On a cool, drizzly mid-November evening about a decade ago, I turned onto the nearly deserted main drag of a somewhat gritty mill town called Escanaba on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. I was searching for a now-defunct gay bar called Club Xpress, but more significantly, I'd just reached the halfway point in a crazy quest I'd begun several years earlier: to visit every county in the United States.
I've never cared all that much about whether I complete this goal, but in my ongoing efforts to do so, I've become an exceptionally ardent road-tripper, regularly setting out across new swaths of the American landscape. Out of the nation's 3,141 counties and county equivalents (a.k.a. "parishes" in Louisiana and "boroughs" in Alaska), I've visited about 1,900 of them.
The remaining ones are the most off the beaten path, which is fine by me. I'm never happier than when I'm aiming the wheels of an automobile toward some far-flung locale. Getting quickly from point A to point B is never the goal. I welcome roadside distractions, which come in many forms -- greasy-spoon diners, art deco buildings, kitschy neon signs, Gothic church belfries, hulking grain silos, hardscrabble towns with frozen-in-time business districts, and, crucially, any dairy farm that makes its own cheese or ice cream.
My taste for long road trips evolved partly from a lifelong restlessness but also out of practical frugality. At age 23, I set out with a minuscule budget to write a gay USA travel guide for Fodor's. To save money, I lived nomadically for the next seven years, crisscrossing America by car (and sleeping in that car more times than I care to admit).
The gay-travel angle made the research challenging in the reddest states, but I've always found plenty of kindness -- and kinship -- in even the tiniest rural communities. In teensy Oktaha, Okla., my then-boyfriend and I bought gas from a teenage goth girl wearing interlocking rainbow rings. She looked surprised to see us and asked, "I don't know where you guys came from or where you're going, but can you please take me with you?"
As a former New Yorker living in Santa Fe, N.M., on 9/11, I felt edgy and disconnected for days afterward. I soon remedied my anxiety about the state of our nation by driving across it. After four weeks of motoring over the Colorado Rockies and across the South Dakota Badlands, then gliding beneath the gleaming skyscrapers of Minneapolis and Chicago and past Amish farmsteads in Ohio and Pennsylvania, I finally arrived in lower Manhattan -- via the Brooklyn Bridge -- my optimism greatly restored.
I can't exactly explain why road trips still always revitalize and reassure me. But there's something undeniably intoxicating about exploring a land so vast and diverse, one incremental mile at a time, free to follow whichever fork in the road appears the most enticing -- or happens to be marked with a sign that reads "Homemade Ice Cream -- This Way!"