This summer, travel has looked a lot different for me than it has in other years. No flights, no long walks in Europe, no mountain village retreat at La Muse, no reuniting with friends, no picnics by the Seine.
I held onto my reservation at La Muse for as long as I could; even though I knew I probably shouldn’t hop on a flight and embark on an international trip, if France would only let me in, I wondered if I could find a way to do it as safely as possible. But by the first of July I knew I needed to give up- fully give up- and accept that I wouldn’t be traveling as I’d meant to this year.
I suppose I’ve known this for many months now but seeing the departure date for a long-planned trip come and go is another matter, and it stings (I would have just been wrapping up that trip now, with a couple of days in Paris. I know I shouldn’t let myself think of the things I would be doing if not for COVID, but alas…)
So, Europe was off the table. Could I do something else, instead? Something in my own country? Maybe, finally, my long-dreamed of cross-country trip?
I’m not going to go into this too much here, but I went back and forth- many times- on whether I should be traveling at all. The absolute safest and most cautious thing would have been to continue to hole up in my apartment, walk around my neighborhood, keep to myself, wait this thing out. But I live alone, I had nearly three months off from work, and there was no end in sight to this thing. I’m a generally still sort of person and I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t focus. I planned a 9-day walk on the C&O canal towpath that ended in flames; I returned home and immediately wanted to move again.
So I went west. I loaded up my car and drove to my hometown and my dad helped me take my car to a mechanic to have the AC fixed. I ate a slice of peach pie with my mom while I waited, and as soon as I got the call that the car was done, I hopped in and started driving.
I was gone for three weeks, though the last 5 days were spent with some family at a beach in North Carolina. That was certainly a vacation, but it felt very separate from the road trip. The road trip was the 17 days prior, driving 6,000 miles through 16 states, staying in cheap motels and quiet Airbnbs.
As ever, I imagined I might blog on my trip, writing a small, daily post every evening once I was settled at my destination. When will I ever learn? The days were long, the distances were far, I hiked and I walked and I explored and I was so tired at the end of every day that it was all I could do to figure out dinner and then grab the remote to the TV in whatever hotel I happened to be staying in, and flip through the channels to watch bad movies or home improvement shows.
I’d also imagined that I would do this trip solo, and most of it was, but my sister hitched a ride with me for the first 5 days. But that was fitting, and right, because part of this trip involved seeing Laura Ingalls Wilder/Little House on the Prairie sites, something we’ve talked about doing together since we were teenagers.
I centered the trip around Little House, in a way. I decided to go off into the prairies, to the Mid West: a place I pictured as open and empty and vast. Without people. I’d decided that if I was going to travel during a pandemic, I wanted to go somewhere quiet. I avoided cities, I turned down such generous offers from friends scattered across the country. There were so many more things I longed to do on this trip, but I pulled back, and narrowed my focus. “Open spaces,” I told myself. “Go to where it’s quiet.”
Two years ago I wrote this post about the Pennine Way, a stream of images and words that came to mind after I finished my hike, a way to attempt to sum it all up. I’m going to try to do the same thing here, to capture what this trip was for me.
(This might have more photos than it does words, but, here we go):
The Road Trip
It was the prairie. How the wind blew the tall grass and how it rippled in waves and how the land seemed to stretch forever.
Picking up my sister in Cleveland and strong cups of coffee and cinnamon raisin bagels and photos of state route signs. A crystal blue sky.
Cheering as we crossed state lines and rows and rows of corn and Sinclair the green dinosaur. Logging what I spent on gas into a little purple notebook, watching as prices fell as we moved west.
Taking refuge at a truck stop as a wild storm blew in, finding the ice machine in every hotel. TV remotes and House Hunters International and take-out burgers and ice-cold bottles of beer, hotel beds with the covers pulled up and the AC on high.
Playing Buddy Holly’s ‘Rave On’ and walking through the corn to the site of an airplane crash that happened long ago, on the day the music died. A field of dreams in the middle-of-nowhere, Iowa, an imagined baseball game, a crack of the bat heard somewhere far off in the long lines of corn.
A perfect summer lake. And another, and another.
Caribou coffee and hotel coffee and gas station coffee, a big bag of cherry Twizzlers and a box of salty popcorn.
Sod houses and dugouts and learning about the way people once lived, as they moved across the country in search of a better life, a place to homestead, to make and grow a home. An endless land that felt full of possibility. The glowing, golden light on the banks of Plum Creek, that same golden light in a cemetery high on a hill.
Old school houses and post offices and covered wagons, walking in the footsteps of a girl on the prairie, feeling the echo of her dreams.
And us, two girls, two women, walking into a dive bar in a small South Dakotan town, the place going silent, all heads swiveling towards us, the strangers in masks. “Howdy,” I wanted to say, but didn’t.
Homemade pulled pork sandwiches on red checkered cloth, and the proprietor of a motel talking about her daughter, their dog, the guinea pig, pulling out a cell phone to show us blurry photos. Our young tour guide in De Smet, dressed in pigtails and a dress- like Laura- telling us about her state and all the things we should see.
The Badlands. Custer State Park and Needles Highway and Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse. And Theodore Roosevelt National Park and Little Bighorn National Monument and Devil’s Tower and free ice water at Wall Drug.
Chirping prairie dogs and lumbering bison, and one charming baby bison who rested his chin on the hood of my car. A fox in a field and a bald eagle high in the sky, mule deer and burros.
A fried egg breakfast sandwich and takeout pizza from Casey’s. Soda in styrofoam cups and gallons of water and iced mint mochas from local coffeeshops.
Hikes and walks and forging my own path through the prairie. Rough grass and white wildflowers and birds that startled and crickets and beetles. Sunrises from mountaintops.
Lightening bugs against the cornfields in Kansas. Big skies, endless skies, stars that dipped all the way down to the horizon.
Kind park rangers and a sandy-haired boy in Nebraska with a dazzling smile. The man in Tennessee who told me about his hiking project, the couple on the porch of the vineyard in Asheville who told me about a great white shark.
Small towns and bridges and water towers and fading murals painted on brick walls, slanting light on long porches.
Dirt roads and rock and roll, The Beatles and Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. 80mph speed limits. Crumbling buildings and shaded rest stops and a dusty white car.
Miles and miles, thousands of miles, the windows rolled down, the sun on my arm, the corn and the fields and the prairies and all of it flying by, with me in the center. I could go anywhere, I could go everywhere.