They said if we could manage to not hate each other after spending the entire summer in a car driving cross-country, we surely were bound for marriage. And so begins the tale of our road trip. While I was in grad school, I desperately needed a break from my studies and decided to take the summer off. Generally speaking that is unheard of while you are working on your PHD and my advisor wasn’t too happy about it. Nonetheless, I knew that it was important for me so I went ahead with big plans. Andy—my boyfriend at the time—and I decided to take a long road trip across the country.
I have gone back and forth about what I feel about road trips over the years. I hadn’t really been on many road trips before that summer. There was the time when my parents and my brother and I drove in our green monster—our pastel-green van—to visit Grandma Dora in Florida when I was very young. I recall enjoying that childhood trip though I am not sure if my parents would say I was a happy camper. But I was game for a long trip with Andy and it was a cost-effective method to see the sites of the country. My parents made it even more cost-effective by giving us their Sunoco gas credit card and paying for all the gas we needed.
Good thing my parents gave us that credit card because at one point it turned out we needed to use it for another purchase at Sunoco—a new car battery. Yes, we had quite a few amusing and some not so amusing ventures on that trip. The car-battery tale worked out fine in the end and I remain grateful to my parents that they bankrolled the gas and the car battery.
We began our trip from the west coast in Santa Cruz, California where I was in graduate studies. With maps from CAA (California Automobile Association) in hand and a pink highlighted route that we had marked before we left, we took off on the defining road trip of our lives. Because our plans were for a round-trip across the country, the route we selected was across the northern part of the US outbound and the southern states on our return. Along the way we intended to see important sites that we hadn’t visited before—like Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone National Park—and cities that perhaps we might live in one day—like New York, Seattle and Chicago. Our destination when we left California was my parent’s place in New Jersey where we knew we could remain and regroup for some time before heading westward.
I could probably write a novel-length memoir of the trip, we accomplished so many firsts and we experienced so many highs (and some lows). Several things remain vivid in my mind all these 29 years later. We thought to bring a bunch of long and gripping novels to read on the never-ending stretches of interstate highways. What a great idea! While one of us was driving, the other read aloud to pass the time. Not only did it pass the time, but also I don’t think I have ever enjoyed reading a book more. We took our time and discussed the characters and the plot live while we read together. There was Travels with Charlie, Lust for Life, and The Fountainhead. (For years afterwards, Andy read books to me in bed but we gave up when I kept on falling asleep—his voice just lulled me into slumber.)
Each day we made plans for where we would stop and camp over night. CAA also supplied us with a book of camping locations of all varieties from private to park-operated. Remember, this was before anyone had mobile Internet access—actually this was before there was much in the way of the Internet in general, let alone mobile cellphones and Internet. When we arrived at the intended camping area, we’d give it a quick look to see if it seemed safe and then put up our teeny tiny backpacker’s tent for two that we purchased at Sierra Designs in Berkeley. We certainly could have used a larger tent since we had a car to lug it in but—no—we were somehow cooler for using the modest Flashlight II. Setting up a tent every night for weeks on end made us experts at getting that thing up in no time at all, even if it was dark out. Most of the places we stayed were good enough and not very memorable. But several spots stick out in my memory as simply amazing—and several as truly horrendous.
One of the most magical places we camped was in Big Sky country—Montana. We found a small National Forest campsite and pitched our tent as usual. Because it was so remote, there were plenty of signs posted that warned of bears. So we took the suggested precautions and made sure that food was secured in the trunk of our car (we didn’t need to stow the food up a tree as we would have if we were actually backpacking). Even with no food present we were visited by a bear that night and in that moment I really wished we had a larger tent—actually a larger tent made out of metal is more like it. We stayed absolutely still lying in our tent and fortunately the bear wandered off. That was excitement I hadn’t expected. What I also hadn’t expected was the beauty of the surroundings. Big Sky is such a great term for Montana—the sky is immense and breathtaking. And that campground wins as my best memory of a beautiful spot in the world.
Some of our other camping experiences weren’t so lovely. We encountered a stretch of rain, rain, rain and after pitching the already wet tent for several nights in a row during downpours, we hit the el cheapo motel—again on Mom and Dad’s dime. And then there were the campgrounds in the Texas area that scared the crap out of us so we kept on driving. Though I do have a fond memory of armadillos making a racket looking for food in the metal garbage cans somewhere in Texas. I think I managed to snap a cute photo of one of the critters. What strange beasts they are. But all in all I’d say we did pretty well with our campgrounds, with great thanks to our CAA campground booklet.
We are foodies, so one of the things that is kind of surprising but I guess not unexpected given our poor financial state was that we didn’t eat at many of the wonderful road food spots available in the hinterlands of the US. Most of the time we bought groceries and had such marvelous—well marvelous when you are hungry and on the road—and easy to transport items like bread and cheese. Although it is true that even bread was taken to new heights when we toasted our bagels over an open fire in Yellowstone while it was flurrying out in an unusual July storm. (That fluke cold front was also when our car battery went kaput.) When we did enjoy a meal out, breakfast was the choice. My fav memory is of the cheapest breakfast to be found in a little diner in East Madison, Wisconsin. Of course we did eat beignets at Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans and couldn’t miss the shakes and fries at The Varsity drive-in in Atlanta so food was not entirely ignored.
Dining in local joints while traveling gets greater attention these days and has for some time. But of all the trips I have taken with Andy over the years, our cross-country road trip remains most vivid of my memories and serves as an inflection point for our relationship. Yes, of course they were right—I did marry Andy and as that ramblin’ summer trip with my man proved, we were well suited for each other then. And we remain well suited and as in love today—if not more—as when we were young lovers on the road.