It takes 33 hours and 2400 miles to drive from San Francisco to Nashville. Solo time on the road is alright, but in my experience, road trips are always more fun with company. A few weeks ago, my friend Rob moved his entire life to Nashville in a yellow Penske truck. I came along the for the ride—and to say goodbye. We left at 7 am on a Sunday morning before the sun had risen. Our friends made coffee for us, we loaded up the truck, and then we were on the road.
Barely out of the city, Rob pulled over at Treasure Island, a manmade island built in the 1930s that connects to the Bay Bridge. From the island, you can look southwest and see the entire city of San Francisco, a silver-lined panorama against the pastels of the early morning sky. The Golden Gate Bridge hovers in the foggy distance. Cars funnel in and out. People arrive, fall in love, and then leave again. We took one last glimpse of the city and began to drive east.
Road trips represent constraint as much as they do freedom. After all, a great deal of time is spent within the confines of a vehicle. Yet it’s strangely meditative to stare out into the vast expanse of an open road that seems to barrel on forever. Even the most restless souls are forced to sit still. You can’t really do anything but listen and talk and look out the window, but that’s the beauty of the constraint: you find beauty in both the stillness and the motion. All sense of time is warped. Within the span of hours, the landscape can change drastically. The sky burns its daytime colors in a blaze of glory. You might start the day in a lush green valley and end the day in the desert, where the horizon line drops and the clouds become more voluminous. Darkness marks a whole different side of the road trip: driving in the strange silence of the night.
Our first pit stop was Pea Soup Andersens, a kitschy roadside diner known for its split pea soup. It was 9 am, and everyone there was over the age of 60. They were probably all regulars. We both ordered the Traveler’s Special, which comes with just about everything: eggs, bacon, pancakes, burnt coffee, and of course, split pea soup. Mapping out road trips is serious business. Between two points on a map, there are so many possibilities. But you have to prioritize. Your route will ultimately be determined by what cities you pick, what sights you must see. We picked Las Vegas, Zion National Park, Taos, and Santa Fe.
Rob had never been to Vegas before. We decided if there was one thing to try, it was the crowning glory of the Bellagio buffet. Vegas is a city on steroids: everything is bigger, more extreme, and more extravagant. The buffet is a fitting symbol of the Vegas spirit: every food you could possibly think of is at your fingertips, and you want to eat it all. So you gorge, you get sick, and you wake up hung-over. We ate well but dodged the hangover by cutting out of Vegas at 9 and heading to Zion National Park. Here’s how to be a good road trip partner: don’t get carsick, play a variety of mellow but spirited tunes, be a helpful navigator, stay awake. The last part was important for us – we always drove late into the night. If it’s two in the morning, and you’re falling asleep at the wheel, stop at a gas station, buy something caffeinated, and wash your face. Then get back into the car and cue up some music; I’m partial to “Downtown” by Macklemore in such situations. Trust me, this trick will not fail you.
Zion was our longest detour. We woke up early and drove into the park to hike Angel’s Landing, a short but strenuous hike up a steep and narrow ridge. Five miles roundtrip, but the last mile up and down were the most perilous—we were basically just climbing rock. But it was worth it: at the very top, you get a 360 degree view of Zion Canyon, and its red, sublime beauty is breathtaking. We sat at the top and just took it all in as tiny chipmunks darted around us. After Zion, we drove out of Utah, down through Arizona, and east into New Mexico, where we stayed that night in an earthship – a solar-powered house made from natural and recycled materials. Another road trip tip: if you can, camp. Otherwise, find a weird, off-the-grid accommodation that will be a destination unto itself. This earthship fit that bill. We woke up the next morning with sunlight pouring in through the house’s huge windowpanes. It was essentially a greenhouse for humans.