By Nathan Landis (Photos too!)
“You know we’re really getting close when you see the first sign!” Alex exclaimed as the green highway sign, reading “Oklahoma City–300 miles,” flew past. It was the second full day of our twelve day, seven thousand mile, twenty-six state, seven National Park whirlwind spring break road trip and we were hyped up. We’d just survived a night camped out at a Nashville State Park, endured a low temperature of 8ºF and couldn’t wait for the sunshine and warm temps Albuquerque promised.
Ever since freshman year I’d harbored the desire to experience a classic college road trip: good friends, insane distances, vague destinations, lodging uncertainty and above all that pervading spirit of adventure which accompanies the unknown. Only five or six weeks before my good friends Alex (La Vida sherpa ’13-’14), Matt (La Vida sherpa ’14) and I convened and laid out our plan: Get out of New England, our 100” of snow and drive to the Grand Canyon and the gloriousness that was 65º temps. The two thousand odd miles of highway that lay between those two locations? No way that was going to stop us.
What transpired, and I believe Matt and Alex would agree with me, was far above and beyond anything we could’ve imagined. There was something so refreshing about simply setting a destination each day, then watching events unfold along the way. We slept out under the stars, got the car stuck on an icy sideroad, melted snow for coffee in Utah, swam in a lake at a ritzy Californian retirement town, walked the streets of Santa Fe, survived a blizzard in the mountains of Colorado and so much more. “I love waking up in the morning and saying, ‘oh! this is what it looks like.’” Matt remarked one morning on our tendency to get into camp every night after dark, then wake up to find ourselves in unfamiliar, yet always beautiful territory. “Utah: Life Elevated” was our favorite state motto, it seemed to really resonate. A close second was Iowa’s “Fields of Opportunities.”
“Oh my gosh. I thought they were made up!” Alex burst out as he watched his first of fifteen tumbleweeds blow across I-80 on the way east through Nebraska. “I feel like I am looking at this, but not really seeing it” was me during a rather reflective moment as the three of us relaxed, legs swinging in empty space, the sun setting over the Grand Canyon.
Over the course of the trip I began to consider the idea of a “Chronicle of Return” (naming rights go to Alex). To me this meant living each day with an appreciation for the experiences I’d had, while also living with certainty that I would one day return to that place for further exploration, understanding and investment. Each day generated lists of trails we hadn’t taken, sights we hadn’t seen and small town cafes we’d run out of time to explore. Although I initially felt bad about the way we seemed to be simply consuming the history and beauty of the parks and states we passed through, then moving on (the infamous “activity trap” as former sherpas will recognize!), I began to see the experiences we were having as the first avenues of an internal roadmap, which was expanding into unknown and unappreciated territory. I am so excited to add to that map in the future–exploring new streets and byways (both literally and figuratively) and steadily deepening my understanding of the unique cultures, histories, processes and people that have and do shape each state, town, canyon and valley we so briefly passed through. I’m excited to scratch beneath the surface.