in your party doesn’t happen to be a consultant who’s traveled the past thirty years accumulating hundreds of thousands of Marriot Bonvoy points, download the app of a major hotel chain so that you can make reservations on the go. The app allowed us to (pay with points) but also filter search for “pet friendly” or “rooms with kitchens.” It also allowed us to cancel last minute if we felt we had a little more energy to keep going, or to stop sooner if the weather looked bad. We began to learn about their properties fairly quickly and what we could expect from each one.
I knew we’d hit our stride once Bonnie and Clyde became our road trip handles, once we had our bladders coordinated, and our two hour driving rotations felt like child’s play. Our dog looked at us in confusion when we started calling him Pistol — everyone needs a road trip handle. We listened to podcasts, audiobooks, playlists. We called people. I prepped food in the morning from our coolers in hotel kitchenettes. Again, if “the road” was going to be our future we couldn’t outgrow all our clothes. Tip two: I recommend a small smoothie blender. In a pinch we’d have a my signature concoction I named “The Bullet” which kept us going strong: almond butter, almond milk, coffee, banana, chocolate flavored protein powder. BOOM.
So, one week in Kiawah and then another Airbnb in Hilton Head for the week before Thanksgiving. For the most part we stayed put during the week and did our driving on weekends so as to be less disruptive on the work schedule. Having reliable internet and cell service was key to making a road trip successful. We found out early on that conference calls in the car often got dropped and made some people very cranky.
Over Thanksgiving, we made our big meal into a culinary adventure because the Hilton Head beach house kitchen was equipped more for chips and margaritas than a traditional feast. Our meal took on a low country theme, cornbread, pecans, avoiding any comparison to “home.” We watched “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” before a walking tour of Savannah.
The beaches were so different than in New England: wide, flat, really hard — great for long walks and bike riding. Great for dogs!! Beautiful sunsets, wonderful birdlife. We saw lots of dolphins. There were great bike paths and plenty of golf, even tennis in the afternoon while it was getting cold and blustery back home. From Hilton Head we went to Sea Island, GA which was beautiful, but this is where things got interesting, noticing the vast differences in how people across the country were taking COVID precautions.
Our drive spanned the six-month period post-election, a Presidential winner having been recently declared, a worsening pandemic, an insurrection on the Capital, the inauguration, and the George Floyd murder trial. We encountered yard signs and attitudes that provided a stark civics lesson in how divided we were as a country — but that is a rabbit hole I will not go down at this time — but suffice it to say, it was something we actually witnessed as we went from north to south. There were times I was sure, with our face masks and Massachusetts license plates, we were going to get our asses kicked. John decked out in New England Patriots garb didn’t help.
From Sea Island we visited my cousin and her family in Greenville, SC. We rode bikes all over town and had a wonderful picnic lunch at Swamp Rabbit. We love Greenville and having just read “Brown Girl Dreaming” by Jacqueline Woodson, I thought about the town in all sorts of ways.
From there, we drove toward the Smoky Mountains to Warren, TN, the home of Blackberry Farm. I highly recommend, even though I didn’t experience the dining room as we took our meals in our room. The property was beautiful, very dog friendly with vast hiking and mountain biking trails. After a few days there, we hoped to drive the Blue Ridge Parkway back north in order to spend the winter holidays with our sons back home. However, snowfall came early, dashing our plans — so we hung out in Asheville, NC for a few days, working from our room at the Marriott and hoping the Park Service would open up sections of the Parkway. No dice. But Asheville was a great holding pen. We enjoyed touring the Biltmore and tasting the craft brews it is famous for.
We drove north through Virginia on a scenic route we devised on our own, listening to The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson, stopping at the plantation where Booker T Washington was born into slavery. It was a cold and misty morning, the National Park site deserted due to COVID, but we walked the grounds, nonetheless, heading out into the woods and along a river where slaves once sought solitude. Not too far down the road, we stopped in Bedford, VA, the home of the D-Day Memorial. We had a private tour (again thanks to COVID) and learned the reason for placing this monument in a small, rural town was because a dozen of their own perished within minutes of American troops landing on the beaches of Normandy. Our guide described the young woman working the drug store counter the day all the telegrams came over the wire, in shock reading about one death after another.
