A Road Trip Across the United States

Off the beaten path — somewhere near North Platte, NE

The ultimate sense of freedom is hopping in a car with a full tank of gas, some time on your hands, and wonderlust in your brain. A mentality of viewing life not in terms of a destination, but more of an ongoing story. A story that is fluid; it ebbs and flows and it rewards those who take the time to live in the moment. For me, driving gives me this satisfaction. A feeling of unparalleled freedom, that is what makes me feel alive and of this world.

A 5 week road trip that I’ve dubbed my “Western Road Trip”, which consisted of 23 states, 7 National Parks, and 20+ hours of hiking, all started with one thought: “I want to go running in Colorado”. I’m the type of person that thinks of a big idea and works backwards from it, trusting that the small details will figure themselves out. Small details such as: where I’ll eat, where I’ll stay, what I’ll do, and even how long I’ll stay in an area.

This post could easily become 30,000 words, detailing everything that I did, but I’m a minimalist and just want to convey high-level events and emotions.

The Voyage

Roadtrippers.com is perfect for cartography nerds like myself

Starting and ending at my apartment in Washington DC, there were a few meaningful choices behind some destinations that I traveled through:

  • The first stop in Pittsburgh, PA: the home away from home that I basically grew up in, and that first sparked my interest for exploring new places.
  • St. Louis, MO: The birthplace of my mother, and the official “Gateway into the West”.
  • Las Vegas, NV: About a year and a half before this trip, I was at a low point in life when I last visited the city. I knew it’d be special returning here a new person.
  • Sedona, AZ: It was here a few years ago that I fell in love with the southwest. It taught me that there is so much more to the U.S., and that our country is truly beautiful.

The Midwest

Pittsburgh, PA→ Louisville, KY → St. Louis, MO → Kansas City, MO → Lincoln, NE North Platte, NE

I originally had a pre-conceived notion that this part of the U.S. was boring. Whether it’s the lack of big cities, spaced-out population, or the flatness of the terrain, there are many other Americans that share this perspective. Naturally, I had to see the Midwest for myself, and this was the main reason that I wanted to drive, instead of fly out West. This is the beauty of a road trip: you see things that you originally wouldn’t have. It is the path less-traveled in our world of modern convenience and the increasing need for instant satisfaction.

The first sunset of the trip — Union, KY

I have to admit that even though I wanted to get to know the Midwest a bit better, I only had 3 days to drive through it to reach Colorado, only stopping through big cities and off-road truck stops. For this reason, I feel that I have unfinished business in this part of the U.S. in order to completely do it justice. With that said, not only was the scenery surprisingly beautiful, but the people were some of the nicest that I’ve met. Living in Pittsburgh for years, I always noticed that the people there were extremely down-to-earth, giving, and organic. This started to all make sense to me when I met people in these states, since Pittsburgh is considered by some to be the start of the Midwest.

Southern Illinois — Kansas City, MO — Lincoln, NE

Some thoughts going through my head from this beginning portion of the trip:

  • I’m the furthest from home that been by car. This was a surreal feeling that continued throughout my whole trip. The freedom to go anywhere; the confidence gained in myself; the thought that this traverse of America is a journey that is highly romanticized by millions, and I have the privilege to be able to do it.
  • There is beauty in everything if you notice the small details. From a plane this part of the U.S looks incredibly dull, however up-close, it is filled with beautiful experiences. Sunsets over a flowing river, the low hum of cows in an open pasture, the calmness of tall, yellow Indiangrass swaying in he wind.
  • A true feeling of being present. It’s easy to dwell on the past or the future, it’s hard to live truly in the present. This is the definition of meditation, and while I wasn’t exactly sitting crosslegged making ummm-ing noises, this drive was definitely a practice in that.
A site I never thought I’d see in person — St. Louis, MO

The West

Boulder, CO → Colorado Springs, CO → Ouray, CO → Moab, UT → Grand Canyon, AZ → Zion National Park, UT → Las Vegas, NV

The West, the reason that started this whole trip. The excuse that allowed me to justify driving 2000 miles across the country. I would spend the most time in Colorado working remote, hiking, exploring, and running. You’re surrounded by insanely beautiful nature in this part of the U.S. For example, if you base yourself in Western Colorado, you’re within a 6 hour drive to 12 National Parks. 12 parks! There aren’t even 12 National Parks east of the Mississippi. The raw beauty here can be accredited to many stark contrasts in the types of environment: mountains, deserts, rapid elevation ascents and descents. It’s truly a land of extremes.

An elevation map of the U.S. — how could the West not be beautiful?

