Alex Around America

I think Parker McCollum was right when he sang, “it’s been a hell of a year.” It’s hard to believe it’s only August. Many of us have had struggles even beyond the chaos of a global pandemic– mine being the illness of my mom, and almost losing her once again, on top of my own personal struggles. I needed a break, badly.

I’m a firm believer that if people don’t think you’re batshit crazy, you’re not truly living. Once I recovered from my back injury I begged to be put on a deployment. Well, I finally got orders to a deployed squadron. Before checking in with them, I decided to drive my truck cross country…all alone. I packed a bag, flew to Georgia to see my mom, and then the trip began.

I loaded up my F-250 when it was still dark out. I named my truck Jessie, like the cowgirl from Toy Story. At 0600 the adventure started, gravel crunching beneath my tires. It was a relatively quick drive to Mobile, Alabama. On the way, I stopped to have dinner with a Navy Buddy that I hadn’t seen in a year and a half. It was too late for me to go tour the USS Alabama but you could see her lit up on the water– it was beautiful. As a Sailor, seeing any kind of Naval vessel or history just makes you proud.

I woke up the following morning and hit the road at 0700, stopping at Waffle House (a much adored southern legacy.) It had started to pour as the outskirts of Hurricane Hanna brought stormy weather to the coast. Mississippi had no appeal to me so I drove straight through, and reached New Orleans almost three hours later. It was all sunny skies and bright eyes from there. Street performers caught my attention with their swing, and I got some beads (the homeless guy said it was $15 after he put them around my neck. Hey, ya win some and ya lose some.) I went through French Quarter and fell in love with the architecture. The jambalaya wasn’t too impressive, but the locals were kind.

From there, I drove to Houston, Texas. It was late and I was tired and hungry, so I stopped for steak before staying at the hotel for the night. The next morning I went Downtown to walk around. I loved their sculptures and murals, and how calm it felt to explore before the city woke up. I spent the next two days with Ericka, a coworker from Whidbey Island, in her hometown of Austin. She took me to taco trucks and BBQ joints, I loaded up on shirts from Tyler’s Outlet, and got a cowboy hat and boots from Cavender’s. I was most excited about that and wore them constantly on my road trip.

I left Austin at 0600, headed towards Carlsbad, New Mexico. It was an eight hour drive, turned into ten hours between gas and restroom breaks, and the occasional quick nap. I took the back roads and never felt so free. I rolled the windows down, blasted my music, and hooted and hollered at the sky loud enough to scare the cows. I was the only one on the road for about seventy miles, so I put the pedal to the metal, going 97 in a 65.

I finally reached the Carlsbad Caverns and drove around for hours. I explored the caves and read up on how Native Americans took advantage of every resource the land had to offer in, what now seems like, an uninhabitable place. They earned a lot more respect and awe from me.

Two hours later, I reached Roswell, New Mexico: home of the 1947 UFO crash. The hotel clerk greeted me with a timeline of events, and her own personal discoveries. The next morning I talked to locals about their favorite things to do, and I went to the International UFO Museum. The museum was closed due to COVID-19, but the gift shop was open for me to stock up on alien gear for myself and a couple friends. Once I left, I found a fruit stand about 45 minutes west of Roswell. It was cute but didn’t attract much business being on the side of a mountain, but the owner built it from the ground up 40 years ago and was still going strong.

I arrived at White Sands National Park around noon. The last time I had been there was 2002, and this was probably the most meaningful stop in my trip. I got to recreate a photo taken 18 years ago of me and my brother holding hands in the middle of White Sands…this time I stood alone. The side-by-side comparison made my heart full, and shatter, all at once. I had a conversation with my brother as I stood there alone, and I could feel his hand holding mine.

From there, I was off to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Watching the colors of the sky change above each passing farmland was beautiful. I looked all around with my jaw dropped in childlike wonder for hours as I drove. Around 9pm I found myself on Route 66, and of course I sang along to “Life Is a Highway” from the 2006 Pixar movie, Cars. My favorite part was cruising down the small town of Seligman that survived against all odds, with a 50’s-esque feel. The next morning I woke up and drove two and a half hours, passing through Navajo Nation, to the East Rim of the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately, due to COVID, that entrance was closed and not updated online. I never got to see it, but it is definitely on my bucket list.

That didn’t damper my mood though, as I was on my way to visit Nancy’s mom and siblings in Las Vegas. The five hour drive there offered a whole lot of nothing. Once I got to their house I took Amy and Ricky to the strip to get lunch and play mini golf, with ice cream for dessert. Later that night we met up with their mom, Gemma, for tacos which were out of this world. The following morning the kids and I went to IHOP and then I let Amy drive my truck around the parking lot. It’s always good to see them, and it was hard to say goodbye.

My next stop was Salt Lake City, Utah. I stopped at Pig & A Jelly Jar for breakfast, and it was both tasty and visually pleasing. After that I went to the University of Utah to visit their Red Butte Garden. Between developed gardens and natural areas, it totals 100 acres of land. Once you got to certain points of the garden, you could see over the whole city. The view of SLC and all the different plants was breathtaking. They provided further info on irrigation and other forms of water conservation that everyone should practice, because one day we will run out of water. For lunch I met up with my buddy Brandon, who’s in the Air Force. We had been Twitter friends for about three years before meeting, and it was amazing to catch up on life and get to check out each others’ trucks.

Once I left Utah, I drove straight through Idaho. There was nothing there that interested me, and all it seemed to offer were a lot of sketchy gas stations and poorly lit winding roads. Though I’m sure it is a beautiful state with many hidden gems, I wasn’t able to explore much of it besides the freeways. I spent the night in La Grande, Oregon to get some sleep.

I woke up and got a hot cup of gas station coffee, surprisingly good, and trekked on. I think that the quiet morning hours of northern Oregon resonated with my soul. I drove on the freeway with mountains to my left and the water to my right. I watched the sun rise, slowly bringing more cars to the road. My favorite town had to have been Arlington. It was small, and though just passing through, felt like home. I couldn’t help but to think that I could settle down there someday.

That afternoon I arrived in Camas, Washington to have lunch with Monica’s mom. It was good to catch up with Ana, as I hadn’t seen her since New Years. I spent the rest of the day at Mount Rainier, gawking at how vast it all was. It was so beautiful that I didn’t take many pictures, I just drove and drove, with a content feeling in my heart. Later that night, I arrived home at Whidbey Island. I had a lot of fun on my trip but it was good to sleep in my own bed.

It might seem silly, but I came out of this trip as a completely different person. This year had been especially unkind to me, thrusting me into an emotional whirlwind every which way. I was tired and bitter, in need of a change. This road trip gave me a hard reset on life, completely recharging my batteries. I learned more about America and different kinds of people. I learned about life, and I learned who I was and want to be. It wasn’t just slowly peeling back layers to find myself– it was slamming every broken and hardened piece of me with a baseball bat to release the vibrancy that was always meant to shine. This life tried to bury me, but it didn’t realize that I was a seed ready to fucking bloom. I am the happiest I’ve been in over a year, and it feels so good to be alive.

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