The pull of deep black tarmac stretching for miles through the deserts and forests, mountains and valleys, is something that sits at the core of my own identity. The structural form of the classic road trip has been done justices and injustices, but when I connect my own life's experiences to the road, none of that history matters. What matters is movement.
The summer before my sophomore year of college was eventful. I took the standard Christian kid pastime of working for a church camp, albeit one I had a long relationship with. In high school I would make the drive up from the desert, around hairpin turns and through blind corners until the scraggly brush of California's high desert became tall, majestic Ponderosa pine trees.
The air always turned cooler around that second bend and I'd keep my windows down – unless, of course, it was winter and that coolness took on the form of bitter cold. My small car would fill up with the scent of vanilla and wood and that indescribable freshness that mountaintops send out into eternity. And it was here that I found so much joy, tension, relief, care, pain, and revitalization. Those mountains, with their wide lakes beckoning the sun to fall with a gentle splash into their waters, and imposing rocks turning black against the unmatched sunsets that southern California so smugly gifts its inhabitants each evening. Those mountains were my place of solace.
During my mid-teens I would walk those paths among the camp cabins, the cedar chapel, and the fire pits. And that summer, before returning to college someone who knew so much more than nine months earlier, I discovered that deep connection to the road.
I remember there being a lot of drama that summer. I refuse to seek it out, it's just not my style. But somehow I found myself at the center of it. And eventually, I said my goodbyes, packed up the Windstar with my suitcase, guitars, computer, and unfinished business and took that windy road around the lake, to the crest of the mountain, and down those forever winding roads.
She never replied to my text... or, at least, I don't remember ever getting a reply. But that was okay. We had two years of friendship and we hadn't ruined any of that. Braving those roads in the dark for the hundredth time should have been status quo. This time, the words "Gloria is silent. Gloria is silent. Gloria is silent. And glory is a silent thing" reverberated around my van. The windows were down. It was 50º and dry at the top of the mountain. That made it actually feel cold. But it was good to feel something other than the tension and stares of people who had nothing better to do than be jealous and start trouble. That summer cost me a friendship I never wanted to lose. And another that could have grown into something more. And I still believe I was in the right.
The mountain road turned into the long desert road once again and I found myself with a third of the summer laid out in front of me. And the only things I remember doing are waxing an airplane for my dad and writing. Lots and lots of writing.
With twelve hours left to go, the van was pretty much packed. My best friend was coming along for the ultimate road trip. Southern California to Southern Illinois.
The desert can get up to 115º at the height of a summer day. Sometimes hotter. We had a good chunk of desert to cover. Through the Mojave towards Baker – and the famous Bun Boy restaurant, now closed but still sporting the "World's Largest Working Thermometer" – through Needles and onto Kingman, Arizona. Hour upon hour of Joshua trees and brush. Rock formations jutting out of the ground for a bit and giving way to the endless expanse of the Mojave's dry lake beds.
We started early that morning. Going off of three hours of sleep due to the over-excitement and worry that always finds me before a new adventure. But at 3:00 AM we were throwing the last few things into the van. Our cooler was filled with ice, sodas, and a few sandwiches and we were ready to beat a good part of the heat of the day.
I remember that no one in my family was home but me. I know my dad was getting his airplane inspected in Springfield, MO, but have no recollection of where my mom and sisters were. That meant there was no one to see me off before my drive. So my friend and I started up the van and headed out toward Barstow and that gorgeous desert.
I'm not sure there is a better feeling than that of barreling down the I-40 at 75mph, windows down, hot desert air whipping around your face, and music just blasting. We chased the trains that would come chugging through the middle of nowhere, watching storm clouds rolling along a hundred miles away until, finally, that surprising mountain rises up out of the expanse and you begin to climb again.
Climbing into Flagstaff felt a lot like my trips up the mountain to camp. Leaving the 105º heat for a cool and drizzly 55º was invigorating. We took a quick stop to refuel and breathe in the refreshing mountain air before heading out down the mountain toward New Mexico. But it's an experience that has always stuck with me. I love Flagstaff, Arizona for a simple reason: That in the course of this massive drive we were able to find a short, but very sweet moment of reprieve from the heat is a marvelous thing.
We spent the night in Amarillo after driving across the rest of Arizona, seeing the painted desert rush past us, and finding ourselves flying toward New Mexico's red rocks. Amarillo is a bit of a hole if you're just passing through, and as a newly minted Texan, I feel like I can put this out there... the panhandle is terrible.
Through Oklahoma and into Missouri, we made it to Springfield around three in the afternoon. My dad was at the airport finishing up with the inspection work and would be flying out and back to California the next day. At this point I said goodbye to my friend and he caught a ride back home with my dad. I decided to press on. Only four more hours and I would be back at school.
I've always had a place in my heart for Missouri. Our family had spent time in Branson and Springfield while my great-uncle was building and managing his hotels in Branson. I learned to appreciate the humidity in the summer. The first time we flew from California to Springfield on my dad's turboprop, I remember stepping off of that plane and feeling like I couldn't breathe for a second. That thick, humid air takes time to get used to for someone who grew up in the desert. But when you drive across the country, you ease into those things.
Missouri is a beautiful state. Driving out of the Ozarks toward St. Louis, there is so much green. So many rivers and hills and trees. Nature screams at you to notice her. It's best to take time on your drive to really see those things. I did not on that first drive through. I was so focused on getting to where I needed to be, that I drove fast and hard until I found myself crossing the Mississippi into Illinois and pulling up outside of my dorm.
The hours I've spent driving through hills, sliding down icy mountain passes, and blazing trails in torrential downpour have brought clarity and taught me about myself. I have always felt the need for movement and I satiate that craving on the road. Those adventures are the kinds that inspire.