My first camera was a hand-me-down Instamatic from my stepmother when I was 13, right before I went on a week-long trip on “God’s Nightcrawler” with my youth group. The Nightcrawler was a former school bus that had been tricked out with bunks and a few bench seats that turned into bunks and it drove all night so we could wake up in the morning having arrived at some destination: St. Augustine, Washington, D.C., Hershey, Disney World. We’d spend the year earning money to pay for our trip and then that week would rush by as we bounced from one destination to another. Because I was 13 I often didn’t pay a lot of attention to the destination (I still couldn’t tell you what Bok Tower looks like, for instance) because the journey with my friends, and, let’s be honest, the boys I was finding increasingly more interesting, was what mattered.
I’d love to show you all the pictures I took on that first trip, but the truth is that because no one had told me that you have to stop walking and stand still to get a clear shot, most of my Disney World photos look something like this:
Fortunately, I remember those ten hours at Disney World very well and can still picture the tickets we had to use then for various rides, the rides themselves, the meals we ate, the hijinks, the attempts to arrange yourself in the line in such a way that you would “accidentally” get to ride Space Mountain with a preferred someone, and the sweat and grime we slept in that night when we tumbled into the suffocating bunks with very little fresh air to breathe. Now, it sounds like more than one of the circles of hell to be stuffed into what amounts to a tin can on wheels with minimal windows with a bunch of hormonal teenagers, but at the time, it seemed magical. It was easy to imagine that our adult lives would unfold as a series of road trips as we saw sites across America, though—we theorized (at least some of us)—that we would be doing it at some point in a car with air conditioning and someone we loved sitting next to us. The adult versions of us would stop where we wanted, eat what we wanted, and no one could tell us we couldn’t swim after dark like our neurotic youth pastor would arbitrarily declare.
I bring this up only because Z and I traveled six days from Seattle to Indiana (and another six days back again) so we could spend three weeks visiting my family in Indiana. Triple C, the white Toyota we rented and named, literally, Cross Country Camry was promptly filled with more than we needed because I seemed to think we were wagon-training it back to civilization, so insisted we take two big jugs of water, a roll of duct tape, bungee cord, some carabiners, and a First Aid kit the size of a shoe box. Even now I can’t tell you what sort of disasters I was imagining in which duct tape, a keychain-sized carabiner, Shrek Band-Aids and bag of m&ms would be the only thing standing between us and certain death, but it made me feel safer so Z found a place to shove it all in the trunk. Our stuffed turtle ShellE who goes on all of our travels perched on the dashboard and we were off.
When Z and I decided to drive from Seattle to Richmond, my time optimism allowed me to dream of many fabulous road-side stops, photo ops, and a chance to explore places we’d never been before like Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and Missoula, Montana. I reasoned that if we left early enough in the morning and got in five or six hours of driving, we’d have entire afternoons to explore Yellowstone, or see one of the various largest balls of twine. Though I have loathed people with selfie sticks at various tourist sites in the past (especially odious at the Tower of London in 2015 on the parapet above Traitor’s Gate where you could get a good view of Tower Bridge—man, I loathed the selfie-stick users bumping us out of the way to get their shot for social media), I ordered one, and packed my “real” camera too because I was imagining at least five Instagrammable photos per day. I imagined us having picnics in roadside parks and briefly considered taking our Bocce set because I imagined us needing to stretch our muscles, and in the stretching I imagined us dressed like a preppy couple in the 1960s: wicker picnic basket, gingham blouse & espadrilles for me, something linen with penny loafers for Z, and maybe an Airedale terrier joining us. In the end, I settled on two card games (Quiddler and Lost Citiesso we could relax at night in motels across America. Instead of hotels by the interstate, I imagined us at 1950s-style motels with quirky dinosaur or giant cow statues out front and delicious old-timey diners sitting right next to them. I imagined going back to the populuxe motel and writing a blog post of the day’s events and then sending postcards along the way to document our journey and to alert friends and family in Richmond that we were on the move. In at least one fantasy, I imagined us pulling an Airstream camper behind a woody station wagon. In another, we were riding some horses.
