Photos courtesy of Raubern Totanes and yours truly.
By tradition and in the spirit of this very road trip across America (twice!) I write the following in a stream of consciousness Jack Kerouac style — so please forgive all run-ons and typos.
You won’t miss the pandemic.
None of us will.
But you will miss redemption.
You will miss this. You will miss us.
You’re going to miss … the initial introductions underneath a storm cloud, wondering if you were still in the middle of one or about to leave this all behind, matching the faces to the names of confirmed COVID-negative folks you’ve once traveled before with or heard of in passing, and not knowing whether they’ll remain strangers you’ll be quick to forget, or become another family of future friends you’ll hold onto long after it’s over.
You’re going to miss waking up to a morning that feels differently from any morning you’ve woken up to in at least the past 6 months — the promise of a life changing adventure finally manifesting — before drifting to a seemingly abandoned part of Manhattan to begin your trip and assuming this will be your last decent breakfast for quite awhile, your entire life then loaded onto an Uber XL that takes you south into New Jersey and closer towards your new home away from home, orienting yourself to your first ever RV experience, packing all the compartments as if you had just moved to a new apartment, setting off to the music of José Gonzalez into the open roads, the first taste of unfiltered freedom relative to the 6 prior months of lockdown, acclimating to many tons of machinery and mobile parts, placing the lives of complete strangers in your hands, stopping briefly for random lunch spot in eastern Pennsylvania to meet with a mutual friend you had just gotten to know 2 weeks prior, taking your first group photo with your RV before setting off again into further country roads, the stretch of lands becoming longer as the sun begins to set on your first day away from home, witnessing cheap plates falling to the floor in slow motion, feasting upon the first burger of countless more on the trip, and settling in at an overcrowded RV park in Ohio while figuring out how to plug in for the night.
You’re going to miss waking up to new ceilings in new beds, feeling unsure where you were before recollecting your thoughts that you truly are far from home, the smell of an open propane stove and instant coffee, watching the sun rise as the rest of your group slowly emerge from their own uncomfortable slumbers, the challenge of the first RV dump (but you won’t miss the smell), driving out of the crowded parks for a stop at Brandywine Falls, quick rest stops for snacks and coffee, the next mishap when a liner rips off on the driver side in Indiana only to be told by the RV company to simply snip it off in Illinois, your first sight of the Chicago skyline, the confusion over where you could park such a hunk of machinery, the reunion of a brotherly friend and a loyal monsooner from previous trips, outdoor dining and gourmet burgers, the sweet Italian ices on the campus of your friend’s alma mater, jumping into Lake Michigan, feeling like a tourist again as you’re driven around parts of Gotham City you can’t believe you still haven’t seen, the premature hugs goodbye, setting off 90 more minutes into Wisconsin and pouring rain before meeting up with the next monsooner to join the trip (whom you last saw over a year ago in Budapest).
You’re going to miss forcing yourself to start a morning workout routine, continuing to adhere to outdoor dining (because pandemic duh), the discombobulating visuals down Wisconsin Dells, taking a breath in to eat all the cheese, grocery shopping at La Crosse, the long drive into and through South Dakota while bringing up past loves and missed connections, picking up another monsooner (whom you last saw in Tanzania exactly a year ago) at Sioux Falls airport, settling in a quaint RV park to enjoy your first homecooked meal of the trip, finally cracking open the whiskey, and meeting a happy-go-lucky RV repairman as he fixes up your new home with such carefree joy that for a moment you forget that you used to rely upon the kindness of strangers.
You’re going to miss starting your morning looking for a spot to fill up your tires and the even sweeter surprise at finding out that such a service is free, heading further west and coming across an immense statue appropriately named “Dignity,” the nervous in-and-take-out operation at Taco John before arriving into Badlands National Park, satisfying a guilty pleasure by stopping at a decommissioned nuclear missile silo, feeding feisty prairie dogs, taking in a stupendous view over infinite layered rock formations, steep canyons and towering spires, going on the trip’s first hike that included a randomly placed ladder that suspiciously looks as if it was put up for Instagram, driving through the unforgettable scenery of Highway 240, the anxiety at seeing the mass gatherings in the town of Wall and deciding to pass straight through, ignoring the spitting contests, trying to make the most of Mount Rushmore away from the crowds, the vanilla skies above during golden hour, and settling in another crowded RV park so you can capitalize on an early morning’s drive further west.
