When I stood underneath George Washington’s nose at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, I thought, this is what this road trip is about: looking up George Washington’s nose — er, I mean, seeing all of these wonders up close and in person rather than in photos or on television. I snapped my own photos and got back into my car. There. I had seen Mount Rushmore, had the photos to prove it. What next?
This blasé acceptance of beauty and wonder was troubling. It concerned me that my only thoughts were nota reflection of what I had seen, but instead focused on what was next on my list to see. I had only been on the road for five days, but I had already seen plenty. I had driven through eleven states, had done a whirlwind weekend in Chicago, visited the Corn Palace, Wall Drug, the Crazy Horse Monument, and been to two National Parks. Up next was a couple of days in Yellowstone, and then a weekend in Ft. Collins, CO. By the following weekend, I’d be at the Grand Canyon, having visited three more National Parks in between. Only five days in to my six-week solo trip, and I was getting numb to the sights and experiences — how was I going to last another five weeks on the road?
I was discovering the hard way that when road tripping solo, all of your experiences are yours alone. You take them in, think about them, and move on to the next one without having a sounding board or any way to vent and share your emotions. With any lengthy trip, your senses are bombarded with amazing sights and sounds and you sort of lose your ability to be wowed. After a while, the important thing becomes not the experience itself, but having done it, seen it, tried it, photographed it, wrote about it in a postcard — and checked it off your list.
I didn’t want that to be me. I didn’t want to always be thinking about the next destination, whether I had plotted out the right route, how many miles left to drive before I needed gas. But how to stop it? I didn’t know.
That afternoon, I realized that it was time to change the oil in my car. I detoured to Rapid City, found a Kwik Lube, got the oil changed, and continued on my way. As I drove out of the Kwik Lube I was grinning. I had taken care of my car — a crucial part of my long journey, and something that made me feel self-sufficient and independent. So simple, so tiny, and yet a triumph and a pleasure.
Even then I realized the strangeness of this. On that day, I had woken up at a campsite in the Badlands to find a buffalo hanging around the tent, had taken an underground tour of Wind Caves National Park, had visited the Crazy Horse Monument and gotten into a deep philosophical discussion with a Lakota man who was selling earrings, and stood under George Washington’s nose. Despite all of this, the thing that made me grin was getting the oil changed in my car. What could that mean?
The next day, I stopped at a dude ranch in Buffalo, WY, where a friend was working as a wrangler. She invited me to lunch at the ranch, lunch being “burgers by the pool.” I sat in the sun with my burger (with ketchup and mustard and pickles) and my lemonade, catching up with my friend, and feeling completely content with the world. Then a moose walked by, about ten feet away. I gaped at it, then at my friend, and she shrugged and said, “Yeah, they do that sometimes.” I could never forget that moment.
At the Grand Canyon, I had been camping for a week and wanted a bed, so I drove around Tusayan, AZ, looking for a hotel room that I could afford. Unfortunately, it was a Friday and there was some folk festival happening, so rooms were hard to find. I finally decided to pony up the money for the Holiday Inn Express, even though it was more than my entire daily budget. The clerk, upon finding out I was on my own, and after chatting with me about my trip, looked around and leaned forward. “I’m giving you the government rate,” she whispered conspiratorially. The government rate was 30% less than the rack rate. Soaking in the hot tub that evening, and sleeping in the Holiday Inn bed, was one of the most comfortable nights of the trip, and I’ll never forget that clerk’s generosity.
Later on, I arrived in Memphis a day ahead of schedule. My mom and sister were flying in to meet me for the weekend, but weren’t due in until that evening, so I had an entire unplanned day ahead of me. I spent part of it finishing a novel on the banks of the Mississippi. I drove around town aimlessly, and on a whim followed some giant paw prints that had been painted on the road until I spotted a huge pink mansion. It turned out to be the Pink Palace, a museum of Memphis history, and I spent several hours running around and gaping over exhibits on yellow fever epidemics, the Piggly Wiggly, and the an elaborate, automated miniature circus. That unplanned day remains one of my favorite memories.
What I learned during my six weeks on the road — and reflecting on those six weeks six years later — is that the things that stick with you aren’t just the big things. You don’t just remember the majesty of Yellowstone, the colors of Bryce, the size of the Grand Canyon. Everyone knows about those experiences, because everyone has them. What you remember most clearly are the little things, the tiny triumphs and puny pleasures that make your trip yours. That, and looking up Washington’s nose.