Four Wheels Spinning – Stories from the States #1: Full Tank – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Full Tank
August 2001: Philadelphia, PA

“So we move down the empty road. I don’t want to own these prairies, or photograph them, or change them, or even stop or even keep going. We are just moving down the empty road.”
Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

My first car
In 1995 I got my first car: a 1977, standard shift, BMW 320i. I think the original owner had a competitive streak because he revamped most of the car with racing parts. The engine was so loud that I had to shout at the person sitting next to me and the radiator was so small that the car overheated whenever it got within a ten-mile radius of a traffic jam. The gas pedal stuck to the floorboard and, more than once, I had to reach down and pull the pedal up before my car hit warp speed.

The BMW terrified me for the first few months I was behind the wheel but eventually I grew to love driving. My idea of a perfect day was to drive for hours with a friend, good music, and the windows rolled down. Not long after I mastered the art of driving, I packed off to college in Philadelphia and left my car behind. For years I tried to find a way to replicate the meditative qualities of driving, minus the actual driving, but city walking and bike riding weren’t making the cut.

In the fall of 1999, my final year of college, I ran through the list of round-the-world adventures I wanted to take when I graduated. But one trip, in a less exotic location, fought its way to the front of my mind. As kids, my friends and I would pour over maps of the United States, planning our fantasy routes across the country. Certain that our freedom was dependent upon having our driver’s licenses, we counted the years until one of us would be old enough to take us on the ultimate road trip. I knew then, that more than anything else, I wanted to drive thousands of miles, windows rolled down and music blaring, across this huge country.

I met Brian around the same time I began to plan the trip and he didn’t hesitate to sign on board. In the year since I’ve graduated, we’ve worked and saved our pennies and bought road maps and made our lists of places and people to visit. The old BMW was finally declared a nuclear hazard and shipped off to the big parking lot in the sky. I traded it in for a more reliable, but still big and loud, 2000 Jeep. We’ve begun to break down our apartment and our lives in the city, leaving our forwarding addresses, canceling utilities, selling belongings (and storing the rest in my parents’ basement – thanks again folks), and saying farewells.

The great part about travelling in your own country is that we didn’t have to plan too far ahead. There were no vaccinations or visas or plane tickets to buy. We grabbed a book that lists every campground in North America, one on independent hostels, a road atlas, and got Hostelling International memberships. Since we won’t be carrying our lives on our backs we don’t have to stress over the weight of our backpacks, which CDs to bring, or the size of our tent. I got a cell phone so we can be found by our families and for help with the inevitable flat tires and breakdowns along the way.

The other details of our trip are pretty vague and our routes are flexible. Since we’re starting the trip in September (to avoid the crowds and inflated tourist prices that plague the U.S. during the summer months) we’ll try to stay where the weather is warm and make adjustments depending on the occasional tornado, hurricane, mudslide, forest fire, or plain old snow. Although we think that the trip will probably last three months, we’re prepared to stay out longer if things are going well. We’ll be stopping at all kinds of places: National Parks, roadside attractions, big cities and small towns to find the things that are uniquely American, in ways both good and bad.

I can’t wait to fill up my gas tank (cross your fingers that gas prices don’t get any higher – we didn’t budget for $3.50 a gallon) and go driving. I’m even looking forward to getting lost. I hope you all follow along as we drive across the country, but please, do me a favor, no backseat drivers.

(A note to all the thru-hikers taking care of business on the Trail: I hope the walking is good and that at the end, if you need one, you find a ride home.)

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