You’re going to miss the school trip-like bus ride to the private grounds of Crazy Horse, feeling confused how it doesn’t receive more attention than the comparatively diminutive Mount Rushmore, the history lessons and re-imagination of it, the long detour to lay bare eyes on an enigmatic rock monolith and Spielberg’s choice where aliens would make first contact with humans, the unforgettable and jaw dropping Wyoming drive to the music of Aaron Copland, your first time seeing the Grand Tetons, and feeling as if all your problems could wash away while staring up at this infinite night axis of stars.
You’re going to miss the pick-up operation for gourmet coffee and bagels in town, the struggle-bus of finding a not so crowded hiking spot to park your RV away from the masses, the mile long hike for a 3 mile hike, the satisfaction of having the Grand Tetons be your eyes’ desktop background for the entirety of the experience nevertheless, the nap at Lake Taggart and listening to the rustling of leaves with closed eyes, taking group photos in front of Snake River Overlook, feeling like a local at Dornan’s Pizza by getting a little tipsy staring at the Tetons, the aimless wandering in circles around the tiny town of Jackson, a quick gas station supply run, and even accidentally running the washer twice so you could have an excuse setting up a modern art installation of damp clothes inside the RV.
You’re going to miss ordering ahead and not being disappointed by the best breakfast of the trip, driving north into an adult playground and giving up on internet for the day, checking off a sight that sounds and looks as reliable as its name, busting past Yellowstone traffic for a scenic hike past multi-technicolor geological phenomena, the 1.5 mile hike towards Mystic Falls, holding up a line behind you just for a gaze, and the satisfying a-ha moment when we finally found the quintessential shot of the Lower Falls in Yellowstone that barely could make up for the 2 hour traffic jam afterwards just to reach our campgrounds in Montana (no, we won’t miss that).
You’re going to miss that odd little feeling walking through a random town for breakfast, the surprise at seeing support for BLM everywhere in an otherwise notoriously conservative Montanan city, the hilarity of finding a poorly written and colorfully misinformed note for blocking a parking space while waiting too long for said breakfast, picking up much needed pick-me-up alcohol, finally arriving to a campground before dusk, catching up on overdue workouts during the golden hour, reuniting with an old friend who had similarly crashed a monsoon 7 years prior in Iceland, putting together the surprisingly wholesome and satisfying outdoor BBQ at the last minute once again thanks to his recommendation, and the howling over whiskey and card games that lasted long into the darkness of twilight.
You’re going to miss first seeing the iconic shot of Glacier National Park while driving along Lake MacDonald, the twinge of disappointment (and yet also somehow a little relief) that we couldn’t drive any further for one more hike we didn’t quite need, the pleasant pastime instead of skipping rocks along the lake, finding peace in random creeks and riverbeds, just noticing interminable iterations of “Africa,” the lunch-that-was-worth-the-wait (and in more ways than one) at Kalispell, a brief nod at Lake Coeur d’Alene in Idaho, changing the itinerary mid-trip for an extra night in Seattle without giving up on the North Cascades in Washington, and desperately finishing all the leftover patties with one more outdoor BBQ for our last night in the RV.
You’re going to miss waking up to your last morning in your mobile home, unsure whether you’ll truly miss the RV life and the anticipation of sleeping in a real bed, then driving off northwest into North Cascades National Park unsure whether you’ll ever get sick of these highway views, diving into the crisp waters of Lake Diablo and shamelessly asking for your next annual profile picture, feeling the heat of the desert sun at a random rest stop, bidding a temporary goodbye to one of your compatriots and entrusting her to the care of her godmother, seeing Seattle for the first time knowing you just pulled off a cross country of a lifetime and became the first official adventure group of strangers to safely make it across America without any symptoms — ocean to ocean — amidst a pandemic that had once made safe adventure travel seem nearly impossible.