After stops in Charlottesville and Rhode Island, we returned to Boston for two weeks where I hugged our own boys tight, spoiling them with meals and attention. Somewhere during the journey I’d stopped resenting the past year’s forced domesticity. I felt good to feel needed again and connection with family was a real boost.
After some festive meals and an oil change, the second phase of the trip began on January 2. Another tip — keep an eye on your odometer and make time to have your car serviced! We took care of our own health, but took care even better care of our car.
Having swapped out the golf clubs for ski equipment, we made it all the way to Pittsburgh that first night in an attempt to beat out bad weather. After Pittsburgh we spent nights in St Louis, Topeka, and Colorado Springs. We made some longer detours through Dayton and Kansas City where we went for much needed walks and Whole Foods replenishment, even a visit to the site of the Willows Maternity Hospital which I researched for my novel, EDEN. We listened to Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones, especially heartbreaking as we drove through Ohio.
We listened to Dirt to Soil by Gabe Brown going through Kansas, as we have become keen on the concept of regenerative farming, nurturing a dream of some day purchasing traditionally tilled farmland with the aim of converting it to regenerative. (Again I don’t want to get sidetracked, but it is important to be prepared to talk about all sorts of dreams and secrets desires as you drive long distances. Small talk is for cocktail parties, road trips are for getting deep.)
I was singing the “Green Acres” theme song full throttle as drove through Kansas and into Colorado. Colorado Springs was the perfect gateway for our westward migration, leaving the plains behind toward a horizon of mountainous jaw-dropping beauty. We stayed for three days in the blue skies and sunshine to work, replenish food stores and have snow tires put on the car. We hiked around the red rocks of Garden of the Gods on January 6, only to get back into our car to news of violence at the Capital. I can’t understate how much of our time on the road was marked with dread, with a “what next?” frame of mind. Between the pandemic and the political situation I was refreshing news feeds on my phone constantly while watching the death count rise. Still, it was odd how it felt better to do it on the road than it did at home. We drove on, swallowing fear and singing away the miles pretending to be in control, or at least Bonnie and Clyde packed up in their getaway car.
We pressed on as if the mountains held the answer, which it turned out they sort of did, a snowy buffer of serenity. My essay “A Quest for Quiet and the Ability to Live in It” covers a lot of what I discovered while on the skiing portion of the trip. After stops in Colorado, we drove to Idaho and Utah. We celebrated 31 years of marriage, had visits from our children and took on our daughter’s dachshund for the ride home. (Heck, what’s one more?)
My next post will be about our much slower return east. We were old pros by the end of March and the spring weather had us less concerned. Plus, we’d accumulated a long list of places to see. We’d meander on a southern route, I-40 versus I-70. I’ll share some of the noteworthy stops we made, our audio entertainment, some of the epiphanies we had, and how Bonnie and Clyde fared after all that togetherness…
But first, some Travel Tips for YOUR road trip adventure:
1. Keep a journal and consider why you’re going — it’s interesting to see how your reasons for the drive change.
2. Be flexible.
3. It’s okay to stay put and work. Make life sustainable and productive. Some driving days can be short.
4. Bring portable blender, cooler: prep food ahead… stay healthy, safe, and happy. Plan stops on long driving days to stretch your legs.
5. If you will be spending holidays on the road, make it different in order to avoid comparisons to home.
6. Consider the weather and be willing to detour.
7. Look out the window and notice.
8. Match your reading/listening to your geography.
9. Consider each member of the group– who likes to golf? Who likes to hike? Who likes to taste craft beer?
10. Create a theme… ours was probably recreation and nature, but you could choose art or music.
11. Connect to history.
12. Make your friends and relatives a priority. Lay them out on a map alongside the names of cities and parks you’ve always wanted to visit and see how many you can touch base with on the way.
13. Visit your personal roadside attractions. We stopped at the site of the Willows Maternity Hospital in Pittsburgh and spent time placing flowers at my grandparents’ grave sites in Oklahoma City.
14. Service your car! Our car has 200,000 miles and earned the MVP award after 6 months of driving.
Read more of Jeannie’s Essays on her blog, at Medium.com, and across the web—and check out her book reviews at the New York Journal of Books, or on Goodreads.