The Joys of Overlanding
On the road from Texas to Turkey
It’s fair to say at this point that I’ve had a fair amount of overland travels. Most especially in the United States, and recently in Turkey. Aside from long term traveling and living in my vehicle, I’ve also spent a lot of time doing short trips and driving around my home state of Michigan. I’ve pretty much driven through every corner of the state with the exception of some north-western counties. But after months and months of traveling in a vehicle, you certainly learn how to live in one, and also how to live with yourself while on your own.
For the mass majority of my travels, I’ve traveled in a 30 year old car, my taiga green 1993 BMW 525i. I bought the car off of a Chrysler engineer in the parking lot of Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor for $1,300 cash. The car barely made it home, with the brakes screeching beyond all belief. The exhaust system was completely rotted out. The seat belt wasn’t even screwed into the frame of the car. The previous owner managed to majorly mess up every single repair he possibly could. It was so bad that a coil pack in the ignition system shattered and turned the straight six engine into a 5 banger in the parking lot of Laurel Park Mall in the middle of rush hour. We fixed damn near everything in that car. New suspension, exhaust system, steering, brakes and hydraulics, coil packs, tires, rotors, driver’s seat and interior, side mirrors, heat resistant tubing, PCV valve, and almost every gasket in the engine except the head gasket. After months of repairs the car was finally road worthy. Through some miracle the car only ever had two mechanical problems while on my travels.
But I’m lucky in that I’ve been able to explore my solitude and singular being through travel. I grew up in an awfully rural environment, with thousands of hectares of corn fields and forest in every direction from my bedroom. Being on my own (with family nearby of course) was the norm for the majority of my life. In classic American fashion, the automobile was the physical and spiritual manifestation of freedom. So my willingness to jet out onto the open road and hike down dirt paths into the wild abyss was something that didn’t feel overly complex or overwhelming for me. Of course the goal isn’t to become an isolationist and cut yourself off from your friends, family or even humanity at large, but rather to accept your ability to be with you. This is an ordeal that is quite hard for us I think. By nature most human beings are a rather collective people, so it takes tiring work to be able to be operate confidently on your own. It’s not an easy task. But this also begs the question, how do you even begin tackling such a task? How do figure out how to become comfortable with yourself, especially in a dynamic and even changing environment. For me, it started with living in my car for 68 days.
In January of 2021, I committed myself to a road trip across the United States of America. Like many people who graduate from university at an age as young as myself, we’re hungry for some sort of adventure, especially in the summer months after we’ve been handed our diplomas and we have some small of window of time before the realities of life start to cave in on us. Of course this idea of a post-undergraduate adventure stereotypically manifest itself as the European Backpacking Trip among a lot of Americans. Of course with my graduation taking place over Zoom in December of 2020, no European excursion was going to be remotely possible. Even the idea of an excursion across America was a little far fetched, if not even stupid. Yet the idea of the American landscape had been branded into my mind in the past months of quiet daily chaos that comes with being in relative isolation. I had done myself a mental disservice, and an artistic service, by flipping through the pages of photo-books by Stephen Shore, Alec Soth, William Eggleston and other photographers that had taken a survey of America. So after a period of “planning” that lasted about four months, I decided, I would leave my parents house in Metro Detroit on January 19th, the day before Inauguration Day. I would go to Dayton, Ohio and stay a couple of days with my cousin and her fiancé before heading further into the south. I decided on the day before Inauguration Day as a precaution for myself. The unfoldings of January 6th were still fresh on everybody’s mind and frightened me quite a bit. Dayton is close enough to home to be back incase the country decides to go to hell in a day. In hind sight the precaution was neurotic. So on the 19th I set out, adrift across America, with no set return date.
My 68 days on the road had three realistic goals.
Take photos of places, people, things.
Enjoy your solitude.
Spot out and explore some of the most remote reaches of the country.
