"I am not Jack Kerouac": A young woman goes on the road
In the spring of last year, after Mardi Gras and in the midst of beautiful New Orleans weather, I bought an old Honda CRV, loaded up all my earthly possessions, and hit the road for the Great American Unknown. Before I left, my friend Lindsay took a picture of me posing by the railroad tracks, and I drove off into the sunset.
But that’s not really the beginning. Several months earlier – sometime in winter, I was sitting in the Hey Cafe, over caffeinated and at loose ends. I had moved to New Orleans after college just to experience that magical city. I had made great friends, but now I was hitting a wall. I had quit my non-profit job, and I was having a good time, but not much else. I feel compelled to note here that New Orleans is the kind of city where getting lost like this is almost predictable, where hanging out on your porch all day is not just tolerated but encouraged. It is beautiful and delicious and drunk enough that people disappear into its siren song and are never seen again. In short, I had to decide whether to fully crash on the rocks and maroon myself in New Orleans, or to sail on in a different direction.
So I took a notebook to an uptown coffee shop, sat down for a few hours, and wrote down all the impossible illogical dreams I could think of. Eventually, one stood out from the rest: I would get a jalopy, set out to explore the nooks and crannies of America, and figure out the rest as I went along. Perhaps I would even wear a khaki hat while doing so. I figured that 6 months was a solid amount of time – enough to see the country without losing my mind.
This is the part where I describe how I planned everything perfectly, created a flawless itinerary, and somehow outsmarted the universe. None of these things happened. In fact, if I’ve learned one thing about myself on this road trip odyssey, it is that I am physically incapable of planning more than 3 hours in advance. I made some efforts to research hostels, festivals, and landmarks, but these usually ended with a nap or some Hulu. Though I am an undeniably terrible planner, it is also borderline impossible to thoroughly research a long road trip like the one on which I was about to embark. America is too vast and unknown, too filled with national parks and sprawling metropolises, harboring places as different as Charleston and Seattle and all the nowheres in between.
To draw a picture of a stick figure in a jalopy is one thing, but to actually go through with the madness is quite another. In the end, my big mouth kept me honest - I had discussed my plans with too many people, and I would have been ashamed to publicly chicken out. My friends, for the most part, were encouraging, if not a little mystified. Why was I doing this? The answer was unclear, but the idea was exciting. My mother, on the other hand, was not so amused. After a deceptive period of calmness (which I now believe to be shock), we had terrible arguments, her main point being that I was going to be murdered on the side of the road on some moonless night by bad men who distilled their own whisky.
My original dream car was a VW Vanagon, but the gas mileage was too much. One memorable seller even spouted phrases like, “I keep a fire extinguisher in the back so it’s easy to get to when the engine catches on fire.” I decided on a Honda CRV because it got the same mileage as a station wagon, had four-wheel drive, and, most importantly, you could sleep in it. If I could do it all over again, I would buy a Honda Civic: something small with incredible gas mileage and easily replaceable parts. A small car keeps you honest.
I found the CRV on Craigslist in Louisiana, and brought a mechanic friend to check it out with me. It was a ‘98, had blacked out headlights and a shot transmission. I was in a hurry; I had given up my lease, and was ready to go. So against my friend’s advice, I bought the CRV- in cash on the hood of the car, an auspicious beginning. I packed way too much into it in those early days. I’ve since pared down to a bike, a tent, two sleeping bags and a sleeping mat, a clothes bag, a food bag, and a milk carton that carries books, electronics, and other miscellany.
And so on my last day in New Orleans, my friend Lindsay took a picture of me posing like a body builder on the train tracks that border the Bywater neighborhood, and I was off. From the beginning, I predicted that I would either freak out within 2 weeks and run home, or stay on the road for the full six months; neither one of these scenarios has come to fruition. I left New Orleans in May, planning to end around October. It’s March, and I’m still going.
I slept my first night in a hostel in Lafayette, Louisiana, the capital of Cajun country, and a nice first place to stop. Looking back, I think I was in shock that first day, and timidly climbed into my bed that night slightly in awe of the terrible decision I was embarking on. Things began to mesh a little more when I arrived in Natchez, Mississippi, north of New Orleans, along - you guessed it - the mighty Mississippi river. Antebellum Natchez had more millionaires than New York City (or so they claim) and the evidence is everywhere. The town is packed with gorgeous mansions built on the fortunes of slavery, and the houses stand as ornate and uniquely American tragedies.