In the early morning hours of September 9, my white Mazda CX-5 slowly backed out into the street, weighed down by bags of camping gear and clothes, boxes of food, and a single, apprehensive driver. My parents’ solemn waves gave me a pang of homesickness that was quickly replaced by exhilaration. I was finally alone, with 2,500 miles of road between me and my destination.
My first stop was Chapel Hill, NC to have lunch with my girlfriend’s family. She taught me how to fold wontons and pork buns, and I savored what I knew was likely the best hot meal I would enjoy before my arrival in Phoenix. I felt guilty leaving so early to make it to Blowing Rock by sunset, so I was lucky to grab a spot on my stepbrother’s couch in Asheville for the night. I arrived at his apartment around 9pm and we caught up on his balcony looking out at black mountains. I sopped up microwave Indian food with white bread. That night, looking over my map, I realized I had made a significant miscalculation. I had accidently planned to drive over seven hours the following day. I decided that was too much, and booked a campsite in the closer Monte Sano Forest outside of Huntsville, AL.
My time on the road was filled with lots of music and podcasts, my favorite one about organized crime in Providence, RI. It was a strange feeling knowing that with every passing hour, I was putting almost one hundred more miles between myself and home, but I didn’t feel like I was getting much closer to Arizona. I met for a brief lunch with my father’s cousin, whom I call Aunt Christopher, stopping for a moment in my car afterwards to appreciate the novel experience of independent conversation with adults. It sounds strange, but being left on my own with older family members used to terrify me, and, coupled with several hours of independent highway driving, an enjoyable lunch with Aunt Christopher felt like a marker on my journey to adulthood. This feeling grew as I made my way into the campsite in Huntsville, checking in at the front office before setting up my tent and hammock, as well as the small camping stove I would need to make dinner. I walked around the site and picked up kindling for a fire and, eventually sitting back down over the growing flames, I felt some new strong sense of independence. I’ve spent two years living one hundred and fifty miles from my family at school, responsible for all of my schoolwork and personal needs, but this was different. Maybe it was the distance, or the fact that I was completely alone with no roommate, or maybe it was the remoteness of the wilderness. Whatever it was, it felt good.
The sleep didn’t. I woke up the next morning feeling a bit like I had been hit by a train. I groggily heated up coffee as I ate Mini-Wheats from my aluminum camping bowl. By 10am, I had packed up the site into my car and made my way into Huntsville to the parking lot of the US Space & Rocket Center, pre-purchased ticket in hand.
Over the next three hours, I explored the vast park and museum, my head tilted back in awe at the massive rockets around every corner. As a child, I read voraciously about the space program in my first real foray into science; to finally experience the true scale of these machines that had inspired me at such a young age was truly something I will never forget. I thought about the thousands of brilliant minds that came together to put Americans on the moon and are still working to support human life and exploration in space. I thought about the astronauts who died in Apollo 1 and the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle disasters. I thought about what it would be like to one day experience space travel and the isolation and exhilaration that American Astronaut Scott Kelly details in his brilliant autobiography that I had finished just one week previously. I pensively returned to my car and blasted off toward Memphis.