It was precisely fifteen and a half days before my 23rd birthday when I eventually passed my driving test. I actually started learning to drive when I was 17, then I had run away to university and only reluctantly came to pass that stepping-stone in life five years later. I remember my sticky hands clinging to the steering wheel as I smiled and nodded politely at the awkward small-talk of my examiner. Twenty two minutes later he handed me my certificate and precisely three and a half days after that I flew to America. That flimsy piece of paper I had been trying to get hold of for five years to me represented infinite miles of freedom, and I headed across the Atlantic filled with wild dreams of the Great American Roadtrip, the Californian Dream.
The first time I drove alone I had planned a three and a half hour journey to Sequoia National Park. After unknowingly making an illegal turn out of the car hire centre in Los Angeles, I headed towards the I-5 for my first solo four-wheeled adventure. I was instantly struck by the freedom of it all. The long road ahead and the wide sky above. “There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars” said Kerouac and it all made sense to me now. At that time in my life I was indecisive and restless, lost and emotional. I constantly longed for fresh air and aloneness yet I was overwhelmed by both. The road was an escape from life but not from my emotions and I spent many a car journey fighting back tears or letting them roll, even when I didn’t know why exactly. I sang loudly to Carole King with the windows down and became obsessed by podcasts on murder trials. I stopped whenever I felt like it and ate whenever I felt like it, and sometimes I realised that no one in the whole world knew where I was at one moment. The road exhilarated and terrified me, and I was addicted to it.
I drove north along Highway 101 towards empty beaches on the coast, where the sky turned moody at twilight and it rained all night on me and my little tent. I climbed a mountain near Santa Barbara where Californian poppies covered the peak. In Yosemite friendly camping neighbours made me cinnamon toasted apple and blueberries for breakfast before I hiked to gushing waterfalls and mirror lakes. The delicious scent of redwoods followed me around Sequoia National Park, and I frolicked amongst pine needles at golden hour when the forest glowed a thousand shades of red and the towering trees seemed to grow another few inches towards the setting sun.
I spent my 23rd birthday at Joshua Tree, not alone this time. I remember those long, empty desert roads and the air that cooled as the sky glowed orange and the stars that twinkled and and the fire that roared. Chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast and cheese burgers for lunch along Highway 395 at one of those all-American diners you think only exist in the movies. We climbed rocks at Alabama Hills and sat at dusk below California’s grandest peaks in the Eastern Sierra. There could have been nothing else in the world but for the vastness of the American West. The road may lead to a new place everyday but it also confines you to a moment, to a place, to another person or to your own thoughts if you are travelling alone.
Driving back to the bright lights of LA past the shadows of mountains and the darkness of night. Luminous signs for Texaco and Taco Bell indicate that we have left the wilderness behind somewhere. But it’s too late for me. Now I have tasted the road and savoured its freedom, I am hooked. My restless spirit has found a new calling. Let me roll my windows down and feel the changing winds. I chase the seemingness endless paths and dance between mountains and sing to the sky.
I have found a new home and it is nowhere.
And it is everywhere.
“The evening star must be dropping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old.” – Jack Kerouac, On The Road
All photos taken on 35mm film.
Athena Mellor is a writer, linguist and co-founder of ROAM Magazine. Her passion for travel lies in that which keeps you on the move – hiking, cycle-touring, road-tripping. After graduating from University College London with a degree in Modern Languages, Athena decided to spend 4 months solo cycle-touring around parts of the USA and New Zealand, before returning to the USA to explore more of California, Oregon and Washington. She shoots on a Pentax MX 35mm film camera and is constantly trying to learn new languages on her travels, also working as a freelance translator. She is based in Yorkshire, England.