A cross-country road trip complete

Sadie and I make it to New York, with trespassing in beautiful Pennsylvania and some New Jersey R&B

By Joan Walsh

Published April 15, 2013 5:13PM (EDT)

I'm driving cross-country with my dog, Sadie.
I'm driving cross-country with my dog, Sadie.

The last leg of Sadie’s and my trip, from Chicago to New York, was the most familiar. I’d done this route, or a variation of it, dozens of times in my teens and early 20s. I never passed up the chance for a road trip back then.

My first trip, I was only 17. The family of one of my best friends was moving to Bethesda, Md., right after our graduation. So he and I and our mutual best friend, a funny teenage triangle, drove one of the family cars east. My mother had just died, and I knew with certainty that she never would have let me make that trip alone with two boys. She loved those boys, she knew they were good boys, but she could rarely get beyond appearances. My grieving, distracted and much more open-minded father, on the other hand, gave me his blessing. It was the first tangible result of my mother’s absence, and it was good and bad. I was free; I was also unmothered, untethered.

We bombed across Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana and into Wauseon, Ohio. The desk clerk at the roadside motel wasn’t sure what we were up to when we asked for two rooms, but made sure I was the one getting the second room, by myself (I was). I could hear the noise from the turnpike, and I didn’t sleep well. Suddenly I didn’t like the way freedom smelled: like the disinfectant they used in my mother’s hospital room on top of old cigarette smoke.

Nevertheless, for the next few years those same high school friends (plus others) took dozens of road trips between Milwaukee or Chicago or Madison and New York or Bethesda or New Haven, trying to stay close even through college. A long-distance relationship in the middle of that made constant movement imperative. Then I moved to Santa Barbara and began making the trip in the other direction, heading west; once I moved to Chicago for a while, I was going back and forth in both directions; then I settled in San Francisco after my 1985 road trip – and I came off the road for good.

And that’s what I wanted. Over the last week, with seven days in a car and roughly 50 hours of driving (alongside a loving companion who nonetheless can’t talk), I had a lot of time to think about the versions of my life I saw going by on Interstate 80, from Winnemucca to Wauseon, Boulder to Wrigley Field. My wandering really began once my parents moved us to Milwaukee when I was 13, and we had to travel if we wanted to stay in touch with family. It only stopped once I had my daughter, and I was rooted, tethered again, and I loved it. Strangely, it’s Nora who put me on the road again by settling, for now, in New York. As long as she lives there, I’m torn between two coasts, but as long as I have Sadie, it’s no simple matter going back and forth.

* * *

On the last day of our road trip, we left Clarion, Penn., early. It’s where they shot “The Deer Hunter,” and it still feels forlorn. When I try to run Sadie near a gas station a few miles away, we’re greeted by this sign:

But Sadie’s ball got away and we wound up trespassing, on this pleasant field near a pond. Nobody shot at us.

And then we drove as fast as we could to New York City. I remembered how beautiful even eastern Pennsylvania can be, as we came around the Delaware Water Gap. In New Jersey, we found my favorite radio station of the entire drive, WNTI, and listened to most of the Happy Feet Request Party, the two-hour rhythm and blues show. We lost the station as we got close to the chaos of the George Washington Bridge toll plaza and I turned off the radio to minimize distraction (I saw two fender benders in the 15 minutes I made my way through the tollbooth).

As we got off the Henry Hudson right along the river, I opened the windows and Sadie seemed to recognize the smell from our last stay, four months ago.

And we’re home – home for four months, anyway. Our place is a half-block away from Central Park, which is dog heaven as well as my favorite place in the city. Sadie’s enjoying the daffodils in the park:

I have to get back to writing about gun control, immigration reform, chained CPI and all the news I’ve missed the last week. I’m happy to be out of the car, and out of the confines of my own head, but it was a great week. Thanks for keeping me company.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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Dogs Driving Miss Sadie Joan Walsh New York Pennsylvania