I think most Americans have a special romanticism of the grand summer road trip adventure, and what better way to fulfil that almost obligatory urge than quitting your job, selling everything and setting off in a new-to-you 1992 Chevy motorhome? That is where I found myself after several years of trying to find a better job in a small city that has been singularly characterized by the rise and subsequent collapse of a little photographic film manufacturer Kodak. After several big career opportunities fell through, I began looking into masters degrees with a vague plan that we would relocate to whichever program I was accepted to, and in the meantime spend the summer having the road trip adventure of our dreams.
So began one of the busiest times in my life, as my partner and I began selling off everything that couldn’t fit in the little RV we bought. This included 2 cars, our restored vintage pick-up truck, a garage full of tools, and our house, while also fixing some very extensive water damage inside the RV and doing a full interior renovation. I did manage to fit in a pelican case of cameras and my stash of expired film, but that is the extent of the planning I had for any sort of photography project. The reality of our situation is that it all came together so quickly that we were still working on packing everything up and getting the RV functional the night before our house closed, and we were forced to leave the familiar comfort of our home and driveway for the unknowns of life on the road.
We hit the road on May 12th 2021 with plans to go to Florida first to visit some family, and then only a vague idea of heading out west after that. It became pretty clear right away why we were the only old motorhome on the highways. Trying to keep up with Florida traffic at 70MPH while the wind from passing semi trucks blew us all over the road set the tone for the remainder of the trip, which we tried to keep to backroads and old highways after that.
I didn’t take too many pictures from the first leg of our trip, where we went from New York to Florida, and then across the deep south to Austin, Texas.
I think that road trip photos from old forgotten towns filled with dilapidated gas stations and diners built in that post-war period of space-inspired optimism have become a cliché of film photography, but in all honesty, driving through the forgotten highways of the deep south and rural America left me feeling sad. I felt intrusive just being there, and jumping out of our obnoxiously loud and slow RV with a camera to take pictures of other’s misfortune seemed especially uncomfortable. Instead we tried to just get through it as fast as our old RV would take us, with Austin offering a brief respite from the uncomfortable realities of the deep south.
After leaving the south, we made our way to New Mexico where the heat really started to get to us. We decided to change directions and go north to the mountains of Colorado instead of continuing west to California by way of the 115°+ temperatures that were happening in Arizona. At this point we had some slight engine problems that were to plague us the rest of our trip. What was a slight stumble occasionally when leaving Austin, soon became the transmission in limp mode and the engine stalling out half way up a mountain pass after leaving White Sands National Park. So began our 3 week stay in New Mexico. We limped it up to Ruidoso, a little mountain ski town with a few auto parts stores, where I began trying to troubleshoot and replace whatever was causing the issue. After throwing just about every part I could find locally at it, we set off for Santa Fe, where we thought there would at least be a mechanic and more parts in stock.
We soon found out that we were really no better off in Santa Fe, with the only mechanics that would even look at an old RV booked at least 2 weeks out. We spent another week and a half at an uncomfortable RV park between strip malls and shopping plazas, ordering and replacing everything we could get our hands on. Eventually we had found and fixed so many issues that we were sure at least one of them was the cause of our serious drivability problems and decided to try our luck and head out. We left Santa Fe with the engine still misfiring but at least not stalling out anymore but the scenery unfolding around us as we sputtered out of town and into the desert helped calm the fears of another breakdown. The first camp spot outside of Santa Fe was surrounded by beautiful red rocks and we watched a storm roll across the valley just before an amazing sunset. It finally felt like we were on the trip we had dreamed about for years.
We made it into the mountains of Colorado on July 1st, as more heat waves hit most of the west. While lower altitudes were hitting 100°+, we spent most of July at the highest altitudes we could find in CO, hiking, biking, swimming in mountain streams, enjoying the chill of the high-altitude mornings and the absolutely incredible and constantly changing scenery of the Rocky Mountains. We hiked a 14er outside of Leadville where we started at alpine meadows in fields of wildflowers, passed glaciers and a mountain goat, and ended on a windswept summit at 14,032ft. We walked along red rock canyons, biked through fields of massive granite boulders, and wandered through old mining towns, all the while in awe of the massive peaks of the Rockies always visible in the distance. After what was quite honestly a few of the best weeks of my life, we decided it was time to head through Wyoming to check out Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.