You’re going to miss packing up the RV and the initial farewells to your home away from home for the past 10 days, then to forget all about the RV minutes later when seeing your luxury apartment stay, taking photos of the sunset over the Seattle mountain ranges and skylines, the cool night walk downtown, seeing a monsooner’s first time trying Vietnamese pho, a subsequent beer run while dodging all the things that go bump in the night, the cool ocean air on the rooftop, sleeping in sooner than you had expected simply because the sight of a real bed seemed just too good to wait on, waking up too early, the relief at seeing your RV untouched in an abandoned lot despite 4 cop cars surrounding it (and the follow up relief finding out they were there for something else), the one final hurrah of a drive around Seattle at dawn, tearfully and formally dropping off the RV to the music of The Doors, eating your sorrows away with breakfast biscuits and donuts, trying all the coffee you can hold with two hands, dancing your way to the top of the Space Needle, the initial hugs goodbye to 4 monsooners while welcoming another 3, the lazy afternoon off, kayaking your way around life and the bay, and finishing your day with more outdoor dining, new friends, celebratory beers, and more rooftop drinking with a follower-turned-new-friend from social media, before beginning the second part of the road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway.
You’re going to miss the morning light guiding you to one more round of hugs goodbyes, the brewing anticipation of the next phase of freedom roads, walking over in the crisp daylight of ocean breezes emanating with the promise of liberation, the excitement at seeing your presumed cozy ride for the next week, packing life in a much smaller space, following through on the insistence of a friend back home to try homemade crumpets and the insistence of a follower on social media to venture to the true original Starbucks Roastery to try the best blends for the coffee-addict, the deflation of your short-lived dream of a morning when you find that your car would malfunction a little too early, desperately trying to keep it afloat with tire pressure sensors only to be prematurely told it needed to be exchanged at the shop, the phone calls to nearly every single tier of customer service to get a better deal, being offerred instead a much roomier vehicle that yielded much less character, remembering to manage your expectations as you headed off 3 hours later than anticipated onto a vehicular ferry, being shepherded across the water to another land of forests, the endless tunnel of leaves and up a mountain to witness breathtaking vistas along an appropriately named ridge, nuzzling a curious deer, laying eyes upon a foreign country for the first time in 6 months and yet feeling held back from crossing another border, the discussion over spoons and a change of itinerary for a someone who worked so tirelessly to get this far, heading back down to a well run, quaint, classic, nostalgic motel in a seemingly empty town by the sea only to soon run into your old friend from both medical school and residency and convincing him over another bowl of Vietnamese pho to join our group for the next 2 days.
You’re going to miss waking up to another unfamiliar ceiling in another unfamiliar town, the quiet morning chat before one more goodbye outside a coffee shop, the sight of a travel companion “recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing,” feeling as if the too-huge world was vaulting us past the feeling of good-bye, and yet leaning “forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies,” gliding through stormy mists amongst another valley of trees, an impromptu coffee house during the drive, a quick bathroom break at a pilgrimage sight for Twilight fans, the surreal backdrop of Rialto Beach hoping not to get struck by lightning, the magical wonderland-like awe of seeing a rainforest in North America, the shimmering green of moss growing on wood as if they were the very part of the tree trunks all along, the towering giants that give you hope that the planet could still stay beautiful, the drive out to witness another epic scenery along a post-apocalyptic beach, indulging in chrysalism and yet still braving through cold wetness as you fight hangriness, the confusion over where to meet as you lose signal by a scenic lake, the laughter over inadvertently stumbling upon a sight (“another tree?”) you had just nixed off minutes earlier, the very American diet at a very American roadside restaurant, the insecurity over who was going to finish the food and packing it anyway, paying respects to Kurt Cobain and understanding a glimpse of his childhood that led to the music and his struggles, the eerie pall while driving around a seemingly abandoned nuclear power plant and its massive cooling towers with nobody around to tell you to scram, taking this moment all in before setting off for a well-run, charming American motel in Westport and calling it for the night early for tomorrow’s longest drive.
