Unscheduled Wandering: Road tripping USA

Unplanned road tripping across the USA.

“Purpose of your entry into the United States?” I would’ve been unsurprised if the gatekeeper’s pulse was computer controlled.

“We kind of just plan to drive across it. I think we’ll try making it to Toronto by Saturday week. We bought new tyres for the van this afternoon.”

I had no idea why I mentioned the tyres. Perhaps for self-validation that Craig and I were responsible enough to be here.

Passports were sighted as the exhaust fumes from the stationed $800 vehicle slowly crossed the border before us.

“Have a good day”, the gatekeeper computed.

I rarely question a desire to travel. When the feeling runs, the feet follow. On a Tuesday in Vancouver we bought a van and started driving across America.

The purchase and the trip entailed no planning. Its spontaneity resounded with the feeling of going to a free gig that you know nothing about with a friend of a friend you’ve only ever met drunk. But such is the recipe that gives your heart an extra beat and your heal click an extra rasp. We named the van Wendy.

“He says something about ‘real travel’, and that it needs to be unplanned… or unscheduled,” I attempted to recite a quote by Alan Watts to Craig, like a second grader pledging allegiance to the flag. The philosopher’s illustration of why one would leave their home to travel would have suited the moment perfectly. Not that Craig and I needed to justify a break from our rainy city of Vancouver.

USA smelt like a battleground that once had victory presided over it by a bloom of commercial armies. It boasted a sense of confidence that penetrated the atmosphere from FedEx splattered knolls to megalomaniac inspired cities, and we were soon reminded that even western countries could skew western comfort compasses. The van smelt of soapsuds, like a garden hose lying in bore water.

Nights one and two kept us within Tinder search distance of Canada. Seattle followed by Portland; Grunge ghosts followed by precisely poured beer. Portland reminded us of Vancouver, and Vancouver reminded us of Melbourne, and I’m from Perth so every big city reminds me that I’m far from home.

Seattle was wet but it gripped us mortal colonials. Raindrops slid down the bar windows like hands grazing a chest. I idolised the late Seattle heroes like Andy Wood, Layne Staley, and Chris Cornell, and I secretly felt satisfaction when setting my eyes on streets and bars of their hometown. The city pulls the music lover into scenes from Singles. If Bridget Fonda moved out here from Tucson, surely I could one day do the same from Perth. I didn’t want to leave but Wendy needed a skipper to complete an aimless journey.

The coast was behind us, and USA pounded its chest in front. Over 429 miles of fuzzing radio signal led us to Boise, Idaho. It’s a college town where resplendent Americana resides. Stars and stripes tie the place together like ribbons on a tightly wrapped graduation gift. We walked into Pengilly’s Saloon with our attention drawn from sticky floors to mechanical bull. Our bartender removed our idiosyncrasy by announcing, “You’re not the only Aussies in here!” He motioned to a guy with a curled handlebar moustache like Phineas & Barnaby from Family Guy.

“Holy shit. Is that the guy from Thirsty Merc?”

As if rowing a rescue boat to a water-bound sailor we pulled up stools next to the talented Australian lead singer, Rai Thistlethwayte. He didn’t sing us In the Summertime. He did let us buy him several Pabst Blue Ribbons. We shared unity of accents by talking to intrigued college girls wearing boots. We drank whiskey and convinced them that all of us except for Rai were famous in Australia. But the fact that Australia was not famous in America meant that Craig and I left the bar only with memories of drinking with the guy from Thirsty Merc.

I slept alone in the van because Craig met a college girl at the pizza shop at 1am. At sunrise the Idaho State Capitol building towered over me like a policeman waking up a drunkard on a public bench. My head was sore and I wanted to get out of Boise. This is the thing about road trips in that constant movement prevails. Consumed in adventure and eager to feed their eyes, the explorer only looks farther up the road and rarely at the ground beneath.

On the road to Utah we saw miles of desert and the USA’s incredible ability to profit from it. Dusty plains hung behind the bright yellow and the blood reds of a remote Denny’s restaurant. It served as a capitalist mirage that bent our vision as if seeing a lion at a petting zoo.

The loose stone on the long road vibrated our churning wheels, and our backs creaked like old wooden door frames. Heavy driving burdens your body and sours your mind, with snide comments traded with Craig in line with lasting fatigue. My mind flirted with thoughts about the end of our long, unplanned journey.

Salt Lake City made us feel like we were at church. We walked with eggshells under our feet and talked with bit lips. Mormons were friendly, but it was not a place for us sinners. Colorado would surely suit us better.