In the end, the trip did not look like any of these things. For one, the selfie stick was a big pain to set up. For two (and reasons that are still mysterious to us), it took two hours longer to get to each evening’s stopover. We never did leave earlier than 9 or 10 a.m. and we were on the highway and only stopped at rest stops or for food and fuel. The name brand hotels were the only ones we trusted for our overnights as the quirky antlers and patterned bedspreads of the “quaint” ones were not as inviting as I’d imagined. When we arrived at our interstate lodging, we would inevitably drag ourselves to whatever chain restaurant was walkable from the hotel, and then we’d spend the rest of the evening trying to find the hotel for our next night’s lodging. We never left enough time to play those games we brought. Being an indecisive pair, hotel searching could take the bulk of the evening as we weighed the merits of one hotel over another as if we were buying the entire franchise instead of renting a room for a single night. Then ultimately at the last minute we’d go with one that wasn’t the cheapest but was the cheapest of the mid-range prices. Ever since we stayed at the World’s Worst Motel in Plymouth, Massachusetts, with squishy carpet, dubious bedding, and the aroma of 1972, we’ve been wary of anything too cheap.
And the photos I took? Not the beauties I’d planned. In fact, I set my camera on the “action” setting and took the bulk of pics out the car window. There weren’t as many “scenic view” stops as there are on the way down to Georgia or down the Oregon coast even though the scenery is there—just not places to pull over—so it was easier to click a string of pictures and hope for the best. Some are better than they should be, but most look about like the guy inside the dinosaur in that blurry Disney World pic from 1980 at the beginning of this post.
Photos aside, the drive out was delightful. Because we’d isolated ourselves so thoroughly during the pre-vaccine portion of the pandemic, it felt like a marvel to be in car without a mask driving away from First Hill, driving away from Seattle, driving away from Washington state. Mostly we talked as we drove—some conversations serious, some ridiculous, and occasionally there was companionable silence. We listened to a little music and several episodes of the Scene on Radio podcast“Seeing White” series, which I highly recommend if you are feeling too patriotic. It will rattle your sense of U.S. history in all the ways we should be rattled. We did not get tired of each other. Z has taken to calling me Green Bean Monkey or GBM for short because of a favorite green bean snapping monkey on TikTok and because he is a rascal (Z, not the OG GBM).
Every morning as we peeled out of the latest hotel parking lot, I would be struck by the “On the Road Again” earworm, and as we drove across Montana, Z got “Home on the Range” stuck in both of our heads for the two days we were in Big Sky country. Then we’d start looking for license plates to add to our list. We made it to 38 and if we hadn’t given ourselves stringent rules about collecting them only when we were in a moving car and the car with the desired plate was also moving, we would have acquired the coveted Hawaii.
I used to be really good at planning a trip. I had things I wanted to see and I’d map out ways to see them. I’ve led multiple people around Ireland by the nose, demanding that they adore all the same things I adore, for instance. But during the pandemic while other people were losing their senses of smell, I lost my sense of travel planning. What this meant for our trip is that we did not alert friends along our route that we were coming until a day before we got to them. I chose our first stop—a hotel in Missoula, Montana, only because a friend had once purchased a shirt for me that said on it “Missoula, Montana: a Place. Sort of.” I’d like to be able to report its merits like a proper travel writer, but when we woke up the next morning instead of heading into downtown Missoula to get a sense of this college town, we looked at the misty, grey sky and the rain splattering onto our car, looked at each other and shrugged: maybe on the way back. More likely, we’ll just look photos up online.
We have friends in Billings, so our next stop was there, but what we failed to factor in was that it was Father’s Day. We went out to eat with them at a place with lots of steak, antlers, and men wearing big belt buckles. It was busy so we stood in line for almost an hour while we waited on our table, and it was our first real no-holds-barred restaurant experience. No one was masked up so we pretended they were all vaccinated along with us and thus it was just another Sunday night. We haven’t been with that many people in a public space since February 2020. It felt a little surreal, but also completely normal to be visiting with friends and their delightful, picture-drawing seven-year-old who thrilled me when I asked her what was inside her locket and she opened it and showed me two pics she’d cut up of various cast members from Harry Potter. (Oh, my heart! I was further charmed by her when I found out that on her play dates she and a friend schedule in time for reading because books are just that important to them.)
