This is probably going to be the oldest story published on this blog, back from March 2004, before we had our backpacks and cats. Victor has been in the US for less than a year and was itching to discover more of America than just the Chicagoland area. He was in the process of applying to colleges while working various menial jobs and called me one morning with the news that his latest gig did not work out. On the other end of the line, I had the same exact news to share. The contract position at my current job did not get extended, and I was starting to polish up my resume in search of a permanent position. Yesterday, we both had jobs. Today, we had freedom, a tiny bit of money saved in the bank, and a newer car I purchased just the year before.
“Let’s go on a road trip!” I said. I was young and stupid and carefree. To be clear, I would still do the same thing today if I ever end up in the same position. I am still stupid and carefree, just no longer as young.
“To California!” exclaimed Victor.
“Get your stuff and come here. We are leaving today!”
Victor showed up at my place a few hours later, with a small bag of clothes and a wide grin on his face. The reality of what we were doing didn’t even hit us until we got into the car and he unfolded a map (this all happened before smartphones and Google Maps and all the modern conveniences we now take for granted). We roughly planned out our drive – visiting a friend in Denver, exploring a bit of Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, California, Utah, driving through Wyoming, visiting another friend in Des Moines, and back to Chicago. In a bid to be responsible adults, we settled on a short 10-day trip, so we could get back to our job searches in a reasonable time. Looking back at it now, I wish we took a full month, if not longer, but our limited bank accounts and job uncertainty was always tickling in the back of our minds.`
Being unseasoned road trippers, we decided to head straight to Denver without any stops on the way, even though it was late in the day and the drive was around fifteen hours. We figured trying to save on motel costs was the responsible thing to do. As is the theme with most of our traveling adventures – we were and continue to this day to be occasional idiots. We drove into Denver, barely keeping ourselves awake and the car on the road, at around 8 am. That entire time, we made only two stops – a gas station pit stop and ten miles later a cop stop who wrote me a ticket in Nebraska for going 15 miles over the speed limit. The last 20 miles to our friend’s house felt like the longest, foggiest drive of my entire life.
We showed up at our friend’s door unannounced and let ourselves in uninvited as the front door was unlocked. I don’t remember exactly why anymore but I presume now it’s just the type of bullshit that happens when you are in your twenties. Despite our friend’s initial shock at waking up and finding us standing over her bed, giggling, the rest of our time in Colorado went swimmingly. Along with her friends and roommates, we explored Denver, Colorado Springs, hiked through Colorado Rockies, and said our goodbyes shortly before leaving for Utah.
The rest of the trip was a grand adventure. We explored Zion Canyon, camped in the desert by the Colorado River, stood breathless for hours at the Grand Canyon, and ran barefoot through Death Valley. We fell in love with California as we explored Lake Tahoe, setting ourselves up for multiple return trips. We found Salt Lake City to be strangely vacant and impersonal on a Sunday afternoon as we marveled at giant granite temples and splashed in a fountain at an empty city square. In the desert, our blown-up mattress deflated in the middle of the night and high winds were ruthlessly trying to rip our entire tent off the ground. We ended up moving to sleep into the car and this one experience is why Victor still hates camping all these years later. Yosemite entrance was closed due to snow, but we were undeterred. We abandoned our car at the entrance and hiked through the snow among tall trees to catch a glimpse of Yosemite’s timeless splendor. Hiking back down a snowy slope seemed dangerous, so Victor insisted we slide back down on our backsides. Walking back to the car, my underwear full of snow, I turned to Victor and said, “You know, in ten years, we may no longer be friends. I may not even remember who you are. But I will always, for the rest of my life, remember that one weird guy who had me sliding down a mountain on my ass.”
We had very little money, so the majority of our meals came from a discount shelf in a supermarket, sometimes warmed up at a camping fire, sometimes just wolfed down cold. We slept in tents, in the car, in the cheapest dingiest motel rooms we could find. One of the motel owners, seeing my newer car and clean clothes tried to turn us away, saying “You won’t like it here.” We proved him wrong by spending the night in the dirty room with a clogged toilet and paying something like $25 for that privilege. In Las Vegas, we each took $10 worth of quarters to gamble with and I won $40 almost immediately at a slot machine. Filling my pockets with quarters, I ran to Victor, just as he was dropping his second quarter into his slot machine.
“Stop! Stop!” I screamed. “We won! Stop before we lose it all!”
Victor was not amused at this and grumbled that he didn’t even start gambling yet. I insisted that “the whole thing is rigged!” and that we need to walk away while still in the positive. Rolling his eyes, Victor followed me out of the casino. Overall, we were not very impressed with Las Vegas – the fake luxury, the loud tourists, the annoying “ding-ding-ding” from every slot machine. At the first motel we found, its sign claiming “$40 rooms!”, the attendant impatiently explained that it was actually $40 per hour. We slept in the car parking lot of that motel, having simultaneously won $40 and saved $40 on a hotel. We felt like millionaires.
Years later, it has now become clear to me that this one trip in particular, with all of its miscalculations of youthful naivete, was the one that set us off on our current path. We didn’t know what we were doing or how to do it, we did it anyway and loved every minute of it. When we searched through the shelves of a small rural market for the cheapest ready-to-eat sausage and bread roll to ravenously devour next to our car, little did we know that we were preparing ourselves for grocery shopping in a small ethnic grocery store in Paris to picnic in a park to avoid astronomical restaurant prices. When we slept in our car next to a busy stretch of highway, cold and shivering through the night, we were just trying to make it through the night that one time. We didn’t realize that this one small success would lead us to live in a van in Iceland or all the future road trips where we confidently drove into the night, no accommodations in sight, convinced in our bullet-proof fallback plan of leaning back the car seats to get some sleep. And most importantly, the basic truth that travel can be more than going to visit relatives or spending a week at a beach or camping was a divine revelation to me. It suddenly became clear that it was possible to go and see everything I have only read about, and it was possible to do it with very little money in the bank. It might seem like a well-known concept in 2020, but back in the early 2000-s the idea of cheap international travel was almost unheard of in my social circle. It was presumed that travel meant expensive airfare, daily dining out, and 4 or 5-star hotels. This is the travel middle-class dreamed of – the once-in-a-lifetime trip to Paris for which you save up all of your life, the “Wheel of Fortune” lucky contestant winning a “One Week European Vacation for Two!” valued at $20,000. Even as recently as in 2014, I was sharing stories from my trip to Thailand with coworkers and got a jealous “That sounds like at least a 10K trip!”, when I had spent more than 3 times less. This one road trip aligned my priorities – my travel was not about leisure or comfort, my travel was speeding down a dark highway, dangerously low on gas, just to see what lies beyond the horizon. But that’s the story for the next post.