A Look Back at Nine Months on the Road
35 states, 240 long days of wandering.
Zach Bowman has sold everything he owns, slapped a camper to his high-mileage 2003 Dodge Ram and has taken his family on the road. His clan numbers three, counting wife, Beth, and their infant daughter. They are touring America, working and discovering, and are sending The Drive periodic dispatches from the road.
We’re into our ninth month. Two hundred and forty long days of wandering. Thirty-five states and some 22,000 miles. Everything shows the sign of it. It’s more than the tower of digits on the odometer, more than the hour on my watch. It’s leaking power steering lines and flagging air conditioning. It’s new rust, dents, and scrapes. Scratches, chips in our windshield. It’s our clothing, faded or failing at the abuse of a truncated rotation and the harshness of laundromat machines. It's the fatigue of so many fitful nights.
And of needing to know. Where we’re going, what we’ll eat, and where we’ll get the food. The temperature and the chance of rain. Snow? How many layers should Kiddo be wearing? Depends on the elevation—do we know that? Do we need water? Propane? Fuel? Milk? Always, one half gallon at a time. Are the campgrounds closed for the season? Do they have showers? Do the showers have hot water? Is it potable? Yes, even here, in the great and vast America, it’s better to trust no tap. And in the back of my dull and weary mind, the question, the biggest question of all: Is our daughter safe?
From things that bite, the bugs and snakes and beasts of all sizes, but from other things, too. Too much screen time. Not enough vegetables. Separation anxiety. Are we coddling her speech? Too accommodating of her tantrums? Is she safe from my temper? Or the goddamned mold from a month of cold and rainy days?
Whatever fierceness I’d gathered before we left is exhausted. Run out of me by a thousand daily questions and the puzzles required to answer them. Everything is a process. Want coffee in the morning? Get Kiddo up, make sure she has a snack, break down her bed, fold her blankets, stow her stuffed animals, unearth the table and stove, dig out the pot, assemble the table and stove outside, dig out the propane bottle, draw some water, and boil it. Now, do that every morning, for three quarters of a year.
Our months on the road mean something else, too. Kiddo’s nearly two years old, half her short life spent sprawled out over this continent. When I look at photos from our early days, it’s hard to reconcile the infant in those images with the little girl at my feet, or the temper she carries behind her own brown eyes. Her tantrums are burning things, and I hear each wail as an indictment, a curse for carrying her so far from her comfortable home in Knoxville.
She’s furious at being in the truck, more days than not. She’s communicating, her pidgin words translating to a few easy desires. It’s when we understand her, but don’t accommodate, that the world goes sideways. She’s furious at us. First, for not seeming to understand; then for understanding but not acquiescing. She wants no part of reason.
And lately, we’ve been in another mad press. South, for warmer, drier weather, but also for our absentee ballots. They’ve been waiting for us in Sacramento for a week, and they need to be in the mail in time to be counted. It’s a sour reason to rush the Pacific coast, but rush we do.
It has a price. A poorly stocked pantry. A week without a shower and mounting laundry. The truck, filthy both from its sprint across the country and a few days loitering near the ocean, looks neglected. It’s time to stop, to right ourselves as best we can.
Fort Bragg, first. For laundry and a car wash. I spend my $15 in quarters, then clamber around on the step ladder, scrubbing. Washing away the gathered grime of 3,000 miles, maybe more. Sand and grit from Michigan, Wisconsin mud, dust from South Dakota. Black road grime from Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Dead strings of moss from Washington and sea salt from Oregon and California. When I’m done, I’m wearing what I scrubbed form the truck, but it’s cleaner than its been since we left Knoxville. A thing to be proud of.
It’s another hard day to Sacramento. Kiddo spends the time wailing in the back seat, thrashing at any attempt Beth makes to placate her. No snack, no water, no drawing, no toy. Just a mad wail. It grinds me down, and when we stop in Calistoga, all I want is to spend an hour wandering its streets with my family. Maybe find a spot for lunch before moving on. We pick up some new books and find a place to eat, but Kiddo wants none of it, reverting to ever more thrashing. More wailing.
And on it goes, most of the way to Sacramento. Beth and I are both nubs by the time we find our friendly driveway. We’d planned ahead and asked a friend, Davey, for a spot to swap the truck’s fluids. He’s out of town, busy riding some bike or another back from the warm middle of Texas, but offered up a spot for us to park all the same.
“Left you something in the shed,” his text says.
Davey’s just stepped from a cruel year. Two bone-breaking motorcycle accidents, then two heart-breaking deaths in the family, one after the other, after the other, after the other. The stuff that shatters men and turns them to dust. But that’s not Davey. His heart’s too wide, his eyes too bright.
I dig around, find our ballots and a box tucked between the shovels and rakes. In the box is a card and a bottle of wine. His note is brief, kind. He says something that smalls me: that he’s in awe of us. That he’s proud of us.
I read the words aloud, the last of them catching in my throat. Beth’s eyes well.
It’s hard. The hardest thing, maybe. To remember that this is good. That we left our life in Knoxville because it was a bitter thing. Because the unknown of this brawling country was bound to be better than the knowns that were coming for us.
That it’s a thing to be proud of.