While we drove through Montana, we were intrigued by how above whatever town you are driving through you’ll see a big first initial of the town’s name carved into the mountain There’s probably a reason for it, but I chose to think of it like the water towers that dot flatter landscapes with the name of an entire town or village painted on it. And then I get amused because in Fountain City, where my high school was, for a time the water tower was spray painted so it read “Fountain City Hell Raisers.” You can’t do that with a mountain initial.
Z and I had been planning to spend our next evening in South Dakota near the Badlands/Deadwood/Mt. Rushmore (even though I’m not currently speaking to three of the four presidents on that particular monument and Lincoln is on thin ice himself). But we quickly discovered that basically every second person in America is traveling there this year and the hotels were outrageously overpriced. Like over $400 for a Holiday Inn. A Holiday Inn. I always loved their advertisements with the catch phrase: the best surprise is no surprise, meaning you could count on their sameness, but let me tell you, $400 was a surprise to us. So at the last minute with the advice of our friends in Billings, we decided we’d skip South Dakota and drive through North Dakota where apparently no one wanted to be because all the highway hotels were reasonably priced and thrilled to see us and there was non-existent traffic. We ended up staying in Bismarck though I can’t tell you anything about it except the Red Lobster in our Fairfield Inn & Suites parking lot was adequate.
It’s shameful how we traveled, I suppose, and would horrify people who suck the marrow out of every place they go, but we had limited days and getting home to the Midwest became increasingly important as the land flattened out.
Since our route had changed, we decided to stop by the Twin Cities and see the friends there that I inherited when I met Z who had acquired them himself during college and grad school, and then we moved through Wisconsin, and Illinois before we hit the banks of the Wabash and pointed the car towards Richmond on the eastern part of the state. We promised each other that on the drive back to Seattle we would plan ahead, have our overnights mapped out before we ever left Indiana. What’s more, we said, we’d let friends know a week in advance before we showed up in their town so they could block out an hour or two to visit instead of emailing two hours before we arrived to see if they were free for dinner.
Z and I are masters of planning to plan. It’s the follow-thru we have trouble with. So don’t be surprised to learn that when we left Indiana three weeks later we hadn’t even booked a hotel for the first night and had to pull over at a rest stop to do it. When we left Richmond, we weren’t sure yet if we’d take another crack at South Dakota, choose a more southerly route, or return the way we came. This time we were trying to dodge heat and wildfire smoke more than over-priced Holiday Inns. It drove my retired truck driver stepfather nuts that we didn’t have a route in mind when we pulled out of the driveway to head back.
What we saw in all of those states on the way to Indiana were basically things through the windshield with the camera set on “action”—so nothing worth an article in Travel and Leisure, but even so, here are some highlights:
- The world’s biggest cow (statue)
- The world’s biggest sand crane (statue)
- The world’s biggest buffalo (statue)
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park only because I-90 goes right through it
- Road signs pointing to other national parks we hope to one day visit when they aren’t so crowded by people who have been locked up for over a year. And also when they are less likely to spontaneously combust.
- Billboards for cheese, pornography, and anti-choice legislation—not sure what those three things have in common, but there were a lot of all three of those in Wisconisn in particular.
- Scenery. A lot of gorgeous scenery of mountains, streams, cows, oil derricks, rock formations, trees, license plates of various states (39), and, alas, deer carcasses (31).
What surprised me aside from my inability to plan a trip now or my crap photography skills?
- The desert in eastern Washington that we’d never seen because we basically only exist west of the Cascade Mountains. It was bleak and gorgeous on the way out but on the way back this week with the haze of the Oregon wildfire hanging in the air, it looked more like something from a Mad Max movie and I kept waiting for Charlize Theron to roll up beside us in her big rig or Tina Turner to burst into “We Don’t Need Another Hero.”
- How beautiful that little finger of Idaho is and how much I’d like to see more of the state. Everything appeared to be made by faeries and we saw not one potato crop.
- How much of Montana’s varying landscape looks exactly the way I have imagined Montana (which is to say similar to how I felt several years ago in New Mexico when I discovered the Coyote & Roadrunner cartoon landscape actually exists minus an ACME anvil or two).
