Day #1 of the West Trip: Don’t let it smell your fear!

We woke up at 5:00 a.m. today in a flurry of excitement. My mother is a saint, and not only is she watching my animals for me the entire time I’m away, but she also got up with us and sacrificed her truck to help us get our supplies to the RV. I do, however, have to rat her out for being a smidge mean to me (In the most loving way possible). She’s been very nervous about us driving a twenty-six foot RV when neither of us have ever driven a RV before. I came upstairs this morning, and one of the first things she said to me was “I’m extremely nervous about you driving that RV.”

To which I rolled my eyes for the millionth time and told her that we’d be fine.

“No,” she said, “I’m worried about you driving the RV.”

So, there ya’ go. A girl can’t run over her own sister in her own driveway just one time without being labeled a bad driver forever.

Rude.

My uncle also got up before the sun to help us, and we are also in his debt. We had the last of our supplies loaded up by 6:30 a.m. (The photography gear. Yay!), and we were on our way to North Atlanta RV Rental around 7:00 a.m.

I have nothing but good things to say about North Atlanta RV Rental. They’ve been so incredible! We found them way back in October, and they had the nicest vehicles at the best prices by far. Not only that, the employees and owner are the nicest people ever. I spoke mainly with Mandy and Jennifer, and they were always available and always extremely pleasant, even when we were calling them in a panic about the government shutdowns potentially ruining our trip. Mandy and Angie were at the site with the RV ready to go at 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday, and they did it with smiles on their faces. They were just as excited as we were! I think they even had a little heart-to-heart with my mom when we weren’t looking. She was so nervous!

Angie's picture
Angie from North Atlanta RV Rental was very excited for us!

We had the paperwork done and the RV loaded by 9:00 a.m., and after hugs goodbye to my uncle and mother (and yet more reassurances that we would come back intact and healthy), we were off.

Debora, RV, and me
Our last photo in Georgia before we set off for the West! 

Now, here was our first mistake. My partner drove first, and the plan was that I would begin to unpack and organize our supplies once we were confident that she would be okay without a co-pilot. We put the produce on the counter, and it took one turn about five minutes into our trip for the Blueberry Apocalypse of 2019 to occur. I’m happy to report that that was the only mishap of the day, but I can tell you that I did not expect to be kicking blueberries out the door of a RV when I woke up this morning. If you don’t want your item to go flying when you start driving, put it away!

Anyway, the blueberries suffered an undeserved fate, and we miss them.

We crossed the Alabama line at about 11:00 a.m., and that’s when things got a little interesting. As far as days for learning how to drive a RV go, today fell just barely short of being considered “Trial by Fire.” The weather was awful in the South today. As I type this, I’m checking to see if we’re still under a Tornado Warning (We are.). By some miracle, the torrential rain kept missing us, but the wind was really incredible. We’re in a tall, twenty-six-foot-long vehicle, and you can feel every gust, especially as you move back toward the end of the RV. Remember how I was supposed to be unpacking? Guess who got tossed in the closet after a particularly strong gust of wind?

Sweet Home Alabama
We put State #1 behind us!

The good thing is that the RV is rather loud when it is in motion, so me flailing across the RV and smacking my head on the DVD player half a dozen times went largely unnoticed by my partner, who was trying to keep the beast under control. I gave up after the closet fiasco and co-piloted from the passenger’s seat, where it was safe. We finally had to stop about forty-five minutes from the Mississippi line because a strong line of storms was coming at us, so we got to eat lunch and hang out with a bunch of 50+ foot trucks for two hours. It was actually pretty fun.

My turn to drive came in Mississippi at about 5:00 p.m. Not too long after we crossed the state line, my partner finally felt like the wind had died enough that I wouldn’t have a panic attack the moment I started driving the RV for the first time.

Welcome to Mississippii
Followed quickly by State #2!

It was a good choice, because good lord, this thing can wiggle. The only thing I can compare it to is when I used to ride horses frequently. Sometimes, you get a bull-headed, arrogant one who doesn’t want to listen. About the only thing you can do in either situation is maintain calm and make slow, calculated movements to correct problem behavior. When a gust of wind hit the first time, it was almost like being punched. It really startled me. When I finished driving about two hours later, correcting for wind felt pretty natural, so overall, it’s something that you get used to pretty quickly. Semi-trucks were also a pain in the rear end. I could always feel one coming up behind me because they create a sucking sensation, which is pretty much the opposite of a wind gust. Also easy enough to correct but also really annoying.

All in all, today was a good day to learn how to drive a RV. My partner and I both did very well, and even with the wind, the scariest moments still only equated to briefly gripping the steering wheel a little harder. We’ve stopped for the night at a rest station with a security presence, so we feel really safe. Tomorrow will probably be another solid day of driving, and I expect us to reach Big Bend National Park in Texas sometime Monday.

