Ten Things I Learned Between Richmond and Los Angeles

You guys.

YOU GUYS.

I knew road trips were cool and American and sort of a rite of passage for adventurous, creative types like myself, or at least like I imagine myself to be. But I had no idea they were SO INCREDIBLY AWESOME.

First of all, America is amazing so I’m going to include some tunage here to get you in the right mood to read this post. As a general rule I keep this blog pretty PG in terms of language but I simply cannot pass up this opportunity. Press play (make sure no kids and/or people who don’t like swearing are around) and come with me on a magical journey. U-S-A, U-S-A!!!!!!!!

I wanted to tell you all about my experience on the road, but there’s simply too much – and too much that’s just inexpressible – to relate in a linear, chronological way. So instead, I made a list of what I learned during the last seven days on the road.

A few disclaimers about the post: It’s going to be long. It has absolutely nothing to do with cancer, perhaps because (happily!) cancer is playing less and less of a role in my life these days. And if you follow me on Instagram, you’ll have seen most of these pictures before – but I hope you’ll enjoy them again!

Ten Things I Learned Between Richmond and Los Angeles

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Our weird Freaky Friday outfit switch was not intentional.

1. Only road trip with someone you love and who loves you, no matter what. Y’all, things are going to get weird. Think you’re normal? Not after 8 nonstop hours of driving, you’re not. You will be losing your mind. Not in a bad way, either – you’ll just be laughing your head off at the stupidest things, shifting around in your seat like you have hemorrhoids and letting your freak flag fly.

Driving into Nashville, Katie’s phone GPS started scolding us for pulling off the interstate into a gas station and she cradled it like a baby while stroking it and whispering, “Shhh, shhh.” The next morning I absolutely insisted on eating a Bojangles biscuit and self-soothed by murmuring to myself, “We’ll get biscuits…we’ll get biscuits…” (We did; it was our only fast food stop, and the woman looked at us like we were insane when all we ordered was two biscuits. She was like, “And…?” And we were like, “NO JUST BISCUITS. BISCUITS FOREVER!!!”) Pulling into Albuquerque, after nearly 11 hours of driving, we rolled down the windows and just yelled at nothing like the goats in those “Goats Screaming Like People” videos.

You’ll be sleep-deprived, hungry and you’ll have to pee for long stretches at a time but when you pull over to pee on the road you’ll step on some grass and a million grasshoppers will leap out of it and you won’t be able to do it and you’ll have to hold it forever and ever and just when you think you’re going to die a magical rest stop will appear but wait is it a mirage no it’s a real rest stop OHMYGOD and then you’ll FINALLY be able to pee. You’ll argue occasionally, but more often than that you’ll laugh and talk about how lucky and happy you are to be doing this amazing thing together.

If you’re not road-tripping with someone you’re actively in a relationship with, it will feel like you are by the end of it. Katie Bo and I started telling stories as “we” the way a well-established couple does – “We were talking about that today!” “Do you want to come to dinner with us?” “We were just laughing about that silly thing Katie does.” She also has short hair, because she cut it for me when mine started to fall out, which does not make us look any less like a loving and functional lesbian couple, not that we care.

At one point we shared the road with some bikers and Katie Bo mentioned that she’d like to get a motorcycle one day, to which I replied that I had no desire to own a motorcycle but that I’d totally ride on the back of hers.

“Okay, no, that’s where I draw the line,” she said. “That is just TOO lesbian.”

2. The only liquid more important than gasoline is coffee. I probably spent $500+ on gasoline for the trip, which is about the same amount we spent on coffee. If you didn’t know this about me, I’m a caffeine junkie – the front page of my professional portfolio website is a shot of the neon sign in front of Champ’s in Brooklyn that says “Death Before Decaf” with my face reflected in the glass below it. Here is our daily coffee schedule:

7am-9am, depending on the length of the day’s drive: Stop for coffee before hitting the road. Probably order a red-eye. Or a JFK, so named because it has three shots in it. Tasteless, yet clever. My favorite.

11am: Have finished the first coffee. Stop for second coffee. Probably iced because now it’s 10,000 degrees outside and I’m getting a shorts tan/sunburn from sitting in the car with the sun streaming in through the window.

1pm: Need more coffee. Perhaps too jittery for another espresso, might switch to iced tea.

3pm: Chug a giant smartwater.

5pm: One more coffee to power through the end of the drive. You might think we’d switch to decaf by now, but you’d be wrong. NEVER.

