Two Weeks out West: A Flashback Series
Updated: Mar 27
Back in 2016, my brother Joel and I went on a two week road trip to see the western United States. We had a few destinations mapped out, but no major plans on how everything would pan out. The trip ended up being more profound than we could have ever anticipated, and both felt the need to document it.
Several years ago, I started writing about the entire rationality of the trip, and how I remember everything happening that first day. That entire experience can be read here.
However, Joel felt the need to share the entire trip from his perspective, breaking down every small detail from that memorable experience. He plans to eventually turn it all into a book, and wants to start by retelling all of the finer details of that trip for the world to see.
This is Joel's story, told right from where it all began:
“Alright, it sounds like I’m going to be able to get out of work early tomorrow. I should be home by like, 11:30 latest. Have everything by the door and be ready to go, we’ll load up the car, and leave by noon.”
It was Thursday May 5, 2016. Tomorrow my brother Eric and I were set to leave on a road trip that would change our outlook and perspective in ways we had never dreamt possible. The plan was to leave that Friday, and squeeze out seeing as much of the Western United States as we could, while I was on layoff for a two week retooling shutdown from my job at General Motors. Little did we know, this thrown together trip would shape us in such a profound way.
4:30 a.m. my alarm goes off, I am so not used to getting up at this time. I’ve been on afternoons or the midnight shift since 2009. I despised the afternoon shift when I got bumped to it, and was unable to make it back to the dayshift since I was low seniority. GM’s recent bankruptcy filing in 2009 made it so no one was getting hired anytime soon, so nightshift it was for me. But this week, I was on dayshift. The whole plant was laid off for a five week retooling, and most everyone was getting the whole five weeks off. Management had to work, but us on the hourly side were free to do as we please during that time. Except for the Team Leaders. Team Leaders are hourly people who help keep the line running, but are really just pee-ons like the rest of us on the floor in the shop. Team Leaders had to come in for three of the five weeks of the shutdown. They were to take classes on how to be a better Team Leader for the first week (on dayshift of course. No management personnel wants to come in on the ugly nightshift). Then they’d be laid off for two weeks, receiving Unemployment Benefits from the State, and Sub-Pay Benefits from GM to make up 85% or so of our wages to help layoffs not be such a blow to our pocketbooks. Then we’d come back for two weeks, and run trials on what had been changed so our teams would be good to run when everything fired back up after the shutdown. I had anticipated a five week vacation, but two was going to have to do. And I was hell-bent on making the best of it.
All week, I got up at 4:30 a.m. to make it in at start up time and be out after our eight hour day. Every day that week I counted the hours down, getting more and more excited for a break, something new, seeing some cool places and meeting new people. When I initially heard we were going to get time off, I started pondering what to do, where to go, what to see. I honestly had no idea what I was going to do with the time, but knew I wanted to make it count. Eric and I have a friend, Danae. She’s super cool. She’s easy-going, chill, and always fun to talk with. She’s not someone I talk to all the time, but whenever we do talk, it’s like we pick up right where we left off. Randomly one day, her and I got talking and I found out she was moving to Montana. I have never given much thought to Montana. It’s big, it’s out there. It’s kinda way up there too. But that exhausted what I knew about the state. She told me she wanted to start a new life. Things had gotten stale here, as they can tend to do in Lansing, MI and while she was young, why not? I admired the shit out of her for this. I wanted to grab breakfast with her one last time before she started this new chapter.
We set up a day and went to a favorite Lansing spot; Golden Harvest. Golden Harvest is like, the place you don’t take your grandma, unless your grandma is cool or something. It’s small, it’s loud, you sit with strangers, the food is greasy, and uncensored Eminem is blaring inside. It’s fucking lit. So we go there and have pancakes.
Breakfast at Golden Harvest. It’s just the start to a wonderful day. You’re going to have to shit. And it’ll be soon after you eat it, but it’s worth it. So while we’re there, Danae tells Eric and I that she’s moving to Bozeman in Montana. She has a friend who offered her a place to stay to get started and she’s leaving. She packed a suitcase and her mom bought her a one way ticket as a birthday gift. It was all she wanted. I found out that her flight was actually that day! So I’m to this day so thankful that we made that greasy, delicious, breakfast happen! While she was telling us about moving out there, how excited, and how nerve racking it was, she mentioned she wasn't sure if people would come visit. It is, after all, Montana. That’s not a drive to Chicago. That’s a commitment. I honestly don’t even know what made me blab out “We’ll come visit you!” I knew I had the time off coming up, Montana sounded like a good stop on a trip, so why not? I had kinda always been drawn to Boise, ID for some weird reason, so fuck it. “Danae, we’ll come see you.”