My trip had been heavily focused on photography. The road trips of Stephen Shore inspired me quite a bit as I read over his books and absorbed as much of his images as my naïve brain could. His images further reinforced my feelings about doing a complete cross-country trip even more while we were living through the major throws of the pandemic. Throughout the entirety of the summer I worked for the Detroit Jewish News photographing local stories in Wayne and Oakland county on a freelance basis, the first time I had ever been paid for my work. Photography suddenly became the most prominent thing in my life. I had always had an interest in photography but it became more serious for me as coronavirus disrupted every aspect of life. It quickly became the centrepiece of my energy. I spent more of my time with my camera, and dived into film photography because of my dads film camera that I found in the basement while dog sitting for them in the early spring. I was curious in what my eyes and lens could dig up in this vast country that I had explored a small bit in the past, even though I had barely comprehended it to begin with. For this self-exile across America, I packed way too many cameras. My Nikon Z50 was my only digital mirrorless camera. The film cameras were the problematic part. I took a Minolta SRT 102 that I learned to disdain. Lucky for me it broke on the final day of the trip in an antique store parking lot in Paw Paw, Michigan. A blessing in disguise. A fitting end to a camera that had seen so much. I took my dads Minolta Maxxum 7, a camera with a fantastic autofocus and a multitude of problems. For a medium format camera I had a Bronica SQ-A with a 90mm lens that shot square 6x6 frames. This camera ultimately became my favored weapon of choice. The day it died was quite depressing. The Mamiya RB67 I replaced it with has yet to fill its shoes. I also took a GoPro that I never used and a DJI Mavic Mini drone that produced some outstanding pictures of the vastness of the west. Yet this slurry of cameras would be my photographic downfall. I had no go to film either, often waifing between Fuji Superia and Kodak ProImage and almost never shooting in black in white. The inconsistency in cameras and in film stock lead to, well, inconsistencies in the broader portfolio and outlook of my road trip, and hindered my ability to produce anything comprehensive from it. Yet this does not mean that it was a photographic failure. It helped me to realise the immense amount of energy, planning and story writing it takes to form even the smallest of works.
Yet there were some aspects of my trip that some people found quite peculiar. Chiefly, my determination to do the trip alone. My parents, especially my mother, pressured me quite often to find a friend or to convince my sister to go with me. The main problem with this is that my trip was schedule-less. The only deadline I really had was my desire to be home by June so I could start my visa paperwork for graduate school, which I was applying for while on the road. This longing for true blue solitude on the open road was perhaps the most spiritual part of embarking on this trip. Less of a road trip and more of a self-exile from the familiarity of home. Many parks, restaurants, hotels, bars, museums and other sites were closed because of the virus. This left much fewer opportunities for me to do the road trippy things that some of my friends had done in past years. Of course this loneliness was difficult to encounter at first. It was the first time in my life where friends and family were not in close reach. I was truly on my own. I even write in one of my archived articles, The First 21 Days, how the lack of familiar faces was quite difficult, and how my search for solitude often flowed with the stress of the day. But this is, of course, how solitude works. It is quite difficult to be satisfied with your solitude on a consistent basis. I think this is perhaps one of the major secrets of life that I discovered, is that solitude ebbs and flows like every other emotion. It is simply another state of being, that is influenced by the other states of being that you are currently in, not just an idyllic emotion.
The third and final goal of my trip had been my consistent need to find the most rural and remote places in America. Lands where the sky met the earth without a single building in view. Places utterly devoid of trees or so full of trees that one struggled to see the opal sky above. High mountain ridges with the glow of cosmopolitan cities below. “Danger, Beware of Bear” signs. Gas stations on prairie flats filled from floor to ceiling with taxidermied deer shot by local high school students. Mysterious salt flats reaching out to the mountains. Not a person in sight. Miles of road and nothing but yourself. CD disc with 2000’s punk and downtempo Mexican rock. Having nothing but yourself is extremely liberating and also very frightening. Of course this longing for remoteness goes hand in hand with finding solitude. Solitude can be found in many places, but I find it easiest in remote reaches. I had spent my summer weekends the year before exploring the remote forest of Northern Michigan, spending most of my time in Otsego, Montmorency and Antrim County. Lands of pine forest with few houses in-between. It is in these northern forest that I began to temper my comfort with being remote. The endless sea of trees still brings me comfort.
It has made me realise how lucky I am too have many of these experiences to begin with. I know for sure that if I did not spend the time to temper myself internally with these experiences that I would be a far different person than I am today. But theres something about America that is still hard on the soul. A place that is so highly developed, yet still manages to function as if we live on the frontier. It creates an environment in which one can develop themselves through a variety of organic experiences, and not solely on education or formal experience, although I fear that is changing quite rapidly. At the end of the day, the American frontier still harkens out to me, no matter how far away I am.