Spending most of my time in Boulder, CO, I learned to experience life in a day. Typically starting off with a sunrise walk to find coffee which I enjoyed while reading a book in my hammock. This was then followed by 8 hours of remote working, which thanks to working on “east coast” times, I was able to wrap my day at 3pm. This was followed by a trail run or hike up into one of the many mountains in the Front Range of the Rockies where I’d stay for hours, wandering with a purpose. Whether it was an intense run up a mountain, or a leisurely hike, you feel as a kid again playing in nature. After descending the mountain, and after a much deserved shower, I’d walk to downtown Boulder at sunset for a beer, something to eat, and to meander around the lively shopping street. I call this “life in a day” because you experience every emotion in single day:

  • Excitement: A new day brings new possibilities. What can I accomplish today?
  • Fulfillment: A hard day’s work can be extremely fulfilling, especially when one likes his/her job.
  • Internal struggles: Nothing makes you doubt yourself more than when you’re on that last mile on your run, or that last ascent after hiking X amount of miles. This is when our internal chatter can get dark…
  • Overcoming: …However, overcoming these sort of things are key to building mental toughness and developing our core character.
  • Appreciation: For nature, for our lives, for another day lived to the most.
“Life in a Day” — Boulder, CO

These 2 weeks in the Boulder mountains are what I believe solidified my mental toughness, not just in physical feats, but in how I see myself as a person. It furthered the limit of what I thought I could physically and mentally achieve. To me, this was the most magical part of my trip, and I cannot wait to get back to the Boulder mountains.

The amazing thing about overcoming obstacles is the snowball-effect that it has on one’s confidence. You step outside of your comfort-zone once, experience something new, and then you file that information away in your mind. The next time something challenging pops up, you’re able to point to that previous experience and think “well, I got through the last thing that I labeled ‘hard’, why not be able to get through this next thing as well?”. This also doesn’t just apply to physical activities, but really anything outside of your comfort-zone. Anything that when mentioned, your brain scrambles to come up with reasons to convince you not to do it. My adventures in the Colorado mountains gave me the last push to tackle something that I didn’t have the courage to do the previous time: Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, UT.

Known as one of the deadliest hikes in the world, this hike is known for a half mile, 45 degree scramble up the spine of a narrow ridge. There are metal chains installed throughout the scramble due to 1,000ft drop offs on either side. It is a manageable hike that can be done safely, however the ever-lurking thought of being so high up can riddle people with anxiety. A year and a half prior when I hiked to this point, I starred at the spine for an hour debating whether or not to do it, and in the end, I turned back. This time around, I was confident in my hiking skills, but more importantly, confident in my past hardships that I’ve overcome. This led to me charging at it head on this time around.

As someone who has struggled with indecision, fear of heights, and not taking many risks, this was a huge shift in personality for me. Completing this hike is one of the things that I’m most proud of in my life.

An absolutely beautiful part of this earth — Zion National Park, UT

The Return

Sedona, AZ → Santa Fe, NM → Oklahoma City, OK → Hot Springs, AR → Nashville, TN → Washington DC

While the West was the reason for my trip, I tried to not think of leaving it as the end of my adventure. I was going to pass through states that I’ve never been to and the unknowns that lie ahead are exactly what travel is about.

The Return started with stays in 2 places that are very nostalgic to me: Sedona, AZ and Santa Fe, NM. Sedona being my first exposure to the sheer elegance of the desert, and Santa Fe for simply for the many “time stands still” moments that I experienced there. This is the thing with nostalgia, it’s an incredibly hard word to describe, as it represents a feeling that is almost like a 6th sense. Take the following examples:

  • You’re alone in nature watching a sunset. Maybe you had a great all-round day that day, and everything seems right at that point in life. This sunset is a memory that will be with you forever, accompanied by the feeling of everything being right at that moment in time. This place is nostalgic for you.
  • You visit your grandparents home as a grown up. You remember all the great times had when all family members were consistently together in the same area. You feel nostalgic about those past times; you long to be back in those days, but you are more happy that they happened. It’s bittersweet.
  • You went through a tough period in the past. You look back at that period with nostalgia; nostalgia of the bad times, but nostalgia also amplifies the small, positive details. Details such as: the people that helped get you through it; the small victories; the self-reflection had. Nostalgia can sometimes paint the past in a better light.

My understanding of nostalgia is looking back at the past by invoking memories via: revisiting physical places, music, smells, pictures, etc. To me, nostalgia is beautiful, be it good or bad memories, and it perfectly touches every emotion. To me, this is our 6th sense.

Instead of trying to apply this concept to how I feel about Sedona and Santa Fe, here are some pictures that I think do a better job:

Top row: Sedona, AZ — Bottom row: Santa Fe, NM

Gratitude and Final Thoughts

The end of a journey is usually the beginning of something bigger, be it a shift in character, the desire for more, or increased mental clarity. To me, a journey is something that twists and turns, goes up and down, and that eventually leads to something positive in the end. For me, while my journey represented a physical path traversing the U.S., it was also a mental journey that left me feeling very solid in myself.

A few things became very clear to me by the end:

  • This crazy thought that I had about moving abroad to France solidified throughout my trip. I’m currently writing this article from my apartment in Paris.
  • Humans are capable of bigger things than we may think, physically and mentally. As one of my running idols Rich Roll puts it: “We are sitting on huge reservoirs of untapped human potential”.
  • Discomfort 100% of the time leads to character development. Stepping out of your comfort zone is key to connecting with your true self.

And finally, gratitude is my biggest takeaway from this trip. Gratitude that I have a car that can grant me this type of freedom. Gratitude that my friends and family are so supportive and loving. Gratitude for modern comforts and being able to have basic human necessities. Gratitude for nature. And above all, gratitude for each new day that I’m able experience.

Grand Canyon — Northern AZ

“One today is worth two tomorrows” — Benjamin Franklin

Cloud engineer and traveler based in Paris