My mom and I have spent a lot of time together; neither of us is physically expressive or extroverted, but we can tolerate being in close proximity to each other for longer than with almost anyone else. When I started school as a kid, she started her own business so she could work from home decades before the Great Resignation. She never baked cookies, or left notes in my lunches, but she was always there when I got home.
When I moved from Ohio to New York City in my late 20s, my mom followed a few months later. In early 2020, COVID-19 canceled the solo road trip I had planned as a break from both my mom and my life in the cramped and crowded city. Two years later, when I finally hit the road again this spring, I covered 14 states and more than 6,000 miles over 22 days—with my mom in tow.
It’s not always been easy trying to carve out my own identity separate from hers, but my mom raised me to be curious and independent because I think she genuinely is too. Of course, most of what I think I know about my mother comes second hand, mostly from observing or sharing space with her in close quarters: on the couch, in a diner booth, or in the car. Some families are bonded by conversations and traditions; the trait that has always united (and sometimes fractured) mine is a shared sense of wanderlust.
Bonded by road trips
For as long as I can remember, my dad has also worked from home, which gave our family the flexibility to travel; for decades, he was afraid to fly, so we took to the road instead. My sister and I would spread out in the back of our station wagon and sleep for most of the journey to destinations accessible within a day’s drive from our Ohio home base. I was in my early 20s when my parents divorced, so it didn’t affect me emotionally so much as logistically. It’s been trickier to balance big holidays, but it’s nice to get twice the presents—and take twice the road trips.
In 2018, my dad and I met in Memphis and drove through Mississippi; we searched for the devil at a crossroads in Clarksdale, saw where Elvis took his first steps in a shotgun shack in Tupelo, and dipped into the Northwest corner of Alabama to pay our respects to dogs departed at a cemetery catering exclusively to coon dogs. Neither of us have traveled Route 66 in its entirety yet, but I’m under strict orders to not get my kicks on the remaining portions of the iconic road with anyone but my dad.
While my father has claimed the Mother Road, my mother and I have shared almost everything else. We were alternately roommates and neighbors in Manhattan, except for 2 years when I moved to Brooklyn and she was so hurt she gave me the cold shoulder for months. She was even more thrilled when I told her, at the end of December 2019, that I planned to spend most of 2020 living on the road. I wasn’t sure where I would end up after my open-ended trip ended, but I think when I said, “I’m leaving New York,” what she actually heard was, “I’m leaving you.”
‘Take me with you’
I did leave New York and my mom at the end of March 2020, but I didn’t get far: I spent the early days of quarantine drinking Manhattans with my dad in Ohio. When her own father got sick at the end of 2020, my mom also moved back home. In spring of 2021, I got vaccinated and decided to take her to Dollywood; when my grandpa died, I invited my grandma to come with us. Earlier this year, when a friend announced she was getting married in Phoenix, Arizona, I resumed planning the cross-country trip that never happened. This time, when I broke the news to my mom, instead of stony silence, she blurted out, “Take me with you!”
After nearly 2 years of living alone in Washington, D.C., the idea of spending weeks out on the road alone no longer had the same appeal—and I missed my mom. I drove to Ohio—where my dad prepared my 2016 VW Golf for the extended trip—picked up my mom, and drove us through Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. After the wedding and a 5-day stay with friends in Phoenix, we continued south and east through New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, and, finally, back to D.C.
Our first and only stop in the Hoosier State was at the Warm Glow Candle outlet to use the bathroom and buy one of its signature candles. Things got more exciting when we crossed into the Land of Lincoln, where I mailed myself a postcard from the World’s Largest Mailbox in Casey, Illinois, a small town full of big things. My mom and I share a distrust of heights and confined spaces, so we skipped the interior of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, opting to explore a nearby dusty wax museum instead.
Kansas was one of three new-to-me states on this trip (Colorado and Utah were the others), and we saw several more larger-than-life objects in the Sunflower State, including the World’s Largest Czech Egg in Winslow, a giant Van Gogh canvas in Goodland, and the World’s Largest Ball of Sisal Twine in Cawker.
The itinerary had changed several times since I had started planning in late 2019, and continued to change as we racked up the miles—6,191.1 of them by the time we made it back to the East Coast. I booked a few hotels in advance, but mostly made reservations a day or two ahead of our arrival for flexibility. When my mom expressed excitement about exploring Estes Park, Colorado, I extended our stay an extra night. I initially thought we would loop west to Las Vegas, but decided to take a more direct route south through Utah (including the breathtaking Arches National Park) and northern Arizona.
The Grand Canyon (a first for both of us) lived up to the hype: I teared up at every new sweeping vista. My mom was uncharacteristically terrified as I approached the guardrail-free edge; several times during the trip, she tried to stop me from going out alone at night, once prompting me to yell “I’m almost 40!” in such a childish way that I unwittingly proved her point. Her fierce maternal protectiveness surprises me every time it surfaces; it’s rare, but it’s not unwarranted. Despite our physical closeness, I’ve always had a penchant for wandering away from her. But I always come back, eventually.
We spent 2 nights at the Grand Canyon Inn, which I booked because of its proximity to Raptor Ranch (formerly known as the Flintstones-themed Bedrock City). My mom and I spent hours taking silly photos on lumpy, brightly-painted structures modeled after the prehistoric world of Fred and Wilma, and took turns sliding down the back of a gently sloping Apatosaurus (formerly known as a Brontosaurus).
We glamped in Texas Hill Country, were underwhelmed by the Alamo, learned the stories of enslaved laborers at Whitney Plantation outside of New Orleans, drove the 54-mile historic trail from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and spent our last night under the faded and flickering neon of South Carolina’s South of the Border.
A captive audience
The past 2 years have been the longest my mom and I have lived so far apart from one another (350 miles, a 5.5-hour drive). Before we left, I downloaded a break-in-case-of-emergency 45-hour audiobook biography of Silvia Plath in anticipation of awkward silences that, thankfully, never came. We never needed the distraction, but we didn’t have any long, heartfelt conversations either, and that’s ok—it’s just not our style. I used to wish my mom was more vocal, more accessible, more effusive with her emotions. Now, I realize just how much I’ve learned from her steady presence and physical proximity.
My mom can be frustratingly impervious (a familial trait passed on to me as well), but the lessons she’s taught me without making a big show of it are some of the most important. I suspect she’s known from day one that in me, she had created a captive audience—and tried her best not to squander the opportunity. Without explicitly saying so, she has modeled her own brand of quiet courage and I’ve tried my best to pay attention. From watching her, I’ve learned that sometimes the bravest thing you can do is to leave a life—or a job, town, relationship, or arthritic knee—that is no longer working for you and replace it with something better.
On this particular trip, she also taught me to stop at every Buc-ee’s, to never trust her driving directions, and to always bring your own coffee maker (just in case). But more than anything, 3 weeks on the road with my mom reminded me that simply spending time with someone often means way more than spending money on them ever could.
After I dropped her off at the airport for her flight back to Ohio, my mom sent me a text thanking me for everything. “But the best part,” she wrote, “was just spending time with you.”