Why Traveling and Near Death Experiences Are Good for the Soul

In 2013, my best friend of 13 years decided to take a leap of faith and move from Indiana to Washington State to move in with a guy she had always liked. The two had recently reconnected and found that they might have a shot at something special. My pal, whom we shall refer to as My Hero, had only spent a few days in Washington prior to her move; she had a modest sum of money saved; she had no plan or job awaiting her. The move was bold, spontaneous, potentially irresponsible…and I thoroughly encouraged it. I’ve been told I can be a bad influence, as I enjoy living vicariously through the wild adventures my friends pursue, but in this instance, I genuinely supported every part of the plan. My Hero wanted to follow her heart, and we all know that too many people go through life with regrets and “what if’s”.  Yeah, if you’re 23 with no responsibilities, follow your freaking heart.

 

My Hero asked if I would help her move. The farthest from home I had driven at the time was to North Carolina–about 9 hours south of Indy–no big deal. So I jumped at the opportunity to take a weeklong road trip across the majority of the United States. The great thing about my friend group is that we are pretty well integrated so my other best friend, who shall be named David because his name is David (fuck his anonymity), joined in this cross-country adventure. Thus began one of the greatest experiences of my life: an ill-planned long distance road trip with my two best friends. Insert life experience. 

 

Luckily, all of My Hero’s possessions fit in two cars. She transported a good majority of things in her vehicle and the rest went into my recently purchased Honda CR-v (As a side note, I always wanted a Jeep Wrangler. Always. But my fiscally conservative upbringing and pressure to make responsible decisions led me to purchase the fuel efficient, reliable, and safe CR-v.). My Honda was as pimped out as a car that looked like it should be loaded with children and soccer balls could be and was equipped with a GPS that I relied on and trusted with my life. I was never an impressive navigator. The inventor of the GPS is the reason I’m still alive today. Shout out to the US Department of Defense. 

 

David mapped out our trip to include a stop in Yellowstone on the way to Washington. There were supposedly several spots at which we could camp along the way. Apparently we could just hop on I90W and not fail so that’s exactly what we did. Adventure commenced: David and I led in my mom mobile, while My Hero and her other friend trailed.

 

The first several miles were without incident with the exception of rude drivers in Illinois. Apparently the standard there is to drive 20mph over the speed limit. Less than that creates an energy field around you that absorbs horns and middle fingers. The dilemma: risk the a $200 speeding ticket or risk passive aggressive road rage… The Decision: I can break fingers. Wave them at your leisure. 

 

After the first pit stop of the trip, My Hero was forced to recognize the first hint of David and my mixture of camping expertise and pretentious tendencies. David plugged a coffee grinder into my car with a power converter and ground a delicious blend of fresh coffee beans. I took a French press into a gas station and filled it with hot water. 5 minutes and one press later, we had amazing coffee and were again on the road.

 

I don’t remember much of Wisconsin or Iowa. I90W did not present an intriguing presentation of the states. It wasn’t until we hit South Dakota that the landscape was noticeably different than the boring plains of Indiana. I recall for the first time recognizing plateaus that I had learned about in random topography lectures in 5th grade. As David is a wealth of information and feels the need to constantly share it, he informed me that we had entered the Badlands. I pretend to know that already. Unfortunately the photo ops weren’t a priority for David or me at this point in the trip so I have to rely on my botched memory and internet pictures to remember the beauty of the scene.  

 

Upon our entry into South Dakota, we saw a mystery sign for “Wall Drug”. Neither David nor I had ever heard of “Wall Drug”. We assumed it was a music festival or something and disregarded it…. until about 20 miles later when we saw another sign; then 10 miles and another… I used the infamous powers of the search engine to discover that Wall Drug was a tourist spot and old drugstore. We debated visiting briefly before deciding it was something that could be disregarded and continued on our journey. 

 

But the power of advertisement altered our decision. You see, as you approach Wall Drug, the quantity of advertisement billboards multiplies exponentially until you hit a wall (eeh? eeh?) of Wall Drug signs. The self-control and willpower it would take to avoid visiting the  now infamous Wall Drug was more than we as a collective group could muster. Our decision was solidified when we realized that a 50-foot Brachiosaurus statue awaited us at the Wall Drug exit. 

