It was almost twenty years ago when I first discovered the life-altering experience that is the cross-country road trip. It was a sixteen-day excursion, taken with my girlfriends Lisa and Marni. From Philadelphia we charted a course through Tennessee (stopped at Dollywood), Louisiana (for NOLA and Lisa’s friend Mark), Texas (beautiful, romantic San Antonio, where we road a gondola along the river walk and cursed each other for not having penises and a six-pack), New Mexico (Carlsbad Caverns, where Lisa slid on guano and glided down a hill on her ass), California (San Diego, where we slept in the car until a cop woke us up, and Los Angeles, where I visited Marilyn’s grave and walked away with the flowers and cards . . . and a swarm of ants), Nevada (Las Vegas, where we stayed at the Hard Rock and flirted with a fake Tom Jones), Colorado (Grand Junction, just to sleep), South Dakota (where we saw Mt. Rushmore and Rattlesnake Jake), Illinois (Chicago and the Field Museum), before returning the car to King of Prussia. The price was $666. Scary until we split it and it came to $222 apiece (my family’s lucky number). That trip enriched and changed me in so many ways. It influenced my writing beyond measure. So many of my stories are infused with tidbits from that trip. I’ve based several short stories on it, and scenes from the journey have found their ways into scripts. It was the experience of a lifetime. Not surprisingly, therefore, it started a precedent: if I can get there by car, then that’s how I’ll get there.
I’ve repeated that trip with my mom, Lisa and brother Stevie. I’ve done it with Lisa and niece Jessica. With Lisa, Jessica and her friend Jessica. With just Lisa. Halfway there with Lisa, Marni and Claudia. I’ve driven from Tampa to Philly more times than I can count. Tampa to Maine. Tampa to NOLA. Vegas to Utah, Dakotas, Wyoming, Idaho. Oregon to Washington. Tampa to Washington. Tampa to Georgia and all over the Carolinas. Vegas to Tucson. Tampa to practically every town in Florida. Sometimes the trip revolves around the destination. Sometimes it’s a long, distracting, winding route from one spot to another. But one thing remains constant: the trip that occurs within the car. Of all the fabulous things I’ve seen and experienced, learned and discovered, the biggest revelations happen inside the car. The true bonding among companions happens in the close quarters of the vehicle. I’ve grown closer to people because of a cross-country trip, and I’ve lost a lifetime friend. Four women in a car eight hours a day, almost every day, for a week? You’ll either make a blood pact or cut someone loose. And the things you’ll learn about yourself? You have no idea, beautiful baby.
The last major drive I took was just last week, Los Angeles to Phoenix and back again. It was just my friend Lisa and me, and the ride up was full of the usual: first three hours, talk talk talk. Soda and gas and food stops. Loud happy music. Laughter and plans. The highway is a little boring, the traffic heavy, but the mountains are majestic, the sky is vast, and your life’s goals can be accomplished in the one week you’ll be away. The fourth hour is a little more quiet, the sun has set, and the thoughts in my head are on what I’ll do in Los Angeles, what my next blog will be about, some ideas for novels or stories, the upcoming holidays, my jewelry business. Thoughts are positive, conquering, I let the music take root in my head and see people dancing or ice skating. Or I make my own music videos. But mostly I picture people ice skating. I do that on the treadmill, too. Don’t know why, it’s just what I picture. And dance moves. I’m the best choreographer on the treadmill wearing headphones.
Then the trip happens and it’s over. I didn’t write at all. Just two paragraphs of this blog. I didn’t scope out stores for the business. I didn’t read much. I relaxed. I shopped, I went to theme parks, I watched television, I caught a hockey game. I ate. God, how I ate. I sent time with the fam. I had fun. And on the last day, I had to drive back to Phoenix. The road was the same, there was music on the radio, but the destination was different. Not the physical one, the one that your mind creates. The destination is real life. The one you took a vacation from. The one you ignored while you were away. There is still talking in the car, but it’s a shorter conversation, and it’s different. It’s a little more argumentative now. The traffic is annoying you, your neck hurts, the way you drive bothers your friend and you snap, “Well then you drive.” You don’t stop to eat, only pee and get gas. When left to your thoughts, they’re a little hopeless, regretful, nostalgic. You think of people you’ve traveled with whom you’ll never travel with again. You think of the trips that will never be repeated even though you promised yourself you would be back. You think of all the things you should have done on this trip, the things you promise yourself you’ll do when you come back, the things you’ll be thinking about on some future road trip when you don’t do them again. Oh, and dead people. Nothing like a road trip to make you think about and miss the people who have died on you. Especially if you took a road trip with them. Inevitably their favorite song will come on the radio, you’ll drive by a spot where you shared a moment, you’ll think about how much they would have loved this trip, you’ll wish they were in the car right now. You think of what they’d say to you if they were. You cry. A lot. You’re on the highway, and you can’t see. You can’t breathe, either. You try to think happier thoughts, but the road is having its way with you. Something has opened up and there is no closing it. You’re on the ride and that’s it.
Eventually the emotions find their way back around. A calmness settles over and you think about what you’ll do when you get home to make yourself feel better. The room you’ll rearrange, the closet you’ll clean, the pictures you’ll hang. You create other plans, intentions, goals. If you’re creative, you start to compose your next blog in your head. You hum that song you hear in your head, you think of colors and picking up one of those dusty cookbooks in your kitchen. You think of the friends you’ll call and have lunch with, going to the movies, sitting in Starbucks by yourself, enjoying a frothy drink and people watching or finishing that novel you’ve been reading. The road inside you has opened up again. Go.