It’s the Summer of 1992 and with my newly acquired driver’s license in hand, I’m cruising the backroads of McHenry County, Illinois just before dusk- windows of my Honda Civic rolled down, humid scents of a Midwestern summer in the air, and wind whipping my hair in my face with the tunes of the catchy early ’90s hit, “Life is a Highway” blaring from the tape deck. More than 20 years later, I can still vividly recall that drive and the discovery of a newfound feeling of freedom that would become a driving force in my life.
Looking back on my childhood, many of my favorite memories either revolve around or directly involve riding in a car. My parents divorced when I was very young, so like many other Gen X’ers, I split my time between living with my mom and visiting with my dad. Every third weekend, my dad would make the four-hour drive north to my mom’s house and pick me up to spend the weekend with him at my grandparent’s house, another 45-minute drive away. During summer breaks, he would pick me up and immediately turn around and drive us back to his house in Central Illinois to swim, eat frozen custard, and try to perfect my Putt-Putt game. On our drives, we would compete in intense battles of the alphabet game and 20 Questions (I can’t tell you how many times my dad stumped me with Emerson Fittipaldi); and because VW Beetles were still everywhere, we engaged in a fair amount of Slug Bug arm punching. Visiting my dad was like taking a mini vacation from school, chores, and defending myself from two younger, energetic brothers; and because so much of my time in the car was spent with my dad, I came to associate the car with a sense of freedom, fun, and an escape.
As I got older and had the ability to drive myself places, my love for being in the car grew. Not only could I enjoy the peaceful time while I was in the car, but I could choose when and where to explore and gained an appreciation for the excitement that comes from visiting new places. Throughout college and the remainder of my 20s, I was an eager and excited tourist and spent most of my free time visiting all corners of Colorado and as much of the West as possible with my limited budget. Regardless of what was happening in my life, I can’t recall a single road trip that I don’t associate with positive memories. While I can look fondly upon these experiences, it wasn’t until April 2007 during a solo road trip that I discovered a true passion for being on the road and the thousands of miles waiting to be explored.
We’ve all been there, muddling through the aftermath of a major life event that leads to a reevaluation and if your life’s current direction forward is still the right one. In April of 2007, I bought my dream car- a Subaru Outback. With a sunroof, leather seats, and iPod connection, it was exponentially nicer than any other car I’d owned and I wasn’t even off the dealership lot before I’d mentally planned at least two road trips for that upcoming summer. Just two days after buying the car (with the help of my fellow car-loving dad), my yellow lab and constant companion, Mick, and I hopped in the car and headed into the sunset.
Back in the days before GPS, a well-worn road atlas guided my route west until I eventually stopped for the night in Tucumcari, NM. Tired and a tad bit nervous about being in a new place all alone, I concentrated on getting settled into a motel just off the interstate and didn’t give much more than a passing glance to anything else in the area. That all changed when I woke up the next morning to find breakfast; a few blocks in to the main part of town and I found myself driving through a world of old neon signs, rundown motels, and quickly came to discover that this was “the” Route 66 of American folklore. Aware of America’s most famous stretch of pavement, popularly referred to back in its heyday as the Mother Road, but having little knowledge beyond the basics provided by some required high school reading (The Grapes of Wrath) and a catchy song from the ’40s (Get Your Kicks (on Route 66) ), I felt a quick and strong connection to the history of the road, the to-be-discovered stories of those that had traveled before me, and the simple, yet compelling lure of the road ahead. An American history buff, I will proudly admit that I can list all of the presidents in order, my discovery of Route 66 tapped into my love of U.S history, cars, and the call of the open road. If I had to put a label on that trip, I’d call it “love at first ride” or “when I fell for Americana”; either way, it was the beginning of an obsession that would ultimately lead to our creation of Tin Sheets to the Wind.
After hopping back on the interstate that morning, green road signs flashing by mile after mile – of which I would consider myself an expert from a childhood playing hundreds of rounds of the alphabet game – I began my hunt for more miles of Route 66 to explore. Much of I-40 was constructed over the original Route 66 (which is a sad story for another day), so it’s only possible to access stretches of the old road in the little towns that dot the interstate. Their main streets were once thriving; a hopping, neon-lit destination for travelers as they explored the country by car along the Mother Road. Even though I was headed to the Grand Canyon and knew I had some distance to go, I couldn’t stop myself from pulling off at each town – Santa Rosa, Moriarty, Grants, and Gallup in New Mexico; Holbrook and Winslow in Arizona – and taking pictures, mostly of once glorious, now neglected neon signs, it didn’t matter if they were for motels, restaurants, or car dealers. I honestly can’t say if I’d ever even noticed neon signs before that day. I’ve always considered myself a good tourist, but something changed on that trip. Once the neon sign seeking started, I found myself compelled to stop at other tourist attractions that I probably wouldn’t have considered previously- Petrified Forest National Park, Geronimo- the World’s Largest Petrified Tree, Clines Corners, and more.
I spent the next night in Flagstaff, Arizona, continued traveling, and a night or two later ended up in a vintage, dog-friendly motel in Williams, Arizona. I wish that I could remember the name of that motel because in the morning, something was different. To say that I woke up a totally new person or that my future was suddenly clearly defined would be great, but it wasn’t that easily defined. Something had changed though. For the first time in my life, I woke up and accepted that the only person that I had to make happy that day was me. After taking my time waking up, checking out of the motel, and exploring the town as I drove around in search of a cup of coffee, I eventually headed out to my final destination. This road trip, my first completely solo one (outside of driving home from college), took that feeling of freedom that I found when driving and made it even more significant. I knew that wherever I ended up, road trips – whether it be getting away for a night or taking months to travel the entire country – were something that I would make a significant and active part of my life.
Fast forward a year and I’m hitting the road with my boyfriend (now husband) for our first road trip together and it was quickly apparent that two road trip-loving, fast car enthusiasts had found one another. Many years of day trips, weekends exploring ghost towns, and just being in the car together ultimately created a passion for us not only to travel more together, but it to make it our lifestyle. To say we are excited is an understatement.
We’ve chosen a target departure date of September 15th, which means we’re only 3 months and 21 days away…but who’s counting.
*On a side note, I never realized until writing this how great my dad was for doing such a crazy amount of driving and spending at least a weekend a month at his parent’s house (when he was in his 40s and 50s!), just so he could see me. Thanks, Dad!