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Visiting Arizona on a cross-country driving trip across the USA
Scene from one of my Great American Road Trips
The Grand Canyon, Arizona
In this post, I share some of my pre-Dad Era travel experiences, to provide some context to all these travel posts...



On the Road
After three solo trips to Mexico from the age of 17 to 18 (more on that in this prior post), late one night I finally realized I was missing something - some key to travel that was just out of my field of vision, past the corner of my eye somehow.

I discovered Jack Kerouac's On the Road at age 19, and halfway through it, the realization dawned like a bursting firework pinwheeling in my mind:

The Great American Highway was right there all along!  

That incredible artery of the continent, the means of movement for the lifeblood of the crazy beating heart of America - it had been right there, just minutes away from me At All Times, yet somehow I had never taken it to its end! I didn't know exactly what was at the end of it, but I wanted to find out!

On the last weekend before summer break started, I spent my free time blazing through On the Road, reading it while sitting out on city street corners and on the rooftops of empty downtown buildings at midnight, reading it in the half-dark by the light of yellowed streetlights and that Apocalyptic never-dark industrial city glow - and then the very second that I finished the last sentence, while sitting in the grass on the bank of America's Great River late at night - I immediately started over again on the first page. (I've read it at least a dozen times by now, along with most of Kerouac's other work.)

Somewhere around page 20 of my second reading of what I presumed was Kerouac's Travel Instruction Manual, I telephoned my best friend, the one who was soon to play Sal Paradise to my Dean Moriarty. I remember our phone conversation sounding like something straight out of Kerouac's American masterpiece.

I called up my best buddy (who lived one state away, in those days) late one night and said breathlessly:

Hey man! We gotta go! California, me and you! Yeah, man! Let's drive there! We're leaving Friday, pack your things! No, man, I'm totally serious! Don't worry about it, you won't need much money! We'll sleep in the car, and take turns driving! We can drive all night! We'll see the American West man the real American West of cowboys and deserts and flat-top mountains and rattlesnakes and empty highways - aww man can't you just see it now, zoom, pow, man, and we'll be there, we're going, and it'll be awesome! Yeah we can use your car right? Okay be at my house Friday night!

I worked a double shift on Thursday, then drove 3 hours round trip to another city to visit friends and say my goodbyes. I ended up staying awake all night Thursday night. I rolled back home in my junky car Friday morning, on no sleep but feeling wired because my trip was soon to begin.

My friend was so excited about the trip that he had arrived at my family's house several hours early. Expecting him to arrive in the evening, I had some thought of maybe sleeping part of that day, while awaiting his arrival - but he was already there when I got home. So we spent the day preparing and packing slowly, chattering away about what we would see, and what it would be like. No itinerary, no reservations, no maps, practically no money, and only one driving thought behind it all:  California!

We decided to start by visiting a nearby historic city which was in the wrong direction for California, so I drove us 2 hours round trip for a quick visit that same evening. We spent a couple of hours carousing there (an alcohol-free type of carousing - as neither of us was ever much interested in drinking), then came back to my family's home to finish packing our things.

5,000 miles in 10 Days
Our plan was to set out early Saturday morning. My friend went to sleep around 10pm Friday night, planning to load things into the car early the next day. I paced the floor, wild-eyed, with the dreams for our Big Trip ablaze in the grooves of my brain - no way could I sleep! So at midnight I started packing up his car. I shook him awake at 3am and said,


Hey man! Let's go to California right now! You can sleep in the car!

I drove the first 600 miles or so. He took over in the afternoon, but I was having so much fun I still couldn't sleep. Using a small camera, I filmed short videos with the camera and my head hanging out the car window, and snapped pictures all along the highway as we blasted our favorite music (in those days, primarily heavy metal with a bit of electronic/house music for variety). We stopped whenever we felt like it, to walk around, laugh, take pictures...

Seeing the American West by car as a teenager
Sunset in the West, with Rain in the Distance

We fueled ourselves with sugar, grease, and carbs:  donuts, cheap hamburgers, and unlimited sodas. Around 9pm on that first day, he suggested we stop for some sleep. I told him to hop in the back and sleep all he wanted, because I didn't want to stop until I saw the desert.

