ROADTRIP 1:1000 > Forward / Roadtrips
NOTE: As this story of the Roadtrip began long before the trip itself started, the Forward is longer than 1000 words and does not contain a photo. The remaining entries will contain exactly 1000 words that will offer a bigger picture than the single image that immediately follows.
The road was always a welcome thing to me. Surely more to me than to me brother and sister with their ever-active baby brother. We would regularly visit my father’s parents two hours west, in Bozeman, chanting “I SEE BOZEMAN! I SEE BOZEMAN!” at the first signs of the few lights of the then small town. Not quite as regularly, we would visit my mother’s father and his wife in along the “highline,” five hours north, in Glasgow.
I have a vague recollection of our family picking up our Caprice Classic station wagon from our good friend, Roy Stanley, in Whitefish. But my first great roadtrip came in 1980 or so, as the Overturf family piled in that wood-paneled behemoth and met up with the Jockers family at Lake Minnewaska, Minnesota (1450 miles roundtrip). I remember James Taylor’s Flag album, as well as Supertramp’s Breakfast in America. The place itself was straight out of Dirty Dancing, but more perms, disco, and synthesizer. And there was an extra scene where I locked my brother out of the cabin and we got in trouble because he screamed, pounded on the door, and threatened to kill me with a golf club. He was mad.
Mom and I drove to drove to the United Church of Christ Western Regional Youth Event in Colorado Springs (1300 miles) in 1986, and I was one of a group of kids and two chaperons who borrowed the Rocky Mountain College ski team’s van to take to the UCC National Youth Event in Grinnell, Iowa (2000 miles) in 1988. My buddy Pat lapsed into a sort of corn-induced delirium, his mouth dropping open, mumbling “So…much…corn…” over and over, and Ken and I raided the local church’s nursery before the group headed to McDonald’s. I stared wildly and clutched s Big Bird stuffed animal too tightly by the neck and Ken played it cool, ordering with a jockstrap draped around his neck. (As I write this, sadly for the first time I’m wondering about that jockstrap, hoping that it didn’t come from the children’s nursery.)
My buddy Kevin and I drove from Bozeman to Hollywood (1250 miles) in a straight shot in 1989, a bleary-eyed rage fueled by the adrenaline of a dream pent up for two years. But we were moving there.
I have verrry vague memories of a roadtrip with the telemarketing crew from West Palm Beach to Marathon (400 miles) in the Florida Keys in 1990. Convertible. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Smoking a joint with a truck with a guy from New Jersey. Nothing. Nothing. Honestly, perhaps my best memory of Florida.
There was the grunge-filled haze of a Spring Break roadtrip (1500 miles) during University of Montana days, in 1993. Maybe 1994. None of the four of us drew many sober breaths, but there are moments clear, emblazoned by drama and by what some might consider fairly heavy drugs.
My first great solo trip came in the fall of 1997. A year earlier, I had accepted a role in a brand new play with a local theatre company. Two actors would come from a sister theatre in Chicago, we would premiere the play in Billings, then take it back to Chicago, where we would recast (I being the only actor from Billings making the trip), rehearse, and perform the play there for a few weeks. The timing was right: I would be just finished with my student teaching (Spanish) and I was pretty sure already that I didn’t want to pursue teaching. I was learning from a master teacher within a very tight and effective language department. Too much work. Good teachers are brutally underpaid.
I fell in love with Chicago. My sister and three nephews lived a half hour west. It was during Michael Jordan’s second run with the Bulls. It was the home of the poetry slam, and there were great spoken word open mics all over town. There were the Cubs at Wrigley Field. And there was jazz. A straight-razor shave (for the above-mentioned play) at a joint beneath the elevated train sealed the deal. No one came to the play, and the cast would watch the Bull’s game on the small TV in the box office. I would remain in Chicago for 2 ½ years - ironically, largely teaching.
I was nine months into a substitute teaching gig, which paid my bills and offered me job flexibility. It also offered the most terrifying front seat view of the daily dysfunctions, injustices, and horrors being perpetrated within the Chicago Public School System. That’s a whole other 1000 words. At least. But the result was me being burned out, disillusioned, itchy.
At some point during those nine months, mostly in order to make more money as a substitute, I had taken the Illinois State Teacher’s Examination, a sad little test that I likely could have passed in the 10th grade. I returned to the nagging notion that it just didn’t feel right to be certified to teach a language whose culture I had never immersed myself in. Let us say that I was self-conscious of my white bread Spanish.
So, in 1997, before any semblance of the internet as we know it today, I began to assemble a notebook of requirements and recommendations for driving a vehicle from the US southwards. The dream was born. And the work had quickly begun. It would be 19 years before that dream came true.
But first – Vermont.
My good buddy, former college roommate, Matt was living there, doing some local theatre and helping out with the family restaurant in Quechee.
I suppose we must have casually spoken about it before (“Yeah, I should come out there…”) but all of a sudden it was fall and then the car was packed and then I was driving and I kept driving and then I was checking in to a hotel room that looked like the inside of a 70s van - complete with a waterbed and carpet everywhere and then I made a rather dramatic phone call announcing my imminent arrival.
“I’m in Buffalo.”
It was the truth. And a warning. And my first, life-changing dose of the northeast United States in the fall. It would be about 1900 miles roundtrip, and the first of many visits to that area at that time of year, where the latitudes and seasons cast some sort of gorgeous spell over the land, the air, the sky, the leaves on the trees and those on the ground. This roadtrip would help, release some pressure from the cooker, but it well might have awakened a beast, given me a taste for the blood of the road.
