I'm cruising down the freeway in our new car, a 2000 Honda Civic Hatchback; the windows are down, and Tara is sitting in the passenger's seat by my side, practically vibrating with excitement. She has yet to see the places through which we'll pass on our road-trip to the Midwest. And, even though I've ridden through every state in the country on the seat of a motorcycle (except Hawaii), I'm jubilant too.
I was always too caught up with my need to go—I never took enough time to stop and look around me. Now, with the perspective I've gained from two years of slow travel, I feel like I'll be seeing my home country for the very first time.
Once we've escaped the clutches of the Bay, we pull off the freeway, opting for a county road that winds through the fields, mountains and forests of eastern California. My foot releases from the throttle slightly, and we slow to an easy forty miles an hour. It's just the two of us once more, on the road again. It feels a bit like coming home.
Lured off the road by large signs advertising antiques, we stop for a stretch in the small village of Drytown, California, population: 167. Flanked by fading motels and a little roadside snack shop touting ice cold Pepsi and other fine foods, this scrappy roadside hamlet looks like something from another era, a relic of the past.
Inside the town's antique shop, we waltz through the aisles lazily, trying to imagine what life was like for the former owners of the dusty items for sale: old china plates, woodworking tools, coffee grinders, and loads yellowing books with that inviting, musty old-book smell.
Our antiques perusal is a quick one, and we soon make our way back to the car, but not for long. A bit further down the highway, we stop once more, laughing with glee when we spot a sign entitled "Judy's Junk Shop". Pulling in, we hop out to investigate. The door of the little store opens with a creak, and we step inside, onto a faded, matted carpet the mottled brown shades of a calico cat.
Inside, we're immediately assaulted by the funk of must and decades of stale smoke. The thick scent teleports me back to summer vacations at my cousin's rural home in the farming community of Wheaton, Minnesota. A weathered looking woman, presumably Judy, is watching a tiny black TV that rests on a shelf in the corner behind the counter.
She gives us a nod and then we push our way through racks of oversized T-shirts, eyes skimming over a bizarre assortment of various and sundry junk. A basket full of phone chargers for ten year old cell phones, the VHS classic Buns of Steel, Sega Genesis video games, and more. How long have these items been sitting here untouched, like a forgotten junk box in the depths of a pack-rat's basement?
I've picked out a little American flag for a dime, when an older man spots my camera and strikes up a conversation. Thus we meet friendly John, "the picker", who likes to frequent Judy's junk shop, finding treasures for pennies, then selling them on ebay for what they are really worth. We talk about life and travel and photography, and encourage him to dig out his old lenses before giving him a firm handshake goodbye. Then, we head back to the car, goodies in hand.
Eager to venture onward, we climb into our little silver car for a trip into the Sierra Nevadas. Up we go, around sweeping switchbacks, marveling at the scenery as it becomes more rugged and mountainous. When we encounter the first dusting of white, glittering snow blanketing the the side of the road, I gasp and point, shouting "Tyler! Snow!" Soon entire swaths of land are covered in the stuff, shimmering in the afternoon sunlight.
Pulling off at a scenic overlook, we get out of the car to breathe deeply, reveling in the crisp, mountain air and the scent of pine that's infused within. We grab handfuls of crusty snow and feel it melt between our fingertips, then reach for the camera, doing our best to capture the aqua blue, swimming pool skies, and the rich green of the forests below.
We're only a few hours into our journey home, but what fun this is going to be! Something about today has been exhilarating—meeting people in small towns, just like we did on our bicycle tour; it's oddly comforting. I really, truly, thought these little towns, little shops and diners, were relegated to movies about the good ole' USA as it once was. Come to find out, just off the interstates there's a whole world of Americana waiting to be explored.