It took three and a half weeks until I felt compelled to brush my hair. Ponytails and finger combing had become routine. Sleeping in a tent most nights and spending days either in the car or traversing around nature quickly lends to a lifestyle of practicality. I cannot seem to break the habit of filling in the missing tails of my eyebrows, but I figure that smidge of vanity is forgiven. The rearview mirror of my Subaru Forester offers some semblance of self-recognition when I glance for blind spots, my eyes being the only close company I have.
In late July I started a solo, forty-eight state road trip around the United States. I am used to venturing out in the world alone when there is no one willing or available to accompany me. Whether it be camping trips to Big Sur or Hawaii, spring rolls and pho in a neighboring town, I refuse to let the lack of a partner in crime be a strong enough influence to cancel ambitions. This trip was no exception.
I have discovered that some of my planning has been overly ambitious. Twelve states and eight national parks in a month has made little time for relaxation. Due to the influx of summer tourism and the National Park Service’s centennial I was obliged to reserve nearly all sleeping accommodations for August and September far in advance. Although pulling up to a full campground knowing I have a site waiting for me is cause for a particular kind of inner peace, I am left with little flexibility for spontaneity. I set up camp. I explore with efficiency. I pack up camp. I drive. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Being a Californian with a twelve-year career of teaching others how to swim, it can be easily said that I have a magnetic pull toward sources of water. I enjoy cities as much as deserts and forests, but to me, nothing can come close to the ocean. As I drive further from the west this small truth quietly hums in my subconscious, the beckoning of the coast becomes stronger with the growing distance. This is not to say that I haven’t been immersed and present in the wondrous corners and wide spaces of the country thus far. The time spent hiking, kayaking, cloud-watching from a hammock, and eating my way through the dozen states in my rearview mirror has been remarkable.
The road tour has made a litany of destinations tangible that were once daydreams. From drinking the sapphire waters of Crater Lake straight from the source, appeasing a gluttonous urge to taste test several of Portland’s most notorious donuts, wearily marching the steep fairytale trails on Mount Rainier, standing awestruck amid the black desert and caves of Craters of the Moon, gasping with surprise at the power of the Grand Tetons looming over the earth, and finding the geological wonders of Yellowstone to be more surreal in person than in film, there have been no mistakes, only fulfillment. Even when surrendering precious time with extended family in Glacier to the unavoidable task of fixing a flat tire, sneaking showers and waving at bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, cursing the decision to do an eleven-mile desert hike in triple digit heat in Badlands, strolling through museums in vibrant Kansas City, abandoning my post on a private island at Voyageurs once loneliness won over romantic notions of being temporarily marooned, and exchanging plans at Isle Royale for a longer stay in Madison, Wisconsin with a friend, there has been nothing I regret. Each were moments in a story that I take pride in weaving. I do my best, except when I don’t. There is no shame with the passing of each day, no matter how I stumble or drive or stroll through it.
Tomorrow there will be more places to check off my list, gas station aisles to peruse, and meals to prepare from the sturdy surface of my cooler or the heat of the camp stove. I only hope to be present and grateful as I move along, ridding myself of expectations that I had let bloom in my mind. No one but myself to rely on, I am the sole path-layer for this modern day walkabout. Onward and eastward!
Lauren Ahlgren is an ever-curious adventurer from America’s left coast. She believes that travel is the key to understanding not only ourselves, but the rest of the world, people and cultures, and nature. Her most current passion is to encourage everyday people to become explorers too. Follow along with her road trip here and on moderndaywalkabout.wordpress.com.