Day six. Driving to Denver, a snowstorm tried to push our dear Wendy off the road. Craig was somehow asleep in the passenger seat, and the steering wheel was locked underneath my grappling fingers. My hands were pale, as blood pulsed from heart to brain and back to heart again. It was cold. I could see my breath but barely the road through a frosted windshield. At a Shell gas station I removed ice from our license plate.

Denver saw us arrive with their largest snowfall on record. We couldn’t and wouldn’t move our wheels for two days. This suited me fine, as I’d met a girl.

She was a dancer and her brother owned a haunted house on the city’s edge. I never saw her dance but we did see the haunted house. I think she wanted to fall in love with me because Australia sounded to her like a more colourful place than this.

We went to the Paramount Theatre to watch The Naked & Famous. There is something special about seeing a beloved artist perform in another country, as it gives me the same pleasure as understanding words in a foreign tongue. Music is a beautiful language that allows all to grasp.

The snow soon subsided and we could see Wendy again. We left Denver, a memorable part of our travels.

I drove us toward Mount Rushmore on a Wednesday. A police officer stopped me for speeding somewhere between rusted gas stations. I could see my bloodshot eyes in the reflection of his tinted Ray Bans. He had never met Australians before and this seemed a valid reason to absolve me of my road crimes. We parted ways.

An hour later, Wendy was bogged. I assumed a dirt road was a short cut, but dirt turns to mud when torpedoed by thick rain. A farmer helped us and I felt he saw us as aliens. Our week old tyres soon found tarmac once again. We later found Mount Rushmore.

State flags lined the entrance like soldiers in a war parade and the faces of past Presidents loomed down upon us. It was late in the day and we had been devoured by several hours in the van. We saw families costumed in souvenir t-shirts with more pastel colours than my fourth grade pencil case. I wore a pyjama top disguised as simply unremarkable clothing. National pride trumped our own.

Rapid City was nearby and we parked Wendy in front of a Starbucks to sleep. The next morning we followed the scowl of unimpressed onlookers into the cafe. After the ordering the display cabinet’s cheapest muffin, I went to the bathroom.

White tiles and fluorescent lighting gave away the sterility of the room. I hadn’t showered in days. I felt like I was a germ on a polished wine glass. I locked the door and took off my clothes. Sometimes a commanding voice inside of us speaks up and shoves dignity aside. I shovelled tap water onto my sticky torso and scattered hand soap on arms, legs, chest, and face. I was in the middle of a Starbucks bathroom, in the middle of country USA, showering. Toilet paper helped dry my drenched body. After seeing a new man in the bathroom window, I rejoined the table with my dirtier counterpart. Craig could clearly smell soap and looked at me in jealousy. He stood and retraced my steps to the bathroom.

We ordered Wendy to march onward. Thirteen hours of driving, staring at grey roads, cupped our sanity and molded it into deliriousness. Powerful winds had all but blown Wendy and us away, and Craig realized his phone was left somewhere in a Wyoming parking lot. With minds scattered and belongings lost it was the arrival to one of America’s favourite cities that kept us smiling.

Over 140 years ago, Chicago’s wooden buildings were burnt to the ground. Courage to rebuild provided everlasting confidence to become a global city. The place ignited our vigour. I fell in love with a metropolis of silver buildings and creative flare. Art served a purpose here. People were uniformed in their movements, but polite and forward thinking.

“You guys are Australian?”

“Geez, you’re the first person not to guess English”, I said to a fellow bar patron, while performing bicep curls with a deep-pan pizza slice.

“I know the accent. I lived in Sydney in ‘91, and rode my Harley to Byron Bay. Welcome to Chicago.”

We bought newspapers and read them on the train like everyone else. We visited speakeasy bars that held days of prohibition under our noses. Cab drivers wanted to learn more about us and Craig met a model that confidently brought Harry Potter books with her to bars.

Chicago had balls. It had been through a lot and I felt that was what led to the city’s welcoming charm. Social justice activists talked with us until the early morning at a bar lined with arcade games. One showed me his butterfly knife and all showed their love for good-natured human beings.

Saturday. We met the road for one last time with Wendy, who cradled us broken boys. Detroit handed us back to Canada like children torn from abusive parents. We admired colourful money and revelled in restrictive gun laws once again. I let Wendy go to a Filipino family for a quarter of her purchase price; the father had an interview that day for a job at a supermarket. The creased notes he gave me were enough for a ticket back to Vancouver.

On the flight home, I questioned my desire to travel. The feeling had run, but I wondered why my feet had followed. There was no search for gold or hunt for victory, just as a musician doesn’t celebrate when striking the last chord of their song. My mind was silenced by the wonder. This gave it space to finally remember the Alan Watts quote I had tried to recycle several days earlier…

“Real travel requires a maximum of unscheduled wandering, for there is no other way of discovering surprises and marvels, which, as I see it, is the only good reason for not staying at home.”

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