 

Saying goodbye is always the hardest …

“Of all possessions, a friend is the most precious.” – Herodotus

I was a weird kid.

That’s probably an understatement.

I can remember being maybe eight years old, picking up the phone while my mother stood over me with her arms crossed.

“Call a friend. Any friend. Tell her you want to play.” She said. It had probably been a month since I last had another kid over. My mom, being the good mom that she is, wanted me to retain some social skills, particularly after my Girl Scout leaders had pulled her aside to ask her if I had special needs (I eventually forced her to let me quit that). Apparently, it’s weird to sit in a corner by yourself with acorns because you want to understand how oak trees grow out of them (My mom almost wrecked the car a decade later when I admitted to her that’s what I was doing.)

Unfortunately for my mom, I was happy being a weird kid, so, aside from a few amazing individuals, who I am still friends with to this day, organizing play dates continued to be like pulling teeth.

I was a weird teenager, too. That one is definitely an understatement. My oddities as a teenager stemmed from social anxiety more so than being an introverted nerd. Acorns no longer interfered with my social interactions, at least, but my parents’ concerns had become a reality.

I had been home-schooled for five years at that point. They sent me back to public school in the 9th grade.

Yes, poor me. What a transition.

I was coming out of my silent phase, where I literally hadn’t spoken for a year. I had no social skills left, despite my parents’ best efforts. I didn’t think it would be possible for me to make friends. We had moved over a year earlier, and I had been completely ostracized by anyone my age. Some kids actually admitted being scared of me, which is hilarious because I pretty much just curled up into a ball and stayed silent anytime someone my age got near me. I had already given up on being accepted by the time I got to public school. I was such a weird little thirteen-year-old. Despite that, two equally weird teenagers (though in dramatically different ways) decided to hold me hostage within the bonds of their friendship. “Hanging out” was more like them dragging my awkward little hide to the movies, mall, etc. and almost literally having to explain “This is fun. You like fun. We promise, you’re having fun.” Friends #2

And that’s the way it was for three years.

And then college. Oh, boy. College.

The first three years of college were a train wreck. Crippling social anxiety among other issues almost destroyed me. I tried so hard, but I didn’t think I’d fit in anywhere. I jumped schools three times and spent the entire horrible endeavor feeling like a pariah.

I started at Kennesaw State University in 2014, and it was the best decision of my life. The first year was much the same as it had been. I was largely alone. My high school saviors were still away at their other schools. I had mostly resigned myself to my fate by the time the first day of Microbiology rolled around. Of course, that was when fate brought me the most bubbly, hyper, blonde eighteen-year-old in the world and virtually dropped her in my lap.

She was late. The seat next to mine was the only one open. I nearly cowered when she sat down next to me and said “HELLO!” in the most boisterous manner inhumanly possible.

And then I got kidnapped into friendship. Again.

The blonde chick had other hostages, too, and it was her mission that we all would become friends. So, a miracle happened, and I had friends, and my crippling social problems started to vanish for the first time in my life.

Then, another miracle happened. I felt confident enough to start doing research as an undergrad. I joined TWO labs and worked with people. My mentors were proud of me. I was good at it, and as my confidence from that grew more, perhaps the final miracle happened: I felt confident enough to go make friends by myself for the first time in my entire life. Finally, at twenty-one years old, I started to figure out how to be a human being.

And thank goodness for that, because what came next was graduate school, and you do NOT survive graduate school without a support group.

I was gifted a cohort of seven amazing, brilliant individuals by Emory’s GMB program. They started my program with me. A girl from Kennesaw came to Emory the next year, and I finally got to kidnap someone into friendship with me for the first time. Another girl and I bonded over books, and she’s now my biggest cheerleader when it comes to my writing career. I grew to be a really great mentor and colleague. I managed to do a lot of things that I’m very proud of.

Friends #3

I’m telling this story because today I said goodbye to my friends. My partner has a job offer in San Diego, and there is a very good chance that, after my trip, Atlanta will no longer be my home, and I will not be close to them anymore. My friends have been by me through a lot: high school, college, graduate school, when I came out, when I bought and sold my house, when I published my first book, when my dad had to go to Afghanistan for the millionth time, when I lost my horse … I would not have met my partner without one of them, and all of them are responsible for that fact that I have gotten this far. Life absolutely would not be the same without them, and to be honest, they are a miracle.

Today, I said goodbye to THIRTEEN friends, and those were just the ones who managed to get out of their lab obligations. Nearly twenty years ago, I would have been skeptical that I would have that many friends. Ten years ago, I would have said it was impossible.

Thank you for the memories, guys. Each of you was one of the best things to ever happen to me. I can’t wait until our paths cross again.

How the West Trip started: Sometimes, you just have to break your chains.

