My 12,000 mile road trip across the US

I first visited the US as a teenager with my parents in the 90’s — “Fly Drive” was what we called it back then. Unlike many package tours through Europe, you would book a flight and a car and make up the rest as you went. On those trips I got to see the Florida Keys, the red rock of the Southwest and hiked down the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River. At the time I was awestruck by the size and variety of the geography. I knew I’d love to come back but I never imagined that 20 years later I’d get the opportunity to repeat those adventures with my own little family.

Clearly, all those hours spent in the back of an SUV had an impact on me. Ever since I came to the US nearly a decade ago, I’ve loved road trips. We tend to travel during the winter when the crowds are lower, the temperatures are cooler and the landscapes transform into winter wonderlands. Two years ago we made it as far from Seattle as New Mexico on a two week road trip. But when you’re working full time and vacations are measured in days, you can’t stray too far, nor linger too long.

I’d always loved the idea of going further and a couple of years ago, the idea of a trans-America trip started to become a passion (obsession?). Making it to the East Coast and back in a couple of weeks would be impossible. So this would have to be part of an extended break — perhaps a sabbatical. I pushed the idea to the background. Then in September I quit my job at Microsoft. At the time, the words of John Muir resonated deeply for me — “The mountains are calling, and I must go”. With time and flexibility now in abundance, the idea of a cross-the-US trip resurfaced. I committed mentally to take off in December 2016.

When planning big trips, it’s always a challenge to balance plans and spontaneity. There’s a huge benefit to keep things loose as the greatest adventures can often be found in the wandering. However, I don’t like to wander indefinitely nor aimlessly so I find it helps to have a general idea of both a timeline, and direction. As such, I usually pick themes for road trips. In the past “ancient ruins through Utah” or “historical and spiritual sites through New Mexico” have been themes. For this trip, I had three ideas:

  • Drive as far South and as far East as possible. In a nutshell that was idea — keep driving till you can go no further, step out onto the Atlantic ocean, turn around and drive back. The most Southern point you can get to on the East coast is the Florida Keys. Thus, our destination was born.
  • Visit all the National Parks along the way. Last year was the centennial anniversary of the National Parks. The parks are affectionally and in my opinion, accurately referred to as “America’s Best Idea”. I thought a wonderful way for us to celebrate the anniversary would be to visit as many of the parks as possible this year, and to do as much of it as possible with our dogs. Along the way, I’d commit to creating my best photography to honor the beauty of these unique and diverse public lands.
  • Visit Sora’s shelter. We adopted Sora from a wonderful dog rescue in South Carolina 7 years ago after he’d been shot in the face and lost his sight. Despite knowing the rescue well, we’d never met in person and it’d been years since they’d seen him. I loved the idea of being able to bring him home so we’d get to say thank you face to face, and Sora would get a belly rub from the wonderful people who saved his life.

These would became the three anchors around which I planned each day of travel. Over time a fourth idea also emerged. As I traveled, an intention emerged to meet, talk and listen to as many people as possible. Although I’ve traveled a lot in the US, there were many states I’d never been to and there was a whole country of people whom I’d never met. So I decided it was important for me to get to know my fellow residents and the people whom we share this land with.

And so, with these general ideas in mind, in mid December last year, my wife and I packed our two dogs and luggage into our Subaru Forester and started to drive South… and East…

I got back home on Wednesday night. Seven weeks and 12,000 miles later. This is a real GPS trace of our trip:

Each day we’d drive an average of 4.5 hours, allowing me to add a little more progress each day to the canvas, feeling like I was creating a painting with my road trip. 12,000 miles is a lot of driving. It’s slightly less than the distance to fly from Seattle to Tokyo, then back to Seattle, then on to Iceland. Here’s more of the world for context:

Seven weeks and 12,000 miles is enough time for a lot of adventures to take place. Through our trip, we:

  • visited 22 states and 23 national parks
  • encountered 200M year old dinosaur footprints
  • took 2,500 photos
  • needed to be towed, twice(the first time out of deep sand, the second time 30 miles into Nashville TN)
  • crossed 11,000 feet passes and stood -278 feet below sea level
  • sweltered in 80 degree F heat, only to shiver in -13 degree F temperates 48 hours later
  • drank 4 lbs of coffee and made an espresso with 4,000 year old rainwater
  • watched the sun set in new year’s eve over the white sand dunes of New Mexico and the moon rise over the Gulf of Mexico
  • encountered the kindness of strangers on countless occasions

I’m excited to share more details on the trip which I’ll do over a series of photography themed posts. I’ll divide the posts up into the same geographic regions that the National Park uses — the West, the Southwest, the Rockies and the Southeast. Here’s four photos to get started with. All the rest coming soon.

Now that I’m back I’m looking forward to sleeping in the same bed every night for a little while, catching up with friends and old colleagues, getting back to anyone who wondered why I’d dropped off the grid for the past few weeks, experimenting with ideas on what to work on next and perhaps most importantly, trying to preserve some of the space that I managed to create. When you spend enough time around nature, it’s impossible to not be affected by it. Perspective inches wider, time creeps slower and appreciation ticks higher. However, now I’m back in a familiar place, I know it’ll be easy for me to fall back into familiar, cherished, and wasteful habits. One of my key goals will now be to preserve some space around those new feelings so that they last a little longer — whether for a day, or a lifetime.

The West

My post for The West is now online.

Sunrise at Badwater salt flats, the lowest point in the US at -278 feet below sea level

The Southwest

There are two parts to the Southwest, both are now online:

Animal tracks leading out over White Sand Dunes National Monument, NM on New Year’s Eve

The Rockies

Coral Pink Sand Dunes, UT after a southern Utah snowstorm

The Southeast

Unused bridge, Key West, FL