- Sight of the massive grazing land in Montana. We’d see herds of cattle but there was no sense of a farm being nearby. There was very little sense of farm houses or ranches at all. It was beautiful but also not my place in the world.
- That I missed buffalo. I’m not sure how you can miss what you never saw and don’t know personally, but I felt their loss. On the return trip, I squinched my eyes whenever I saw rocks or tree stumps and pretended it was buffalo (I know, not the same thing as bison, but buffalo is a better sounding word) but even with my imagination I couldn’t picture the millions that were here before they were slaughtered with the dual purpose of making way for cattle grazing and removing a food and income source from the indigenous people in the hopes that they too would disappear. The longing for buffalo made me regret every hamburger I’ve ever eaten.
- How North Dakota looked like neither the bleak landscape of a Willa Cather novel OR the sort of tumbleweed-strewn emptiness I’d always imagined, but instead was my first taste of the Midwest I’ve missed so much. In the 18 months we kept ourselves safe in Seattle, stuffed into our glass box in the sky, I wouldn’t let myself think too much about “home” or even what I mean when I think about home. No good could come of thinking of any of those places I’ve referred to with that distinction from March of 2020 until this trip. I’d get sad. I’d start to feel trapped. I’d start devising plans to fly home in one of those old-timey scuba suits with the big copper helmet in order to stay safe/not poison anyone else. It was better just to pretend that I didn’t want to be home, or that home was on Mars (because it might as well have been), and so I didn’t go as stir crazy as so many people did during the worst of the pandemic. Somehow—possibly my new anxiety medication—made the stuckness feel acceptable. But in North Dakota I could feel a subtle shift in my body. Like something in me was unfurling. I never expected that particular state to feel like a gateway to home.
As we drove further and further east across North Dakota and then into Minnesota, I felt more and more relaxed. Like I was in a place I understood, one that spoke my native language. The farms started to look more like the ones I’m used to, though bigger. Suddenly the rest stops had vending. (Midwesterners would revolt without it.) The names sounded more familiar.
Because of construction in downtown St. Paul, we managed to find the cheapest lodging of our journey at the St. Paul Hotel. It’s gorgeous and “Old World” and gave us a false sense of our own fanciness. The lobby alone made us feel like we were living in a different, more opulent century, but the room was well appointed too. I don’t know that Fitzgerald did anything there, but I wouldn’t be surprised—it’s not far from the house where he wrote This Side of Paradise. Because Z has many friends in the Twin Cities from his time in college, it seemed like the perfect stop for us, and then the hotel was so cheap and fabulous that we decided to stay a second day.
The first night there, we had a friend over and ordered in barbecue from Famous Dave’s, which Z thought was local but our friend announced there’s actually one in Seattle if we ever wanted it again. Before she arrived but after the food had been delivered, Z discovered that what he thought was a microwave in the room was actually a little microwave-sized safe. Cold barbecue and fries and beans didn’t sound that appetizing, so like a good Zimbabwean wife I made a plan and got the hair dryer and spent the next ten minutes blow drying the plastic containers to keep the food warm. A couple of sides got a little melted because I was over exuberant, but on the whole, it worked and it felt decadent to be gnawing on corn on the cob in this fancy room.
After a late breakfast the next day with another friend, Z and I attempted to walk along the Mississippi and through an old neighborhood with gorgeous old houses, but it was ridiculously hot. At one point we were standing behind the Science Center where we once saw artifacts from Pompeii on display. On this trip, I felt like I was one of the unfortunate souls being swallowed alive by lava. Minnesota might be covered in snow regularly when it’s winter, but summers are brutal. I was a red-faced mess when we got back to the hotel and did not look like someone who should be staying there. I was done for the rest of the afternoon.
For about two minutes I felt guilty that we weren’t taking advantage of the city to visit Z’s old alma mater or visit Paisley Park and that infamous elevator, but on minute three as I looked around our fine hotel room I realized we were doing exactly what I’d been wanting to do on this trip: sit around a nice room with good AC in minimal clothing, chomping ice and reading. That night, we had another meal with our friend MacGregor at an Italian restaurant that may well have served the best spaghetti Bolognese I’ve ever had, or, at least, the strongest Long Island Iced Tea that gave me the belief that it was the best spaghetti I’d ever had.