 

We took several pictures of us fake battling the fake dinosaur before continuing down a rather vacant road. A lone restaurant/arcade seemed to be a desirable resting spot for our crew after almost 15hrs on the road. We grabbed a few drinks, played a few games, and wondered if after all the hype, the dinosaur and this restaurant were the only things Wall Drug had to offer. I asked our waitress if we were in Wall Drug and she seemed appalled by the question. “Heavens no!” she replied, “Wall Drug is two blocks west of here!” 

 

Of course it was…

 

Less than a mile later, our group found what appeared to be an abandoned old western town. Banners for ice cream shops, restaurants, and candy stores hung over shop after shop, each one sporting its own “CLOSED” sign on the doors.  The actual Wall Drug drugstore was still open, as well as a few gift stores. Native American jewelry, anything leather, and Harley Davidson attire dominated most of the gift shops. I asked a clerk why the town was so empty and was told that we arrived out of season. I didn’t realize towns had seasons like produce.

 

Apparently the North Central area of the United States shuts down in the winter and spring months and thrives in the summer and early fall due to a heavy volume of tourists and motorcyclists headed to Sturgis. Our selected month of travel, March, was supposedly going to yield quite a bit of disappointment in our camping plans as many campsites were shut down for the “season”. 

 

We left Wall Drug refreshed for traveling and thoroughly entertained, despite its vacancy. The next destination was Cody, Wyoming and subsequently, Yellowstone National Park. The goal was to camp a couple of days in Yellowstone and continue directly to Washington. That same goal was cock-blocked by snow and bears. Yes. All of the entrances to Yellowstone were blocked off due to an unusually harsh winter and the park was closed. I contacted the local police department to ask where camping was permitted and was informed that camping was not allowed at that time because it was “bear season”. It was suggested I park in a Walmart parking lot for the evening if I truly desired to save money or pseudo-camp.

 

Disheartened and exhausted, the group decided to find a motel or inn that we could sleep in for the night. I attempted to negotiate a decent price for a room at one of the more mainstream motels in the area, assuming that rate of a room would lower due to the complete lack of traffic. I was told that a room would be $75 for the evening, no matter what. A bit of browsing brought us to a spot called Buffalo Bill’s Irma Hotel. Nothing could have prepared me for the level of which I was satisfied by this Hotel. Our room was very old, complete with a chain pull toilet flusher that excited me more than it reasonably should have. Sleep was glorious and breakfast at the hotel the next morning was so wonderful that I would consider a trip to Cody just to stay at Irma’s again. It was the perfect balance of delicious food and entertaining atmosphere. Even at 8am, Irma’s restaurant was flocked with people decked in wild west attire: cowboy boots, hats, vests, revolvers, and long beards. Our modern clothes made my crew seem like the outsiders that morning and we couldn’t have been happier. 

 

Since Yellowstone was a crapshoot, we continued straight through Montana and Idaho, stopping only to occasionally stretch, play guitar, cook meals with David and my epic camping stoves, and toss a frisbee. At some point, we ate at a Del Taco where my car battery died. In retrospect, this was probably a warning that Del Taco was a terrible idea. After jumping my car, unplugging David’s battery draining charging device, and slamming some disappointing tacos and tater tots, we resumed our journey until David requested we stop for the night; Del Taco had claimed its first victim. David’s stomach cramps were unbearable. We found a motel and took some well-needed showers.

 

I shared a bed with David and crashed hard. In the morning, My Hero reported that she was shaken awake in the middle of the night, thinking there was an earthquake or explosion of some kind, only to realize that David was dropping earth shattering fart bombs in his sleep. After destroying our room toilet in the morning, David declared he was feeling much better. But alas, Del Taco claimed its second victim: me. My stomach cramps, however, had no release. I was unable to poop, consequentially, until my return to Indiana about four days later. 

 

Having never driven in mountains before, David was tasked with teaching me the art of downshifting when going down a steep mountain hill. The learning opportunity would have been made less stressful without the ice and snow on the mountain roads but I got the hang of it quickly.

 

Landing in Washington was a relief. My Hero’s house was comfortable and we were able to eat healthy food for the first time in days. David and I stayed in Washington for a day to explore My Hero’s new town and neighborhood. She moved about an hour north of Seattle, almost closer to Canada than the state capital. But the area was gorgeous, her new boyfriend was awesome, and everything seemed like it would work out well for her.

