In a quest to visit all 50 states before her 30th birthday, a woman discovers everything she didn’t know about the country—and a little bit about herself along the way.
I awoke outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, to the sound of engines braking, and the smell of cheap breakfast burritos gusting across the asphalt from the open doors of gas-station convenience stores. My windows were fogged from my heavy breath, and the heat from the rising sun turned my van into a four-wheeled oven set to broil. It was definitely time to hit the road again. I had another state line and the Mojave Desert to cross before reaching camp near San Diego.
Waking up in the back of your car at a Flying-J truck stop is hardly the glamorous scene you may picture when daydreaming about road trips–but that’s how I often choose to spend my mornings. I’m comfortable sandwiched between semi trucks at a random rest stop, or praying for anonymity while sleeping under the florescent lights of a Walmart parking lot. Adventure via vehicle is more grit than grace. Don’t be fooled by the photos: It’s not all twinkle lights and Pendleton picnics. It’s sitting in Interstate traffic jams, worrying about where you’ll sleep that night, and resorting to Plans B, C, D, and E when the unexpected happens. Road trips are about persistence.
I should know. I have turned my life into an ongoing road trip—with an overriding purpose. The plan is to have touched every state in the US before my 30th birthday on October 16, 2018. The rules are simple: My feet must touch the ground, and airport layovers don’t count.
A confession: I didn’t knowingly take up this quest to visit all the states until I was halfway through it. I took the first states for granted, hardly grateful that my parents whisked our family off on vacations to Alaska and Hawaii. That time my dad insisted that we drive across the country for two weeks while moving back to Miami from California? It was a sweeping adventure ticking off many state firsts from New Mexico to Louisiana–and I complained the entire trip. Especially when he made us pull over in Arizona to take a picture at a street sign for Winslow Avenue. You know, a photographic tribute to that song by the Eagles.
My parents gifted me many experiences and memories that shaped me into a road tripper, but none of them quite gripped me like the Rand McNally Atlas of the United States. In it, I began to highlight my road trips in different color highlighters. Through scribbled lines stretching from Florida to Illinois, I discovered that I had already seen more states than I hadn’t.
The most powerful moments of my great American road trip have been the stark extremes of solo travel and sharing experiences with others. There was the first night I ever tent-camped alone in 2011 at Lake Barkley State Park in Kentucky during a 33-day solo trip across 17 states that covered 6,657 miles. I ate just-add-hot-water broccoli rice, stoked my first campfire, and spent the entire night with bated breath as a curious raccoon loudly rummaged around my site in the darkness. These days, I don’t think twice about sleeping outside alone. These days, I almost prefer it.
My claim of independence is immediately challenged by the joy of taking road trips with loved ones. I refuse to choose between the bliss of falling asleep in total silence by myself on Klondike Bluffs, and the ecstasy of waking up next to my partner, Brody, at a dewy trailhead in the Tetons.
The more time I spend on the road the more I incorporate it all. In the South, I learned to slow down, savoring the culture coming at me through corn nuggets, fried okra and collard greens. Life revolved around butter and bouldering. While staying in Asheville for three weeks, a record blizzard shut down the entire town and forced us to explore by foot, post-holing through the car-less streets in search of sled-worthy hills. But even without snowstorms that cause entire-city collapse, the South demands you decelerate.
During the winter of 2013, I adopted a puppy while living in a cheaply retrofitted Sprinter van. My partner at the time and I drove seven hours from Chattanooga to suburban Mississippi and ended up at a stranger’s house, where we scooped up a wiggly sack of spotted fur and introduced her to the road life. We named her Amble, an unspoken homage to this leisurely speed at which we lived. I taught Amble how to sit, stay, and shake while we traveled throughout the Southeast, and she returned the favor by teaching me how to hang my head out the window of a speeding car, to smell the earth as it rolled by. These days, she lives in Anchorage with my ex-boyfriend, and continues to adore a good road trip.
Out in the Western mountain states, I discovered wide, open spaces. I reveled in desert plains that stretched to the horizon, deep canyons barely body-wide, towering stacks of granite and pine. Finally, I felt at home. A stretch between New Mexico and Utah guided me past Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, Apache and Ute ancient ground. The West is where I had an important revelation: I am traveling across indigenous land. Out West, I discovered my privilege.
The Pacific Northwest reminded me to always stop and delight in the little things, like banana slugs and baby ferns. During a four-month solo trip in 2016, I spent a week commuting between Portland for work meetings and camp at the base of Mount Hood. Each morning, my bare feet would pad over pine needles while the low buzz of my electric toothbrush broke the forest silence and startled tiny songbirds. I would fold camp back into my borrowed van, pray my baby-wipe shower rendered me socially acceptable for meetings with outdoor executives, and eventually merge into traffic as I commuted back into the city. Each afternoon, I would drive 70 miles back to camp in the no-service zone.
The Northeast taught me about traffic. Ticking my remaining Northeast states felt like a pursuit of quantity over quality. Two nights in New Hampshire, a quick pit-stop to touch the coast of Maine, an hour in Rhode Island for donuts and tacos. And the back-roads of West Virginia refreshed my map navigation through hilly stretches that rendered Google Maps obsolete.
As I approach my goal of visiting all 50 states before my 30th birthday, I find myself collecting homecomings and leaving horcruxes, tiny bits of my soul scattered each time I meet a new place that moves me. I have a propensity for falling in love— with places, people and plants. The connections you build on the road are instant, and everlasting. It’s been years since my last slice of pizza at Miguel’s in Kentucky, but I can still smell baked crust wafting through wet summer air after a long day of clipping bolts in Red River Gorge. I think of each of these places and memories as mine–but really, they aren’t. They belong to each and every human who ambles down highways in pursuit of America.
Currently, I have eight states left: Nebraska, Minnesota, both Dakotas, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Conveniently, they all touch. I’m designing a loop to take me across them in one fell swoop. Brody is hunting for our a van to buy us, a new-to-us adventure mobile that will see me through the final chapter of my patriotic pursuit of meeting my country. My tattered, sticker-covered atlas yearns for those last inky lines of achievement.
Road trips are what you make them. I spent a year living out of a big yellow Sprinter van, summers in Honda Pilots and borrowed Nissan NV campers, weekends in rentals, a month crammed into the back of a hardtop Jeep with three dirty boys, 33 days sleeping in the hatchback of a Scion. To be able to see this land by road trip is a privilege, a sacred gift no matter what vessel you steer. If you have the means, use it. Cherish it. Invite others to hop in the passenger seat and share it.
Road trips force you to disconnect from all the junk that otherwise fills your day-to-day life. The best free campsites are inevitably out of cell service, creating mandatory spaces for reminding yourself that the way your toes feel as you dig your feet into dirt and sand is immeasurably more important than replying to a work email. Modern connectivity is limited, so you refocus your connection on the present to what’s present. Time spent in these disconnected places makes us better humans–we all could use more nights out in the middle of nowhere.