I decided to go to Florida after all

I drove to Florida specifically to meet up with old friends in Orlando whom I haven’t seen in 25 years and to meet my half brother, who’s a dear. I otherwise didn’t particularly want to go to Florida. I was born in Florida (though I obviously don’t remember much about that. The family history reads that my father was at a football game at the time, but don’t judge too harshly. It was his job.)

When I was stationed in Mississippi for my first Navy tour, my ship pulled into Mayport, Florida, nearly as often as it pulled into homeport. As I said to myself when I drove past the exit for Jax Beach on I-95, some of my worst decisions were made in Florida. 

I was originally going to skip that part of the South because I’ve already spent so much (largely unfortunate) time in it, but part of the point of this trip to is visit with old friends and family – particularly those I haven’t seen in a long time or have never met in person (because it turns out that having old friends and family you’ve never met before is actually not that an uncommon thing, at least in my life.)

I braved a crazy Uber driver who had trouble getting out of the hotel parking lot in Orlando to go to dinner with friends I met 25 years ago at Cannon Music Camp. 

I’m going to wax a bit poetic here. Cannon isn’t (or wasn’t, anyway) just your average “summer camp.” Hosted by the music department at Appalachian State University, it’s something pretty special to those of us who have gone. For many, it’s a stepping stone to further music education and entry into the music profession. It’s professional-level instruction for middle and high school students who show an acumen in music. For all of us, it was an opportunity to come together with peers who loved playing music, listening to music, immersing ourselves in music and the friendships that inevitably formed. 

A bunch of largely unsupervised teenagers (anywhere from age 12, which is when I first went, to age 17, which is when I stopped going) getting together over something as subversive as music for a month in the summer probably sounds like a recipe for disaster. We were given what seems in retrospect like an amazing amount of freedom during those summers. But I know that my circle of friends (all repeat attendees each summer) – when we weren’t practicing or in a rehearsal or attending a concert – did nothing much worse than hang out on the 4th floor of Broyhill Music Hall drinking cherry coke and eating Twix bars or at the Beanstalk getting hyped up on too many chocolate-covered coffee beans. 

It was heaven. 

The students who went to this camp were generally pretty serious about music. We all thought we were going to go against the standard advice on pursuing music as a career and make a success of it.

We didn’t, of course. We’re all IT experts, speech therapists, cyber professionals, graphic designers … things that actually make money. 

In the mid 90s, the internet was barely a thing, so I don’t know how we all managed to stay in touch long enough for Facebook to come around, but we did. And that’s why, 25 years later, I still have friends from that camp – just one month each summer – that have lasted all that time. That’s who I got to see last night, and I just think that’s so fucking awesome. 

We sat at a restaurant – two (former) flutists and a vocalist – telling stories and catching up and laughing and eating from a massive charcuterie board and HAVING FUN, which is what this whole journey is supposed to be about. 

Well, that’s part of what this whole journey is about. The rest will follow.

Life on the Road

I am obviously behind in my posting. I do intend to get into a rhythm – probably twice a week to start, unless I become inspired to do more. I’ve been inhibited by a combination of things:

  1. Pace. I haven’t stayed in one place for more than a day or two since I left North Carolina. It’s felt a little frantic and combined with the other reasons below, has left little time for writing.
  2. Logistics. While I have stayed at hotels on occasion, I’m mostly vagabonding it. I have this platform bed in my car for multiple reasons – affordability, self-sufficiency, adventure, learning to live with less … this one needs its own separate blog post. There are factors involved in living out of one’s car that I either didn’t consider or didn’t think would require the kind of time and effort that they do.
  3. Presence. To achieve what I want to achieve on this trip, I have to devote a lot of time to just immersing myself in the moment. Writing doesn’t require just the time to actually write and edit. It requires time to reflect on what I’m doing. I’ve found it hard to take that time (see #1.)
  4. Work. I am still working (though part time), and I’ve wanted to prioritize that these past couple of weeks to ensure the people with whom I work know that I’m serious about keeping up with responsibilities while I do this.

Some of the things above have already gotten easier. Some of them will continue to do so, some of them won’t, and I’ll just have to live with it. It’s a process, and I’ll get there. The rest of this week will still be a bit frantic (though I think I’ll have a day or two to really devote to slowing down and thinking about it all.) Next week, I’m planning to stay put for a few days and will get caught up.

For today, let me say this: I haven’t showered in three days. I’ve had pretty terrible sleep (though in beautiful locations, an example of which you can see above, taken from my bed one morning) for the last three nights. I basically wiped myself down with a wet paper towel in a Starbucks bathroom this morning. My hair resembles a mop used to clean up an oil spill. I’ve eaten mostly beef jerky and salads for meals because I don’t want to take the time to actually cook something, and I don’t want to eat fast food. My car takes about five minutes to get messy again every time I think I’ve gotten in under control. I have alternately frozen my ass off and sweltered, because winter in southern America is a miserably unpredictable season, made more so when you’re not always surrounded by four solid walls.

But … I’ve seen some lovely places and had some lovely thoughts and ideas and talked a lot to lovely people, and I am having the time of my life despite being a total dirt bag much of the time. Two weeks down, 28 more to go, and I think by the end of that, if nothing else (and there will be plenty else), I’ll have some very different ideas of what “luxury” means that will – in a Stoic sort of way – utterly change for the better my sense of appreciation and gratitude.