I discovered my new favorite thing at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans, part of the original marketplace in the French quarter – chicory coffee. Chicory is a root that is sometimes added to coffee to cut the bitterness, and while I like my coffee absolutely midnight black with no cream or sugar, I have to admit that the chicory root makes it substantially more delicious, almost like a dessert. I’m hooked, and now I’m screwed because it can be tough to find it outside of NOLA. Fortunately, you can order it online – although I’m not sure if I’m happy that I can sustain my addiction despite being 2,000 miles from Lousiana or sad that the internet has made this regional treat something I no longer have to earn by driving 16 hours to the bayou.

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Seriously, though, gasoline is more important than coffee. Do not run out of gas. There were some very long and desolate stretches on our trip, especially through what is essentially still the Wild West in western Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, where we didn’t see a single town, let alone a gas station or a bar of cell phone service. Sometimes we’d get so caught up in singing along with our favorite songs or listening to a Louis C.K. set while I practiced my bad stand-up in preparation for the act I may or may not do in NYC hoping to be discovered by someone from Saturday Night Live that we’d forget to check the gas gauge and find ourselves genuinely distressed that we might run out and be stranded and die in the desert and our bones would be discovered clutching each other helplessly by anthropologists in 2513 or something.

Basically, what I’m saying is, if you go on a road trip, keep your priorities straight. Gasoline first, then coffee. Then somewhere way down the list, water, I guess. Whatever.

3. Couch surf; beds are overrated. We were fortunate to be able to stay with friends in every city we visited, except for the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas. We visited friends on small stopovers in between cities, too – like my friend Julia in Knoxville, Tennessee, or Katie Bo’s cousin Crisman in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

In Nashville, we met up with a friend and fellow UVA alumna named Carly at a local bar where we watched three boys with guitars and cowboy boots sit on stools and play covers of our favorite country tunes. We bought them a round of longnecks and they played my favorite song, Take It Easy by the Eagles, and came over to do a Fireball shot with us after the set was over.

In New Orleans, we stayed with Ann Marshall, also a fellow Virginia alum who now literally works for the New Orleans tourism board. She was incredible, taking us on a tour of the city that included an authentic dinner of gumbo and alligator sausage (described on the menu with nothing but the tagline, “It is what it is!!!”), a ride down the mardi gras parade route on the streetcar (where we could see multicolored beads hanging from the tree branches and power lines) and a walk down both Bourbon Street, the strangest collection of debauchery and nudity I have ever seen which is somehow still bizarrely appealing (perhaps it’s the alcohol served from to-go windows?), and Frenchman street, where we watched street musicians play creole jazz on tubas and trombones.

In Dallas, we stayed with our amazing friend Rebecca – not a Wahoo, but a semi-Charlottesvillian at least; good thing we went to college or we wouldn’t be nearly so well-connected – who took us out to a lake by her newly-purchased home (adulthood!!!!!!) before we all went out in her massive truck for agave margaritas and brisket tacos at a cute tex mex place where we dined on the patio in the warm summer air.

In Albuquerque, our friend Leslie and her boyfriend Matt took us on a walk to a ridge by their apartment overlooking the entire city, where we watched the sun set bright pink and light up the Sandia Mountains (so named because they glow rosy like watermelons in the dusk) before night fell and the whole city glistened below us, a sparkly oasis in the vast desert. We had elk burgers on Route 66 and huevoes rancheros in the morning to bid adieu to an old town made of old pueblos and signs in Spanish.

In Las Vegas, we met up with my brother, his friend Pat (who shaved my head!), my friend Hayley and her boyfriend Peter, where general Vegas debauchery was had – but not as much as in my younger days, since, as Hayley put it, “Most of the time I’d rather be home with a sandwich.” Amen, sistah.

The places you’ll see on a road trip are great, but the people are just as good.

4. “i carry your heart with me(i carry it in my heart)” is a quote from an e. e. cummings poem oft-quoted in Facebook profiles. To me, the line is about the power of memory: that it can take something ethereal and fleeting by nature, like love, and make it permanent in the mausoleum of one’s own heart.

In the Petrified Forest in Arizona, there are signs all over the park reminding visitors not to take pieces of petrified wood with them when they leave, as thoughtless souvenir hunters doing this in the days before the site was designated a National Park resulted in the loss of many of these irreplaceable treasures. Naturally, however, when I found a little shard of petrified wood glistening on the path in front of me…well, that’s different. I can just slip it into my pocket and take it home, right? It’s different, right? It’s only a tiny sliver; no one will know.

I honestly considered sneaking my little piece or memorabilia out of the park, but ultimately thought better of it. I don’t need the wood because I carry it in my heart. I saw it, and I’ll have that forever. It’s better, I think, if I can’t show you the wood. You’ll have to go and see it for yourself, so you can carry it in your heart, too.

