A trip around America's West
The road trip was born in a basement in Bloomington, Ind. - one that I probably couldn't find today if I tried.
It was April of 2004, a regular weekend like any other, and I was hanging out with a friend at a house party. There was a band in the basement, guys our age, enjoying their college years. People were walking in and out, tiptoeing past each other up and down the narrow basement stairs. I was sitting on a couch, quietly taking in the scene, and thinking about what I would be doing in a year when I would have both a chunk of time (post-graduation, pre-real world) and a chunk of money (gift), neither of which I'd really earned. And it just became clear. See the country. My country. Our country. I'd only been West once: went to Phoenix and then to Los Angeles with my parents and brother in 1998 to visit some family. Traveling is always different when you're The Kid and you're with your parents. You have no control, and that's what I wanted. I didn't want to sight-see; I wanted to explore. I found a napkin and a pen, and began jotting down all of the people and places I'd want to visit around the country. Less than a year later, I was on my way.
My girlfriend and I headed out during the first weekend of February, driving from Chicago to Lawrence, Kan., to watch the Super Bowl with my brother. We returned to Chicago at the end of April, just in time for Passover. In the middle, we saw the country, the way that we'd never seen it before. We headed south, down through Kansas and Oklahoma, staying off of the interstates and driving the state roads, the ones that drift past endless scenes of the heartland, past countless white churches and gas stations. We cut through so many small towns, one after another ... I blasted my only John Mellencamp CD, finally understanding fully why he is so popular.
From there, it was on to Texas, and if I came away with one overwhelming feeling about Texas, it's this: When you're in Texas, you KNOW you're in Texas. They won't let you forget it. Texans don't leave you any doubt that you are in their state, a state where everything is big. The first thing I saw in Texas was an American flag the size of a billboard, and that's really saying something. They're massive, and not just in size. The messages on the billboards are bold; the first one I saw had a big, fat picture of Osama bin Ladin on it, with the following caption:
WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE
Down through Dallas, Austin and San Antonio, and then west ... forever. The endless I-10 through west Texas, past Fort Hancock, the small border town where Red went looking for Andy. We hung out in Arizona, taking in a couple of Cubs spring training games, including one against the White Sox, a game that we Cubs fans were sure featured a World Series contender. We went to Vegas, which I promptly described as being inside a pin ball game ... and you're the ball.
Southwest now, down to San Diego, from desert to palm trees, and then due north, up the coast on the Pacific Coast Highway through Northern California, past the beaches and wine valleys and into the redwood forests and eventually all the way up to dreary Seattle. I'd never seen the Pacific Northwest ... a whole corner of the country that I knew only from pictures and postcards. The mountains that sat almost casually next to the stretch of I-90 on the drive back east from Seattle to Montana like the Chicago skyline that I look at so casually when driving into the city. The snowy pines of Idaho, the mountain roads of Utah and the roadside diner in Wyoming we'd never have known.
What I loved most about the road trip was the way that the country's landscapes changed in front of our eyes. The connections were visible. I don't connect Utah and Arizona, or Colorado and Kansas, and yet these are bordering states. I've heard "This Land Is My Land," with its descriptions of the vast American landscapes, but I never had a sense of how they all connected, how the dry mountains of Texas could turn into the sand dunes of New Mexico and then right into the desert plants of Arizona. I'd heard cowboy stories of Wyoming and Montana, Salt Lake stories of Utah and Mt. Rainier stories of Washington, but I had no idea that Idaho - the goofy-shaped state with the goofy name known for potatoes - was the most incredible and beautiful state of them all.
I'll remember 2005 for a lot of things. This was the year that the Bulls went back to the playoffs, that the Illini went 37-2 and that - holy cow! - the White Sox won the World Series. This was the year that I ended my two-year post-college odyssey to earn my final credit for graduation, and it was the year that I began living with a girl.
But 2005 will always be the year that I saw America.