Everyone thought I was going to die. It was difficult to resist agreeing with their looks of concern and easier alternatives. But the decision to embark on a solo road trip from Pennsylvania to California was already made. I picked an arbitrary date in mid-July and began preparing for my newest travel adventure.
This voluntary odyssey was, in part, practical. This September, I will begin a graduate program in the sunny state of California. With a modern twist, I join the old American tradition of heading west for better opportunity — and though there are no covered wagons nor dysentery — the risks of disease and natural disaster are uncanny in the summer of 2021. In the weeks leading up to my trip, I nervously checked the weather reports and the wherewithal of my Toyota Camry.
In a quiet corner of Pennsylvania, the morning was clear and hot. My car was packed, and my family asked for one more photo before I left. More than a year ago, in March 2020, I moved back to my hometown to weather the pandemic in a familiar setting. Despite the uncertainty, it was a comfortable time filled with campfire reunions and long walks down country roads. I watched the seasons change from my apartment window, uninterrupted by the excitement of weekend travel plans. I adopted pets, established a routine, and went to bed early. My life was happily domesticated.
As I pulled out of the driveway, I wondered why I was leaving all that behind. Travel is funny that way — you can be swept up by a capricious desire to explore and feel the gentle nostalgia of the past all in the same morning. Somewhere, hiding in this soup of emotion, you’ll find a subtle appreciation for where you’re going and where you’ve been.
The Road Trip Begins in Appalachia
If you ever get the opportunity to visit West Virginia, take it. Hidden away in its valleys are countless humble mountain towns. They charm visitors with antique stores and main street restaurants nestled in the great green wilderness. Spend the night, and an orchestra of frogs, crickets, and the occasional dog bark will be your soundtrack. These towns exist independently of each other, their perimeters marked by gas stations and farm fields. I drove through the Monongahela Forest, cutting across the center of West Virginia to “make camp” in one such town.
I kept a schedule during my road trip. Each day, I woke up around 7 am and drove until around 5 pm. Because I was driving solo, I thought a regular schedule would be a good idea. For lunch, I usually found a coffee shop with warm chai lattes and a comfortable place to sit. When I got tired, I would stop driving and go for a walk.
On my second day of driving, I found a quiet place to park, walk, and make a PB&J sandwich somewhere in southern Indiana. Rocks crackling underneath my tires, I parked in a dirt lot off Hatfield Road. Even after I removed the key and the car engine stopped, the cool AC air lingered until I opened the car door and the earthy scent of petrichor poured in from the forest. Moments like these were intermissions in the monotony of the highway. Surrounded by tall trees and dense underbrush, I stretched my legs and wandered along a trail for 45 minutes. Then I got back into my car and continued my journey.
Eventually, after I crossed the Mississippi, the hills and their features gradually faded away. Each town had fewer buildings than the previous one, and the space between the towns seemed to stretch out farther and farther. This was Kansas. A fertilizer plane flew parallel to the highway and suddenly turned around to make another loop. State troopers zealously patrolled the highway, so I switched on cruise control and observed the empty landscape. A peculiar haze had settled, and visibility was low. Oil derricks bobbed up and down in large fields next to the highway, adding to the unsettled atmosphere.
It was like this for hours, an odd repetition. During this time, I realized that much of the county is empty. Though, I quickly learned that there are different qualities of emptiness, just as there are different types of colors.
Wyoming, for example, was empty but in a way that made me feel tiny. The emptiness in Kansas made me feel submerged. When I arrived in southern Wyoming, I had reached another planet composed of massive hills and auburn grass. There were hardly any man-made structures along the highway in Wyoming, providing testament to its status as the least populated state in the contiguous United States. Driving through these beautifully empty states was like looking up at the night sky and tracing a path between distant stars.
Interstate Flora and Fauna
Instead of wildlife, most interstate highways are home to an impressive ecosystem of semi-trucks, 18-wheelers, tractor-trailers, and camper vans. On Route 80, the herds of drivers gather at gas stations where they can rest and refuel. The gas stations vary in name, yet all offer the same amenities: food, water, coffee, and a bathroom. If someone asked me to describe the thread that connects every American town, I would start at the gas station. Almost by definition, every American town has one, a visitor’s center of sorts. Gas stations give character to their town, providing unleaded gasoline and a vague sense of community to its patrons.
The Golden State
During my 3,000-mile journey, the first time I hit traffic was after I crossed the state line into California. It was fitting. Suburban sprawl and strip malls reminded me of the east coast. The backdrop differed — golden hills, dotted with emerald green trees, accentuated by a clear blue sky. They encircle the horizon in waves that seem to spill over each other.
My destination was the seaside town of Monterey, a bizarre place with a historical past. If the United States were a lofty building, the rocky peninsula on which Monterey sits would be a small auditorium. An auditorium that remains vacant for most of the year but fills on occasion for magnificent gatherings.
I drove towards this town on the Pacific Ocean, and as my road trip neared the final few miles, I felt melancholy. It is a sad fact that all journeys come to an end, some endings more glamorous than others. But, at the same time, it is also true that an unceremonious ending may give way to an exciting beginning.