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” – Helen Keller

I’m not entirely sure what happened. You could argue that this has been coming all along, but I was just too distracted to see it. Those who know me say it came out of the blue. Maybe it was a bit of both? Either way, this is happening. From March 9, 2019 to May 10, 2019, I will be traveling the West, stopping at no less than twenty-seven national parks and monuments before coming home just a mere two days before graduation. Am I crazy?

Yes, but we all knew that.

I’ve always loved traveling. I have been to Costa Rica, the Czech Republic, South Africa, and India. One of my greatest laments about graduate school was how I never had the time to travel anymore. I used to daydream about where I would go once I was finally out: Greenland, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Canada … The list just goes on and on. It was this common interest — among others, of course — that my partner and I bonded over when we first met. I think she is the one who planted this insane idea in my head, but I don’t think she ever expected me to run with it!

The initial conversation was simple enough. It was during a phone call in May 2017 (before we had even met in person) when my partner nonchalantly said, “It’s on my bucket list to travel the United States in a RV one day.”

My response was “Oh, cool! I’d love to do that, too!” I wasn’t even remotely aware what events had been set into motion. I don’t think either of us ever thought we would actually do it.

Flash forward a year and a half later, and I was sitting at our dining room table, having just moved into her apartment. It was October 10, 2018. I barely had a grip on what was left of my sanity while I forced myself to finish my dissertation with what remained of my brain cells. There aren’t enough words to describe how brutal getting my Ph.D. was, so I won’t even try. Just understand that I probably hadn’t seen much of the sun in four years, let alone taken some time off when I checked the news and was greeted with the headline “Baby set to finish road trip to become youngest person to visit all 50 states.” A five-month-old baby named Harper was about to see all fifty states, and I, at twenty-six, had been sacrificing major life events and time with loved ones for essentially my entire life to pursue my education. Missed funerals, birthdays, working during family vacations — Hell, I finished twelve hours of time points just in time to jump in my car and drive to my sister’s wedding with bags under my eyes and the distinct feeling that I might just keel over before I got there.

It was a wake up call. I was a workaholic who had set aside no time to enjoy life. I was burned out and hardly recognized myself anymore, and that abrupt realization was about as sobering as diving into a pool in the dead of winter.

I pointed the news article out to my partner. She was jealous, too, though I don’t think it elicited quite the same existential crisis as it did in me.

“We could do that, too.” I told her.

She just kind of laughed and said, “Sure, in forty years when we’re retired.”

I expected to just brush the thought of traveling off, but I ended up laying in bed all night, and my mind would NOT let it go. I got up the next morning after having gotten almost no sleep thinking about it.

“You know, we really could do that trip right now if we wanted to.” I told my partner.

She actually stopped in her tracks the second time I mentioned it and just stared at me.

“Wait … You’re serious?”

There was this nervous, excited glint in her eyes when she asked. It would actually take two more months of me laying out the logic of doing the trip now before she agreed verbally, but I knew just by the look in her eyes that we were going. It’s the perfect time. I defended my dissertation on October 23, 2018. After that, I was free. My partner graduated with her MPH in August and is currently in the process of making a career change. We both have more than enough in savings to make this happen, and with both of us looking for jobs at the same time, it is a perfectly natural place to take a pause and go travel.

So, for four months, we have planned this trip. It’s had its ups and downs already. We found the perfect RV to rent after days of searching. We have sixty-one days to do this, but because states like Oregon, Washington, and Montana stay cold for so long, we had to cut places like Olympic National Park and Glacier National Park from our trip. We’ve decided we’ll include them in our next adventure. We have mapped our entire route, and we have reservations at every RV park we need. The first government shutdown of 2019 almost turned us gray as we waited to see if there would even be national parks to go to, but the second shutdown did not happen, so the universe seems to have decided that we are meant to go on this trip. All that’s left is to finish packing two months of clothes and food (we’re almost done), and in almost one week, we’ll finally be taking the trip of a lifetime! (Pro tip: If you really want to look like a Doomsday prepper, I dare you to buy fifteen cartons of non-perishable milk at one time.)

We are absolutely beside ourselves with excitement! For those who want to follow our adventures, I will be posting updates on this blog almost daily. Wish us luck! This will be quite the experience!

The complete list of sites were are visiting is below:

Big Bend National Park

White Sands National Monument

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

Bisiti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness

Monument Valley

Arches National Park

Canyonlands National Park

Capitol Reef National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Zion National Park

Horseshoe Bend

Antelope Canyon

Grand Canyon National Park

Sedona

Sequoia National Park

Lake Tahoe

Fly Geyser

Sheshone Falls

Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Yellowstone National Park

Devil’s Tower National Monument

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Badlands National Park

The Gateway Arch

The Great Smoky Mountains