The trunk door of my Ford Escape slams shut, packed full of everything I had to my name. Walking back around the car, I climb into the driver’s seat and close the door. While wispy clouds of icy exhalation permeate inside with every breath, I start the ignition and take off down the road.
Despite the thick, pre-dawn darkness, the silhouetted peaks of the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains loom from a star-lit canopy above. Before long, Reno’s neon-colored casino skyline was fading in the rearview mirror while the daybreak of dawn unraveled before me.
For the next several hours, I navigate the vast basins and ranges of central Nevada, the arid landscape at times cloaked in a blanket of white snow. They say the color white means “pure,” thus implying an ironic finish to the absolutely un-ironic place that is Reno, Nevada.
In many ways, what I experienced in Reno was real. It’s a city that offers refuge to a broken spirit, one not unlike mine when I moved there just weeks after returning to the United States after two years of living abroad in Grenada.
But Reno didn’t care about my personal state of affairs. The town continued on as it always has and likely always will: as an unapologetically dusty, high-desert casino town tucked into the Sierra Nevadas.
It was my home when the pandemic hit and the world came to a screeching halt, a once-in-a-century event that will resonate with each and every one of us who were fortunate enough to live through it. I’ll never forget the heartbreaking stillness during the peak of the initial lockdown, when I’d park at the top of a suburban hillside to look out on the silhouetted skyline in the valley below. I always loved the brightly-colored casino lights of Reno’s skyline, a neon rainbow radiating its enticement through the darkness. But during the lockdown, when all the casinos were closed and shuttered, the city became a dark and empty shell of what I previously knew it to be.
As time went on and the world sputtered to an on-again off-again start, one we’re still working through today, I slowly fell more and more in love with the place they call, “The Biggest Little City.”
So now, as I drive across US-50, affectionately known as “The Loneliest Road in America,” I’m accompanied only by these thoughts and the open road. Five hours having gone by, I turn into the Visitor Center parking lot at Great Basin National Park, located along the remote Nevada-Utah border.
Although the Visitor Center itself was closed due to COVID, I snagged a park map from the door-side box and returned to my car, the only one in an otherwise empty lot. Then, appearing almost out of thin air, a Park Ranger strides across the lot and toward the Center.
“Excuse me!” I call out, opening the door and slipping on a mask. “I’m just passing through and have to make it to Moab tonight, but I was hoping to stretch my legs and get a quick hike in while there’s still daylight. Do you have any recommendations on what I can do?”
He pulled his gaiter up over his nose and offered his suggestions on the map I had in front of me. When he saw the Ohio plates on my car, he acknowledged he himself grew up in Columbus and attended Ohio State, before moving out West.
“It’s peaceful out here, man,” he said, the inflection of his tone giving away his hidden smile as he gestured to the barren mountain and basin range behind him. “I mean, what more could you want?”
I couldn’t help but smile back. I thanked him for his time and left for a quick hike to the Petroglyphs on the Pole Canyon hike, just as he recommended. But over the next two hours, which was much longer than I originally planned for, I hiked through the snow-covered paths of Grey Cliffs and Pole Canyon. The mountains towered majestically over the alpines, aspens, and pines as a single airliner left a white jet stream in an otherwise cloudless sky.
I never did find those Petroglyphs. Between the vague directions, snow-covered trail, quickly fading daylight, and plummeting temperatures, I hurried back to my car as the sun began to paint the sky with its steady decline.
Spring-loading out of the park and down the high-desert road, a herd of elk could be seen grazing in the distance. With a sleepy, one-stoplight town on the outskirts of the Great Basin, the elk were practically the only sign of life I’d seen all day. Yet, even they appeared as if to bid a fond farewell.
But now my attention turns to the remaining five-hour drive ahead of me. Having spent more time hiking than I intended, that meant most of my drive through the mountains of western Utah would have to be done through a curtain of darkness. As the hours passed by, the dashboard’s temperature gauge continued dropping and dropping until it steadied at an icy nine degrees.