I drove another 6 hours, only stopping for gas. Finally at 3am I realized that I wasn't entirely sure if I was awake or asleep, and that for safety's sake, I better pull over to catch a few Z's at a roadside parking area. So around 3am on Saturday, I closed my eyes for the first time since 6am on Thursday.  Between sleeps, I had:

  • Driven 1 hour round-trip to work a 12-hour double-shift Thursday
  • Driven 3 hours round-trip to visit friends, staying awake all Thursday night
  • Driven 2 hours round-trip to hang out in the big city Friday evening, and stayed awake Friday night
  • Driven on the trip for 12 hours Saturday, took a wide-awake rest in the passenger seat, then drove another 6 hours.

In total I had just stayed awake for 45 hours, doing some major driving for 24 of them. Understandably, I had some difficulty sleeping in the car when I finally tried. I kept having vivid dreams in which I was falling asleep while driving. I would snap awake and realize that I was in a car, but not driving or even moving. Finally, I got past all that and drifted off to sleep.

Then within an hour I woke up shouting, right in the middle of dreaming that my buddy had bumped the shifting column in his sleep, and we were rolling down a steep hill, both asleep, rolling straight towards a cliff, to our doom! So at about 4am my friend was startled awake by my shouts of

Stop! Stop! Wake Up! Hit the BRAKES!!

Needless to say, that was the last time I ever tried doing so much wide-awake traveling in so short a time. The toll on my brain and tranquility was a hefty one! (These days I prefer to sleep at least part of the way there, and let a pilot do the "driving.")

The next day we arrived at something I had wanted to see ever since I was a little kid: a Real Desert.

American West Road Trip through New Mexico
First Time in the Desert! 
White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

We stopped in the Chihuahuan Desert at the White Sands National Monument, then visited a friend in Tucson, saw the Grand Canyon, and visited the Hoover Dam. Then we made our home base at a house a few blocks off the main Las Vegas strip. My friend's grandparents lived there and let us occupy two floor mattresses in their guest house, where we rested for 3 nights after the first 2,400 miles of driving.

Then on to Death Valley, and Los Angeles and Venice Beach, then a winding 800-mile path up through a featureless, other-worldly stretch of eastern Nevada, passing through West Wendover to reach Utah's Bonneville Speedway.

Seeing the Salt Flats of the Great Salt Lake
Driving the Bonneville Speedway on the Great Salt Flats of Utah

This expanse of salt flats is located in the Great Salt Lake Desert, which is featured in countless commercials and movies. They film here basically every single time they need an endless, flat, trackless desert with unreachable mountains in the far distance. In the movies, this desert has doubled as the planet Mars, and as an Apocalyptic wasteland numerous times.  It has also been the backdrop for dozens upon dozens of car commercials that want to showcase the cars' speed and create an impression of freedom. We took turns racing fast circles around the place, filming each other from a (probably safe?) distance.

After Salt Lake City, we both felt the trip was coming to an end. Homesickness set in - each of us missing a particular person back home - as well as being tired of sleeping in a car, which was starting to smell more than a little bit like a sack of dirty clothes that belonged to an old goat.

So Utah was our "turnaround point," and we sped home, making amazing time. We barely stopped other than for food and gas, driving straight through state after state after state. We'd only see attractions if they were visible from the roadside and wouldn't cause more than a 15-minute stop. We'd dash out of the car, look around, snap a few pictures, look at one another, and say, "Well?" and then we'd rush back to the car. My buddy and I had said goodbye to my friend in Salt Lake City at 10 pm, and the next time the car stopped moving for over 20 minutes was 1,900 miles later.

Great trip, that!

Driving across America East to West
Finding the End of the Road in the Great American West
Pacific Coast, California

This 3-part series concludes with Backpacking in Central America, in the next post.

I've made a lot of trips as a parent with young children, but also a lot of solo trips and 2-person trips before that, so along the way I've learned to apply some crucial differences in travel strategies depending on the travel group's composition. This blog is all about sharing our tips with you, along with the occasional travel story here and there.

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Sad post-script: he's no longer my best friend. He got mad at me for a big misunderstanding, believing that I ignored his requests to be his best man. He was leaving me voicemails on a cell phone  about it, but that phone wasn't even working. I had the thing in a ziploc bag, in a box on a shelf, and he was leaving me a series of increasingly urgent messages about bachelor festivities and a big wedding and the need for tux rentals... Eventually he decided I had just intentionally not shown up for these events (perhaps believing I had done this because it was his third marriage?) and we lost touch after that. Eventually I tracked him down and he would barely even speak to me. Gave me the cold shoulder - my best friend since childhood. I don't even know if he's still married now, or where he lives, or anything about him. Sad but true.

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