I carry the whole trip in my heart, and I always will, now. There are some things that a souvenir can’t replicate, that a photograph just can’t capture – things you can only carry with you.

5. Eat everything. Back in our college days, Katie Bo and I used to go to iHop for some inexplicable reason (gross, I know) and we’d joke that calories didn’t count there, despite the fact that they obviously did and that’s probably why I literally gained a zillion pounds as a first year. Anyway, I didn’t learn anything and CALORIES TOTALLY DON’T COUNT ON ROAD TRIPS. We ate gumbo, beignets and “voodoo” flavored potato chips in New Orleans, margaritas, brisket tacos and roadside pit barbecue in Texas, Mexican food smothered in green chiles in Albuquerque, and $80 worth of sushi and cocktails in Las Vegas and it was worth every love handle and extra chin I’m gonna pay for it with.

In fact, we originally conceived of this road trip as a gastronomic tour of the United States, and we were amazed at every stop at the local flavor (pun intended, deal with it) that we encountered. The differences between say, New Orleans and Albuquerque, culinarily, were so stunning as to feel like they belonged in entirely separate countries.

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Oh, I forgot that I also ate an enormous chocolate Butterfinger brownie in New Orleans. YOLO.

6. Accept that the car will become a disgusting hovel of slovenliness and gluttony. My car needs a good detailing. Not only is it freckled with the carcasses of a trillion unlucky/stupid insects, its interior is dotted with potato chip crumbs, Triscuit fragments, trail mix pieces and all other matter of snackery.

In order to avoid stopping at fast food joints, which would have ruined our desire to see (and eat) the authentic soul of everywhere we traveled, we packed a styrofoam cooler full of semi-healthy items like string cheese, carrot sticks, apples, delicious chicken salad made by Katie Bo’s mom and plenty of water bottles to trot out whenever we got a bit peckish on the road. Sadly, the ice inside said cooler eventually melted and then somehow leaked all over the backseat of my car which now smells like a mildewy towel. Despite this, we preserved in refilling the cooler with ice whenever it got low and eating just about everything it without once stopping for chain restaurant food with the exception, mentioned above, of pulling through a Bojangles in Athens, Alabama to order nothing but two biscuits.

I am sort of weirdly proud to admit that I bought this car in mid-2011 and have never once washed it, but now I’m going to have to break that streak. It’s probably for the best.

7. Pack whatever you think you’ll want/need, then immediately unpack three-fourths of it. I pretty much wore 5 items of clothing on this entire road trip despite the fact that I packed the largest suitcase in the world full of every single garment I own that I like. (Which, don’t be fooled, is actually only like half of them.) In reality, all I needed were a few comfy, breezy tank tops, a light jacket (for the Grand Canyon, where it’s cold at night) and a pair of shorts. Done. You’ll sleep in underwear and the tank top, trust me. You will be too lazy to wear that cute pajama set. Just leave it at home.

8. Nerd out, you’ll learn cool stuff. Katie Bo and I whipped out Wikipedia at every opportunity and learned some truly amazing things about the cities we visited.

Even though we planned out an itinerary that included stops in some of the most amazing and unique cities in America, like Nashville and New Orleans and Las Vegas, some of the most incredible stuff we saw was in between the big destinations.

It was the zeppelin mooring – the last zeppelin mooring in the entire world – at the top of the decrepit and forgotten Leer Tower in Birmingham, Alabama, where stopped for (what else?) coffee. It was the St. Louis cemetery just outside of New Orleans, where brownish residue on the sides of above-ground mausoleums housing jazz legends, writers and voodoo priestesses marks the height flood waters rose to during Hurricane Katrina. It was the state building in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, visible as we crossed the mighty Mississippi, that Huey Long insisted on building before he was assassinated in it. It was the ghost town of Cerbat, located some three miles from highway 93 in western Arizona down a dirt road marked only with faded, bullet-riddled signage and “No Trespassing” signs that we ignored, where an old mine built in the 1800s still stands, weathered but defiant, under the fierce sun of the desert.

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9. There is still space. Leslie’s boyfriend Matt mentioned that he had road tripped across the country in the past, and that the thing he was most surprised to discover was that there was still space. “I thought there was no space left,” he said. I guess I kind of thought that too, but I was wrong. Most of what we drove through was space.

