I sat in the back seat of a car the spring of my final year of grad school at the University of Montana, mostly just listening to the guys in the front seat talk about all the countries and other places they’d visited. I didn’t say much because at 25, I hadn’t really been anywhere besides Iowa, where I grew up, and Colorado a couple of times. Josh looked back and tried to include me in the conversation. “How about you, Brendan? Do you want to travel?”
I shrugged and said something like, “Yeah, I suppose so.” I would have about $900 to my name when I graduated in a couple months, which didn’t leave a lot of money to buy tickets to, say, Bali. A few weeks later, I walked into the financial aid office and asked for a $1,000 loan, to, you know, tide me over until I found my first job.
None of that really mattered. The week after commencement, my friend Nick and I embarked on my first ever real road trip. We took 10 days to get from Missoula, Montana, to Phoenix, driving through Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona.
We didn’t know shit about anything and it was wonderful. We had a $100 Campmor tent, some cheap sleeping bags, a single-burner backpacking stove and a Rand McNally Road Atlas (courtesy of my State Farm Insurance in New Hampton, Iowa). We packed it all into my two-door 1996 Pontiac Grand Am GT, which was about as far from the ideal road trip vehicle as you could get. (I was overjoyed two years later when a guy ran a stop sign in Denver and totaled the car, so I could buy a Subaru wagon with all-wheel-drive.)
Nick and I stopped at Olympic National Park, Smith Rocks, Redwood National Park, Yosemite, Zion, Monument Valley, and the Grand Canyon, sleeping mostly on the ground, at friends’ houses a couple of nights, and in the semi-reclining front seats of the car twice. We spent way too little time in way too many places, and took a bunch of photos on disposable cameras (including the standard “I’m not looking at the camera so it looks like I’m contemplating something really deep, but really I’m just thinking about whether or not I look cool on the edge of this cliff” photos).
At the start of the trip, I had hardly any outdoor experience beyond a dozen or so day hikes in Montana, Idaho and Colorado, but at the end of the trip, I walked into the REI store in Phoenix and managed to talk my way into a job on the sales floor, even though I pretty objectively still didn’t know shit about shit.
I spent the next dozen or so years punctuating my seasons with road trips whenever I could get a week off work or a three-day weekend: to the desert, to the Tetons, out to the coast, anywhere I was curious about and could talk myself into. Good cameras got cheaper, I learned to climb, backpack, mountain bike and carry less gear, and I got better gear for everything, retiring that $100 tent as soon as I could afford something better. I spent three years working remotely, living in a van with a mattress in the back, and figured out how to write in a “mobile office” that was sometimes a coffee shop table, sometimes a friend’s couch, sometimes a public library, and every once in awhile, a laundromat or the back of my van.
I went on a great nine-day Southwest road trip with my friend Mick, who said, “When you’re young, everything is new. When you’re old, everything reminds you of something else.” After he told me that, I realized every trip to the desert reminded me of a different trip a few years back, and that it’s sometimes nice to revisit your old haunts, even if they’ll never feel the same as the first time you went.
Places change. Monument Valley got a nice hotel where there used to be just a dusty campground, Moab got a dozen new hotels and more restaurants, and it seemed like the campground in the Needles District in Canyonlands National Park had more and more people in it every Thanksgiving.
And of course, I changed too. I had put almost 100,000 miles on that van when I sold it, after four-and-half years of bouncing around the West. I was tired of always living in other people’s space. I got an apartment with my girlfriend, and a toaster, and a blender, and loved it. After three years of life being one never-ending road trip, I was excited to get back to regular road trips. I had developed a skill and tolerance for traveling, to the point where I could pack to leave for a week in less than an hour the night before a flight or road trip (and sometimes the hour before we walked out the door).
Traveling, at times, started to become exhausting. A decade after that first road trip with Nick, I found myself traveling relentlessly for fun, but also to promote books and attend trade shows and film festivals, using the dirtbag skills of sleeping in my car, Leave-No-Trace couch surfing, and how to concentrate on writing in the noisiest, busiest environments, to make it all work. Sometimes, when pushing through the last miles of a 7-hour drive home from a trip, trying to stay awake behind the wheel, I’d hear Josh from the University of Montana in my head: “How about you, Brendan? Do you want to travel?” And I’d chuckle.
This past March, Hilary and I spent five days in The Maze District in Canyonlands, celebrating the end of a 50-date book tour. We were so tired, we found one campsite and barely left it the entire trip. At the end of our time here, we took the jet boat from Spanish Bottom back to Moab, and we checked into a hotel for the night.
As we stood at the front desk, an SUV with Nebraska plates pulled up, a pile of duffel bags stacked on a hitch rack on the back of the car. Five young men piled out, pale from a winter spent indoors studying, ready for their first desert sunburn. They looked about as dialed as Nick and I probably did leaving Missoula in my Grand Am 13 years ago, and for just a second, I remembered what it was like to have that Holy-Shit-We’re-Going-On-A-Road-Trip excitement, and how wonderful it is to not know anything. And it was just like a living illustration of that thing Mick used to say, when you’re young, everything is new, and when you’re old, everything reminds you of something else.
Brendan Leonard is the author of The Great Outdoors: a User’s Guide and Sixty Meters to Anywhere. You can keep up with his adventures, read his work and buy his books at Semi-rad.com.