The next morning, we packed up our items—looking more and more like the Beverly Hillbillies at each stop as our suitcases and piles of things got more and more unruly—and hit the road, driving through Wisconsin (terrible drivers, beautiful scenery) and Illinois (windmills abound).
When we crossed the state line into Indiana on I-74 is the only time I felt teary about my return.
Before long, we were crossing the Wayne County line, and soon after that the Richmond city limits, with the big castle-like courthouse looming over the Whitewater River gorge. In no time at all, we were headed north of town hugging the banks of the Whitewater River a fork of which ran through both my maternal grandparents’ farm and the campground that my paternal grandparents stayed at every summer during my childhood, a fact which gave me a sense that everything was weirdly unified in my life even if it wasn’t.
And then we were heading into the driveway where Mom and my stepdad were waiting for us with balloons and a sign. It was an excellent reunion. Who cares if we didn’t get to see the world’s biggest ball of string on our journey—they were really what we’d driven all those miles for.
In some ways, I’m glad I didn’t have to navigate the last year and a half of the pandemic wondering things like whether I was masked up tight enough to talk to Mom and Val through a screen door in order to keep them safe, or whether we could maybe have a picnic and not contaminate each other, or whether Corona Virus takes a holiday on Christmas so we could have gotten together. There were no dilemmas for me about who I could or couldn’t see because Z and I had hard and fast rules and lived 2,321 miles from the bulk of my familial temptations and 9,822 miles from his.
On the other hand, that was a lot of months and weeks not to see the faces I love so much with no opportunity to, even through triple-paned glass. I’d like to say the reunion was worth that wait, but I’d rather not waited. Time feels way too precious to be spending as much as we have watching Netflix. But still, the reunion was sweet.
Ways the trip did not look like I envisioned? The list I had of Things to Do While Home and what I was actually able to accomplish off of it. The original list:
- Spend time with my family and friends. (Approximately 35 people at the top of my list.)
- Get my hair cut and colored for first time since December 2019
- Get shoes fixed at the shoe repair shop in Richmond, more for the joy of it than because I love the shoes.
- Get my eyes checked at my beloved eye doctor because I fear he’ll retire
- Sit on the patio with Mom and enjoy the non-citied outdoors
- Paint with Mom
- Sift through my items in the attic and figure out what it’s time to let go of (Billy Joel concert sweatshirt 1988? Jethro Tull sweatshirt 1991? A purple keyboard that no longer works? Etc.)
- Figure out a few belongings still residing in Indiana that could make the journey back to Seattle since we had a car, including:
- Art work
- Art projects
- A yardstick I inherited that I like because it’s square that won’t fit into a suitcase.
- A full-size umbrella with a map of the Tube on it that won’t fit into a suitcase.
- Visit a dog friend who is terminally ill
- Meet the dog of a former student with whom I have become obsessed on Facebook because he has the face of Walter Cronkite (that is, he looks like he knows more than you and will deliver bad news to you in somber tone if necessary)
- For reasons known only to my subconscious, I really, really wanted to visit my cousin’s donkeys and press my forehead against one of their foreheads and commune with them.
It seemed do-able to me in three weeks, but with the heat the first week was a wash because we just sat around sweating and talking and feeling so glad to be together. The second and third weeks didn’t go much better in terms of accomplishments. It seemed like we were busy all the time, and yet I can’t really account for all the hours that passed while we were there. I got the errands done, Mom and I sat on the patio most mornings, we saw ten people out of the 35 or so I’d planned to see, I had one moment where I felt a psychic connection with a rabbit I believe I convinced not to trespass into the neighbor’s garden because he prides himself in his garden and he has a gun. I got to say my farewells to Leibovitz’s ailing dog, I ran some errands. But other than that, I failed on most other tasks including introducing myself to canine Walter Cronkite.
One of the other un-recorded plans I had was to take a lot of photos while I was home of different views—across the cornfield, on certain roads with particular vistas, of various people I love, of rainstorms and farm animals and moonlight streaming into my old bedroom—because during those long months when I couldn’t get back to Indiana I thought often of those people and places.
Even so, those things are sharper in my mind’s eye than they would be in any photo.