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We drove for miles through open fields in Alabama and Texas, where cattle and horses grazed and tall, yellow stalks swayed in the wind; high, flat buttes in New Mexico dotted with cacti through which endless trains weaved their mechanical entrails; dense forests full of flowering and fragrant magnolia trees in Mississippi; swampy, algae-covered bayous that lined the three-digit state highway we took in Louisiana. We drove past poverty, too – rusting trailers located a million miles from anything, sweltering in the summer heat.

The whole thing was a powerful reminder that America, developed as it is, is in many ways still a wilderness to be explored by anyone willing to sit in a car for 50 hours.

10. I am a tiny and insignificant speck of dust floating through the universe for what amounts to the blink of an Almighty Being’s eye.

Out of everything we saw and did on a trip, which was more (and more incredible) than I could ever accurately describe here, nothing was more moving than the Grand Canyon. Cliche as it is, this 227 mile long gash is as stunning as everyone says it is. First of all, who knew there was such amazing forest in Arizona? The kind of forest that elk roam through, where pine trees scent the air and you need a campfire at night?

The Grand Canyon is indeed grand. It’s breathtaking to behold. I got vertigo just walking up the edge of it. What amazed me most about it, perhaps, is that whether I die in 5 years or 50, I’ll never see the thing change. For millions of years, long before there was ever a human eye to look at it and feel dizzy at its sheer magnitude, the canyon has been forming – and it’ll keep forming long after I’m gone. My time here is so short as to be wholly insignificant to the Grand Canyon. All I can do is marvel at it and remember how amazingly spectacular and powerful and slow and deliberate nature is in its beauty.

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Pulling up to my parents’ house at the end of a 3,500 mile journey, we were both relieved to have completed the whole trip without a single accident, speeding ticket or mental breakdown. But we were sad, too – sad that the trip was over, and that we can’t keep living it – we can only carry it in our hearts.

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In cancer news, MY FINAL CHEMOTHERAPY TREATMENT (hopefully ever) IS TOMORROW! Stay tuned to hear how it goes.

24 thoughts on “Ten Things I Learned Between Richmond and Los Angeles

  1. rachelocal says:

    Looks like you had an AWESOME time! I’ll take your advice and nerd out when I head West next year.

  2. Jacki WJ says:

    Road trips are awesome. I did it twice with my daughter (yes, we were still speaking at the end), only without Wikipedia because we have a friend who knows everything. You are one very awesome young lady.

  3. Wanderer says:

    Just driving from southern Texas to Colorado will remind you how much space there still is! I’m so jealous of your cross-country road trip and hope to do one myself (I’ve had plenty of road trips but none as epic as yours!)

  4. SDS says:

    You did it! #wanderbust2013 Good luck with the chemo tomorrow, I love you!

  5. Michelle says:

    Oh gosh, this sounds perfect. Over in SG, we dont roadtrip anywhere! And when we are in the US, i love to go on long trips with my husband.

    I enjoyed this today. Thank you for this.

  6. Kathy Pagano says:

    Another great blog. Your writing talent is undeniable and your insight far surpasses that of someone your age. Best of luck to you in NY and keep the blogs coming. You will have much to write about in the Big Apple. Happy that you have weathered your storm and that only bright blue clear skies are ahead for you.

  7. ubensmom says:

    Enjoyed your trip immensely. Last chemo, blog on that happy moment wouldya? Congrats on the end of this period and your road back to health.

  8. […] Ten Things I Learned Between Richmond and Los Angeles […]

  9. Katherine says:

    Hope your final chemo went well today. I had my first Herceptin-only visit, and felt like I found the express lane through the infusion suite. 🙂
    Also – I lived in Alabama for almost four years (Roll Tide) and didn’t know that about the old Thomas Jefferson hotel building. See? You taught me something!! . . .and now I feel the need to drive past it and appreciate that the tower on the top of it is Zeppelin mooring. 😉

    • You should check it out! It’s such a small thing, but it feels bizarrely important….I guess because it’s literally the last zeppelin mooring on Earth. And the building, too, is basically frozen in time. If I ever wrote some crazy apocalyptic screenplay I’d film it in that building and have a weird C plot about zeppelins.

  10. Daile says:

    Great road trip story! Sounds like you had an absolute blast!

  11. I’ve never done a major road trip in a car but we frequently do them on the motorcycle. Last year’s Epic Adventure was 12 states in 10 days including our first ever visit to Nashville, New Orleans, and Panama City Beach. One of the nice parts about going on a bike is that you are definitely limited in how much you can pack (and bring home in souvenirs!) 🙂

    • AHHHH motorcycles scare the beejeezus out of me! I do love to ride my bicycle, though, which I think statistically is pretty dangerous even though it feels so harmlessly vanilla.

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