In June 2013, while living and working in Fort Worth, Texas, I made my first solo road trip. Later in the summer, I decided to write about my experience, focusing on how the trip taught me to cherish the moment.
There’s a wheat field beside a long stretch of road on Route 6 just past Marlin where I decide to pull over. I made up my mind quite a while back that I wanted to take a picture of the highway sign, for no particular reason other than I liked road signs. It’s about 1:15 in the afternoon and I’m making good time, not that I really care about staying on a schedule today. I could have stopped a number of times before this point; there were a lot of highway signs along the southbound road. But I decide to stop at this one because I’m getting antsy and just want to take the picture already.
Unfortunately I overshoot the sign by 20 yards and have to take the long walk back towards it. I walk along the black, rubbery pavement at first, but then decide to step onto the tall weeds and cross over to the dirt path that leads to the sign. As I carefully walk through the weeds, and a hoard of tiny yellow grasshoppers bounce around me, I can’t help but regret wearing high shorts and no socks. No matter. I reach the sign, snap a couple pictures with my iPhone, but don’t immediately start back for the car.
I turn to my left and look ahead and back. The freshly paved road, two lanes wide and straight as a line, is empty. There is no sound. It’s the kind of silence that can cause a person’s mind to drift off, before snapping back to realize he’s not dreaming, but rather very much awake and standing alone on the side of the road.
I turn back to my right and stare at the field. Shocks of golden wheat cover the land as far as the eye can see. There are just a few trees to offer shade on a sunny late spring day in east Texas, and faint black smoke in the distance contrasts the otherwise bright scene. I realize I could climb over the short wire fence and walk into the field without anyone noticing. But instead I finally start back for the car.
The windows are down and the engine is off. I don’t mind the beads of sweat flowing down my face in the sweltering, 95-degree early afternoon heat. It’s still silent outside, the only sound coming from the clock-like ticking of my car’s hazard lights. I’m content with sitting here and taking in this new experience. As simple as it is, there is something extraordinary about it. But after a few minutes, I finally get back on the road and head off. “This is definitely different from any drive I’ve ever taken before,” I think to myself.
I grew up in the suburbs of Maryland, in a city halfway between two major cities: Washington and Baltimore. There, the speed at which people drive reflects the personality of the area in general: it’s all hustle and bustle. This gotta-keep-moving lifestyle is just the nature of the beast, mainly because of the kinds of people who live there. When there are strict schedules to adhere to and deadlines to meet, there’s not enough time to take a deep breath and slow down.
So, naturally, being raised in this environment, I was swallowed up by it. I constantly grew impatient; I had to have everything right away. As I matured I was able to tame much of my impatient demeanor, but it always seemed to creep back up when I traveled anywhere. I was the “are we there yet?” child during family road trips in the cramped burgundy 1995 Toyota Camry. When I started driving I always wanted to get to my destination as quickly as possible, so I cut corners by zooming down the fast lane, skipping pit stops and even considering driving late into the night instead of staying at a hotel.
But the funny thing is I’ve always loved traveling. Seeing new places, exploring their cultures and just getting away from the mundane environment I was increasingly growing tired of always excited me.
A love for travel didn’t necessarily translate into a love for road trips, though. The notion of sitting in a cramped car for hours with nothing to do but stare out at trees and gas stations and watch the exits go by sounded more irritating than exciting. And my family (or friends) and I would be so affixed to the goal of reaching our destination that there would be no thoughts of detouring for the sake of spontaneity.
In the summer of 2013 I had the opportunity to live and work in Texas, at the Fort Worth corporate office of a manufacturing conglomerate. I was excited to change my environment for a little while, to live in a place I had heard so many good things about, a place where, in my mind, life moved slower and the people were relaxed and carefree.
The first couple weeks were a rude awakening. Life didn’t seem any different: it was just as hot as back home, the traffic was just as bad (though some days I’d swear it was worse), and I was still stuck in city mode. Where were the “country roads” the songs always alluded to? Where were the accents people back home mockingly imitated when I told them I was going to Texas? I knew the place I was searching for was somewhere close. I finally decided to go find it for myself.
It’s cliché, the idea of getting in your car on a bright summer day, rolling down the windows, and turning up the music as you hit the open road. But in the moment, you don’t mind being cheesy and taking part in the cliché, because deep down we’re all romantics and you’d kick yourself if you didn’t at least try it.
But this particular Saturday morning wasn’t exactly idyllic. It was a balmy 85 degrees with clouds in the sky for the first time in at least four days, clouds that would torture me for hours with the possibility of a downpour. But they didn’t stop me from getting into my car, rolling down my windows and blasting “Country Roads” as I started down Interstate 35.
A little past F.M. (Farm to Market) 934 and just north of Hillsboro, you’ll see cars lined up on the side of I-35 for a quarter mile. There’s a sunflower field that appears without warning, a bright yellow blotch on an otherwise dull grey and green canvas. Standing on a photo-op hotspot for couples and families with expensive digital cameras, here I was all by myself: a 20 year-old tourist wearing a tank and relying on an iPhone.
Still, it was stunning. A sight that no picture could do justice. Sunflowers as tall as seven feet consuming an area so wide that it was impossible to see where they stopped. When I got back in my car I couldn’t help but think this is what road trips are all about. You have to slow down once in a while to enjoy the journey rather than speed down the fast lane focusing solely on the destination. And only when you suspend the need for promptness and throw away whatever schedule and route you’ve made can you fully experience what a road trip can be. Would we have stopped at the sunflower field if I were traveling with others? Guess I’ll never know.
It’s been about 10 minutes since I drove away from the highway sign when something else in the distance catches my eye. It’s a maroon barn, which by itself is nothing special, particularly in Texas. But this barn has some writing painted on its sides.
At first I decide to just admire it from my car. There’s a “No Trespassing” sign near the dirt path that leads to the barn, and I’m hardly in the mood for getting in trouble. But as I walk closer and closer, still seeing no signs of life and hearing nothing but church bells in the distance, I figure it would be okay to get a better look.
In large white letters, the words “WHOOP” and “GIG ‘EM AGGIES” are painted on alternating sides of the barn. To the normal person these words mean nothing. But to me, a person with an unhealthy obsession with college sports, this barn and the words painted on it symbolize the passion and spirit people down here have for their schools. The words are battle cries of Texas A&M, a school with unquestioned tradition and loyalty to its sports teams. The barn serves as a checkpoint, letting me know that I’m approaching Aggieland.
Of course, I did have an ultimate destination on this trip, the first long drive I’ve made alone. I was going to College Station, a city about an hour and a half northwest of Houston, to see Texas A&M University, one of my favorite schools besides my own. It has a beautiful campus settled in a nice, quaint college town. Traditions exist at A&M that are beyond the scope of athletics. You say “howdy” when you greet someone, not “hi”, not “what’s up”. You take off your hat as a sign of respect when you walk inside the student center, because the building is dedicated to those who have died in war. It was an excellent experience to be there.
But this story wasn’t about Texas A&M or College Station. It wasn’t about my end destination. It was about the stunning sunflower field I decided to stop and see, about the silent, open highway and the symbolic Aggie Barn. It was about all the experiences I had on my long journey.
This drive taught me about spontaneity, about cherishing the moment and about not getting too caught up in what’s ahead. It’s been weeks since that drive, but I can still picture the sunflower field in my head. I can still picture an inconspicuous stretch of road that only became significant because no one but me was on it. I’m not able to recall any notable moments from previous trips, but that’s because I now realize I had taken them with blinders on. It’s true: this was definitely different from any drive I had ever taken before. And no road trip will be the same from now on.