In the summer of 2016, I drove approximately 9,000 kilometres across the United States and Canada, from my home in Phoenix, Arizona, to Ryerson University in Toronto. My parents offered to fly me to Canada, but I declined, opting for the adventurous route that would take me through 20 states and provinces in half as many days. The road to Ryerson was not always fast, or paved, or marked in any way—but that was half the fun.
U.S. Highway 89—Page, Ariz.
My car was overloaded with everything I owned—family photos, dozens of T-shirts and a mini fridge—and packed into my Hyundai sedan. I wound my way up from the bottom of the Grand Canyon to its eastern rim and felt my car struggle. The hundreds of extra pounds made it ride so low that the wheel wells sank below the tops of the tires, and I had no choice but to turn off my air conditioning, put on my hazard lights and hope for the best. As distracting as the beauty of the canyon was, I wasn’t about to let my first solo road trip end so quickly.
State Route 9—Springdale, Utah
In rural Utah, I wasn’t expecting to see much besides red rock formations and Mormon churches. As I was driving through Zion National Park, I heard a blast in the distance; it sounded faintly like a gunshot, and suddenly the well-flowing traffic stopped.
I sat still in my car for over an hour, and as the afternoon turned to evening, I finally passed the source of the explosion: a charred SUV. I’d later come to learn a propane tank in the back of a family’s Range Rover had exploded, but luckily I was told they all escaped the burning car uninjured.
Bonneville Speedway Road—Wendover, Utah
With no parental supervision and a car of my own, I had the perfect opportunity to try my hand as an amateur race car driver at the Bonneville Salt Flats. The area was muddy and covered with a thin layer of water from an earlier storm, but I was determined not to miss my chance. At the end of the day, my shoes were stained white and my car was caked in clumps of salt and mud, but I accomplished what I came to do. Personal best at Bonneville: 192 kilometres per hour.
Twin Buttes Road—Atomic City, Idaho
Just before I headed down a scenic gravel road, a small signpost hammered into the earth caught my eye. A yellow placard no bigger than a sheet of printer paper warned that trespassers “beyond this point” would be jailed. Unbeknownst to me then, I was on the grounds of the Idaho National Laboratory where the United States has historically conducted almost all of its nuclear research. I was in a place called Atomic City, after all.
U.S. Highway 191—Yellowstone National Park, Wyo.
I pulled over on the shore of Lake Yellowstone. My car had 75 kilometres of gasoline left in the tank, and I had just under 160 kilometres to Cody, Wyo. where I’d be spending the night. With my very, very limited data, I tried Googling the nearest gas stations. I gave up and just hoped I would find a pump before I ran out of fuel in the wilderness. I drove running on what were likely fumes until found a gas station. Best $80 I’d ever spent.
Red Hill Road—Spearfish, S.D.
The sign said “road closed” due to a wildfire, causing the whole area to be shut down. Helicopters flew overhead between the fire and a nearby lake scooping up water in large buckets to douse the flames from above. My inner journalist kicked in—I blew past the road closed sign and drove straight toward the fire. I sped along the dirt road until I came to an obstacle at the top of a ridge: the police. Two officers were standing in front of their cruiser as if they were anticipating my arrival. I was given a choice: turn around or be charged with a crime. I didn’t press my luck.
Main Street—Buffalo, S.D.
I was used to spending my nights in small-town motels reminiscent of low-budget horror movie sets, but no town gave me chills quite like Buffalo. Basically the only settlement in this particular corner of South Dakota, Buffalo seemed abandoned. I was the only guest in the town’s only motel that night, and I saw just one other person in the hour or so I spent wandering the town’s “central business district.” It was like I was living a bad episode of The Twilight Zone.
State Route 1—Nekoma, N.D.
One day, while scrolling through Facebook, I saw an article about something called “Nixon’s Pyramid”: a secretive military base anchored by a massive concrete pyramid rising from the prairie, designed to launch missiles at the Soviets during the Cold War. I knew I had to see this pyramid. Approaching the town, I saw the pyramid from a mile away, though no one in Nekoma seemed to know much about the now-abandoned army compound. Once a state secret, always a state secret…
State Route 42—Ethan, S.D.
Admittedly, when I found out that I shared a name with a small South Dakotan town, I was probably a little more excited than I should have been; in fact, it was the reason I had taken a detour so far out of my way in the first place. I pulled into the town, likely the only tourist they would get that week, and one by one, took a selfie with literally everything I could find that had my name. Road signs, water towers, drug stores—if it said Ethan, I have a picture with it. Worth the days of extra driving? Absolutely.
285th Avenue—Le Claire, Iowa
My father and I had first stopped on this road in 2011 on a cross-country road trip in the opposite direction, from Toronto to Phoenix. For some reason, this random dirt track stuck out in my mind. I knew that it crossed some railroad tracks and wasn’t too far from the Mississippi River, and scoured Google Maps until I found the exact location. And sure enough, five years later, the road was still there. Memories came flooding back and I Facetimed by dad to see if he’d remember the road too—he did.
Locust Street—St. Louis, Mo.
I spent most of my trip favouring quirky backroads over featureless interstates. St. Louis was one of the only true cities I drove through. Having never visited before, I felt compelled to stop for the only thing St. Louis is known for: the Gateway Arch. When I needed a parking spot, I normally ditched my car on the road shoulder, so being asked to pay $20 to park for an hour gave me a bit of shell shock. Needless to say, I avoided cities for the rest of my road trip.
U.S. Highway 522—Burnt Factory, W. Va.
I started driving before dawn on the Fourth of July, checking out of my motel on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. at 4 a.m. to beat the Independence Day traffic. I set my mileage counter to zero when I first left Phoenix, and as the sun rose over the green hills of the Appalachians, I hit the 8,000 kilometre mark. I pulled over—to my left, a dense forest; to my right, a rusting sign that said U.S. Silica Company. It would be an unremarkable scene to most, but for me, it marked the end of the journey, for six hours later I’d be in Toronto.