Freedom and the Great American Road Trip

Before flying off on my European adventure a couple of years ago, I sold most of my possessions, including my car. Well, all great adventures eventually come to an end, and when I returned home—halfway through autumn 2015—I had to find alternative forms of transportation until I could afford to buy another vehicle.

I moved into a downtown Bellingham apartment, so I walked a lot. I finally figured out the bus schedule and took buses to all those far flung places my feet couldn’t carry me. My friend, Pam, lent me her Toyota Matrix during the worst part of the winter so I could get to work and school. I got by. Even so, I ended up feeling like a prisoner within the borders of my hometown without my own car.

Most places in Europe have amazing public transportation systems, and it isn’t unusual to go without a car if you live in a big city. And even if you want to travel across the country there’s probably a bus or train that goes there, so it’s not a big deal. In the United States, however, (unless you’re within a major metropolitan area like L.A., New York City, Seattle, etc.) public transportation isn’t the greatest. Americans are very spread out, and not having a car can be a huge disadvantage. I think for that reason, many Americans look at their driver’s licenses as not only proof of their personal identity, but an expression of their cultural identity—that we are a free people who can go where we want, when we want, without many restrictions.

And I wanted to live without restrictions. I wanted to wend Chuckanut Drive’s narrow curves and take in the view of the San Juan Islands at sunset. I wanted to drive out Highway 20 to Mount Baker or to Whidbey Island to visit friends or hell, just meet a friend at a moment’s notice on the other side of town without having to wait for the next bus or for someone to pick me up. So, seven months after my initial foray into public transportation, I bought a new car.

Seeing the odometer at zero (or, close to it–I think it read 11 miles when I took it out for a test drive) sent a twinge of excitement through my belly. I had my freedom back, and I wanted to hit the open road and go somewhere. So, at the end of the summer, I went on a road trip from Bellingham, Washington to Buena Vista, Colorado to visit family. I tossed my camera onto the passenger seat, rolled down the windows, and drove away. There’s nothing like a great American road trip. Nothing. You see so many things you’d miss on a train, plane, or bus. I may never go carless again!

Here are some photos from last year’s freedom ride (click to enlarge or view slideshow). I would love to take another road trip someday. What are some of your favorite routes?


The Power of Two


This is how it all ends, I think, doubled over and gasping for air on a sand dune in Southern Colorado, almost 9,000 feet above sea level. Although the altitude didn’t warrant Everest-sized fears, I knew that a wet cough would soon plague me, followed by frothy sputum and respiratory failure. My brother, Anthony, would drag my dead body back to the car, and it would be boxed and flown home to Seattle in cargo hold.

I’d had a good run, but I wasn’t ready for death yet – or more realistically – the pain of continuing on. Throwing off my backpack, I plop down and tell Anthony I’m not going any further.

“But look,” he says, motioning towards High Dune, still 400 feet up. It might as well have been 4,000. “You’re so close to our goal. Do you really want to turn back now?”

I glance up at the wave of sand, tracing the curve to new heights I no longer cared to reach. “Yup. I quit.”

“It’s just the altitude. Take your time, catch your breath, and let’s keep going. You’re halfway there. Summon that inner firefighter.”

“I haven’t been a firefighter in four years. I’m out of shape. I can’t do this.”

Anthony walks a few steps ahead in silence, camera in hand, and I urge him to go on without me. I’ll wait. The sand is warm in the late afternoon sun, inviting me to nap until the burning in my lungs subsides and the wind cools my forehead. I’m inclined to accept, but he won’t allow it.

After a few minutes my heart rate slows, and the hot, pounding migraine I’ve been experiencing fades into a tolerable pulse, so I stand up and trudge forward. Fifty yards later, I fling myself onto the sand again. “I can’t go on!”

“You’re a Hanson. Yes, you can.”

“I’m not you. I don’t climb all the 14,000 foot peaks in Colorado on the weekends.”

Anthony glides over the terrain like an agile Sherpa, a natural mountaineer whose effortless pace I can never hope to match, and summits the first small dune we’ve been ascending for the past hour. He calls down to me, “Come on!”

A couple in their early 50’s, tan and serene, is sitting a few yards away, holding hands and gazing over the Great Sand Dunes vista below. I am holding my new Nikon and think of capturing the view from right there, but it isn’t really the shot I want. The real view is at the top and I need it for my portfolio, but continuing seems impossible. I’d cry, except I’m sure that would just make my headache worse.

“The peak of High Dune is right there. IT’S. RIGHT. THERE. You can do this, Jolene.”

The woman looks over at me and says, “You can’t come all the way up here with a camera like that and not go to the top. Keep climbing.”

She’s right. My camera, which I’ve dubbed “Fancy” after the Iggy Azalea song (to my shock and dismay, “Nat Geo” did not stick), was purchased specifically for travel photography, and I would never be content to know that my little brother beat me to the top and was capturing my shot. I’d have to make it or die trying. So I power on, taking ten slow steps at a time. Ten steps, break. Ten steps, break.

And then, something unexpected happens. Within feet of the summit of High Dune, the ache in my lungs, legs, and head begins to disappear. I run. Passing Anthony, I think about cartwheeling across the peak, except the running makes me lightheaded.

“See, I knew you could do it!” he yells after me.

I spin around, the 360 degree view transporting me to other worlds, and I feel like I could just as easily be somewhere like Morocco. With each actuation of my camera shutter, I forget about the struggles of the past hour and a half. I’m an explorer again. A traveler. A photographer. Not some defeated middle-aged woman crawling, half dead up a mountain.

Later, as we begin our descent, the couple in their early 50’s passes us. The woman says to me, “If you can do it, I can do it. Thanks for the motivation.”

Sliding down the dunes, shoes filling with sand, I think about how important it is to surround ourselves with people who believe in us, people who push us beyond our perceived limitations, people who won’t allow us to give up. I would have given up had it not been for Anthony. I have always carried a lot of pride in my individuality, the strength in the word ONE. But, I have to concede that there are some things only accomplished by the power of two.

Thank you, Anthony.



Gasping for Air
Gasping for Air


My brother and I at the Great Sand Dunes, Colorado
My brother and I at the Great Sand Dunes, Colorado