When I was younger, I had been on a few family drives to Virginia to go to Busch Gardens, and Florida to go to… Busch Gardens. We didn’t like to change much once we’d found a good thing. Anyway, I never minded the distance or the length of time in the car driving out of New Jersey. There was something about being out in the world with a direction and a destination that captured my imagination and appealed to me.
But I was seventeen or so when I really caught the travel bug – specifically for road trips. We were a tight group of friends in 2002 — rebellious, creative, independent and, above all, trying to find freedom. The end of the summer break would shortly be upon us, and we were sitting around one afternoon, talking about doing something together in August.
Okay, full disclosure, we weren’t just talking. I guess it’s kind of important to the story that we were playing Dungeons & Dragons. For the record, I was never really that into role playing games. I always felt antagonized by the DM (that’s Dungeon Master in nerd parlance), the leader of the interactive story. Like as if he was just trying to frustrate and pick on me. That’s not fun.
“You see a hole.”
“I look in the hole.”
“You can’t look in the hole. It’s above your head.”
Anyhow, I was the type of kid who’d play D&D even if I hated it, and there we were sitting around on the carpet one day tossing a couple of ten sided dice — one side for each digit 0 through 9. It got me thinking. What if we threw a die five times and got a random zip code? Could we find it on a map? A real map, and not in the Land of Hyrule?
I can’t take credit for the whole idea because there were a bunch of us around at the time, and a lot of pieces quickly fell into place. It was collective. And as it turns out, it was a lot more fun to plan a trip than to pretend to fight trolls. All of us guys — Greg, Joe, Will, Eric and me — were off until September. Marissa had the same vacation, too — plus a license and a car big enough for six. We’d all saved up money lately working local summer jobs. So, all we needed was a destination.
We made up some rules: wherever we went had to be over 200 miles from home, but there was no upper limit. There was no point in going if we weren’t going far. Also, it had to have a post office, so we could send a letter home from the zip code we randomly threw. Finally, we wanted there to be some kind of camping involved if we could swing it. I think that last bit was to save money, but I can’t remember now, exactly.
After we set up the parameters, we threw the dice. Using the fledgling Internet, we tried to search up the town of the first five numbers we threw. Turns out, it didn’t exist. And neither did the next two throws. Uh oh — was this thing over before it started? The next throw was a hit… in upstate New York. It was pretty far — I think it was actually farther than the 200 mile minimum we had set up for ourselves. But something just didn’t sit right with simply crossing into New York. Growing up in North Jersey, we’d all regularly gone into Manhattan, and this just seemed like an extension of that. We arbitrarily revised the rules to say that it had to be 200 miles away AND not in a border state. Finally, we threw the dice one last time: 26160.
We typed the code into the AOL search bar (haha) and it was a hit: Palestine, West Virginia. Far, but not too far. Definitely not a border state. Post office. And with a rural population of about 400 people, we figured we’d be able to get in some camping. So that was it, we decided. We were going to Palestine. I guess I’m still surprised our parents were alright with it. They were probably glad to get us out of their houses.
The day of the trip had come, but it was a rough start that morning. Our moms were worried, of course, and they had made us pack a ton of supplies — way too much food for the basically long weekend we’d be away. Will (yes, the same Will from prior posts) was predictably late, and we got on the road well after we’d hoped to start. On top of that, the trip was pre-GPS navigation. Joe had printed out the latest advance in cool computer stuff — MapQuest directions — and he was navigating from the passenger seat. We quickly learned our first lesson about Internet maps, and it still holds true today: ignore the crazy route it takes to get onto a highway you already know. We needed a pee break before getting on the Garden State Parkway, and that’s the easiest road to find in the state!
Eventually, though, the six of us were on our way. It was a fine adventure. We were young and crazy and we were going to take Appalachia by storm.
Before the summer started, our English teacher, Dom Gliatta, who had actually gone to college in West Virginia, assigned us a purposely corny project, titled “What I Did On My Summer Vacation.” He was a generally funny guy, but he was a good teacher, too; one who would eventually inspire me to teach English myself. So, for the project, we kept insanely detailed notes in a marble composition notebook — an entry every few minutes with rotating responsibility for updating the log. It was like live Tweeting before smart phones even existed (hell, this was 2002, before cell phones as we know them even existed).
Being teenagers, we mostly wrote references to farts and genitals, drew up an ongoing list of inside jokes that were invented along the way, and, of course, sketched in a number of crude drawings. We kept license plate bingo going the whole time and saw Alaska. Plus, we included a few random notes to Gliatta to make sure we got credit. I still have the notebook today, and while it’s good to read it now and laugh, the more important take away was a lifelong habit of writing and keeping notes while traveling. While the methods of record keeping have seen some technological advances since then, the project helped set the foundation for my own writing all the way back then. That’s what a good teacher can do for ya’. Thanks, G.
We went into West Virginia with a certain set of cultural assumptions. Young punks from up north, we knew we looked like a bunch of freaks, and we figured after having watched Easy Rider recently and Deliverance the night before the trip that we wouldn’t be welcomed in this part of the country. But, as usual, our horizons were broadened by traveling. The people in Palestine couldn’t have been nicer.
It was a small town for sure, and very country. We were on old, winding, dusty roads that passed through small crops and over rocky hills, all surrounded by dense trees. When we finally found the center of town, it had, to the best of my recollection, exactly two buildings. The first was the post-office, where the mail lady behind her desk was thrilled by our adventure and was delighted to be the first to welcome us to Palestine. She gave us envelopes and stationery and stamped both the zip and the date on our letters home with her rubber cancellation, all free of charge.
Next, we crossed over to the What Not Shop. It was an old farmhouse, converted into a store that sold pretty much everything you didn’t want to buy. It was filled to the brim, floor to ceiling: old junk, new junk, records and tapes, canned goods, vintage clothes, machine parts, donated toys, plus other odds and ends up to and including (you guessed it) a kitchen sink. After touring the floor, we thanked the skinny old proprietor who had sat there like a statue — spitting tobacco, I like to imagine — and we had a Coke from the cooler outside. That was the last stop. We’d done the town.
We drove to the camp ground Marissa had looked up before we arrived. It turned out to be more of an RV park than wilderness camping, but it served its purpose. We spent the next couple of nights cooking out, swinging from trees, and gazing up at the stars. I have a distinct memory of separating from the group one night, laying on the hood of the SUV, looking up at the clear, intense night sky, filling my chest with wet cool air, and feeling a butterfly let loose inside of me, rapidly flapping and tickling my heart. I knew at that instant that what I was feeling was freedom, and I also knew that I’d never let go of the sensation. I would be a free spirit for the rest of my life.
We traveled home (take me home, country road…), made it back more alive than we’d left, and got credit for the journal when we went back to school. Score! In the spring we repeated the process of “rolling the dice” and, that time, we made it all the way out to Oklahoma City… but that’s another story.