Cross-Country Road Trips
Cross-country road trips seem to have always been something quintessentially American, like baseball and backyard barbeques. The road trip is an American ideal that may have its origins in the migrations West during the Great Depression; it’s also a coming-of-age journey made famous by Jack Kerouac in On the Road.
American road trips bring to mind a family that loads up the kids in the back of the station wagon or mini-van, with snacks, coloring books and children’s tapes for the trek to grandma and grandpa’s house. Or the high school graduate who packs up his Honda for the trip to college, mixed tapes made by friends, yearbooks and suitcases in the backseat.
At twenty-one years old, however, I’d never been on a long distance road trip. My first one would take place far, far away from the United States.
Five new friends and I journeyed 2,100 miles across the country of Namibia, in sub-Saharan Africa for six days. The idea of a road trip started as a vague thought, while I finished three months of study in Cape Town, South Africa. Others quickly jumped at the idea. We planned our route on the internet, rented a car and called youth hostels. Despite all this, the trip was thrown together hastily. When we crammed ourselves into our shiny silver car at 7:00 one morning in March, we didn't know what we were in for.
I was sentenced to a spot in the very back, my legs twisted underneath me in an attempt at comfort. I was one of two who did not know how to drive a stick-shift; drivers were in the front seats where they switched duties. We quickly learned that one of our drivers had bluffed about his manual driving abilities, stalling on narrow roads and causing the engine to make choking, sputtering noises. The roads in Namibia were narrow, often unpaved, twisting and coiling through the desert like a serpent, making it likely our car could tip over in the desert winds.
Namibia is a barren country; sometimes we would drive hours without seeing another car – an endless view of sand and sky. The weather was scorching, hovering somewhere in the 90s during the day. On many occasions we had to turn off the air conditioning to conserve gasoline. The nearest petrol station could be hundreds of miles away; we might not make it. Often we found ourselves packed together as tightly as the plethora of clothes in my suitcase, sweat trickling down our thighs and foreheads, taking turns staring at maps and trying to figure out the fastest, safest route to wherever it was we were headed.
I visited Namibia a full year before Brad and Angelina made it popular when they chose to give birth in the desolate country. We were unsure of Namibia’s hotspots, first making our way to the capital of Windhoek and then back down through Swakopmund, Walvis Bay and Sossusvlei. We saw some of the largest and most magnificent sand dunes in the world, spent the night in an artsy bed and breakfast, as well as a lodge where the electricity shut off at 8:00 p.m., and we swam across the Orange River.
My most vivid memories will always be our hours in the car, straining to hear our favorite music from one lousy speaker connected to an Ipod, arguing over the map, discussing our experiences. The car was where one of my loveliest moments occurred, on our last night across Namibia, when tempers were slightly on edge as we neared our fourteenth hour of driving.
We had seen the sun rise on our way to the dunes, now we were watching it set slowly beyond the horizon. There was nothing but sand for miles, it seemed possible we could be the only six people in Namibia at that moment. The country had been in a drought for months. We heard a boom, the sky unleashed. In the distance, a massive lightning storm began to crackle. With U2 playing softly on the stereo, we watched in awe as the curves of lightning lit up the still pink sky, casting a sharp glow on the empty road before us. We could not imagine anything more beautiful.
I saw more of one country in six days than I have ever seen of any other. With the crunch of sand between my teeth and in my hair, I sweated my way through that week, staring out my window at the country before me. We got two flat tires, ate nothing but chips and chocolate from gas stations and celebrated two birthdays. That trip left me feeling full and alive, and those memories still creep over me sometimes, reminding me of the wonder I experienced during that week.