In the meantime, I’m immensely grateful to be having this experience.

Stealth Camping in Charleston

I’d done some prior research and knew exactly where I was going to try to do this. I drove by the area when I first got into town to scope it out. It looked pretty promising – plenty of spaces tucked between the water and a small park, good lighting so it wasn’t likely to be a place conducive to high crime, just down the street from what looked like a pretty upscale neighborhood.

I drove into town pretty late, but I wasn’t ready to go to bed right away. I wanted to get dinner (and work myself up to actually attempt this thing) so I went to my favorite Charleston restaurant (167 Raw – a really cool raw bar that usually has people lined up outside to get in and still does even though it’s now moved to a larger location right on King St.)

By the time I’d waited for my seat and eaten my oysters and fish tacos, it was pushing 11, which was actually perfect because there weren’t a lot of people wandering around by that park by then (until around midnight, when they all came out to play music at a very high volume.) I parked, surreptitiously put up my insulated window covers, sat there for a little while just to see if anyone tried to bother me, and eventually changed clothes and crawled up onto my sleeping platform (ripping most of twinkle lights out of the ceiling in the process.)

When I first started researching (i.e., watching YouTube videos about) camping out of one’s car, I wasn’t remotely interested in the idea of stealth camping in the city. What if I make a mistake and park where overnight parking is prohibited? What if I get the dreaded knock from the cops? What if I get the even more dreaded knock from a drunken stranger?

Over time, though, I began to think it might be rather fun to be lying there on my platform bed with all my windows blacked out, listening to the world around me continue on without knowing I’m there. Like the grown-up version of a pillow fort.

It does in fact feel like that. It also – when the weather is unseasonably warm for February, even in the South – feels sweaty. Those insulating window covers do their job well. And listening to the world around you is reasonably charming at 9 pm. At midnight, when the world continues to make noise, it’s less so.

I also wish I hadn’t drank an entire 750 ml bottle of water at dinner.

Suffice it to say, I didn’t sleep too well the first couple of nights. But I did stealth camp in my car, and I felt like a badass because of it. No one bothered me, no one knew I was there. It was nerve wracking, but it was largely successful. And I did wake up to the sound of water lapping gently at the quay on which I was parked. I got up before dawn, slid back into the front seat (ripping out the rest of the twinkle lights) and drove to a local Starbucks to get some work done.

While I will undoubtedly find myself doing this again at a truck stop or a rest area or a Wal-Mart parking lot – all places where that kind of thing is generally accepted and has the added benefit of a publicly available bathroom – I probably won’t be just parking in some random place in the middle of the city anymore.

Getting Started

Beginnings can be a little bumpy and this has been no exception.

I was slightly delayed leaving New Bern because about 15 miles down 17, I realized I’d forgotten my paddle board. Of all the things to forget, it’s literally the largest thing I’m taking with me. A paddle board isn’t a necessity, no, but part of the allure of this trip was the idea of paddling all over the country.

Besides, I’d remembered the paddle. What good was a paddle without a board? It might get lonely. I know I’m going to. I turned around and went back.

I’d bought a cover for the board and my locking straps aren’t long enough to fit with the cover on. I gave it up, put on the regular straps and resigned myself to the fact that that board will probably get stolen somewhere along the way unless I come up with a better solution.

Another 15 miles down 17, and I got the impression that something was wrong. Looking out the windshield, I could see that the front part of the cover had slipped off the board and was now flapping around the top of the car like an unruly seagull.

I resigned myself to looking ridiculous and continued driving. The cover is strapped on; I knew it wasn’t going anywhere. But then I started wondering if all that activity might not loosen the straps. Looking out the windshield, I was certain the board had shifted backwards a bit. Not knowing where the next exit would be, I pulled over on the side of a highway with traffic going 70 miles and hour past me and assessed.

The straps were definitely loose. I think I must have been seconds from that board sliding right off the top of the car. I honestly don’t know how it didn’t. It didn’t have anything to do with the cover. The pads that the board sits on had slipped around the new crossbars (which apparently are thinner than the old cross bars), considerably reducing the space between the board and bars and the straps.

To make a long story short (too late), I got everything tightened back down (the pads are now permanently turned downward, which isn’t correct, but that’s the best I can do for now). I had to keep pulling over a few times to check it just for my own peace of mind, but it seems to be staying put. I balled up the useless cover and stuffed in the back of the car.

I made a brief detour to Holden Beach, where I used to go with a very good friend and her family when I was in elementary and middle school. The beach and the town looked much the same. The board was still secure.

I headed on to Charleston.

The Great American Road Trip 2022

Hi there, friends! I’m Jess (most of you know that, because most of you are people who already know me and are here because I sent you the link) and this is where I’ll be chronicling my 7-month journey across the U.S., from eastern North Carolina to the West Coast and back in a 2016 Subaru Forester. I’ll be mostly living out of my car (more on that later). I’ll be visiting cities (mostly for the food) and also the vast amount of public land available in the U.S. (mostly for the solitude). And I’ll be photographing, taking video and writing all along the way.


Because I can. Because I’ve wanted to do something like this since I was conscious that people do things like this, which is more years than most people believe. Because I feel more alive when I travel, and I’m in desperate need of an adventure.

There are probably more reasons, and I’m sure they’ll come out as we go, but that’s a start.

I leave in a few of days. Let’s do this.