We built a van and lo, explored infinity.
We would eat and drink our way across the United States, experiencing the flavors of true, pure, potent America. With a tank of gas, a list of distilleries and breweries and a jug for pee, we were loose in the wild.
Starting in New Jersey at midnight, we ran into the breaking surf of SoCal’s shores fourteen days later. We learned the land fast, only the thin sheet metal of a Dodge Ram 1500 Conversion between us and the wondrous outdoors. With the rise of blogs and sites like The Vanual, Van Life Diaries, and a Girl and Her Van, it was our chance to jump on the “vanwagon.”
From New Jersey to Woodstock, Virginia on day one, we took a few minutes to realize that this was not the home of the infamous music and love fest from the 1960s. One thing the town possessed however, was the Woodstock Brewhouse. We tried a flight of craft beers: Kristen deciding on the Red Banks Irish Red Ale while Andrew favored the Low Water Bridge session.
For the first time in a while, we found barbeque the right size at the right price. A rarity for us city slickers from New York.
The road called again, driving us on to Virginia. Night fell, leaving us to dance amongst the deer in our headlights.
We woke up by splashing our faces in the cold streams of the Great Smoky Mountains in Virginia, weaving past the glittering lights of Tennessee's world famous Dollywood through the night, and ending at a silent, frozen sunset atop the Blue Ridge Parkway, the road that links Shenandoah to the Smokies.
The road went long, bringing us to our next stop too late to tour and taste at the same time.
Luckily, we could buy our own fifth and follow the “Dry County” tour at the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee.
The area sat in a “Lord of the Rings-esque” green cove, water for the distillery trickling through a shire beneath trees coated in a black “alcohol fume eating fungus.” Our guide Cole was a true Southern man with plenty of stories about Mr. Jack, and a few about himself “jumping Coke cans” with his new Jeep.
Armed with our fifth of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel, Barrel Proof, we left. The night ended thirteen miles down a dirt road in Alabama at a cul-de-sac of homes on the river. Kristen’s aunt bought the place a few years back, inviting the family to spend whatever time they could being lazy alongside the river.
It was Easter Sunrise service at a fish camp in Alabama, followed by a home cooked breakfast of bacon, eggs, Southern biscuits, sausage, and enough sustenance for days.
Then, we shot guns. ‘Murica.
This was a trip of excess. We ate too much junk food, so indicative road trippin’ Americans. Every state, at every stop, we ran into the gas station for snacks and to inspect their local craft beer selection. Texas, for one, introduced Kristen to her go-to of the trip: Love Street, a Kolsch-style blonde by Karbach Brewing Co of Houston. Andrew deviated from his ice cold Coors for the Mosaic IPA from Community Brewing Company in Dallas.
Too many gummy worms, too many various Cheetos, and one too many burgers. One Wendy’s worker thought it apropos to ironically call him, “Mr. Andrew.”
The name stuck.
There wasn’t much stopping between Alabama and Texas, as we sped through Mississippi and Louisiana.
The Long Road Through Middle America
We were finally in the infinite state: Texas.
At the Bricktown Tap House and Kitchen of Wichita Falls, we realized that the Oklahoma-based company was serving up only Texan craft beers. State liquor laws made the transport of alcohol complicated, so the waitress recommended we cross the border if we wanted to get the actual Bricktown brews.
Oklahoma wasn’t meant to be. We saw friends. Visited family. Broke down, all in Texas. It was Groom, Texas with a 500 person population where we met Lee the mechanic. He came highly recommended by the singular gas station attendant.
We made unintentional friends with a man coming off the interstate, cardboard sign in hand and dust in his stubble. He wanted a ride to Tennessee, a destination far behind us.
We apologized and explained not only were we going the other way, but our van was broken down. Empathizing, he offering mechanical advice before disappearing into the gas station.
The attendant inside told us about Lee, insisting we head over to his shop on the sidewalk of Route 66.
We got a nod of approval from Malik the hitchhiker as we biked to get Lee, brought him back in his pickup, and got the alternator tested in the Dairy Queen parking lot. The man “had us a new alternator” within hours.
We thanked him for coming so quickly to our rescue. He grunted. Malik walked away with a fresh cigarette and a thumbs up, headed for Tennessee.
Somewhere in Milagro, “the miracle”, New Mexico, a kind gas station attendant gave us buckets of water to feed the van. She then put her hands all over the glass that her window washer just finished.
They both laughed. She suggested we check the local honey and turquoise they were selling.
Finally, The West
John Keats once said, “The poetry of the earth is never dead.” We could hear the whispers of the Petrified Forest National park when we drove through it at night. We may or may not have taken turns sampling the craft beers in the cooler, driving down the dark highway. We still had leftover Ragin’ Cajuns Genuine Louisiana Ale from Louisiana’s Bayou Teche Brewing Company.
Needing a place to park for the night, we slept 7000 feet high. Flagstaff, Arizona. Morning was a rapid drive, racing the sun and the tourists to the Grand Canyon. We found the visitor’s center then biked to rim of America’s great chasm.
Lucking out with a camping spot that night, we paid a mere $2 for eight heavenly minutes of shower after a three mile hike down into the Canyon. Then back up. Hugging the jagged walls to let the occasional mule train pass, we descended into the dust that coated us orange. We emerged atop a rock that jutted out, a platform for our voices to reverberate down the painted cliffs for miles.
Dinner that night was wine, meat and cheese alongside our fire. The stars were spackled above by the thousands.
Morning on Route 66 took us away from the canyon through the desert to another bucket list item: the wide open spaces. Our stiffest drink was a chocolate shake at the Rutherford’s 66 Family Diner in Kingman, Arizona. We theorized that maybe Roswell’s aliens escaped and integrated into society by working at a diner such as this.
From that point, there wasn’t a drop of liquor or water for hundreds of miles. The desert brought sprawling views, blue distant mountains, and freight trains scrolling by like inchworms. The only rivers were the sandy “washes” that turn into flood zones when the desert can’t accept any more rain.
Having no A/C to cross the desert was exhausting. I napped and woke in Palm Springs.
Civilization again. People.
Hadn’t we just weaved between the boulders of the adult playground that is Joshua Tree National Park? What happened to our campfire? Suddenly, we found ourselves drinking Stumptown coffee at dawn in Palm Springs, an “It Town” for Californians, a mini, classier Vegas just holding its breath for Coachella.
That morning was another evasion of traffic before we found ourselves at the coast. We’d heard rumors of a distant cousin with a whiskey distillery in El Dorado Hills and decided to hunt them down.
The little joint Dry Diggings Distillery inspired by old mining towns, nestled in a modern office complex with no grandeur, was enchanting. Just what a Doc on the trail would’ve ordered. We tried our flight of whiskey and left with invites to their beautiful riverside home in the future.
The shores of California.
We parked at Leucadia, a pearl on the string of beachside towns that we long to call home. We booked a beachside campsite, and bolted into the waves. We washed the desert and the drive off, refreshed.
Mr. Andrew led us from the sunset to the Regal Seagull, a bar with a mustard bar for hot dog night and a great selection of local beers. Exhausted, we sipped our Blackberry Cruiser by Owl Farms and a New Generation IPA by Amplified before sleeping to the sound of the ocean across the street.
We parked the van. Cooled the engines. We’d made it.
Ending as it began, with no preconceptions, our trip was fueled by a gas tank and our whims. Cracking open the final can of Love Street and an ice cold Coors, we surveyed our prize. The coast of Cali was finally ours.