Yet the weather and the roads remained clear as I maneuvered the steep slopes of the Utah mountains, silently hoping I wouldn’t have to use the snow-chains I bought solely for this part of the trip.
The semis and shipping trucks barreled past at the mind-boggling 80 mph limit around the slopes and curves of the steep mountain roads. Having grown accustomed to driving over mountain passes while road-tripping across the American West last summer, I was content to keep moving at my own pace, even as I pulled off to the narrow shoulder on the side of the mountain road.
Slipping out of the car and dashing to the far side before traffic came to pass, it took a few moments for my eyes to accommodate the darkness without headlights. Crossing my arms to preserve heat in the below-freezing temps, a small lake lay ensconced between the road and a mountain peak beyond it. Above, a crystal clear sky glimmered with more stars than one could ever hope to imagine.
But as enthralling as the serenity of the scene was before me, my fingers and toes quickly began to numb. Satisfied with this brief respite from the road, I jumped back in the car and shot down the mountain, onward to Moab.
The next morning a dense fog blanketed the roads, leaving only the foundations of burgundy rock visible underneath it. This gave an aura of mystery to the town of Moab, leaving one to wonder what magnificent secret the fog must be hiding. But as the car ascended through winding turns up into Arches National Park, the fog slowly melted away to reveal its jaw-dropping secrets.
And when I say jaw-dropping…I mean jaw-dropping.
Massive rock structures stand proudly from an otherwise flat landscape, each one a tribute to some foreign or ungodly world. Pockets of tourists stood aside their cars, necks craning as they took pictures of the monoliths that dwarfed them. A soft snow hushed the air, demanding forbearance from the distant canyons so no one dared disturb them.
Pulling into a half-filled parking lot, I stepped out into the burgeoning sunlight as the clouds finally began to dissipate. Strapping on my hiking boots and slipping a backpack on my shoulders, I began the mile-long hike to a feature of Utah so iconic, it’s prominently featured on their state license plate: Delicate Arch.
Perched on the cusp of a canyon cliff, Delicate Arch appears as simple as it is iconic. Its rock seems coiled and spring-loaded, as if a child has it prepared and ready to be launched into the canyon below. Only time will tell when that tension will be released, its collapse said to be inevitable to happen in our lifetime.
A few miles on, I’m left scrambling hand over foot as I scale the smooth, snow-covered rock to reach the other Arches before it once again gets too dark.
First was Landscape Arch, a long and narrow natural bridge tempting the likes of a tight-rope walker to try it. Climbing onward, someone has scrawled “[Heart] Humans” in the snow, offering a moment of brief contemplation to all those who pass, particularly in this time of such global strife. Once atop the cliffs, I warm my hands as I survey the Double O Arches before me, tucked away in its own hidden corner of the vast desert expanse.
The winter sun, however, continues its rapid decline as I race back to my car and finish the day at The Windows. Here, amongst people laughing and taking pictures with friends and family alike, I become consumed with capturing the fading sun as it cast the surrounding rocks in a fiery glow. It was a jaw-dropping finish, to a jaw-dropping day.
Yet time is of the essence, so the next morning I embarked on yet another ten-hour drive to the small town of Crestone, Colorado. Day three on the road has brought an onset of fatigue, thus the steaming cup of a cheap McDonald’s coffee in the console beside me. The Rocky Mountains didn’t hesitate to make their presence felt, either, demanding my full attention to its winding and curving roads. Cruising through Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, a fresh coat of snow peacefully settled around the alpine lakes and covered the Rocky Mountain slopes.
As the hours passed by the road eventually flattened out, but not without another mountain range looming menacingly in the distance. Yet as another hour goes by, the mountains didn’t seem to get much bigger, nor I that much closer. That is, until I find myself settled in the quirky mountain town of Crestone. A town of curious character, I dressed in several layers before walking about its streets to get a sense of the people who call this remote place home. The now-familiar numbing cold returned to my fingers and toes, but something prevented me from retreating to the warmth and safety of my AirBnB.