My workday went almost as I had planned. We had ten more minutes of class at 11:00 a.m, but because of our Union Contract, we had to go to lunch. We would resume after lunch for the ten minutes, then could go home. The yelling, the bargaining, the complaining, it was all happening. We wanted to work ten more minutes and just go. Unfortunately for us though, management sticks to their guns when it’s something that mildly inconveniences them. We could go at 11:42.
11:42 on the nose I hit that time clock. “FREEDOM!! I’m headed home! Holy shit, this is happening. I’m going out West. I’m going to see so much. Montana, here I come!!! God, it’s a beautiful day.” I made it to my 2009 Saab 9-3 and I was off! Sunglasses on, I was cool, man. I have a lot to do. In the parking lot, driving home, I dialed Eric…
“...ring… .ring…” “...ring… ...ring…” Eric, where are you… You better be in the shower. He’s probably in the shower. He’s got everything ready and that was the last thing he had to do. He’s up. It’s 11:48, he’s gotta be up. I told him I’d drive until 11:00 tonight, I want to get as much driving in as I can before then. Where the hell is he?! I’ve called at least 4 times now. Alright, I’ll be home soon, I’ll help him load up the car and we’ll be on our way.
Shortly after noon, I pull in the driveway. I see movement in the house. He's up. Good. He was probably just showering, we had quite a bit to finalize getting around, but we should be able to leave soon. Especially with me having to stay a half hour later than I was intending to. Hopefully everything is ready to go!
Eric is in his pajamas.
“I’m sorry!” Eric says. “I overslept. But if I’m going to drive the late shift, I figured it’s better that I’m well rested now so we aren’t both tired later.”
He’s right. But I’m not going to tell him that. I have to give him shit, and keep him on his toes. If I didn’t, what kind of older brother would I be? Anyway, we have to pack. We’re already cutting into our time out West. I’m trying to maximize this trip to the millisecond. Luckily I at least started packing. However, I’m last minute too and have more to do, plus I have to pack our community things; snacks, the little cooler we bought especially for the trip (my hard lunch box for work was just too big for the tight space in the back of the Saab), my laptop to look places up, Pepto Bismol for when I start to get sick feeling, and I still need to figure out how we’re going to sleep in the car.
Six years ago, in 2010, Eric and I took a trip to Memphis, TN. I was on 3rd shift at the time, and the plan was, that I would get out of work Thursday morning at 6:42 a.m, and that would have been my “Thursday.” On 3rd shift your workday starts the night before, and ends in the morning. The beginning of the weekends are great, but Sunday night has a whole new form of the “Sunday Scaries.” So we were set to leave Thursday; I sleep in the back of the car, and Eric drive. After a while I’d wake up, and then I could take over. Eric had never driven farther than Grand Rapids by that point in life (which is an hour from our hometown), so I didn’t want to leave him to make the whole 12 hour trek to Memphis on his own. We were on the road by 7:30 a.m. for that trip. I laid down in the back of the car, and tried to sleep.
However, sleeping in the back of a 2000 Intriuge, when you’re pushing 6’0 in height, after working all day, with the seatbelt buckle jamming you in the back, and the dips of the seat at your upper back and calf, pushing your midsection up in the air, combined with the road noise, does not make for a pleasant sleep. I slept all the way until Arkansas, and felt like I had just napped sitting up on a barstool. It was terrible. I had to do better next time.
With that Memphis trip in my mind, I knew I had to come up with a better sleeping situation for this drive. We’re going to be sleeping in shifts a lot on this trip, any extra time spent sleeping is time not spent seeing things. But also, I’m cheap, so a hotel every night is out of the question. One thing I knew I could do to cut down on road noise, is to take a pair of ear plugs. I wear them at work every day and they almost put you in your own little world. Then Eric could play his music, and I could drift off. So that was one part down. The next thing to tackle, was the comfort issue. I thought. I looked around the house. That’s when I took note of the couch.
