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Travel Stories

A Rite of Passage American Roadtrip and Saving Graces


The three travelers near Charleston, SC

Stark beauty of the Badlands

Mud spring at Yellowstone
by John Michael Bianco

[From Summer 2011] Growing up, there were a lot of lessons my parents persistently tried to drill into my head, most of which went under appreciated or disregarded, a fatal mistake made by most kids walking the road to adulthood. One particular lesson I wish I had paid more attention to: sometimes my eyes are bigger than my stomach. At 18, teens excited by the freedom of adulthood flock to beaches, lakes, pretty much anywhere far enough away to party without repercussion. But that kind of trip didn't satisfy the appetite for adventure that my friends, Brady and Graham, and I share. We wanted beaches, campsites, woods, mountains, and the million other wonders waiting to be discovered away from home, and there was only one answer - a cross-country road trip.

Our route? Starting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, we would head north until Chicago, then cut directly west, hitting sites like the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone's geysers and hot springs, Portland, Oregon, and then cut down across California, and head back east, stopping at sites like the Grand Canyon, Santa Fe, Carlsbad Caverns, The Alamo, New Orleans, and Charleston, South Carolina. A hefty task for three young men, only two of whom had licenses. Our faithful steed? An 11-year-old Toyota Corolla, which had already accumulated over 100,000 miles. Our budget? About $600 apiece.

Now that the trip is over, a lot of people ask me what I would have done differently, and the simplest answer is not to have built the trip around the supplies we had, but around the supplies we would need. But that kind of logic was drowned out by buckets of naive optimism and charisma shared by three teenage boys. The trip lasted 21 days, each day filled with stories and a new or persistent challenge. I could fill a book. But instead I'll share a couple of challenges we experienced that really capture the lessons and sentiment that accompanied our adventure.

The first took place in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, two days after the start of our trip. Waking up after our first night of camping we chomped through a trail breakfast of eggs, Spam and English muffins. (Later, we realized it had been one of our better meals.) We stopped to check out the falls. Pulling into the park I was startled to see my oil light go on. Checking the oil, I was surprised to see that the four quarts I had added just two days earlier had diminished to a little black dot on the end of the stick. Two days in and trouble was already slapping us on the face. While my friends checked out the falls, I was able to jack up the car and drain it of the leftover black sludge. When my friends returned, I was all too happy to give them the task of walking to the nearest gas station to pick up new oil, while I watched the car. To our surprise, a nice older lady had been watching us from a distance, judging our character before intervening, and drove up to us in a white mini van, offering to give my friends a ride to the station. Apparently she was happy to do it; coming from a Christian nature, she claimed everything happens for a reason and she was glad she could she help. She was one of many good Samaritans that seemed to fall out of the sky like angels, all too willing to be our saving grace.

While my friends were on their mission, it was my turn to check out the falls - a beautiful collection of reddish-brown rock formations, channeling falls of water, from one cliff to the other. Even with the car problem, I couldn't ignore the beauty of the falls. Later, loaded with new oil, we hit the road again. But misfortune wasn't done with us for the day.

About ten miles out of Sioux Falls, we noticed the hood of the car bouncing up and down. Getting out of the car, I took some metal wire and fed it through the hood - and again through the front latch, just extra security to make me feel better about it. After another ten miles, the bouncing of the hood worsened, and going about 85 miles an hour in the left lane, the metal of the hood ripped from its frame and flew into our windshield, spraying us with glass. Completely blinded by the hood, I slammed on the brakes and slowly pulled to the left, the sound of a swerving 18-wheeler on my right. Even in the depression of the moment it was impossible to ignore the comical look of a car with a shattered windshield, and a piece of metal once resembling a hood now heavily bungee-corded down to the front of the car, going 25 mph down the shoulder of the highway. We stopped at the next possible exit, Montrose, South Dakota.

And another good Samaritan came our way. The auto body man was kind, reassuring, and had the right type of windshield in stock. One handshake, and we let him at it, while we waited in a pub nearby. Discussing the option of turning back for home, we all agreed it couldn't get worse than South Dakota, and the regret of quitting now would haunt us. Once again, naive optimism prevailed over logic. $365 later and we were back on the road.

We reached the Badlands, right around sunset. Any doubt I had about continuing our trip, already wildly out of control, died in the beauty of the place. Our country is gorgeous, and this place I call home deserves a fair chance at winning my affection. Driving through the park, one plays a game of clouds, letting the imagination turn these amorphously-shaped rocks into castles, towers, or creatures forever fossilized in the memory of stone. But the Badlands experience didn’t hit until I stepped out of the car and into another world. Leaving the car, we ignored the warning about the instability of the rock formations - another action courtesy of the ignorance of youth - and climbed out into the rock. Reaching the top my two friends and I sat and watched the sun set, puffing on our whimsical Sherlock Holmes-like tobacco pipes, and let ourselves get lost in the moment, and what would await us on the road ahead.

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