You’re going to miss the soft mist of rain on your face at 6am in the morning, waiting for the rest of the group to mentally prepare themselves for the trip’s longest drive at 600 miles in one day, saying goodbye again to a travel companion and his dog you’ve gotten to know well the past 36 hours, bearing witness to a monsooner drawing enough strength from her past to brave the whole day’s drive on her own, crossing a bridge into Oregon and the “Goonies” hometown, the beautiful coastline and delightful coastal towns, the “Planet of the Apes” like beach of Cannon, meeting a follower on your social media who drove all the way from her home in Seattle with her daughter just to say hi, playfully hiding a note for another one of your social media followers to look for the next day, pushing south under the maw of the storms at the appropriately themed sights of Devil’s Punchbowl and Thor’s Well, all the thick chowder, the wet hikes, and countless episodes of Esther Perel as if you were starting your own podcast book club, the sight of sand dunes along the ocean, the azure golden streaks of an epic coastal sunset, the final rally into Northern California and seeing the ghostly trunks of massive redwoods for the first time underneath infinite night, the oddity of seeing dead towns half-open during a pandemic, and making the best out of an unfortunate miscommunication when someone’s first day at his job causes you to all pack in one room instead of two.
You’re going to miss feeling well rested after the trip’s longest drive the day before, the morning workout as everyone else starts to get ready, another coffee stop before heading into the oblivion of the world’s oldest and tallest trees, the first drive down the Avenue of the Giants and deliberately turning off the music to take it all in, the silence of the area every time we pull off to the side of the road for another gander, turning our car around for another run knowing it’ll be too long before you return, the group photos inside trees, on top of trees, through a tree, swinging on a tree, and any which way you can love a tree, the disappointment at finding a famous but tiny glass beach made for ants, searching for reliable lunch spots, sharing a bottle of wine in the back of the van, the foreboding signs of California’s worst wildfires up ahead, taking a deep breath and barreling forth into the inevitable underneath smoke-filled skies through winding coastal roads that lead you across the Golden Gate Bridge into the winding roller coaster hills of San Francisco, immediately feeling the dodginess of changed neighborhoods in changed times only to ironically scare everyone off when a first impression of our group was of us trying to break into our own vehicle because we locked ourselves out, calling AAA for help, reconnecting with a college friend you haven’t seen in 11 years, reuniting with another monsooner (whom you last saw in Sydney nearly 3 years ago), coordinating both an outdoor spot for dinner and a jailbreak situation, accomplishing both at the same time when you finally get your van back knowing that all this time the worst thing that can happen on a trip like this with folks like these is a good story.
You’re going to miss waking up to the nostalgia of smoke that oddly takes you back to some of your most memorable trips in South Asia and the Middle East, the joy at discovering that your van remained untouched despite the prior night of shenanigans, beginning a morning with tarts and croissants, the pleasantly short drive to Monterey and its charming boardwalk, ogling at the otters living their best life on the bay, the realization you were finally nearing the trip’s end when you take all the photos you’d want by the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge, filling up gas and emptying your bladders at a charming rest stop, the perfect encapsulating outdoor lunch at Nephente that satisfies all your expectations for the Big Sur, the understanding of having to turn your vehicle around to respect the limitation of traveling during both a pandemic and the state’s worst history of wildfires, and the punishing drive through less-than-stellar stretches of towns and oil rig fields to make it just in time for your larger-than-expected welcoming party in Los Angeles over Korean BBQ, soju, and makegoli, while feeling a overwhelming sustained wave of catharsis coming in your direction (instead of from you, for once) as the presence of your arrival seems to be for many their first time socializing in months amidst their second lockdown.
