I love spending long stretches of time with the asphalt splayed out in front of me, the window rolled down, the weight of the air against my outstretched arm. I've felt this way for a long time.
Car rides were one of few things that soothed me as a colicky baby. My mother would drive in circles around the block of our Midwestern neighborhood, waiting for the vibration of our red minivan to lull me into a quiet. As I entered adulthood, the road became my therapist. When crushes didn't return my affections or bosses were fickle with praise, I grabbed a coffee, loaded up cassette tapes (then CDs, then MP3s, then streaming radio) and let the highway ease my nerves, just as it did when I was barely out of the womb.
With an abundance of vacation time and a vagabond spirit, I decided to see America for myself through the road trip to end all road trips: Route 66. A predictable choice? Maybe, but this particular drive is legendary for a reason, and I wanted to see it for myself. Armed with a roomy rental car and trusty travel companion by my side (an ex-lover turned good friend, because that seemed like that sort of complicated relationship one could untangle on such a trip — more on that later), I accelerated.
The first leg of Route 66 is full of clichés in the best possible way, with iconic diners (first the historic Lou Mitchell's in Chicago, then, some two hundred miles or so later, the Palms Grill Café in Atlanta, Illinois, which seems to have been plucked directly from 1950) and classic gas stations dotting the road. The trek south through Illinois is packed with nostalgia and countless Route 66 roadside museums, all staffed with the kindliest old people you've ever encountered, like a geriatric Americorps.
We spent a night in St. Louis enjoying live blues, then moseyed into Oklahoma City for sleep, which marked the last of our contact with true civilization before we hit L.A some two weeks later. We had officially entered The West; the training wheels of the friendly and organized Midwest were off. This is where the trip really begins.
The first thing you notice about the West is how much space we have in this country. We'd spend hours speeding down a desolate two-lane road and pass exactly nothing. We were as alone as one can be in modern society.
The second thing you notice on such an expedition is the massive amount of time you've suddenly inherited; your relationship with the clock changes. For perhaps the only period in my life, I can list practically every sunset of that trip. Sunsets were one of the few ways we marked days. We watched the fiery red ball sink behind the Grand Canyon and the peaks of Zion and the waves of the Pacific and even while perched atop the tail of a giant plaster whale.
Our rented Ford Taurus with the Florida plates snaked through small town after small town as we inched our way across the continent. We were baptized by cream-based sauces at the dozens of diners that dotted our course. We hunted for treasures at roadside antique shops in Missouri. We sang "Meet Me in St. Louis" in St. Louis and "Oklahoma!" in Oklahoma. We slid down sand dunes at the otherworldly White Sands, New Mexico, where over 250 square miles of gypsum hills produced such a roaring quiet that we laid down in awe to listen to the deafening silence for nearly an hour, totally unfazed by the 100 degree heat. We turned up the music so loud that we didn't even notice that we were going 90 MPH and that the police were chasing us through Truth or Consequences (yes, an actual town). We soothed our frayed nerves by soaking in hot springs overlooking the mighty Rio Grande.
We hiked uphill, upstream through an ancient river, totally unprepared, and with only a single granola bar to sustain us through the day's toil. We bought an enormous American flag because it seemed like the sort of thing one should do, and we later affirmed out patriotism by drinking a PBR whilst wrapped in the flag in front of a giant cross in rural Texas. In my mind, an Eagle soared.
We clamored on top of spray-painted Cadillacs after making our own mark on them, explored ghost towns where hoards of flying grasshoppers hid in the weeds that choked the town ruins, and immersed our suntanned bodies in natural springs, mighty rivers, vast oceans, and questionable hot tubs while wearing questionable bathing attire (my swim suit had been forever lost somewhere in New Mexico). The Mojave can officially lay claim to the first place I ever peed outside. We stood on a corner in Winslow, Arizona – and yes, it was such a fine sight to see. We created alter egos – Bob and Marge, an earnest middle-aged couple from Minnesota that really loved this gosh darned country.
We spent approximately three hours in Vegas during which I threw up in a Thai restaurant. We spent three nights in an incredible suite in Beverly Hills that we talked management into giving us for half price. And I spent at least half of the trip trying to not fall for the guy that was no more than three feet away from me the entire time.
Because yes, if you were reading closely, you'll remember my companion for this trip was an ex. An ex I wasn't over. An ex that I was becoming increasingly and alarmingly not-over as the days ticked on. And how could I be blamed? You're bound to fall at least a little in love with anyone that you spend two blissful weeks with, two weeks in which you create your own reality that includes all of life's pleasures and none of its burdens. It doesn't help when you're mistaken for newlyweds more than once, or when you (accidentally, I swear to God) book the honeymoon suite of a Sedona resort voted the most romantic in the nation.
(This, I realized, is how everyone on The Bachelor is tricked into falling in love. We were alone together in some of the most romantic settings you can find on this Earth: secluded moonlit cabins, hot tubs under the stars, fireplaces in fancy hotel suites with bottles of champagne. I likely could've been talked into marrying a platypus.)
We were the perfect team, and our luck never seemed to run out. The world unfolded itself before us as if it had just been waiting for me to say yes and start the journey. It was around Sedona (yes, in that fucking honeymoon suite) that I felt a quite unfamiliar and strange sensation suddenly thrust upon me, a feeling that many American women find wholly foreign: peace. I was totally, utterly, completely happy. I didn't want or need anything. My mind didn't possess a worry or a fear or an anxiety. I wasn't thinking about the next week or day or hour or minute. I felt what yoga and Oprah and Zoloft have been trying to teach us for decades, but that I could never really understand. I was fully present, and blissfully so.
Having two weeks with which to do nothing but find happiness, without consequence or schedule or responsibility, was so very good for my soul — and so very terrible for my heart. I understood that the alternate reality the trip had created for us had an expiration date, and that upon our eventual return to our lives, we would separate into our own circles of friends, our own jobs, our own day-to-day. This would become that thing where one day I'd run into him during lunch and his coworker would ask who I was, and he would say, "You know, I once drove across country with her. Best damned trip of my life," and then we'd stare at each other for a moment and wonder how we'd become strangers. I knew this all, but empirically understanding the truth of the situation and accepting it are two entirely differently things.
Route 66 has a way of humbling a person, and not just the heart. A trip on Mother Road demonstrates how totally insignificant and minuscule you really are in the vastness of this incredible country that somehow contains fields and forests and deserts and mountains and oceans in one single stretch of road. It's both massively comforting and incredibly depressing to know that none of "this" matters. The Grand Canyon will remain regardless of how many awards my work wins or loses. The Pacific tides won't change if I lose those last 10 pounds. Zion will stand whether or not affections are returned.
Image via Shutterstock.
Elizabeth Friedland is a freelance writer and public relations professional based in Indianapolis. She spent several years in Brooklyn and was Williamsburg's most un-hip resident ever, most likely due to her earnest love of The Donna Reed Show. Follow her on Twitter at @efriedland.
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