Like so many young people who recently were forced out of the dorms of nice colleges, I started adulthood on the road. Or at least insomuch as adulthood starts when you meet all the deadlines and get that diploma, which is probably not much at all.
My roommate of all four years and I had already blown out the radiator of one arthritic black Toyota on the haul back from an away football game the year before. I had lost control of the steering just as I pulled off the dark interstate, and we had feared that the car might light up. But that had ended without explosion, and we'd decided to ride the luck again. Head out, fuck up, keep driving. In their infinite generosity, my parents had given me with another car just like the old one—an ancient Camry rather than a Corolla. The hood was peeling, and black snowflakes, each with its unique lattice of rust on the underside, flew off occasionally as I drove. But it was my clunker, and I felt like I had nowhere to drive it but where we were headed, then back again.
We knew what we wanted: to be “on the road” in the most culturally significant sense of the term. Like Kerouac, we wanted to be beautiful, beatific, beaten down, beating on a bee-bop drum. It's not that we thought we were Latter Day Beats. We are both cynical and ironic, well aware that we'd been born too late and had too much of an establishment streak. But it's easier to have heroes when you're not quite sure who you are, and Jesse certainly never minded having it pointed out that, like Jack, he was a whiskey drinker, a contemplative soul, a talent with prose stream of consciousness, and a guy who had big problems not so much with authority but with inauthentic and uninventive conformity. Nor did it bother me so much to be too impatient for novels, too breathy and expansive for short lines of poetry, neurotic, and always heartbroken over a boy I'd known only a few minutes when someone reminded me that Allen Ginsberg was like that. No one ever wanted to be Burroughs.
The road was easy at first, because, even though we were headed to northern Wisconsin from Connecticut, we weren't really headed anywhere. We had no time we needed to be at our friend's fishing cabin, and nothing to do once we got there. Instead of being on the road to somewhere, we were just on the road. Experiencing the infinite asphalt rather than planning for the next exit, we were just being for a while, with all it implied. We were driving, too fast and way past exhaustion, scanning the radio frequencies for the next classic rock station when the static got too loud. I'd figured out how to close down the aperture on my small camera and made Jesse drive at dusk so I could stick it out the window and shoot the Sun blazing red on the horizon. The backgrounds of those pictures are dark, just whispering shadows, but sometimes a street light or the neon sign of a cheap motel, taller than anything else around, competes with the Sun, announcing the good news of electric crimson. We didn't talk much, anymore than a first violinist talks to the second during a performance. We were both watching out the window, looking up at the Great Conductor all sleek and tall on his podium, gesturing half senselessly to the music in his head while we tried to keep up.
Later in the trip, one of us asked the other which song we'd heard the most. Without having to think about it, we both came up with a tie. One was The Eagles' “Take It Easy” (I was glad about this: I'd never much liked the band, but, like so much else, they made a lot more sense out on the road). The other was Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers' “I Won't Back Down.” We laughed at the opposing life philosophies. Thankfully, neither of us was maudlin enough to point out that we should have a life philosophy if we didn't want to flounder in the coming months, or—worse—that we had no more of an idea of a life philosophy than the radio DJs seemed to.
Of course, everyone flounders, especially now. Trips with the same purpose were taken by thousands of kids just that same week, each hoping they could get a little farther in figuring out who they were and what they wanted by going nowhere special than they did by going nowhere at all. Getting somewhere and figuring it out: that is, we hope, sort of what growing up is. And some lucky few actually manage it. Our trip wasn't special, at least not any more than it was special to us alone.
Nor was it always easy. On the way back, I took the wrong part of a fork and we ended up lost on the other side of the state from Wisconsin from where we should have been. All the way south through Indiana, Jesse wouldn't stop complaining about how awful the state was, even though I, a native New Yorker, was trying to enjoy my first encounter with the corn. No matter how free or unmediated you convince yourself you are on a road trip, it can be boring, and anything after the 12th hour is torturous. The road stretches out, not an infinite network of possibilities, but a courtesan on a couch. It's seductive because, if it told you the truth, you wouldn't start out in the first place.
When we got to Jesse's parent's house in Cincinnati, we drank a lot of metallic-tasting Scotch so we wouldn't have to talk about the disappointment and both woke up hungover. But I was merely grouchy, whereas Jesse was dizzy and nauseated, so I took the first shift as Jesse did his best to spit the slippery husks of sunflower seeds into the styrofoam cup from rest-stop coffee, which was giving off a poisonous alkaloid stench. He didn't always make it into the cup either. His mess was my biggest problem throughout the years we'd lived together, and, as always, I asked myself whether I should just take it easy or whether it would be better not to back down.
I had survived four of the previous 10 days on nothing but beef jerky and pretzels, and my tongue wanted to crack. In Pennsylvania, traffic added hours to our trip while the cones made us dizzier. Well into Connecticut, less than 45 minutes from home, I started tailgating someone and honking my horn just because he'd changed lanes in front of me and didn't he know I was fucking exhausted? Then I got us lost again, stopped the car, got out, and promptly abdicated almost all human function. I wadded myself up like a used napkin and started crying next to my left front tire.
In the two years since that trip, I've gone back to deadlines and assignments. At 23, I was already professional writer. By 24, I was an editor. Almost every day, I've claimed out loud to be an adult, and it's gotten more convincing with every enunciation. But I still flounder, wondering if I'm heading in the right direction, pacing nervously in my tidy steal of an apartment and muttering to myself when I realize there's almost certainly no such thing as the right direction. And, if there is no such thing, I wonder, why I'm in such a hurry to get somewhere? It's 2012. If you're under 30, you've wondered if you should be out on the road. It seems like we have nowhere else to go sometimes. We should at least be anywhere else the road represents, we think—the job that lets us do art, the city where we know no one and don't speak the language, the planet we're willing to try one more time to save. Did I leave something out there on the road, in all that being and all that getting somewhere almost by accident?
Maybe not. It was Hell sometimes. You can travel if Mom and Dad can afford a spare bedroom for when you come back and if you're willing to pretend that people from different places hand out authenticity like so much charity. And, no, there's no such thing as getting away from yourself, no such thing as finding yourself in a place that you aren't in already, and heading to the next stop can look an awful lot like running off.
Then again, it's not like I've figured out so much of myself by sitting here typing, pretending to already be a person I will become, a person of whom I have little concept. Sometimes the answers are out there, sometimes not. And the road, like the answers, changes. If my adulthood started on the road, it started on a road simultaneously maddening and liberating. And I just hope that one day I'll realize I learned enough from it to know when not to back down, and when to just take it easy.