Upon my return from Vermont, I would redouble my efforts on putting together a roadtrip far, far south. But hardly a month later, I would get a call from a terrible school on the west side of Chicago, who had seen my name on a list of state certified teachers in the area. Austin Community Academy High School was on probation due to its abysmal testing performance. Against all common sense, I would take the job they offered me, becoming the fourth Spanish teacher of the year. In December. I would finish that academic year and remain there for another.
In the summer of 1998, just ten insufficient years after being a participant, I would be a chaperon for the UCC Western Regional Youth Event in Tacoma, Washington. I would fly back to Billings from Chicago and be one of a group of adults to accompany two vans full of teenagers 900 miles to the event. I recorded some sweet mix tapes and off we went. I got pulled over on Lookout Pass in Idaho for driving it like a slalom course. Well…
That sidetrip led to my next chapter, as part of our delegation was three members of a sister church in Costa Rica. We enjoyed each other and our time together, and I helped push for a church trip to Costa Rica the next year, with admittedly more than a mere whiff of ulterior motives.
In 1999, I would pull out of the Chicago Public Schools, pack up my things, and bring them back to Montana. The group would stay two weeks and I would stay a year.
I taught English, tutored Spanish (to an American girl with phonetic dyslexia) and found a job making good money renting cell phones. But the Costa Rican immigration department showed up one day, asking for work permits. The boss helped me from being deported by paying a $600 “fine” (bribe) to the judge and $400 to the lawyers, and I was asked to leave the country for three days. I went to Nicaragua for a long, great weekend, but the damage was done. Someone had ratted on me, and I was freaked out. I quit my job, rented a cheesy little 4x4, and spent my last three weeks rambling around luscious Costa Rica, including 1200 miles in a sweet Suzuki Sidekick.
I left Costa Rica on June 29, 2000. Mechanical problems, etc caused me to miss my flight from Denver to Billings, and as it was 4th of July weekend, there was no getting out of there for at least a few days. I was not alone. There was a couple traveling from Italy, on their way to Yellowstone National Park, who were in the same predicament. Homesick as hell, I had already decided that I would be renting a car and driving back to Montana. I offered them a ride with me, which they appreciated, but really wasn’t in their travel budget. So I put in like this: “I am going to rent a car and drive to where you’re going. Would you like to sit in that car while I drive it?”
Mom soon received a phone call to tell her I was coming home. Oh, and to get a room ready for a nice Italian couple I had met at the airport. Claudio and Paola would stay a few nights with us in Billings, where we would have barbecue and take them to their first baseball game. Three years later, 5000 miles away, they would open their home to me in Celle Ligure, Italy, at the tail-end of a 60 day train trip through much of western Europe. Some of the best people I’ve ever met, and certainly one of my favorite couples ever.
Mom had taken a job in Cleveland. We packed up her house, put a bunch of our stuff in storage, and headed out. She – straight to Cleveland. Me – to New York City, where I would be accepting a friend’s offer to come and check it out upon my return to the US. But I would be taking a more…circuitous route, via Bozeman, Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Tucson, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Oklahoma City, Little Rock, Memphis, New Orleans, Birmingham, Atlanta, Asheville, Lynchburg, Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalo, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Boston, finally arriving 45 days and 8000 miles later, during Game 3 of the 2000 World Series.
There would be a 2000 mile return to Billings a few months after 9-11, and an 1800 mile roadtrip with my father and his wife, who visited me in Barcelona during Christmas 2002. It would be 12 years until I would see any meaningful road again.
I would start a photography business, sadly shying away from my writing for this new, shiny thing that proved it could make me some money. Soon I was renting a studio, which also became an art gallery. Then I acquired some apartments. Then stopped paying rent everywhere by putting a proposal together to buy a building. The city bought it and helped, along with my parents, and I was anchored to Billings, Montana for the next nine years.
I sold the apartments, paid off the remainder of my father’s loan, and my best friend of 40 years and I took a 1300 mile roadtrip in 2014, from Pau to Lourdes, France, then through Jaca, Pamplona, Burgos, León, Santiago de Compostela, A Coruña, Porto Do Bares, Santander, Bilbao, and San Sebastián Spain, returning to France, passing through Bayonne and Bordeaux, finally settling around Bergerac for a week or so with his family.
The dream that was born in 1997 never died. It simmered in a pressure cooker, needing its lid to be removed a few times. Costa Rica helped. Europe helped. But still there were whispers coming from somewhere south. I literally had a Things Undone list, which I returned to often, and this was one of the longest-standing entries.
In the summer of 2016, the stars finally aligned. After 4 ½ years of living in my shop, living in a room slightly bigger than my bed, showering at the Y, living smaller and smaller, I was finally presented with the opportunity to sell the building. Everything I had done, and especially had recently been doing, had prepared me for this: living small and doing something great.
As far as I can tell, prior to this journey, over nearly 46 years, I had amassed about 45,000 miles of significant time on the road. Only three of those were solo trips: New England in 1997, Costa Rica in 2000, and the U.S.A. in 2000, and they amounted to just over 11,000 miles alone. But they added up, prepared me, created muscle memory. It is all a logical progression of an arguable illogical endeavor: quit your job, sell your shit, buy a van, and drive, far, far away.
I did that.
On December 15, 2016, I headed out of Billings on a road that was just then being sprinkled with light snow, as the first storm of winter blew in from the west.
That road turned out to be 25,099 miles long.