In the fall of 2010, I was in the thick of it. I was 24 and at the bottom of that inevitable downward spiral of depression and indignation that our generation lovingly refers to as “The Quarter-Life Crisis.”
How did I get there? The same way we all do: a carefully planned and executed route to a lifetime of success and fulfillment that in this day and age, leads only to a life of mediocrity, debt and regret.
But, you all know that already, and in fact, I’m sure most of you reading this are still caught in some part of that spiral. Here’s how I got out, and how you can, too:
The idea wasn’t mine; in fact, I’d be remiss not to credit it almost entirely to my friend, Eric, who had for years been convinced of a sort of magical freeing power that can be found on the open road.
When I was feeling especially low, I finally opened myself up to his wild idea of an adventure.
The idea itself was pretty basic: throw out that preplanned route and just start driving. There was no destination, only a direction. It was just us, the open road and a world of unparalleled inspiration to explore.
I punch the clock at my office job at 8 pm on Friday and the two of us take off. From the City of Angels, we travel east into the Sonoran Desert. Around midnight, the carefree conversation comes to an abrupt end as Eric spots a highway sign with names of towns that are completely foreign to us.
The realization hit us: “Holy sh*t, what are we doing right now?”
The truth is we weren’t doing anything. We were just driving.
The next exit is a small town on the border of Arizona. It reeked of sulphur and could be best described as a ghost town that never was; an old railroad stop that time forgot when industry reached the coast almost a century ago. This was the right place to start our adventure.
We saddle up at a local bar to make friends. A few pints and a game of darts later, we’re sequestered by an intriguing fellow, whom we came to call “The Magical Albino.”
After hearing our mission, he gives us our marching orders for tomorrow, “Head east into the desert and when you see the ‘Q,’ take a right.” Before we leave, he scrawls his number on a pamphlet with instructions on surviving a bear attack. Just in case…
At 2 am, it’s time to stop by the greasy spoon across the street. The sweet old lady who serves us pie tells us how much we remind her of her grandchildren. I’m not sure if this is a compliment.
Drunk and inspired, we stumble over to the nearest hotel, and upon hearing that they want a hundred dollars for a room, we decide that since we’re now fully prepared for a bear attack, we’ll sleep under the stars instead.
Eric is sure that the girl at the front desk made eyes at us, so I decide to leave her my number before we retire for the night.
In the morning, she takes us to where the locals eat breakfast and to the picturesque banks of the Colorado River. It’s way too cold to jump in, but nonetheless, it's a promising premonition of what’s to come (true natural beauty and peace just waiting for us to discover it).
After a stop at her home to grab water, our new friend (hereby referred to as “Desert Rat”) jumps in and we wave goodbye to her rifle-toting father and Golden Retriever, “President Ronald Reagan.”
A half hour into the trip, we see a mountain with a giant white “Q” painted on the side of it. Motherf*cker… Remembering the wise words of the Magical Albino, we take a right.
After hiking to the top of the mountain, we can see almost all of the Northern Sonoran Desert. But, to the south, hidden from the road and the town below, something else catches my eye. Without wasting a moment, we scale down the rock cliff and hike south into the low desert until we arrive at an abandoned mine.
Clearly the only move here is to play in it, so for hours, we run and jump on things that could have easily killed us, and scratch our names into the rusty tin, while laughing at all the couples who we’re sure are no longer “Andrew + Carrie Forever!”
In this moment, we are young, wild and alive.
We ride deeper into the Arizona desert and watch in awe as the sun sets over the rocks, painting the car and everyone inside of it a magnificent blood red.
As the red turns to pure, penetrating black, it’s time to pull off once again. This time, there is no little dying town, only a long desert road and a handwritten sign that reads, “Hot Springs.” Well, you don’t have to tell us twice.
The pools are built out of clay on top of geothermal springs — and are shockingly clean, despite our impression of the locals that run the place. We quickly lose our inhibitions and join the naked hippies in a relaxing state of natural bliss.
Convinced that we are definitely not going to murder her at this point, Desert Rat jumps in and opens up to us about life out here.
While there is a certain incomparable peace to this existence, there’s also a heavy loneliness that hangs over her and keeps her from creating the life she wants. We assure her that this feeling is not unique to the desert.
The cathartic moment ends abruptly as Desert Rat realizes she needs to go back to her job, so we part ways with the hippies and race back across the blackness to her sulphury home.
It’s only midnight, and we are feeling lucky, so Eric suggests we head back into the depths of the Arizona desert to see what else we find. Why not, right?
After a few hours, we come upon a welcomed site: to the left, a saloon, to the right, a motel. This must be the place.
That welcome feeling quickly ends. The second the door opens, I could swear I heard the needle scratch. I send a worried glance over to Eric, who instead, has the biggest smile on his face. Maybe we’ll get in a fight; maybe we’ll make friends. Either way, we’ll have a story, and that’s what we want.
Foolhardy, we shrug and belly up to the bar, despite every biker and hooligan in the place mad-dogging us. The bartender smirks, “You guys just passing through?” and without missing a beat, I put on my best John Wayne, “I guess you could say that.”
SLAM! She drops a thick book on the bar. “Well then, good thing it’s karaoke night.” I didn’t need the book. I tell her to put on Bob Seger and pour us a round. This is our moment.
When the dust settles and I howl the last guttural, “Here I am, on the road again…” I know we were walking out of that bar alive, but not before we shared stories with a group of the meanest bikers in the bar.
One told a story of surviving cancer and another was raising his brother’s kids after a tragic accident. All of these rough and tumble people, out in the middle of nowhere, in a town I couldn’t even get to again if I tried, and we had so much in common. We all had a story to tell, a hope for the future and love in our hearts.
Eric jokingly refers to this as the night Seger saved our lives. He may be more right than he is willing to admit. While this was certainly our first experience “on the road,” we would definitely be there again.
This was the night that we discovered with our own eyes and ears, the magic of life in America, and we had just scratched the surface of how much unadulterated beauty, fun and inspiration we can find in this amazing country… As long as we are willing to look for it.
The next day, we stopped back at the little sulphur town and without a moment’s hesitation, we jumped into the freezing cold Colorado River. It was perfect. We ordered a slice of pie from the little old lady at the diner and told her all about our adventure.
Horrified, she genuinely hoped to God that her grandchildren weren’t at all like us. This time, I knew it was a compliment.
On Monday morning, I punched the proverbial clock once again, but this time, I no longer felt trapped. I now had a mission and meaning in my life.
Over the next year, Eric and I took a series of wild weekend adventures: joining the outcasts in an abandoned military base in the Mojave, befriending a homeless folk singer under the Golden Gate Bridge, and joining an intentional commune in the Russian River Valley.
More than anything, the open road revealed my true calling to me. It filled me with such inspiration that I not only broke out of that downward spiral of my quarter-life crisis, but launched myself on a course toward a lifetime of following my dreams.
While your passion may not involve becoming a traveling storyteller, I challenge you to find out what it may be.
Take a weekend, let the road be your guide, and see what magic you can discover for yourself.
Now, get out there and start being f*cking awesome.
Photo via We Heart It