Rounding up all of your friends to drive across country sounds like, on paper, one hell of an amazing time. See what you want to see, do what you want to do, make it all up as you go. It does start to get difficult with ten people in one car, and if I would now have any advice for someone in a similar situation, I would say; If your friends offer you a seat in a van traveling cross country to see whatever- take it. If you’re personally planning on taking a van cross country with your friends to see whatever- don’t.
I knew going into this sort of situation that everyone getting to see or do what they wanted was impossible, simply not going to happen. So I decided that I wouldn’t so much worry about what I wanted to do and try to gather the input of other people. Make an itinerary for things and destinations, create a relative picture of what we could do and when; the only thing approaching a hard date being a september 15th arrival in Chicago to meet up with most of the rest of the Salone 5’s. As much fun as it is hauling a bunch of friends around, there is no doubt a great deal of stress about it, people want different things and experiences from the road trip, and it’s hard to balance everyone’s wants and desires. On top of it, I realized that I’d essentially started to adopt the itinerary as the things that I wanted to see and do so as to keep us, as I saw it, on track. The reality was I was just putting unnecessary stress and strain on my ability to just get us all around enjoy the moment for what it is; a bunch of stranded friends taking advantage of the strange momentary freedoms they have to travel the country and make up life as they go. Now I’m embracing it, so from here on out I’m gonna be making this up as much as I can. Few moments like this opportunity I currently have ever exist in life, and if you’re not going to enjoy every moment of it for what it is, good or bad, you’re missing out on a lot of beautiful things with a lot of beautiful people.
…But I still have to get us to Chicago.
Day 1 was a haul. We woke up in Sacramento at 3am with most of us having gone to bed at maybe 130. For me, hours wasted scrambling around to find either one of my working passports in anticipation of a probably visit to Vancouver. No luck, and I didn’t have much time to fret over it either because we were staring down a long day ahead; 580 miles to Portland. On the road by 440am, the road trip began with five of us in the car; Ben, Aly, Amanda, Colby, and Dawson. We passed Red Bluff as the sun crept through the orange haze over the northern edge of the Sierra Nevadas, slowly illuminating the few large mountains that lay at the end of the Sacramento Valley. We hustled north until a coffee break was unavoidable, stopping at the small town of Mt. Shasta sitting on the western slopes of the monstrous volcano for which it’s named. Even after two cups of coffee I lasted only fifteen more minutes of driving until my eyelids got too heavy and my vision began to cross. I relinquished the wheel and took a much needed nap, having driven 5 hours on maybe 90 minutes of sleep.
We tried our best to minimize detours, but everyone needs different things… and to use the bathroom at different times. One such detour was into Eugene, Oregon to pick up a Salone 4 who had been one of our trainers for a week during PST (Pre- Service Training), Matt. Over a barbecue lunch we discussed what was the most present realities for all of us; but generally what would most likely happen to Salone 4’s (who had been serving in Sierra Leone for a year) and us Salone 5’s. None of the information we’ve received so far has been promising, and most of our attitudes have now begun to reflect that bleakness towards our potential return. Most likely for the Salone 4’s, they will be COSed (Close of Service), the Peace Corps equivalent of an Honorable Discharge.
After lunch we taxied Matt to a friend in Corvallis and finished up the last two hours north to Portland. I’d yet to be in the city, and it reminded me of Pittsburgh. Downtown right beside the water with many bridges, hills encroaching and minimizing outward development, and a chic rundown look as if heavily industrial areas had been re purposed and gentrified for yuppie neighborhoods. Our time in the city was brief but impressionable, we being a bunch of displaced kids figuring out where to spend the next several months of our lives and looking at any new city like an eligible bachelor.
Day 2 started with the five initial road trippers, and we picked up our sixth in downtown Portland, Brian from South Carolina. He’d been in the northwest hanging out with his girlfriend We met him at a downtown light rail and the headed north over the Columbia River and into Washington State. It was a far shorter day of driving; 200 miles as compared to 600 the day prior. Puget Sound and the Seattle skyline appeared by early afternoon although it took a little while to get to the city center. Once in the heart of downtown we stopped at the Space Needle and Pike’s Public Market.
We were only in downtown briefly before leaving, this time to another volunteer’s lake house an hour north of the city. Caitlin, a Seattle native let us stay two nights at her family’s lake house where we also met up with other Seattle area volunteers Emily Darveau, Emily Chavez, and Zac Pontrantolfi. Our numbers swelled in Seattle, as we also picked up two volunteers for the road trip, Emerson from San Francisco, and Becca from Miami.
Day 3 we spent a relaxing day by the lake swimming and at one point taking Caitlin’s boat out on to the lake. We pushed away from the dock… and the engine failed to start. We spent maybe 15 minutes trying to restart the boat, check fuel, toggle and toy with anything to get the engine to turn on, until we were out of ideas and the wind had blown us 200 yards away from the dock. I’d initially joked that pulling a boat back to shore like Jack Lalanne was a life goal of mine, but without any other options we made it happen. With one person out front pulling and about eight in back kicking, we managed to tow the boat back to Caitlin’s dock. Back on shore we joked that it was the most Peace Corps thing to do; find the most simple and effective solution to a problem. It was the perfect way to work up an appetite as well; we finished the day by celebrating Colby’s 25th birthday with Skewers and baked beans for dinner, and Apple Pie a la mode for dessert.
Day 4 we split up, six people to Vancouver and three staying in Washington. Since I’d failed to find my passport I was staying in Washington, and Colby and Brian had opted to join me for some company and a change of pace. We three came up with a grandiose plan to rent kayaks and paddle out to a few of the uninhabited islands of Puget Sound to camp out for the night before coming back in. It was a spontaneous idea, but sounded amazing.
Our plans were shot down almost immediately. We walked into a marine and outdoors store in Bellingham north of Seattle and had a salesman tell us kayaks were only day rentals, and short distance as well- not meant for the open waters of the Puget Sound. We were told our best chance was to make our way to Anacortes, a two- hour bus ride to the south and try to take a ferry to San Juan Island where better kayak rentals were available. The bus dropped us off in Mt. Vernon, a small town on the way where we would take a connecting bus to Anacortes, but the connector was a two hour wait. In the last forty five minutes of waiting we grabbed an early lunch, careful to make sure we arrived before the bus’ 12:25 departure. We walked back to the station at 12:20, and ended up waiting for twenty minutes without any sign of a bus. Brian walked back in only to find that the bus had come and left by 12:15. Made no sense to me why a bus would leave ten minutes before its scheduled time. We laughed at our growing comedy of errors and bad luck, bought an Amtrak ticket for the afternoon, and grabbed a few local beers, making sure we were back at the station well in advance of the scheduled departure time. We were dropped off in downtown Seattle by 5pm and by our strange luck had found an apt to stay for the night that happened to be a Salone 1; someone who had been part of the first group of volunteers to relaunch the Sierra Leone Peace Corps program in 2010 after the conclusion of the civil war.