She wasn’t a young woman, but she wasn’t old either. She was probably in her forties, her hair straight and black with strands of grey, thick glasses – the average Montanan. Our eyes may have met for a second, briefly, before her head disappeared into the lap of her husband. But the oral sex she was giving wasn’t extra ordinary because her husband was driving. It was extraordinary because it was an act of untouched, self-assured amusement.
These two were simply living in the moment, acting liberally in a world that tells you not to, following desires instead of following rules. And this very special moment, caught by my meandering eyes as we passed their old Ford Taurus on I-90 West in Montana, was nothing short of a metaphor for the cross-country road trip.
The drive is enjoyable, delightful even. It is a momentary act of dissent to the world around us. It was a drive for something fresh, new, unexpected and unfamiliar.
Between Pittsburgh and Colorado and Yellowstone and Seattle, we did many things. We did 1,220 pushups. We talked, a lot. We saw 13 cars get pulled over and we, too, fell victim to a Kansas state trooper’s police trap. We also fell into luck’s hands, and didn’t have to pay a dime. We drove on 58 roads in five days, burnt 128.419 gallons of gas and spent 474.28 dollars on gas for an average of 3.69 dollars a gallon. We saw a bear devour a dead bison. We saw a baby bison feed on its mother as they straddled the double yellow line of a two-lane road.
We saw 43 state license plates, only falling 7 short of our goal to spot all 50.
We did not cross one state’s border without seeing its license plate before we entered. In the order we saw them:
Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Maine, Michigan, Oklahoma, Washington, Indiana, Tennessee, Wisconsin, New York, Illinois, Wyoming, Nebraska, Texas, New Jersey, Iowa, Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Arkansas, New Mexico, Maryland, Connecticut, Missouri, Colorado, Vermont, California, Massachusetts, South Carolina, Arizona, Alaska, Oregon, South Dakota, North Dakota, Louisiana, Utah, North Carolina, Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, Hawaii, Virginia.
We saw seven dead deer.
We saw America, in all of its originality. We saw residents of Kansas, Colorado, Indiana and Missouri. We saw their lawns, all of which seem to be strewn with car parts and trailers and dirt bikes and swing sets and tractor wheels and children’s toys. We saw and met people who live by the harvests, who roll and wire bails of hay, who herd and milk and slaughter and discover cattle.
We saw 15 Jesus Saves signs. We saw 15 Adult Store signs.
We saw the grunge of Missouri, bars filled with bandanas and facial hair and Broken Social Scene and Tool.
I saw the reason people worship the road. I saw the reason there is an aura, an enthusiasm from all directions surrounding the road trip. Everywhere we went, every stop we made, people seemed to live vicariously through the strip of cement in front of us. I wondered why, but now I don’t.
There is wonder in the road. You know not where you are headed but only where you are going. It is a calm place. It is one of the few times in our life, during travel, when we are forced into contemplation. While headed somewhere, like across the country, you have established an objective to focus on. Yet, your mind is hardly occupied. The pedals of traffic and the rhythm of the road are simple, background noise to something greater. With this void the road gives you, you are reflective, inward, considerate, and even porous.
We were given the finger once. We saw mile marker 111 six times and we spotted nine speed traps. We saw 28 school busses 188 American flags on the road.
I wondered why. I figured it out:
The west is not dead. American pride is not an American past time in the cross roads of America. America. The land of the free. Still, here in the Montana’s and Colorado’s and Kansas’ and Indiana’s, people are leaving to discover. The land is still rough, miles without a gas station in sight. People are still driving Volkswagon vans (we saw six) and windmills can be seen from 22 miles away. As you drive through these places, you cannot help but wonder what it would be like to stalk the buffalo of Montana, to string your bows and arrows and pack your jerky and hunt for the winter, before the death of cold comes. The land is largely untouched, a place between two points. And what of the few who choose to inhabit these places? Well, they live a very different life than the Americans you know.
We saw one flag of another country. It was the United Kingdom.
We learned Abraham Lincoln and Wilbur Wright were born in Indiana. We learned that the Popcorn Festival is held in Brazil, Indiana. We learned there was a place called Brazil in Indiana. We learned the St. Louis arch is as tall as it is wide and that there were 562 road deaths in Missouri in the year 2011.
I learned that I prefer the pace of the West. I learned that a conversation not had is a conversation lost, that there are a whole lot of people out there who don’t know what you know and won’t ever need to. I also learned there are a lot of people out there who know many things I don’t and may never need to. If I want to is up to me.
We learned Sam Walton – of Wal-Mart and Sam’s club – is from Colombia, Missouri. We learned the Kansas City Royals have the most badass stadium in sports. We learned the largest prairie dog resides in Kansas and that if 125 sorority girls are cheering for you, you can lift a car.
We learned Buffalo Bill was buried in Colorado.
I learned that Idaho was beautiful, a Land Before Time, Jurassic Park. It was a place so vast, empty and green that only dinosaurs and Native Americans seemed meant to live there. The air was like taking a breath over a bowl of ice water.
I also learned that I move to fast. That everything in my life – TV, text messages, emails, phone calls, video chats, relationships, ecstasy, victories and Saturday nights – are instantaneous. They either come too late or end too early.
I learned that I could slow them down.
In Yellowstone, the stars are the greatest they are in the world. They are awesome. Awe-inspiring. All the stars you’ve ever seen, and even some you haven’t, lie in the foreground. But at night, under a clear sky and a full moon, your vision only impaired by your frozen breath, those stars have a sugary background. It looks like you put the stars on a black piece of paper and then spilled salt behind them, the galaxies pulling back their curtain and revealing infinity.
Earlier this year, Yellowstone experienced 60 fire-starting lightning strikes in one night.
There were 60 fires, all threatening to burn thousands of miles of vegetation to charcoal: a gift from nature herself.
Buford, Wyoming is the world’s smallest town. The population of Buford is one.
She was not home.
There are 11 native fish species in Yellowstone.
One of them is the cutthroat trout. Each year, the cutthroat trout goes through a ridiculous mating process where they swim desperately upstream to find their mates. They jump relentlessly, stubbornly, failingly into the peak of a 2-foot waterfall, trying to clear it and continue to survive. More than sixty percent of them make the jump.
Just like us, these cutthroat trout are a product of nature and evolution and act so. They will repeat until reward. They will exercise their ability to persist, and they will do it in a way that can inspire even a human.
In Wyoming, we saw the most intriguing billboard of the trip. “LIFE:” it read, “a beautiful choice.”
And the billboard is right; Life is a beautiful choice. It has nothing to do with abortion or politics or religion, but life is a series of opportunities to make beautiful choices. There are choices to persist, to keep jumping, even through millions of gallons of water and failure. It is the choice to let a bunch of broke looking college kids from Pennsylvania off with nothing more than a warning when they are doing 84 in the 75. It is the choice to relax your guard and drop your head into your husband’s lap for a moment of adolescent disobedience, naughtiness or lust. It is the choice to press pause on the things that “matter” in order to experience the things you do not know.
Washington is the only state where you are permitted to exceed the speed limit as long as you are passing someone. Yet, it happens rarely. They are given the choice, aware of it, and they opt to slow down.
We too have a choice. We are allowed to go fast or slow, light or dark, good or bad. Once we acknowledge this choice, the choice of life, we are only responsible for one thing: choosing beautifully.
For Julian Hausman, a friend and teammate whose presence in Pittsburgh I will not be able to replace. For Sean and Jake, our partners in crime and two new friends; and for my beautiful cousins who were the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.