Doug Across America: Roadtrip Epiphanies From Four Time Zones

I already knew before I left that I was going to love this trip. I just didn’t know it was going to be this much.

As the Big Life Moments go, this was about as momentous and ballsy (or capricious and dumb, depending on your perspective) as it gets: guy packs up his life after 11 years, says tearful goodbyes to everything he’s ever known as a grownup in sunny California, throws everything he’s got into a Volkwagen Jetta, and drives it across the country in search of everything, anything, and nothing at all.

In short, it was the first moments of me finally getting to be the version of myself I’ve always been proudest to be — the throw-caution-to-the-wind, trust-people-because-they’re-generally-good, live-in-every-moment, most-alive-when-in-transit Doug. I vastly prefer him to Couch Potato Doug or Resting on His Laurels Doug.

My route across America. Because what’s so great about hurrying up and getting from A to B when you could also go to C through Y, anyway?

It was to be a righteous journey then. It was my all-American movie, starring me.

I only made it to Arizona before I realized that what was going on around me was way, way more interesting and momentous than little old me.

PLACES THAT SURPRISED ME IN THE BEST WAYS

  • The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque, NM – A wonderland of kitschy Atomic Age propaganda with some immersive exhibits about how nukes reshaped American life and culture. Not to mention an outdoor hangar with an amazing collection of nuclear bombers, missiles, and other decommissioned military planes.
  • Arkansas in general – It’s beautiful, and nobody ever told me. Just over the Arkansas River from Oklahoma is Fort Smith, probably my favorite impromptu “stretch my legs” stop. There’s a riverwalk that takes you through the town’s founding as (you guessed it) a fort, first to protect from Native American tribes, then as a Civil War outpost, then as part of the Trail of Tears. Further down the road, the stunning drive through the Ouachita National Forest opens up to the well-preserved town-and-national-park combo that is Hot Springs, complete with Bathhouse Row.
  • Huntsville, AL – It’s home to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center ($32 to get in, and worth every penny) — and maybe it’s that influence that gives the whole place a miniature tech city vibe. By the way, while you’re there, you can even climb inside and take a peek at Skylab, our predecessor to the International Space Station.
  • Mammoth Cave National Park in Mammoth Cave, KY – If I asked you, “Where is the longest cave in the world?” I’m going to go ahead and bet that you wouldn’t reply, “Kentucky, of course.” But so it is. Even more fascinating, most of it is a “dry cave,” meaning you won’t find many stalactites and stalagmites because there’s no water drip-drip-dripping through it. Just a well-hewn pathway through the limestone, left behind millions of years ago.

With my foot on the gas pedal the whole time, I watched as the arid desert brush gave way to lush forests. I watched endless sunshine turn into endless thunderstorms. I saw the Farmer’s market fare change from pupusas and chilies to bratwursts and soft pretzels. I made my way through tiny towns, huge cities, giant fields of crops — and somewhere along the way, I realized that what binds us together as America is not the purple mountains majesty or the amber waves of grain or the national landmarks or the monuments. As beautiful as it all is, and it’s something that we all share of course, everyone’s experience of America is totally different.

No, what binds us together is an idea, and it’s a simple one. It’s the idea that we’re stronger together.

coast to coast, by the numbers

  • States visited: 17
  • States I dipped in and out of more than once on my very nonlinear path: 6
  • Days on the road: 16
  • Hilton HHonors points used: 40,000
  • Miles driven: 4,851
  • Miles “out of the way” beyond the quickest route across the country: 2,010
  • Times I got teary-eyed literally just from the magnificent view in front of me: At least 3
  • Motels that were so bad I felt compelled to leave a bad review: 1
  • Dollars spent on the whole journey: $1,413.81

I struck up a conversation with this guy in Hot Springs, Arkansas who was a professor in Mississippi. We talked about how Babe Ruth had once sat exactly where we were sitting and how cool that was. And we talked about the best barbecue joints in town, because I asked and I knew he would know. I asked him where I should go in Mississippi and he told me.

And it occurred to me that he and I may well have never been in the same place in America in our entire lives, other than that moment — and yet, there’s still this kinship there. That’s what being American is. It’s not growing up in the South or growing up in the West or growing up in the Northeast or growing up in Hawaii. It’s knowing you have the privilege and the honor of forging your own path among the 300 million adventurers, entrepreneurs, iconoclasts, dreamers, and steadfast community builders.

“America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me.” –Hamilton, of course. But also, me, many many times, at being awestruck by this kickass country of ours.

As a Yankee turned Californian and Bernie Sanders-loving gay liberal in my thirties, you could say I went into this with a lifetime of preconceived grumbles and apprehensions about all points south of the Mason-Dixon line. But you know, it’s hard to grumble about the hotel manager in Batesville, Mississippi who took one look at me and handed me a chocolate chip cookie after a long day of driving in the pouring rain. And it’s hard to be apprehensive about a heaping pile of slow-cooked pork on the best sandwich bread ever for $5.99.

Who the hell am I to question anybody else’s worldview — especially when I’m just now getting a glimpse of their corner of it?

How perfectly awesome and fitting that this first part of my journey turned out to be all about reshaping my perception of my homeland.

But hey, ain’t that America?

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