Westbound: The Road Trip That Changed My Life

By Melissa Miller

The memories of leaving the Midwest are still fresh in my mind. I somehow managed to hold it together as I drove out of my one-stoplight hometown. I repeated my new mantra—“this is what I need to do for me”—as I crossed state border after border. I was so focused on the outcome of being somewhere else that the impact of the journey itself blindsided me. This trip altered my life forever.

Thirteen hours into the first stretch of the road trip, I felt delirious. I had burned through all of my music and snacks, and the reality of everything came rushing in. Stopped at a gas station, I stared at my car, the click, click of the gas pump filling the silence behind me. My car felt claustrophobic, filled with everything I owned and my disconcerting thoughts.

Back on the road, the flat landscape gave way to the mountains. The sun was high in the sky, mimicking my levels of anxiety as I thought about all the good things I had left behind in Michigan. I couldn’t answer the frequently asked question, “Why did you leave?” At that moment, I truly didn’t know. I gawked at the mountains rising around my car on both sides. I drove in silence, almost in a meditative state as the sun set behind the mountains of Colorado.

That night I set up my tent under thousands of stars somewhere in Utah, and I tried to guess what the landscape would look like once it revealed itself in the morning. I felt peace. It was the first time in a long time that I let myself reflect and process.

I woke up suddenly, sweating in the heat generated from the sun hitting my tent, and unzipped the door. I couldn’t help but audibly gasp as I watched the sunrise paint the canyon orange in front of me. It was stunning. I ventured to three of the five National Parks in Utah, feeling more like myself in each.

Arches National Park, with its delicate sandstone arches, taught me to stop and understand the importance of balance within my own life. Chasing the next experience without stopping to reflect wouldn’t move me towards my goals. A few hours away, Bryce Canyon National Park brought the realization that it’s okay for my dreams to seem impossible to others. My journey continued at Zion National Park, where the steep cliffs and deep chasms allowed me to break down the fears and barriers I constructed to keep myself from moving towards the life I wanted.

Being alone in these incredible places empowered me to see myself in a new light for the first time. My decisions and choices, for so long, had revolved around other people. Choosing my passions over a typical standard of success was foreign to me.

My journey continued through Arizona, Nevada, and into California, and I thankfully collected more memories than dust. It always seemed like my favorite songs would play just as I drove into a place that took my breath away.

Driving along the California coast on Highway 1 for the first time felt like a scene out of a movie. After seeing the Redwoods, I acknowledged how big the world is and how small my problems are. Passing through Oregon into Washington, Mount Rainier came into view. I’ve never been so overwhelmed by a landscape. I stopped at a viewpoint to take it in and was approached by another visitor. We inevitably came to a point in the conversation where I admitted to having been on the road for over a month after leaving my home in Michigan. When asked why I left the Midwest for the West Coast, I smiled and answered, “I chose myself.”

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