“I am not going on this trip as some sort of half-baked internet blind date and I know you’re not going on it to get into my pants. “
Thus spoke my road trip companion in a last-minute attempt to calm my nerves over what I was increasingly realizing sounded like a hare-brained plan – spend a week driving across the country with a man I knew only through social media. To be fair, the nay-sayers, head-shakers and tongue-waggers had a point.
Two young, single strangers embarking on a road trip across the country?
Doesn’t that just have Katherine Heigl or a bad slasher-film ending stamped all over it? And really, if we’d been meeting as the culmination of some grand e-passion, that would be easier to understand and explain. The truth was much more benign, at least initially.
My travel partner and I had been introduced to each other’s work through a mutual acquaintance. We read each other’s blogs; we started bantering on Twitter.
He was in the habit of occasionally posting commentaries about his dating woes. I emailed him in response to one of these to voice my disagreement about his theory of lui on communication differences between the sexes and we struck up a correspondence. He shared his novel about him in progress with me; despite having no knowledge of sci-fi, I liked the part about trolls. I told him about my plan to temporarily slip the shackles of my high-pressure job by taking a road trip across America.
A road trip had long been a dream of mine and I waxed poetic about standing in the middle of a Kansas wheat field, drinking cups of early morning diner coffee and nodding at camo-clad hunter types, letting Carhenge touch the kitschiest recesses of my soul.
Suitably impressed, he told me I should invite him, probably assuming I wouldn’t do it. I did, definitely assuming he wouldn’t accept. He did.
And just like that, the trip went from abstraction to done deal and the point at which either of us could graciously bailout seemed to have passed. It was a matter of pride, and neither he nor I were willing to be the one to admit that spending a week in a car with a complete stranger was, at best, the plot of an achingly tween indie rom-com and at worst, a Dateline special in the making.
We agreed to meet in Denver (a city neither of us had ever visited), drive through Nebraska, visit his brother and sister-in-law in Missouri, see a friend of mine in North Carolina, celebrate Thanksgiving with his family in West Virginia and then end the trip in Pittsburgh.
“Your family won’t mind you showing up with some interloper from the internet you just met?” I asked.
“My family will be delighted,” he assured me.
I thought about my own family. They would not be delighted at all if I pulled such a stunt. Indeed, they weren’t delighted about any part of this road trip or at least the scant details I’d chosen to share with them. My mother kept asking me how I knew this person and how I could be sure he wouldn’t rape or murder me.
I was reasonably sure this wouldn’t happen.
While it was possible that he had faked his entire digital footprint right down to the Facebook photo albums, the blog that predates our association by years, and a host of mutual Twitter pals who could vouch for having met him in the flesh, it seemed more likely that he was exactly as he billed himself when originally arguing his merits as a worthy co-pilot – “a soft-middled, hairy, neurotic, filthy-minded, funny, cynical romantic who’s probably been on vacation once in his adult life. “
This is why I was so relieved to stumble out of the baggage claim area at the Denver airport to see a completely normal-looking guy bearing absolutely no resemblance to Ted Bundy tapping away on his iPhone and occasionally glancing towards the arrivals door.
I took a deep breath and marched over to him. Here goes nothing, I thought.
It turns out that I had very little to worry about. In addition to not being a serial killer, my travel partner turned out to be one of the easiest people to talk to I’ve ever met. You can’t help but get along with him, even when he deliberately tries to make that difficult.
“I thought it would be funny if you showed up and you were missing an eye and you’d just never mentioned that before. But you aren’t. That’s OK, too,” he remarked as we made our way to the rental car desk.
“Aren’t you also glad that I turned out not to be a man?”
He looked at me thoughtfully. “Well, we haven’t conclusively established that fact yet.”
And so began five days of driving, into which we crammed 2500 miles, one almost speeding ticket, countless pictures, and a running stream of Twitter updates. Soon after departing Denver, we realized that if we didn’t find a way to fill the silence in the car, the next week would seem interminable.
So, we started talking. And we didn’t stop. We didn’t make it as far as the Nebraska border before we ran out of superficial topics (there are only so many observations on the variety and quantity of road kill encountered that one can make) and started to get personal.
We talked about our families – he has five siblings and I have four – we talked about my career angst, his failed marriage, our approaches to writing, what we find funny, politics, religion, and sex.
And when we paused our talking, it was only to swap musical recommendations. I played him my favorite Josh Ritter tracks. He introduced me to The Bird and The Bee. We went back and forth on whether our road trip theme song should be The Muppets’ “Movin ‘Right Along” or The New Pornographers’ “Go Places.”
We agreed that there was something about the monotony of the road and having to focus your attention on the yellow line in front of you instead of the eyes of the person beside you that lends itself to confession.
The words just kept tumbling out and I found myself repeatedly surprised at what I was willing to admit to someone I’d only met a couple of days ago. I was also surprised that it really had only been a couple of days and not years that we’d known each other.
“Do you realize that the only thing we haven’t talked about is the most obvious one?” he asked me. We were gassing up the car outside of St. Louis.
“Yes. I just figured we’d leave it until the last minute and then have some horribly awkward talk right before I’m supposed to board a plane home.”
“I don’t want to have that talk.”
“Neither do I.”
That more or less sums up our approach to the white elephant in the room … er, car … that made itself apparent over the course of the week – what exactly was going on with us?
It’s impossible to spend so much time with someone in such a small space (Toyota Corollas aren’t exactly roomy) and not develop some degree of emotional Stockholm Syndrome. While absence makes the heart grow fonder, proximity also weaves its own spell.
But instead of trying to nail down, define or dismiss our unique dynamic, we decided that, for the moment, having someone to mock the naming skills of the hoards of yuppie parents (seriously, you called your kids Lennon and McCartney?) While shuffling through the Nashville Zoo was more important than dissecting our compatibility and what it meant. There would be plenty of time for that type of navel-gazing at some future point. Everything else could wait until we weren’t driving upwards of nine hours a day and running on emotional fumes.
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It proved to be a good choice, although one not entirely comfortable for two writers prone to overthinking. Carpe diem, we kept reminding each other when we felt the urge to be introspective or angsty. Carpe diem, I thought as I met his extended family di lui and fielded his dad’s questions about my latest blog post, and helped his sister-in-law di lui core apples for Thanksgiving dessert.
Carpe diem, I whispered as I mingled with the entire Pittsburgh Twitterverse for Saturday night margaritas and nachos and hoped to make a good impression.
Don’t overthink. Don’t think at all. Just enjoy yourself. And I did, right up to the moment that he dropped me off at the Pittsburgh airport on Sunday afternoon. We had talked so much over the previous week and built such a natural and comfortable rapport that there really wasn’t much left that needed to be said at that point.
“Keep me updated,” he directed.
“About the rest of my life?” I asked.
“About your trip home, silly.”
When I told my travel partner I was writing this story, he had only one request. “I don’t care what you tell people, but please don’t make me look like any more of an ass than I am.” I told him I would do my best to oblige.
We’ve kept in daily contact since the trip and we’ve kept to our agreement – no awkward conversations. Yet.
We must have done something right, because a scant month after driving across the country, we’re already planning the sequel to our adventure – spending New Year’s Eve together in New York City.
We’re at a stalemate when it comes to whether or not to brave Times Square (I say yes, he says no), but I’m confident that we’ll figure the issue out when and only when the time comes. After all, that’s been our approach so far. Why mess with a good thing?
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JM Henderson is a contributor to YourTango.