You’re going to miss sleeping in the most comfortable bed of the trip but confused why you wouldn’t sleep longer, only to find out later you were destined for an early morning outdoor breakfast at the hotel so that you could have a heart-to-heart with a fellow monsooner on her last day of trip followed by a long lost friend in a stranger whose story has yet to be finished, the endless rounds of coffee to keep up with the emotions and prolonged emotional hugs goodbye, the brief late morning respite before driving out to switch out your vehicle for something smaller, meeting up at a charming café with one of your followers on social media so gracious and memorable in her hospitality you can’t help but want to give LA another chance, picking up one of your other monsooners from her own emotional reunions there, still bidding good riddens to a city you know you’ll never otherwise stay for if it weren’t for the people there, the endless loops of traffic just to leave the urban sprawl and back into the freedom of open roads, skirting past the wildfires just so not to get in the way of essential services, getting over your awkwardness to engage in impromptu singing lessons along the way, the joy at discovering your note you had left 3 days and more than 700 miles north ago was found by the right people, returning to the city of recent shenanigans, and resting up one final night on a real bed before beginning the long journey back to where it all began.
You’re going to miss the mad dash to return your last rental of the trip only to find the rental office closed, thanking your lucky stars you booked your hotel located pretty much within the train station itself that even if you would force yourself into the rental garage under another car’s swipe and get your car dropped off within 10 minutes of your train’s departure you can make it onboard with 5 minutes to spare, the relief knowing you might no longer have anything else to worry about for the rest of the trip, making your bed for the next 3 days in the romantic isolation of your own private lie-flat bed onboard a moving train, the novelty in exploring all the corridors that are possible onboard while also on an IG Live with your fellow monsooner just down the hall, ordering food and eating around the clock as if you were on a cruise, the carefree endless hours staring at the world go by in the observation car, the eerie sentiments of having an entirely empty train to yourself at night and yet still manage to befriend the entire staff and other passengers, the office you set up the next morning over unexpectedly good coffee with great views, wincing at the thought that you will miss this even before it’s all over, a rush to pick up preordered food for the train car at a random station stop just for the street cred of saying you did, the self-aware hopelessness of seeing nature destroy itself more than it needed to because of a single errant cigarette, a serendipitous boulder that blocks your train tracks which leads to an inadvertent retrieval of a guitar in town for the train conductor and the impromptu 3 hour concert outside a station featuring your talented artist-in-residence monsooner, inadvertently seeing this story then become national news hours later, and the surreal comedown to such an unexpected finale to a trip with an equally unexpected, serendipitous, fortuitous reception of indirect feedback on how to travel even better.
You’re going to miss how despite a 7 hour delay you somehow still made it to the layover train in Chicago, getting upgraded for free thanks to the kindness of strangers, finally making movie night happen, watching your favorite travel story again but this time through the eyes of others, waking up to a final gradually fading morning that brings the ending to you, seeing one of your monsooners effortlessly run a makeshift nail salon on the train and filming a music video to the trip’s most played song that distracts everyone from the inevitable, the emotional semi-surprise when a monsooner you last saw 2 weeks ago in Seattle greets you on the platform, angling for one more encore back to where you held the trip orientation 22 days prior, and then one last reunion with another monsooner — whom you also last saw in Seattle 2 weeks ago — as such would be the softening of the final blow of farewell.
And beyond the negative confirmatory COVID-19 testing in the 14 days afterwards as well as the absence of any sort of symptoms among every single monsooner and friend we’ve met during our trip more than 14 days since we’ve returned, you’re also going to miss the absolute trust and safety we had put into each other’s hands — even when we all began as total strangers — since the very beginning.
You’re going to miss even moments in the future where we’ll one day look at one another and ask: “Did we really do all that?”
Yes we did.
Because more than anything else you will miss our hugs goodbye that would feel a little differently in a year like 2020; our prolonged longing for genuine human touch and finally receiving them after an experience like this will remind us that amidst all the horrors that this year has wrought upon our livelihoods, mental health, loved ones, and even our sense of identity, we all will come out of this stronger, more adaptable, more resilient, and infinitely grateful for the privilege of having stayed alive. Grateful for the privilege of imagining a bold future of freedom beyond borders. Grateful for being able to say the worst thing that could bear to let happen on a trip is a good story.
Because this was more than a good story.
This was destiny.
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