For the first year I lived in Wyoming I didn’t leave the valley. I was figuring my life out and I loved being there. I had found a place that made me very happy.
After a year or so I found myself planning a rather long work trip to the northeast. It would take me away for about three weeks during the slower off season and Thanksgiving holiday, giving me the chance to see some friends along the way between NYC, Boston, Connecticut, Vermont and upstate NY. With a taste of getting out of the valley during the slower times typical of a seasonal destination like Jackson was, by spring I was planning my first big road trip around the west. Or should I say I wasn’t planning it, as it turned into a very spontaneous solo adventure that I woke up each day and figured out before I hit the road. I literally looked at a map each day – a hardcopy road atlas I kept in my car – and decided where I was going and how I was getting there.
I rented an SUV during the offseason that spring when local businesses offered locals discounts thru the slower months. (typical with seasonal resort living!) I first headed south, thru southern Utah and Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks.
On to Nevada to Las Vegas and Hoover Dam, then to Arizona where I visited the Grand Canyon and Sedona and then across the large Navajo Nation of Arizona into New Mexico. I woke up one morning to an alarm in my hotel room that was set to a local Navajo radio station speaking their native language and felt like I was in a foreign land. Was I? It caused me to think. It was on this long stretch of highway, through impossibly desolate stretches of desert that I felt vulnerable being alone. The southwest was a new venture for me. And while I had been thru long, uninhabitable stretches of the desert in Australia I was not alone there, I was on a bus with someone else doing the driving and someone to talk to. I was a little uncomfortable with it, not that I didn’t feel unsafe, it was more the not knowing when the large open space ended or where the next gas station was, or what if I broke down here, then what would I do? I had also been hiking in Sedona and slid down a short ravine when I found myself a little lost on a dead end trail, or maybe I wasn’t even on a trail, I wasn’t sure. I broke the slide with my hand which caught a cactus needle in my nail bed which was very swollen and becoming infected. Again, I was unfamiliar with the desert to know what a cactus needle was going to do under my skin. But I kept on driving, of course. On thru New Mexico which took me to Taos and Santa Fe. From there I kept going east… across Oklahoma and on to Arkansas where I visited Hot Springs National Park. I went as far as northern Louisiana and at that point I decided I better head back home to Wyoming. I had gone far enough. For now.
But I didn’t return the car.
I went back to work for a few days, had the cactus needle extracted from my hand, now very infected, and then decided to leave again. This time I headed towards the northwest and the Oregon Coast then up to Seattle and came back across the Cascades and the Idaho panhandle. All in all, I was gone for about 5 weeks out of the 6 weeks that I rented the car and I drove over 7000 miles. This trip left me with 4 states left to go to. Four states that were next to each other, luckily.
Summer came around and there was no taking time off in the busy season. I worked the hardest I have ever worked in my life in summers in Wyoming and into the fall.
By October when everyone was planning their off season getaways after business slowed down again I had made plans to wrap up this quest to get to all 50 states. Even my boss at the time was on board and encouraged me to finish, making sure I had my work schedule clear to do so. And so I headed to the southeast.
I flew into Atlanta (Georgia #47), then drove to Birmingham (Alabama #48).
Short on time I still needed Mississippi (#49) so it was literally a drive across the state line on back roads to a little town called Whynot, Mississippi! I would ask myself this question many times over the years as Mississippi grew to be one of my favorite places for stops on these road trips. Why not Mississippi? Then I headed over to Savannah and up the coast to… Hilton Head (South Carolina #50!).
I arrived late at night at my hotel and as I checked in the woman asked what occasion brought me to Hilton Head. I told her I was celebrating going to my 50th state. Her immediate response was, “how old are you??” Implying I was too young to be completing this. Later in my stay she would send a card to my room that said ‘Congratulations on visiting your 50th state.’
I had done it. And I had done it in an age when there was no social media to share it with people instantly, there was no texting, there were no cameras on cell phones, there was no GPS telling me the shortest route or shouting out a turn by turn or rerouting me when I got lost. I figured it out. I did it for myself. I did it because I loved seeing my country and I loved American travel and the diversity it offered from one region to the next. I loved taking photos. I loved talking to strangers. I loved getting lost. I loved going thru small towns and big cities trying to picture how they got settled and wondering, “why here?” Demographics fascinated me.
Little did I know then, on that night I arrived in Hilton Head, that I would do it all again someday.
Six months after I went to my 50th state I got a dog and a whole new adventure began.
It was the best decision I ever made.