I am driving on the open road with my friends in the passenger seats and my sense of adventure waking from a long hibernation. With each turn of the Jeep’s wheels I feel my stress being left in the lurch. A dead-end internship interview and the prospect of an intense fall class schedule fade into the rear-view horizon to be dealt with in an unknown future. Sure, this is shameless escapism, but it’ll only last for four days. It might even do me some good.
In a blur of roadside poppies and mountain sequoias, a tablecloth of California landscape is pulled from underneath my feet, leaving me intact, if a bit wobbly, in Oregon.
It’s a shock to my overwhelmingly Californian sensibilities to step into a different state for the first time since eighth grade. As I drive my six-hour leg of the trip, I can’t stop looking out the window, as if I’m landing in Paris instead of simply traveling one state north. Though the landscape is often similar to what I’ve seen before, it’s the knowledge that I’ve traveled that really excites me. It’s a thrill uncommon in my life thus far, apart from my attempts to chase it in literature.
From a young age, I have been obsessed with language’s ability to transport me to distant places. It began as a love for fantasy novels like “Harry Potter,” in which new worlds were built before my eyes, inviting me into them like a tourist. As I progressed through high school, my love for fantasy waned and I instead turned to novels like Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” and Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” to shift my dreams of travel to more realistic vistas.
With fondness I remember reading and rereading Hemingway’s vivid descriptions of Spain and dreaming of seeing it with my own eyes, fact-checking his account for accuracy. And when I read Thompson’s famous opener, “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” I couldn’t help imagining a desert of my own, full of dry heat and psychedelic rainbow cacti.
Though I’m not tripping on mescaline on this particular drive, I imagine myself in Thompson’s shoes, simultaneously crossing a border into Nevada and into an adventure worth writing a novel about.
The reality isn’t quite so romantic, but in its own way it’s even better than what I’ve read. Ashley and Kris, my fellow travelers, are the perfect people to make any trip better. After teaching me the wonders of cruise control (you even stay the same speed going downhill!), we are free to joke our way across Nevada, the southwest corner of Idaho and into Oregon.
We loudly sing along to songs using lyrics from other tracks with the same chord progressions. We catch a radio station calling itself “the channel that sounds like Boise,” and I decide that, if Boise really sounds like The Chainsmokers, I will happily forego a visit. All of it is unromantic and covered in pretzel crumbs and nothing like the travel literature I’ve obsessed over, but it’s perfect.
We finally arrive in Richland, Oregon, a town of 150 residents where our friend Kirstin is living with her aunt, uncle and cousins for the summer. Tired after the trek but excited to be reunited, we play games together on the porch, then turn out the lights to watch the stars in a sky dark enough to showcase the Milky Way.
Unobscured by Berkeley light pollution, the stars seem less like distant balls of gas and more like sequins scattered across black velvet mere yards from our faces. I suddenly understand the ancient drive to make shapes in them and begin to make new constellations. I am going off the books, ignoring the canonical shapes and making my own.
Just as I repurpose the belt of Orion to become the mouth of my star alligator, I’ve also surpassed the travel narratives I was hooked on for so long. Though remnants of Steinbeck’s descriptions of Salinas and of Whitman’s images of Brooklyn Ferry continue to clatter around in my brain, I’ve added myself to them — formed them into new constellations in my own private sky.
Suddenly, the International Space Station appears and begins a measured migration over our heads. My heart leaps as my third grade dream to see it comes true. Like my childhood dream of travel, the result is not what I expected, but is somehow even better. It’s smaller than I thought it’d be, but it feels almost sacred in its silent passing.
As its point of airplane-bright light moves between the stars, I imagine astronauts looking down, making their own constellations in the lights of northeast Oregon.
Anthony writes the Monday column on literature and life. Contact him at [email protected].