I stared at the couch. Gears started turning. This is a couch from the 1980s. It was my Grandma and Grandpa’s couch they gave my parents in the early 2000s, and that my parents gave to me when I bought my house in 2009. It was comfortable. It had removable cushions. It was smaller than the massive furniture they make today. I grabbed the two end cushions from the back part where you would sit. Eric and I are anxious people, and with always being on edge, the backs of our couch weren’t broken down yet, despite being 30+ years old. They had this lip that notched over onto the armrests, and knowing from building forts in my childhood, these babies fit together like two puzzle pieces. I hauled the two cushions out to the car and laid them on the backseat. They fit. They fit almost as if they were made to do this. Like the guy who designed this couch in 1982 almost knew. I laid down on them. “Oh yeah. That’s going to work.” I hustled back inside. There was more to pack.
We loaded everything up. The snacks, the clothes, the blankets, pillow for sleeping, slew of ear plugs, a case of CDs (because I was still living in the past at that time as well), a few books in case there was downtime, a few notebooks to write about my experiences, my cowboy boots (because I would be going where there were snakes), and a few other things to make sure we were well prepared.
“Okay, I think we’re ready.” Eric said, as he brought his bags to the front door.
“Alright, cool. Are all the leftovers taken out of the refrigerator? We can drop them off at Mom and Dads.”
“Okay, well, get those.”
“What about the thermostat? We have to shut the air off. I’ll do that.”
“Did you take the trash out?”
While Eric is taking care of the trash, I put our Bunn Coffee Maker in Vacation Mode. A process I’m sure Eric knows nothing about. He would truly be lost without me.
“We have to run these movies back to Family Video before we go too. I can’t forget them,” says Eric.
“Alright, we just have to get going. It’s already almost 4:00.” The day powered by so fast, one might think I was having fun. Actually, I was. I was so pumped to get in the car and just start driving. My Saab was new to me. The newest car I’ve ever had. I bought it from my cousin the prior year almost with this trip in mind. It was only seven years old, which might seem old to some people, but my prior car was a 1986 Chevy Caprice. So this was like showing your grandma how to operate a smartphone. Okay, not that bad. Or maybe you just have a more tech savvy grandma. But it was different. It had air conditioning, a key fob, an aux cord port, power seats, fuel injection, the works man! I was ready to take this new car and see the country. We were just about on our way.
We stopped off at our parents house to drop our little dachshund Pepper off for the trip. She would have been good, not quiet, but good on the trip. But my parents, especially my dad, really love her and I knew it would be best to not stress her out, or ourselves with not knowing the landscape of what we were getting into, and with how we wanted to power around and do things. Last thing I want would be for something to happen to her. So I told her I loved her, and I’d be back in two weeks. I told my parents I Ioved them too, just to be clear. Then we gave them some leftovers, a bunch of oranges that we weren't going to be able to eat in time, and a bag of trash to put out when trash day came. Then it was off to the Video Store, where Eric ran inside and dropped off the movies. US-127 South was only two miles away from the video store. We were off.
The initial drive, I don’t remember much from. We most likely talked about how excited we were to be on the road. There’s a feeling with heading somewhere new. Maybe we talked about how cool the West would be. Whatever it was that we talked about, we did so until about 9:00 p.m. That’s when it started to hit me, but I mustered the strength to push through until 10:00, when I told Eric…
“I know I said I’d drive until 11:00, but there’s no way dude. I’m spacing and my eyes are getting heavy. We have to switch. Soon.”
“Alright, yeah. Pull off at the next rest stop and I’ll take over. I slept in today and have all these ItWorks energy drinks if I start getting tired. But I’m wide awake right now.”
“Alright, cool. And I’m going to put in my ear plugs, so you can listen to your music.” (I’m a real asshole about his music. While Eric does indeed like some good music, he has this thing for listening to the whiniest, shut-up-and-get-over-it type music when I’m in the car.)
I exit at a rest stop in Beloit, WI. We’ve already been in or through four states, and I’m feeling pretty good about it. We head to the travel bag we packed with all of our toiletries, and search for the toothbrush and toothpaste. At the rest stop, we brush our teeth. I took a picture of that. This was the second picture I took on the trip, because, in the moment, it felt memorable. Afterwards I put my robot pajama pants on, because I was 28, and a fresh t-shirt to sleep in. This all happened in the parking lot, because that sounded and felt cleaner than a rest stop bathroom. I climbed into the backseat, on my couch cushion bed, put my ear plugs in, and had final thoughts about how awesome this was about to be. Eric put his music on. It was time for me to either be drunk, or be asleep. I had a full day ahead of me tomorrow as we made our way to the Badlands.