I wanted a real experience—without the digital filters.
I hadn’t seen another car in what felt like hours, so I tapped my phone as if it were an actual person sitting in my passenger seat, hoping to stir it awake for some company. But the sad little line through a circle where bars of service should’ve been was the equivalent of a passenger’s stubborn snore.
There was no reception on this quiet road in Montana, which weaved through tan hills dotted with dark evergreens and the occasional smattering of cows, and there hadn’t been for hours. I took a deep breath and turned off the crackling country radio station. Maybe some silence would do me good—or I’d completely lose my mind.
While planning my journey, I read Kerouac’s On the Road. It’s become cliché for good reason. With its jazzy rhythms and rambling, intoxicated excuse for a plot, the novel captures the wild and unpredictable vastness of our country, galvanizing countless road trippers, including myself. The random romances, the dubious characters he meets while hitchhiking, the way he finds a path to the next destination despite being constantly broke—all convinced me to undertake a cross-country adventure worth telling my grandkids about someday.
But I had many ways to experience and share my story that Kerouac hadn’t dreamed of.
At my first stop, I Instagrammed myself on the deck of the iconic Lady of the Mist. While droplets coated my phone’s screen, I bravely risked water damage to adjust the contrast on my Niagara Falls selfie, making my blue poncho pop against the white backdrop of nearly 600,000 liters of water cascading behind me. In downtown Lexington, I consulted Yelp to find the best spot for a burger. Between juicy bites that proved the site’s dependability, I snapped a photo of the wall of brown liquors behind the bar and shared it on Facebook, garnering the admiration of many bourbon-loving friends back home.
Kerouac would have been equally impressed and appalled.
Google Maps led me to Over-the-Rhine, a trendy neighborhood of Cincinnati, where I photographed a steady stream of murals to later share on my blog. I flipped through them at a bar during a later downpour that caught me without an umbrella. (Should have consulted my weather app!) One of the two guys sitting close by yanked me out of the depths of my phone, offering to buy me a drink, and I explained to them how I was looking for a new place to call home by exploring the country.
The bartender cut in with, “Hey, I want to hear more about this!” I wanted to tell her, knowing that bartenders always have the best recommendations for what to do and where to go. Maybe this was my in—she’d want to hang out later and I’d actually meet some locals! She could be my partner in crime for the evening. We’d stay up all night at bars only bartenders know about. Trouble could ensue… but the guys had a meeting to get to, and an after-work crowd poured in, busying the curious bartender. So I returned to my phone, sparking up a conversation on Facebook Messenger, and missed my chance to make a new best friend.
By the time I hit Chicago, the GoPro that sat on my dashboard was nearly full. My laptop was slowing down, clogged with all my photos (I kept meaning to upload those to SmugMug but never found the time), and my social media accounts were doing a fantastic job of making my friends jealous. I’d amassed an overwhelming collection of snippets—perfectly curated pictures, tweets, posts, and likes—but something was missing: the stories that ought to have tied these images together. The adventure was falling flat.
I hadn’t met many people in the places I was visiting. I ate most of my meals alone, my face lit by the comforting gaze of potential contact with loved ones back home. And while I occasionally got lost in cities, despite the guidance of my GPS, most of the trip wasn’t particularly challenging. Every problem could be solved with a quick swipe of my cell screen; every aspect of my trip was vetted, accessible, and shareable. I can’t say for sure, but I have a feeling Kerouac would have been equally impressed and appalled.
I pulled over. This. This was the kind of thing I’d been looking for.
Then I came to South Dakota. And service began to fade.
Roads lengthened and signs dwindled. When I blew by a “Welcome to Wyoming” sign and missed the opportunity to take a picture, there wasn’t a single car in sight, so I hit the brakes and reversed on the freeway. I got out to capture the image on my camera, where it would stay for now, as Instagram was refusing to let me upload the shot.
I took a moment to sit on my hood and gauge how far I could see. How does a horizon line happen, anyway? What dictates where in the distance that flat line of burnt grass hits the baby blue sky? I took a picture, but without the cool breeze and the pervasive silence that surrounded my car on this clear October afternoon, it was dull and unconvincing. So I sat for a moment longer and savored the real thing.
About an hour further down the road, I found myself driving through a tiny town that looked deserted. Passing store fronts with the tall, flat façades that might sport a pair of swinging saloon doors in an old western, I was enamored of the eerie emptiness. Crawling several blocks further, I discovered the people. They weren’t gathered to watch a duel in the dusty road, as I’d half-hoped; they were gathered in the stands behind a rodeo ring, watching young boys in chaps and cowboy hats wrangle cones from the backs of reeling horses.
I pulled over. This. This was the kind of thing I’d been looking for. Maybe I’d meet a straw-chewing cowboy who wanted to show me the real wild west—the perfect character for a story that hadn’t yet happened. But the crowd only offered me sideways glances. My black yoga pants collected a layer of dust from the bleachers before I found a seat. Everyone else wore light-colored jeans with a layer of sand crusted upon frayed knees where tense hands rested as they waited to watch kids explode from the gate on top of those massive horses.
No messages. No Gchats. I was dying to use my voice.
Two girls leaned against the fence up front with long, blonde braids skimming the waistlines of their jeans. They hung their fingers through the chainlink, giggling and waving to a group of teenage guys across the sand, but halted their flirtations whenever a little cowboy began his charge around the ring. Not a single person was taking pictures of the action. Only watching.
I didn’t bother with directions when I returned to my car. The road ahead was a long one, and I still didn’t have service. By the time I’d spent several hours on that quiet road in Montana, I was willing my screen to light up with fear that I’d missed a turn at some point. The thrill of my surroundings had begun to fade into uncertainty. Where was I, exactly?
I was aiming for a city I’d picked on my fold-out map: Billings, Mont. The large font size suggested some hotel options. What would await me there? I couldn’t check Kayak.com, so I hoped for the best. And for a bar. I’d gone a long time without speaking to a fellow human being. No Facebook messages, no Gchats, and no real-life conversations. I was dying to use my voice, and not just to sing along with Top 40 hits on the radio.
At a dingy gas station with a manual pump, a message lit up my screen: “Hey! My friend lives in Montana. Great guy. There’s only like 3 people that live in that state right? Maybe you’ve met him already! Let me know if you want an introduction.”
What were the odds? Before my tank was full, I’d been connected with the friend who just so happened to live in the town I was hoping to hit that night. And I had a place to sleep. A person to talk to.
All thanks to my compulsion to share my location that morning, just in case the highway swallowed me up. Despite losing service for the remaining three hours of my drive that day, I arrived in Billings, Mont., with an address entered into Google and that trusty, robotic voice guiding me through poorly lit streets while rain poured over my windshield.
As I drove around looking for someone whose picture was so blurry I really didn’t know what I was looking for, I felt the thrill of uncertainty. Sure, this was a Facebook connection. But there was still plenty of mystery. What kind of person calls Billings, Mont., home? Someone who knew a friend of mine in New York City, apparently. What does someone do in this bizarre little city in the middle of nowhere?
Maybe I wasn’t having a Kerouac-style adventure, but between the blips and bleeps of sharing my trip online, a new kind of story had been unfolding. And there was plenty more to come.
Britany Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. She’s addicted to quirky coffee shops and road trips without definitive destinations. You can follow her adventures at Stars on the Ceiling or on Twitter @Britseeingstars.
Illustration by Jason Reed
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