February 26, 2015. Three years ago today. My 26th birthday.
I honestly can’t say that I vividly remember many of my birthdays – most just a blur of cake and kind words. But I’ll never forget my 26th birthday – or what it started, or where it led, or how I ended up covered in my own piss as I was leaving New Orleans.
It was the first day of my first big roadtrip. I had just gotten out of a four-year relationship and didn’t know exactly what I needed, but I knew that I needed to get the hell out of town. I needed freshness, I needed new adventures.
And so, I decided to hit the road. My schedule was flexible because I was working as a freelancer, and I had a bit of money saved up, so I decided to just go for it. My initial plan was to spend just a couple weeks on the road – drive out to LA to spend some time with Dave and Chucky, and ideally also stop in Austin and Denver. I quickly realized that having a plan on a roadtrip is futile.
What ensued was a raucous month on the road which predicated the next three
relatively-transient years of eclectic jobs across Georgia, Colorado and California
What ensued was a raucous month on the road which predicated the next three relatively-transient years of eclectic jobs across Georgia, Colorado and California - usually in one place for only a few months, each stint punctuated by another grand roadtrip.
The trip inspired a wanderlust and a true love for the American West; it led to me working as a photographer in Aspen and a writer in LA; it brought me to places whose memories still shake me to my core; it introduced characters who are still central to my stories; it led me to where I am today; it led me to who I am today.
February 26, 2015
I woke up anxious and exhilarated. Did I even wake or did I just toss and turn throughout the night? I had been packing for days, nervously reviewing my list and checking it twice, though I knew I’d ultimately forget something. Hopefully I could figure out how to do without.
Atlanta had received an unexpected ice storm in the preceding days and several people warned me to postpone my departure, but my anticipation couldn’t be withheld any longer - I was determined to start the trip on my birthday, reasoning that it was a good way to start a new year of life. The storm was relatively mild - especially in retrospect, in comparison to the wild whiteout snowstorms I’ve driven through while living in Colorado. But I’m getting ahead of myself – at this point I’d yet to even visit Colorado or realize my affinity for it.
My gameplan for the day was to haul ass to Houston where I had a couple friends living. Before piling into the car, I glanced at my fresh atlas (now graffitied with ink marks and highlight streaks) and noticed that New Orleans was en route. “Hmm ok then. Decision made.” I was on the road early, riding under blue skies amidst ice-laden trees, Van Morrison cranked, windows down, heat at full blast, all nervous and excited like a kid on the first day of school (and probably just as naive).
By 4:15 I was rolling into New Orleans, quickly remembering my love for the place. Dusty street musicians played zydeco in the colorful alleys, the wail of the accordion reverberating down the beer-stained streets, accented by sounds of laughter, cat calls, and slurred words. Warm evening light rained down, casting an orange glow on the balconies of the French Quarter. And the smell – oh that NOLA smell.
The logical move would be to drink half the beer and pour the rest out before getting back into the car for the multi-hour drive to Houston. However, my logic is often flawed.
I grabbed the quintessential coffee and beignet from Café Du Monde and began wandering, stopping intermittently to admire the music and architecture. I made my way over to Bourbon Street and decided to stop in somewhere for a birthday beer, finding the omen when I saw a sign advertising “beers as cold as your ex’s heart”. I walked in and ordered a Fat Tire, turning around to ponder the music coming through the doors and the general New-Orleansness of it all. When I turned back towards the bar, I realized that I had not ordered a Fat Tire, but a FAT Tire. See, I forgot that New Orleans isn’t normal – when you order a beer, you actually order three. The logical move would be to drink half the beer and pour the rest out before getting back into the car for the multi-hour drive to Houston. However, my logic is often flawed.
I quickly pounded the beer, hoping to give myself as much time to sober up as possible. I left the beer hall and wandered the town for an hour or two, taking photos until I felt solid enough to drive again. I definitely should have peed before I got in the car. Within 15 minutes of sitting in rush hour traffic, I had to whip out the pee bottle. And it did not go well.
6:45 PM: [Dude veers into lane, causing me to swerve and slam on my breaks] “Shit! Come on dickhead! Whew, that was a close one.” [Looks down into lap, sees previously-full pee bottle now upside down in lap] “Dammit.”
