I have this paper map in my car where I’ve been highlighting every stretch of road I’ve driven on in the past 3 1/2 months, and there’s not a very simple explanation to the 12,000-mile line I’ve drawn. The places I’ve been, driving around, finding a storyline about the mythical American road trip, don’t fit into one category. The line goes where it goes, through Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Montana, Washington, Oregon, Nevada and California, are because there are dots along it that are one of the following:
- Climbing destinations (Sawtooth Mountains, Yosemite, Cascades, Rainier, City of Rocks, etc.)
- Places I’ve seen in photos and wanted to see in person (Wind River Range, Oregon Coast,
- Cities where my friends live (Seattle, Missoula, SLC, Portland, Salem, San Francisco, etc.)
- Places important to the lives or deaths of some of my literary heroes (Ernest Hemingway, Norman Maclean, Jack Kerouac)
In drawing that line, I started to think that everyone who’s got some sort of interest in the outdoors, whether it’s climbing, kayaking, skiing, mountain biking, or whatever, thinks a different thing when they see a map. Maybe you have five rivers you want to fish in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, or four surf breaks in California. Maybe you want to climb the three big Cascade volcanoes in California, Oregon and Washington.
Sometimes those destinations come together in a single road trip, whether it’s a completely well-planned, one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-lifetime trip like Rick Olson’s Playground Tour, or a couple visiting every national park in Utah on their way from Phoenix to Denver, like I did with my then-girlfriend in 2005. I spent several hours last summer trying to find multi-pitch alpine rock climbs within 100 miles of the Continental Divide in each of five states — New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana — thinking it would make a great north-to-south road trip someday.
What does your map look like? Mountain biking in Crested Butte, Fruita, Moab, Squamish? Raft trips in the Grand Canyon, Cataract Canyon, and the Gates of Lodore? What are the three, four, five destinations you have in mind when you look at a map of the western U.S., or the Northeast? What’s your tick list of things to do before you die, and what do you think about if you spread a map out on your kitchen table and let your mind move your finger around from state to state?
When I see a national weather map, my brain always translates it into terms of climbing and outdoor adventure. How’s the weather in Vegas? Cool enough to climb at Red Rocks? How hot is it in Phoenix? Because the temperature there is the same as it is in Phantom Ranch, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Is it raining in Seattle, snowing on Rainier, snowing on Mount Hood? Too cold in Montana to backpack in Glacier National Park?
And one more map to think about: A few weeks back, I was talking to a friend who travels all around the West for her job. I asked her, How far are you, at any time on the road, from people you love? Meaning, when you drive across the West, at what point are you furthest from a couch or a guest bedroom and a shower, from people who open their front door and hug you when you show up? At a point between Missoula and Seattle, I was about four hours away, in either direction — if my car totally blew up, I could hop on a bus for a short ride to that hug, shower and couch, in either direction. I am lucky to have friends in a lot of cities in the West, but Nevada is a big blank spot, and so is San Diego, or maybe I’d be buying a surfboard for December. Which could create yet another map in my mind, running up the West Coast: Five Places for Shitty Surfers to Surf Where No One Can Laugh at Them.