Captivating my attention was arguably one of the most majestic sunsets I’ve ever seen, as I remain perched on a roadside tree stump with a camera in-hand. Those who’ve followed my travels before, know that sunsets have always been something I’ve felt compelled to chase. There’s a peaceful and inevitable finality to them, something that I think we all seek to attain, whether we realize it or not.
Yet what was so striking about this one was not only its vibrancy, or its color, but its sheer unexpectedness. It appeared almost suddenly, boldly proclaiming to the world that even a shanty town such as Crestone is worthy of such a beauty and grace, so long as one took the time to recognize it.
The next morning came with a stiff and lumbering stretch under a sunny morning sky, before jumping back in the car for what this time would be a twelve-hour drive to Kansas City. Not without, however, a brief stop at Great Sand Dunes National Park, located an hour’s drive south of Crestone. A relatively small park compared to the others I’ve been lucky enough to see, but unique and impressive nonetheless. Trudging through the towering dunes of sand, it was a curious feeling to still be surrounded by a wall of earthly mountains. The air up here was particularly thin, carrying even the slightest audible laugh or conversation straight across the stillness of the valley.
From there, it was across the golden fields of eastern Colorado, passing isolated towns of barns and silos with the occasional wind turbine waving me by. A curtain of darkness quickly began to fall, knowing its increasingly-present winter role, as I cross the border into Kansas for the remaining five hours to Kansas City consumed in its darkness.
After six long days of double-digit hour drives, I finally crossed into Ohio, paying quick visits and staying with family along the way to break up the rest of my journey. A brief hello to my cousin Shannon in Cincinnati with her then days-old son, then a gracious overnight stay with cousin Billy with his small family in Dayton. After a final overnight stop with my brother Jeff in Columbus, I was home by Christmas Eve and the subsequent holiday season.
Almost five months have passed since the time of this road trip. I won’t sugar-coat the fact that these few months have been a particularly challenging stretch of time for me.
For the first time in my life, I’m left without answers. These past few years, I carried an innate sense of pride in myself for being one step ahead of the game, always knowing how my life’s journey would and should play out according to my hopes and visions. But after earning my degree in Journalism with an emphasis in Media Innovation in December 2020, my time in Reno was over and it seemed my fortuitous luck in always being a step ahead had finally run out.
I’ve been back home in Cleveland for awhile now. I’ve been fortunate to stay with family and have remote work to keep me occupied and get me by, while I send out what seems like a fresh wave of full-time job applications almost daily.
Yet, it’s clear to me the world is still recovering from the past year and a half. The year of 2020 forced a reckoning on each and every one of us, galvanizing the world into identifying our values as a society and what we truly hold dear. Although we’re still recovering, there are finally burgeoning signs of hope, re-birth, and healing.
Nevertheless, to say these past few months have been frustrating would be a bit of an understatement. I’m ready for what’s next, but I’m working on my patience in getting there. After all, for the better part of the past four years I’ve lived out of a suitcase, traversing the world with an endless and insatiable desire to chase some vague sense of a dream.
At the end of last year, I once again had to say goodbye to a place and people I grew to love. As I left Reno and began my trek home, I drove along “The Loneliest Road in America,” for much of the way, contemplating how that city and my experiences there, both the good and the bad, have shaped me today. But for now, it seems like I’m spending more time on, “The Road Going Nowhere Fast.”
Yet, like every long journey in this endeavor of life, sometimes you’re forced to stop for a maintenance check, whether you want to or not. It’s a lesson I’ve had to wrestle and grapple with, particularly over these past few months at home.
From the moment I graduated college and hopped on a plane to Miami to start my Peace Corps journey in the Eastern Caribbean, my life never stopped moving, even when the world itself slammed on the brakes.
So I guess that’s why I’ve put off sharing this trip on here for so long, as if by waiting long enough some awe-inspiring lesson would simply manifest about why a trip like that was so invaluable as I unveiled my next life step in some grandeur austerity. But this trip did become an appropriate next chapter to this blog, having its own set of unique experiences, lessons, and stories to share that I wouldn’t trade for the world, even though my life since then has largely been put on hold.
Apparently somewhere along the way, my check engine light came on and I didn’t see it coming.
It was time to take it into the shop.