Two days after I hit send on the final draft of my book, I got to work on the next big endeavor; traveling across the country to Tucson, Arizona to see my folks for the first time in a year. After facing every doubt and hurdle that one human can throw at themselves, it was time to put the hard work of writing my first book in the rear-view mirror and put the “on the way” part of my project to the test by hopping in the car for a 2,000 mile drive.
This being Covid-times, my boyfriend and I had decided that the only safe way to get where we were going was to drive -- without stopping for any of the fun things we’d imagined ourselves doing on our first cross-country trip across America. Instead, we’d watch from inside our rented car as 2,000 miles of American life sped by outside the window.
Though we were briefly tempted to visit a cave in Missouri which, according to no fewer than 50 billboards, held Jesse James’s hideout, dinosaur fossils, bats and underground lakes, we stayed away from the mysterious wonders hidden inside this country and focused on the great outdoors.
Driving across Michigan we took a detour along the sandy western coastline where, instead of stopping at a diner for a cup of coffee, we drank in the view of a lake so large it’s technically a sea. We hiked up the side of a long, sloping sand dune to see the wide swath of grey blue that is Lake Michigan. With every step, fine grains of sand jumped down the back of my boot. When I took them off later that night in a motel room in Illinois, they spilled out into a small blonde pile on the dingy carpeted floor.
In Oklahoma, we sped past the windmills, track houses, and cows that lined the highway. We imagined the cattle drives that might have taken a similar path on their way to the stockyards of Chicago. We kept driving west, into the panhandle, where my Dad’s mother grew up. As we drove through the flatlands, I imagined her singing into the microphone inside a lone radio tower in Electra, Texas. I’d always liked that story about her, and now I could imagine how her soft, twangy voice lit up the airwaves of the countryside like the blinking, glowing light atop the station antenna, making red halos in the black darkness of the Texas panhandle.
We traced over the narrow path of old Route 66 on the wide new interstate that replaced it. We paused to pay homage to the original by visiting a small, nearly empty museum dedicated to the first cross country connector that didn’t run on steam and coal. We didn’t go inside, but having firmly crossed the line from midwest to southwest, we took off our winter coats and ate our lunch basking in the sun, while lightly trespassing on the steps of an old-timey opera house of the museum’s replica western town.
After wandering this once-again ghost town, we traded photography help with the only other visitors on the grounds. We took turns snapping cheesy pictures in front of a giant old Route 66 sign before waving at each other from a six-foot distance and heading back to our separate cars, and separate routes.
We saw the sky expand, bounding out from a frame of forests and grasses into an endless horizon that spread across the wide, flat plains. Driving at night the whoosh of the highway was accompanied by the soothing, yet lonely shimmer of light pouring around the edges of shuttered windows, glowing around gas stations and golden arches and beaming from headlights and stars. Each night, we settled into our motel room and turned on the television in time to catch the nightly news. The blue light fluttered against the walls, joining in that same symphony of lights that illuminated every town and highway we’d traveled.
Soon, shy mountains began cropping up in the distance; their presence suggesting the existence of something after never-ending hours of nothing. It was New Mexico, coming into view just in time to watch the sun go down while filling up at a sleepy gas station. Inside dusty keychains hung on nails, packs of cigarettes and gum and candy lined the counters. A pair of parakeets tweeted in a small cage placed near a dusty windy and hidden behind a rack of postcards. Outside a small, shy, black and white stray cat sat atop the ice machine scanning for mice. The meter ticked over on the ancient pump, like a slow motion slot machine hitting a jackpot. We clunked the nozzle back into place, snapped a photo of the tangerine skies and drove until we pulled into a motel whose pink stucco walls we wouldn’t see til morning as they were cloaked in the blue-black darkness of the desert night.
The next morning, we woke up with just eight hours separating us from our final destination. We loaded the car, buckled up, and hit the road. New Mexico yawned before us, stretching and reaching in every direction. When it seemed like the big sky, mountains and dry scrub brush would never end we pulled off for lunch. We made sandwiches on the edge of a small access road next to cotton fields so dusty that the rows of green plants looked like an old sepia photo. We ate ham sandwiches standing next to the car, having foolishly packed the folding chairs under three months of luggage. It was strangely silent. No birds chirped, no cars drove past. Just the buzzing of a swarm of flies that assembled out of nowhere, excited at the prospect of a free lunch.
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It would have delayed our trip by half a day to make a pit-stop at the White Sands desert. We were eager to see faces we hadn’t seen in over a year, and the wagging tail of the dog coming to greet us at the door, so we kept to the road. We were rewarded for our diligence when a wrong turn for gas landed us at the cracked, muddy edges of a pond at the exact moment that the sun set into its mirrored surface.
With one hour to go, we hit the only traffic jam of the whole trip. The entire highway was closed down and we were routed along a bumpy sideroad until we crossed the border into Arizona. A little rain began to fall, and the smell of petrichor filtered through the vents. The exoctic scent of stoney earth receiving life welcoming us to our new, desert home.
I have always marveled at the highway. The thousands of miles we traveled were strange to us, but each mile was mundane and familiar to the people that regularly inhabit them.The exits we passed were just random numbers reflecting in the headlights, but for someone else they were a beacon, a sign that they were just a few miles away from home. It’s strange to think that one path connects us all. And even though we didn’t visit every town and take every detour between here and there, we passed through them all the same. The yellow glow of our headlights illuminating the background of someone else’s life while lighting the way forward for our own.
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I have no idea how I got here ... Who wrote this blog?
Sarah Nisbett is a former professional opera singer, who learned how to draw by sketching strangers during her daily commute on the New York City Subway. A totally self-taught artist, she turned her hobby of drawing “on the way” into a successful Instagram account and blog, and now, a book!
The Drawn On The Way project is dedicated to helping people find the extraordinary in the everyday and to see themselves and those around them as works of art. Through her expressive, minimal illustrations and paintings, Sarah is creating a movement of self- acceptance and awareness, showing people that when you make art about the world, you make the world yours.