 

On our way back to Indiana, David and I were on our own. Our taste in music is the same, but we had gotten sick of listening to music. I downloaded a few comedy albums and listened to them thoroughly. Conversation was starting to falter, as we had damn near covered everything we could think of over the last million hours in a car together. The quizzes on Sporcle.com even failed to hold our interest after a while. We were starting to get on each others nerves and random hole-in-the-wall restaurants became our saving grace as they brought about temporary satisfaction and new topics to discuss. We resorted to sleeping briefly at a rest stop between two semi-trucks that made me think I was going to wake up to the sounds of my car crunching from the pressure of the trucks crushing me to death.  This end of trip tension continued until we reached Boulder, Colorado to visit one of David’s friends and attempt another camping adventure.

 

Boulder was beautiful. The temperature was a fantastic 60 degrees at the time of our arrival. It was a true pleasure after such a snowy and cold overall trip. It was also a trap. David and I met with his friend briefly before trying a popular campus restaurant. We asked our waitress if there was any good camping in the area and she informed us that there was a popular campsite on the top of a nearby ski resort (approximately 10k feet high). The waitress did not seem overly confident that the site was open, but she was also so unbelievably attractive that David and I were willing to suspend any doubt that she could fail us. Seriously, she was the type of gorgeous women that people in myths would start wars over… travel to the underworld… compare to the gods or the moon…

 

Maybe I’m exaggerating. But you get the point. 

 

Anyway, David and I headed up a random mountain with hopes of finding this camping spot. As we drove, I noticed some snow starting to fall. I asked David if we should continue and he confidently declared that the snow would be less drastic at the apex. I considered arguing but, you see, I majored in psychology in college and David was a rocket scientist. Legitimately. He has an aeronautical engineering degree. So assuming he knew more about weather and science than I did, I ignored my instincts to head back toward flatland and continued upward even after commenting that the locals seemed to be pulling off the mountainside and walking to their houses.

 

I discovered a few things at the top of the mountain: 

1. Hot waitress was correct; there was a campsite at the top.

2. The campsite was closed.

3. The campsite was closed due to it being blocked by snow.

4. The snow does not get lighter at the top.

5. My car did not have 4-wheel drive.

 

As I approached the campsite with my vehicle, I became stuck in a mound of snow. David and I struggled to push my car out of the deep snow pile for several minutes with no success. Before giving up entirely, by the grace of all that is holy, a tow truck driver just happened to be passing by. The driver helped pull us from the snow pile and did not charge us for his services. After we were free, David and I still had to venture down the mountain, which was still being pelted by snow. My car was sliding down the slopes. I was driving blind from the snowfall and lack of lighting. To make matters worse, there were no reflectors indicating I was about to drive off a cliff. The dark silhouette of treetops were my only indicators that I was about to plunge to my certain death.

 

At one particularly frightening slide, I turned to David with a sudden realization that I might die and said, “So help me God, David, if I die from falling off a mountain when I could have died by getting mauled by a bear while camping during bear season, I am going to be so fucking pissed.” It was that moment that I realized I didn’t want to die having lived a totally lame life. I had been so concerned with being responsible and making good decisions  that I had avoided taking risks and doing things I actually wanted to do. I vowed at that moment, that if I made it out of my mountain journey alive, I would start the process of creating the life I wanted to live so I wouldn’t die pissed off. 

 

Obviously we survived. We located a motel, crashed for the night, and decided to do a straight shot from Colorado to Indiana without rest so that David could make it to work the next day. For whatever reason, I was under the assumption that Kansas was known for its barbecue and that I needed to have some when we passed through. After miles of windmills and tumbleweed that made me feel like life in Kansas might actually be worse than life in Indiana, David and I stopped at a random spot and destroyed some amazing pulled pork in Kansas City before safely returning home at 7:30am.

 

My face and my pillow created a bond that night that cannot be described by words known to man. It was a bond so insurmountable as to offer a possible explanation as to why I have since been single. I was exhausted from the drive constant driving but my desire to explore was only intensified. 

 

It’s been three years since this trip and My Hero is still living with her love in Washington where they go hiking and climbing and take off  on endless adventures. David is living the dream in Colorado with a badass engineering job and some ridiculous perks. Meanwhile, I have spent my time working on my acting, fitness, and writing without rest. I’ve expanded my travels to the south and eastern US and started a donut tour mission. And I am finally starting to realize that home is not only where your heart is but where your head hits your pillow.

 

Oh… and I bought a Jeep Wrangler!

 

Thanks for the read. Kisses.

 

KO

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