Not many people can brag that they ended up covered in a liter of their own piss on their 26th birthday. I guess I can’t really brag either, but it’s a story. There was certainly foreshadowing over the course of the day – twice I had to awkwardly sprint into rest areas to avoid pissing myself. My problem was that I was trying to push as far as possible between pit stops, but I was also funneling coffee. On one occasion, I got a good laugh from a couple of older women, running into the lobby and frantically shouting “WHERE’S THE BATHROOM?!!” They doubled over in laughter, pointing in the direction of the urinal. I sprinted onwards, barely making it before the stream let loose. I bought a pee bottle after the second occurrence.
Sitting in traffic with a liter of piss on my lap certainly wasn’t fun, but damn was the sunset magnificent – one of the most unique ones I’d seen. Vapors fluffed across the sky, ranging from a deep purple in the zenith to a glowing ember in the horizon. The colors majestically shifted with each passing minute, and I sat in awe and urine.
The colors majestically shifted with each passing minute, and I sat in awe and urine.
It was another five hours of driving to Houston [don’t worry, I changed pants shortly after the incident] and by the end I was pretty beat - 800 miles and 16 hours since leaving Atlanta. Day One had come to a close, but a new trip, a new year, and a new phase of life had just begun. I had miles to traverse, people to meet, and many lessons to learn, but I was on my way.
Overall the day was exhilarating and weird - it involved a shit ton of driving, a fair amount of beer, and a minor amount of piss… ok, maybe a decent amount of piss – but it foreshadowed and led into the adventurous journey of the next three years (which, luckily, involved a lot less pee on myself). I had no idea that my planned two week trip would stretch into five weeks and 9,000 miles, and I certainly didn’t expect it to ripple out and direct the course of the next three years. But as I mentioned, having a plan on the road is futile.
Since that day, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to heed my wanderlust. Six months after that journey I was back out - exploring the Pacific Coast from Vancouver to LA. Another month later and I was moving to Colorado for a winter. After that was a two-month trek - to Atlanta and Chicago and Colorado and then on to LA. Three months later - from LA to Atlanta and then back to Colorado. Seven months after - from Colorado to Atlanta and back. And once again, four months later - into Utah and California and up the coast into Washington and back home to Colorado.
And so, what have I learned? Maybe not that much. Maybe everything.
I can’t count the exact mileage or tell you how many states I’ve visited or recite the names of all the people I’ve met along the way. Without really thinking about it, I can’t number the ventures I’ve had into the parks of Utah. I have to really contemplate the number of times I’ve been to the Grand Canyon. My nights in Moab are probably approaching triple digits.I’ve only seen the bison of Yellowstone once, but those of Badlands – two, three times?
It spurred the goal of seeing all 59 of the national parks. On that first day,
I had only seen 7. Three years later - 42. 35 new ones in 36 months.
The journey led me to the realization that if I didn’t record it, it would all be a blur within a few years. It led me to writing hundreds (thousands?) of pages trying to track all the places and weird experiences. It led to the creation of this website and the writing of this post. It spurred the goal of seeing all 59 of the national parks. On that first day, I had only seen 7. Three years later - 42. 35 new ones in 36 months.
I’ve driven across the US countless times. I’ve seen White Sands more than most will ever fathom. I’ve spent thousands of hours in the car listening to podcasts and music, or sometimes just the hum of the road beneath me. I’ve driven the PCH three times? Four? Five even? I’ve allowed myself to sink deeply into the ways of the road, and it's led me to places and situations I could have never dreamed up.
Looking back three years later, it all seems like a brilliant blur - of sagebrush, tumbleweeds, sequoia trees, and redrocks; of laughter, elation, pain, and restoration; of coffee, boxed wine, beer, and whiskey; of family, friends, and familiar faces. I’ve changed and grown and receded and moved on. On that fateful birthday, I thought that I was heading out on a two-week journey, but I was actually departing on a three-year bender of travel and transformation.
The itch of wanderlust still exists but it’s been quelled for now, as I’ve found a job which I actually enjoy in a place that I love (all of which was foreshadowed in this 36-month epic). My foreseen adventures are planned out in weekend or weeklong increments and I have to follow a regular schedule again (though honestly, after all this transition, a little stability is quite nice).
The journey led me to where I am today and it’s still leading me onwards. But for now, I’m here in Denver, appreciating where this whirlwind adventure brought me, and who it led me to be. The adventure is not over, but after three tumultuous years, a new phase has begun.