Part 2 of 6. This was written before I had a smart phone or had even driven my first road trip mile. Read Part 1 here.
Before Google, my family relied on road atlases to navigate our summer road trips and for my first road trip alone after I graduated high school in 2006, I would do the same. Four years of boarding school in Colorado Springs, a town without public transportation, had left me without a license and with a reliance on school buses, cabs, and day students with cars for rides to the orthodontist or the movies. My post-graduation road trip would take me through 27 states and over 5,000 miles and my journey would be shared with my friend Figgins, the girl she was secretly in love with, Kate, and Kate’s white Subaru Outback, Antonio.
At 18, I was the oldest, and I pretended to be wise, but my age amounted to little more than the ability to buy cigarettes, though I never acted on it. This pissed Figgins off because the self portrait she had designed for herself typically had a cigarette pinched between her forefinger and thumb. But she was seventeen for a few months longer and I refused to buy her a pack because I hated the smell. She had half a pack stashed away which she would carefully ration for use throughout the trip. I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke, and unlike Figgins, I wasn’t interested in pursuing altered states. But I saw myself as a nomad and subject to a force which had hooked me behind the collarbones, pulling me towards the road with a kinetic energy that entreated me to keep moving. I fantasized about hitchhiking across Canada, meeting interesting people, consuming mileage and devouring the scenery as it flew by. So when Figgins came to me and proposed we spend the summer working on a boat in Greece, I pleaded her down to a month-long road trip in the United States. I was more comfortable in a car in my own country. Anything more would be too much.
Kate signed on because Figgins asked her to and I was fine with that. She was barely seventeen but I admired her. To me, she was an old soul. Kate was the daughter of a widowed and retired military man who scared me and whom I privately referred to as “The Colonel.” She had heavy lidded eyes and long elegant fingers that gripped the steering wheel as she leaned forward on the accelerator to overtake a car that dared to obey the speed limit. She reminded me of Lara Croft, from Tomb Raider, a game I never played but liked the look of. She was a badass with a capital “B” and I could see why Figgins had a crush on her.
I planned the trip in my grandparent’s living room in Colorado Springs. I used MapQuest to calculate the distance we would drive each day, estimated how much gas we would need, and how much it would cost when split amongst the three of us. I created the itinerary complete with phone numbers, addresses, and campground reservations. When the first itinerary was declared “too vague” by the Colonel, I added ETAs and emergency contact numbers of friends and family within 300 miles of each stop. When there wasn’t anyone available within 300 miles, I made someone up. Copies of the itinerary were sent to our families and our cell numbers were distributed in the hopes that at least one of us would be reachable wherever we were.
The plan was to live out of the car. Most nights we would camp in a pair of two-person tents, and alternate nights in the tent alone. We would cook for ourselves on a propane camp stove and eat from a larder of Zatarans beans and rice, Annie’s Mac n’ Cheese, and avocados we had purchased from Wild Oats. We had water bottles full of dish soap and ziplocks filled with powdered dairy creamer, and ate with camping utensils: forks, spoons, and knives that attached to each other with metal rings and that made a clinking noise when you used them. Some nights, we would stay with people we knew. One of the advantages of boarding school was that your friends and family lived all over the country, and in spite of being on the road for nearly a month, we would have to stay in a hotel for only one night.
On the way, we would stop at several National Parks and I would get my National Park Passport stamped. I would write about our journey in the Italian leather journal my grandfather had given me and take pictures every day. I chose the states and the stops, and Figgins marked our route in her road atlas, tracing the roads with a yellow highlighter.
Our journey was truncated by complications with Kate, and since we were using her car, we were held hostage to her schedule. While Figgins and I planned the trip, Kate was in her sister’s wedding party. When the ceremony was over and the newlyweds safely on their way to their honeymoon, we thought we were good to go. Instead we were delayed by The Colonel’s insistence that the car be serviced before we were allowed to leave and while I recognized the wisdom, with each day gone, a day on my itinerary vanished as well.
But anticipation transformed itself into reality and when we finally hit the road, the sky was a clear blue and the highway was vacant—a graduation gift that promised adventure and possibility.
Kate drove the first few hours and I sat in the passenger seat. After lunch, we rotated, and I moved to the back seat while Figgins drove and Kate navigated. We listened to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on audiobook, so we didn’t talk. At that point we were all brimming with expectation and varying degrees of anxiety. There wasn’t much to say.
We spent the first night at Bottomless Lakes State Park near Roswell, New Mexico, which were, in reality, little more than 12 ft deep ponds with an artificial beach and an amphitheater of sandy red cliffs around three sides. I swam out to the middle of the lake and pointed my toes down, threw my hands straight up above my head and sank. I exhaled to aid my descent and my feet found the silty red bottom, kicking up dust in a cloud that obscured my shins and ankles. I looked up at my hands above my head, fingers black in silhouette against the rippling blue sky. I pulled my hands sharply down to my thighs and rocketed up, breaking the surface with a spray of water that temporarily blinded me with flickering flashes of waves and setting sun. After a quick scan of the shore for my friends, I found them clambering up the face of the red cliffs. I swam over to find Kate breaking off rocks, counting the plains of cleavage, holding them up against the sun, and finally bringing them to her lips.
“Mmm, salt,” she declared and tossed a chunk to me in the water and handed another to Figgins. Figgins sat on a boulder and licked her piece, quietly tasting it and watching Kate as she climbed higher. To the tip of my tongue, the rock tasted like sweat.
Note: Figgins uses they/them pronouns now, but chose to keep their previous pronouns in this piece to honor and acknowledge who they were then.