In 2009, I quit my retail job because I wanted my fucking soul back. It was a long time coming, and I had saved up enough to support me for an extended job hunt or unpaid internship. I turned in my 2 weeks notice, and when those days passed, I was overjoyed. Almost immediately, a good friend of mine offered a chance to tag along with him on a road trip to the very edge of Washington state. There's a storied romanticism surrounding the road trip: the new lands, the car bonding, and, of course, the mythical rebooting of the soul. The choice was easy.
It wasn't my first distance drive by far. I had, in fact, been a participant on this drive up north 2 or 3 times. But the hype of shedding off the rust of the old life and marking a new era with a spur-of-the-moment escape was enticing. Newly impassioned restarts are my shit. I came home from a month in the Philippines in 2007 with a renewed vigor to get my life together. Same thing after my car-totaling accident. I was even all set to begin again, with a brand new day, after graduation.
But, of course, that's rarely the way self-betterment works. It's not as simple as physical escape leading to mental escape giving way to some kind of mythical cocoon rebirth, as much as our stories and culture tell us it is. Ira Glass on This American Life says aptly:
We all buy into the cliche about road trips. That what a road trip stands for is hope. Hope, that somewhere, anywhere, is better than here. That somewhere on the road, I will turn into the person that I want to be.
I write this, in part, from the bed of a Holiday Inn express, on my way to Vancouver, Canada. There's an air of familiarity to it. Not for Canada in particular (I haven't been there since I was 7) but the road up north is old hat to me by now. We're stopping or driving through a lot of the same places and, when I'm not asleep with neck pains in the back seat, I look out the window and try to remember my last failed escape.
The first stop out of post-retail purgatory was in Eureka, California. There's a lot of forest, it's cold, and it's totally devoid of all the trappings of Northern California as defined by the bay area. It feels more akin to an Oregon city than a California one. It's one of those medium sized towns, not big enough to be urban and dense, but affluent enough to not fit into any rural image.
I don't recall it to be bustling with people. Cars, maybe. But I woke up one morning to do some on foot exploration, particularly in their historic old town, and found no one except a kid who asked me if I wanted to get high with him. The old town was a weirdly preserved neighborhood of nice, quaint houses painted in colorful tones. Except they weren't homes anymore, they were rented out to be offices for local dentists or real estate agents or attorneys. It ended up feeling like a strange reservation for endangered houses, neatly maintained in the way taxidermists maintain your poor old pet dog.
We left Eureka for the 101 North, heading into Portland, and I took my turn driving along the scenic route. Unfortunately, I am more of a slow and steady wins the race kind of driver, and the others on the road didn't seem to appreciate it. I swear I was giving that car as much gas as I could. I couldn't summon up the speed and control, so I had to take up the single lane highway until a passing lane appeared.
The area of overlap between northern California and southern Oregon is verdant as fuck. I know that's not a phrase you hear often, but it's the best way I can describe it when I think back to it. We pulled over on the side of the road to take pictures of the redwoods, soak in the bright, searing sunlight and just generally feel cut off from the overbearing metropolis. It was almost an escape, but not quite. It feels small when you have to go back to the stationary confines of your car seat.
The plan was to spend the night in Portland, but we did little more than get Voodoo doughnuts and then decide to go hardcore for Washington. I had time to make an unfair first impression of the place: If cities have personalities, Portland seems like an asshole. I was mostly basing it on the general state of disrepair in the area, which was probably exacerbated by the dark night. Even the homeless people were of a douchebag archetype. These dudes were aggressively homeless, walking around shirtless, kicking things over, singing loud and angry songs. I don't think this was prominent in our decision to say fuck it let's keep going, but I did not have any objections to leaving so soon.
At long last, we were in Oak Harbor far late into night. Oak Harbor is where I learned that what a city doesn't have is just as indicative of it's character as what it does have. For example, Oak Harbor has nothing. It is a small town with a lot of fast food chains and a lot of flat land everything is just kind of a concrete block. There's a military base in town, and you get the feeling that Oak Harbor is Chatsworth and Seattle is Los Angeles. Small cities on the periphery of big cities where people either live and commute from, or a place where people get stuck. When people describe small towns like this as "quaint" it is usually a euphemism for non-descript and blank.
We did take an afternoon to visit Anacortes, which is a beautiful affluent small town by the ocean. It was during an arts and crafts fair and despite the light rain, there was a big turn out to support the local goods. It was odd how "rich" it seemed - there were high quality, foodie restaurants, hip cafes and stores. It was perplexing what classy sit-down joints were doing all the way out here, but it is hard to complain with a mouthful of flowery lamb burger. I reason that Anacortes may be a bit of a luxury destination for the local rich population. Like a Beverly Hills that was focused on art and culture, not necessarily a place where people live, but a place that people go to.
The rest of the trip consisted of hanging around Oak Harbor and a one night stay in Seattle, which is always a great city. I remember the night, the giddy variety of bars, and the company of friends and strangers. It was as close as I got to that kind of clean, tabula rasa feeling I had been seeking. I didn't come out with a new epiphany, or a renewed drive, but damn it, it felt like I was making use of my youth. I do what I can to remember that I'm still here.
I am writing this now on the way back from Vancouver, which was a nice, family affair with a lot of nature and sleeping in cars. Maybe I'll write about it some day. I'm in Medford, Oregon, at another Holiday Inn, just miles away from Ashland, Oregon where we stopped on my first road trip to Seattle.
I didn't go into this drive expecting yet another refreshing escape. I like to think that I have been humbled, even slightly, and know more than to buy into another foolhardy existential road trip. Sometimes it's hard for those of us so well-versed in navel gazing. There are often hours with nothing to do but stare at the wide expanse of road. It's only natural that the mind turns inward, and then you start ruminating, and then you start yearning.
As I write this, only two days away of driving from my Los Angeles home and the grooves of my routines, my road trip friends are scattered across the world. They are living in new cities, or preparing for new eras of their life. It makes sense that I'm still here, on the same goddamn highway, thinking about the same things. More often, the road trip feels less like a cure for the ills of life and more like a masking of symptoms. I will be glad to get back to doing the work of healing.