After 40 days and 40 nights of being on the road, spending 25 nights in hotels and 15 at friends’ homes (often displacing one of their kids – thank you again, guys), and touring exactly half of our 50 states, I have mixed feelings. I am happy to be home for sure, but I kinda miss the open road. (And the abundance of free parking almost everywhere I went.)
My friend Julie asked me to describe my road trip in one word. I love that she asks questions like this – questions I ask everybody else, but don’t really think about myself. I’ve had a few weeks to ponder this, and I’m still not sure it’s the perfect word, but this will do:
Not pixie-dust-purple-unicorn magic, but ordinary, everyday magic. Simple kindnesses-kind of magic. It was exactly what I expected. My experience on the road confirmed my suspicion that humanity is fundamentally good. It’s what I am exploring (slash proving) with The 923 Oak Project. Having met eight residents so far, with several more on the docket, I’m fairly confident this won’t be a difficult task.
Magic came in all forms. The smell of rain in El Paso after seeing a vibrant rainbow. The warm sun by the hotel pool in St. Pete. Driving on old country highways in Texas with the windows down. Walking through muddy fields before sunset on an Iowa farm. Really, twilight transforms everything into something magical.
Magic came via genuine invitations to stay with people I barely knew (or didn’t know at all). From meeting a fellow Bay Area resident two bar stools down at The Olde Pink House (hi Ken!). From connecting with friends in person and over the phone during my long drives. From casual conversations at gas stations and shy smiles from fellow grocery shoppers. There was magic in every conversation with the great residents of 923 Oak. I really didn’t experience an unkind person during the entire six-week journey.
A couple years ago, when I was getting serious about launching this project, I emailed Stephen Bloom, an author and professor at the University of Iowa, asking for advice, after I read his book The Oxford Project. He was kind enough to reply to my email then – which was magical in itself – and has since talked with me on the phone a few times. I was driving through Iowa City, emailed him to see if he was around, and magically, got to meet with him in person.
There was plenty of magical food and drink: the best Cuban sandwich in Florida I will probably ever eat. Asheville’s take on a classic Catalan dish of melt-in-your-mouth raw trout, tomato fresco, black olive, sweet onion and lemon vinaigrette. Iowa pot roast, creamy mashed potatoes and doughy dinner rolls with new friends – especially magical, as it took place at a 923 Oak. The most insane green chile queso in Austin.
Magic came in the form of a visit from my friend Beth in Nashville, where I’d spent an entire day iced in at a Springhill Suites with a bad attitude. Shortly after she arrived, I scored a vintage rhinestone belt buckle and two prime bar stools at Tootsie’s. Magic was quality time with my high school best friend Amy, her husband, three kids, two dogs, one bearded dragon, and numerous fish, all of us squeezed in their New Jersey corporate apartment while they wait for their new home to be built. It was dinner with high school friends Marchele and Melissa in Indianapolis and Sid in Peoria, the latter whom I hadn’t seen in 20+ years. Introducing different groups of new friends to Cards Against Humanity, and laughing so hard my stomach hurt. It was parking meters that cost 25 cents for three hours in Newton, Iowa, and picking the one that already had four hours on it. (Side note: yesterday I got three minutes for a dime in San Francisco.)
Magic was getting together with Mike and Pete, my first 923 Oak interviewees, when I was driving through Ohio.
And magic was putting 10,000 miles on my car in six weeks with zero car problems (well, two dings on the windshield, but bygones). I’d gotten the flat tire and cracked windshield out of the way on my drive down to Phoenix in January. My car was full of stuff, sitting in hotel parking lots night after night, never touched. And no major weather events during the six weeks, aside from the ice storm in Nashville, and heeding my mother’s warning to leave El Paso immediately to avoid any mid-afternoon Arizona dust storms (of which there were none, but safety first).
I know I can sound super Pollyanna-y. There were things that were not so great. Having two 923 Oak residents respond and then back out was a huge bummer. Driving through places where I knew there were 923 Oaks but not being able to connect with them sucked. Spending more than six hours in the car a day got kind of old. Having the same-old, same-old choices of drive-thru fast food options (and eating them) was not magical. The fluorescent lighting over my hotel bathroom mirrors was just plain rude. Feeling pressured by limited time and budget was also not my favorite – but that’s life.
Sometimes I wished I had the company of friends, like when I visited Luckenbach, Texas, or driving the long stretch of I-95 down the eastern seaboard. And sometimes I was content with my solitude, like driving on old country roads in West Texas or biking through the parks of Savannah, Ga.
I am grateful for the experience, every part of it. There was a lot to discover – and even though it’s over, the discovery continues: taking in the breathtaking vistas of San Francisco feels like new all over again.