Unfortunately what we found as we came down from the mountains of Colorado and into Wyoming is that massive amounts of smoke were blowing in from wildfires that are probably still burning across the west. After a few hazy days camping on a beautiful river, we were excited to see the National Parks. But by mid-day in the Grand Tetons, the smoke had gotten so thick we couldn’t see the mountains and it was getting hard to breathe. Alongside the constant stumbles and misfires, the AC had broken in the RV and replacement parts were unavailable so we were stuck driving with the windows open through the eye-burning thick fog of smoke and increasing temperatures, compounded by a manifold exhaust leak that blasted our feet with with hot air from the engine bay.
After frantically checking smoke maps and realizing that there would be no relief until we crossed over the Cascade mountains into western Washington, and with another heat wave in effect, we had to make the call and get across Montana, Idaho and eastern Washington as quickly as we could after a quick daytrip through Yellowstone that seemed necessary since we were already there. The next few days consisted of driving early in the morning and then hiding out at RV parks during the heat of the day, until we reached Grandma’s house in Eastern Washington. We got to spend a few days with her appreciating the amenities of a house with AC and air filters while waiting out 100°+ weather and thick hazy smoke. After that, we were just a few hour’s drive into the Cascade Mountains that separate the desert of Eastern Washington from the mild and temperate Pacific Northwest.
At this point the reality of moving for school had set in, and with tickets booked, our never-ending summer vacation all of a sudden had a very real and rapidly approaching deadline. We made it over Snoqualmie pass on August 1st, escaping the 100° smoke-filled air of the Yakima valley and found ourselves in the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen. Waterfalls, lush mountains, giant ferns and moss draped from branches surrounded us while we enjoyed the clear air and cool weather while trying to make the most of every day we had left.
The Pacific Northwest has always seemed to have some sort of draw for me, although this was my first time really experiencing it. We spent most of August around Mt. Rainier and then driving around the Olympic Peninsula. We hiked to mountain lakes and waterfalls, camped along ice-cold glacier-fed streams, and experienced some of the only remaining old-growth rainforest in the US, surrounded by 1000 year old cedar, spruce and maple trees draped in moss and surrounded by ferns. There was something inspiring, but also incredibly sad to be surrounded by 300ft tall trees, knowing that once-great forests covered the continent, but after just a few years of industrialization, this is all we have left. The massive decaying stumps constantly marking out the locations of where these giant trees had silently stood for a thousand years, and that it would take another thousand years for a forest like that to return.
We made it to the coast in mid-August and while the water was certainly not the crystal-clear blue of Pensacola, the gray, drizzly days and cool air off the ocean were an incredibly welcome change from the constant heatwaves. One particular highlight was baking fresh English muffins while watching whales and otters in the waves just off the shore from our camp spot. While the cool weather was welcome, it also brought on a feeling that this was the end of summer, and with it a realization that our summer of freedom and adventure was quickly running out while the to-do list before our move was quickly growing and taking priority.
The last few days of our RV adventure were spent at a recently logged forest outside of Seattle and it felt sad knowing that a true once-in-a-lifetime trip was over, and how much of it didn’t turn out the way we had hoped due to vehicle problems and climate events. After two days trying to make the most of very mediocre camp sight after a summer of extreme beauty, we headed into Seattle to sell off the RV and everything else that wouldn’t fit into a few suitcases. The next few weeks would be spent packing up and preparing all the paperwork necessary to move to Germany with a dog during COVID travel restrictions and enroll in university. While our great American road trip has ended, and with it maybe the romanticism of the American road trip, our adventure is not over. I am finishing writing this from our new apartment in a small city in Germany while getting ready to start classes.
I don’t have any great insight to share from the experiences we had on the road, but I know that it has changed how I view the world. Despite all the setbacks and challenges, I will always look back on our photos from this time fondly.