Back when I played with Barbies, the accessory I wanted most for my main gal was that sweet red Barbie Ferrari convertible. Why? So she wasn’t stuck in my room and could explore other places (duh).
I get claustrophobic on tiny islands. On a boat to Santorini, I stifled my panic attack, pretended I was an island girl because I had willingly signed up for this adventure with my friend Alex. It’s not that I hate beautiful, tropical locations. I hate the fact that if I need to escape, I depend on someone else to get me out of there. We rented a car on Naxos and drove around the entire island in like an hour. I took an ATV from one end of Santorini to the other in about as much time. When I reached the end, I remember my throat tightening, thinking, nononononono, where is the rest, there must be more. I need space to roam on my own.
Some twenty-five years ago, my very brave parents packed three of us kids into the back of their car and drove us out to explore the glory of the West, not once but twice. On both trips I kept a very detailed journal of all the amazing things I saw, all the food I ate (BLT, every meal), all the random adventures we had outside of the car. You can feel the magic in the story I created in my little head, excitement pops from the pages penned long ago. Turns out, two decades later, the road trip still hasn’t lost its sparkle for me.
While thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, I gained a new appreciation for the automobile. Wheels became our lifeline, we counted on the kindness of strangers to whisk our tired bodies away to civilization. People with these coveted machines were magicians, transporting us anywhere from three to 20+ miles up the road to the nearest Dollar General for resupply, taking us to a much needed shower, beer, or post office. And though I consider my Spacehorse and Raleigh family, ain’t nobody picking me up on their bicycle out here. (Though I did take a very questionable ride from a stranger on a motor trike blasting Nickelback outside of Helen, GA.) Cars served a glorious purpose. And pickup trucks became my straight-up heroes. People never seemed to mind throwing us in the back with the rest of the cargo.
There is a certain kind of freedom that comes with a full tank of gas, undefined time and an endless map.
I left Wisconsin last week not knowing where I was really going, but knowing I needed to get out there. As soon as I passed Chicago, a drive I’ve made a million times, I started to feel what I craved, the magic from my childhood journals. I got lost on the back dirt roads of Indiana, cruised through the green Kentucky countryside, bopped along through Tennessee, and onto Arkansas. I zigzagged through the winding roads of the Ouachita National Forest and the Ozarks, crossed the Buffalo River and rolled up and down over Missouri highways on my way to the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota. I gazed in awe at Wyoming’s rugged landscape, clutched my steering wheel, white knuckles willing my car to stay on the windy, ice-covered roads of North Dakota.
I spend most hours of the day doing exactly what I set out to do: drive. Alone with my thoughts, no podcasts, no music, which is basically against my religion, there’s always music. I’ve avoided cities, even blowing past Nashville and Memphis, two of my favorite places to get lost, because this wasn’t their time. I was with my car, and cars don’t have much of a place in a city. When I do explore cities, I prefer to fly, take the train or bus, use public transportation, my feet, at the very most a bicycle. Driving cars in concrete jungles stresses me out, I feel uncomfortable, clunky, out-of-place. But on these back country roads, I feel right at home, relaxed, free, knowing at any time I can pull over and nap, call it a night or keep driving, literally anything I want. I can go anywhere on the map without being honked at or noticed.
Back on the AT, after hiking more than 1,800 miles to get to Mount Washington, NH, climbing the whole damn rock mine of a mountain and being greeted at the top by a bunch of tourists in flips-flops and perfume, I remember thinking, wait, I COULD HAVE TAKEN A TRAIN UP HERE? Not that it took away from the effort I had just put in, it was just…strange. But now I am the flip-flop tourist, sans perfume and flip-flops. In situations where the options are: you can hike from A to B, OR just take route C in a car and see the same thing, I’ve become a solid C student. Because I didn’t take this road trip to hike. Right now I am chasing a very specific freedom to get to a place, to a feeling I know my feet alone can’t take me.
One night I snuggled up in my 0° sleeping bag in Tennessee and the very next night I slept on top of my 45° bag in Arkansas. I love how I can take three sleeping bags with me and not worry about weight. I love how my FJ serves as my packhorse for everything. I’m fascinated by how the landscape seems to instantly change as my car races over invisible state lines, as if each state is immediately trying to define itself, tell visitors why it’s a special place, what makes it the Show-Me State, the Natural State, Legendary, Big Sky Country, Like No Place on Earth, even if I’m just passing through for a few miles.
I love hiking, I love where it takes my mind and body, how it calms my soul and frees my spirit. But that’s all I’ll be doing in a month, and I love so many things. One very valuable lesson I learned while hiking the Appalachian Trail: taking half a year off to hike a trail is not a vacation. It’s freaking hard work, arguably harder than many jobs. And knowing I am about to voluntarily submit myself to something so incredibly mentally challenging and physically exhausting, I just wanted something to be easy for a little while. I just wanted to drive, see where the endless roads could take me.
Maybe I should be training, like I see everyone else on Instagram and the online hiker community doing, meticulously preparing for the PCT, getting my pack weight down, figuring out calories. Maybe I should be planning food drops and testing out my gear in the backcountry instead of sleeping in my new tent next to my parked car, drinking boxed wine straight from the bag while I write this. Maybe I should be hiking up these mountains every chance I get, instead of powering up “low-maintained, high-clearance vehicles only” roads to get there. But I’m not. Right now, if my car can take me, I am driving there. I am on a road trip, after all.
And these back roads were built for wheels.
*Posted originally on The Trek