As a child, the cinematic perfection and endless romance of America beckoned me from the warm tropics of my Australian home. By 11 years old, the first item on my bucket list was to road-trip the entire USA and experience the land of Patsy Cline’s melancholic tunes, from its dusty back roads to its Californian beaches.

Endless Oregon Roads. Photo: Torrance McCartney
Endless Oregon Roads. Photo: Torrance McCartney

The most recent version of this dream was to rebuild the interior of a van with my own hands and make it the perfect Instagram living quarters — decked out with white bedsheets, pale linen curtains that would glow in the soft morning light, and tiny potted cacti that illogically would never tumble over when driving. In reality, I was depressed and unable to tolerate the life I had built for myself. I quit my job with minimal notice, tossed a single mattress into a tiny Hyundai Hatchback, and began the 13,000-mile journey around the country.

Perhaps it is a fault of my generation, that in a world where our options are endless, we feel privileged enough to not squander our time on anything less than perfect. But, it is far too easy to fixate on the narrow vision of how we believe something should be that we miss all the beauty in the peripheral. In truth, if depression hadn’t forced me out of my life and onto the road, I would still be sitting at a desk, hoping that one day my dream would be realized. I would never have learned one of the most valuable lessons of my life, that, as Elizbeth Gilbert perfectly said, perfection is the enemy of all good things.

This was not a realization I came to on my first night on the road. Having not yet refined the skill of locating free places to park overnight, it took me hours to find a suitable pullout just outside the reservation bounds of Neah Bay, Washington. I army crawled into the coffin-like enclosure I had set up to be my bed. There was just enough room for me to sleep between the mattress and the ceiling of my hatchback. There was not, however, nearly enough room to accommodate the three panic attacks that throttled me throughout the night when my mind would wake me up screaming, ‘What have you done!? You’re homeless and living in your car!?” Gasping for air, I hurled myself out and onto the cool grass and waited for them to pass. In retrospect, I would have been lucky had this been the worst part of the night. The true low point came when I squatted to pee in the dark, not realizing that the car window shade had fallen and was directly underneath me. Like jumping on a trampoline, the liquid bounced right back up. Confused and disorientated, I shielded my face, hurt that even gravity had turned on me.

With no home or job to run back to, the only option was to continue onwards. Early the next morning, before the rest of the world was awake, I hiked to Cape Flattery. The jagged cliffs and island rocks steeply give way to the Pacific Ocean and could almost be mistaken for Thailand if they weren’t overflowing in evergreens—a flawless embodiment of the iconic enchantment of the Pacific Northwest.

Cape Flattery (Washington)
Cape Flattery (Washington)

Despite seeing beauty, I still couldn’t feel it. I was despondent in the days that followed, the only comfort being the roads’ promise that it would never end, that it and I could go on together forever.

A countrywide heatwave soon descended on America. During the day, I would drive for as many hours as my heavy eyelids would allow to escape the 47​°​C heat in the sanctuary of my car’s air conditioning. More often than not, I would sleep at truck stops, feeling safer under the bright lights of parking lots than alone in the woods without cell reception. If too much time passed without finding a lake or river to bathe in, I would pay for the use of a shower, but it was expensive and therefore a luxury, not a necessity. I had to become accustomed to the sticky, dusty feel of my skin, the damp puddle of sweat that pooled on the mattress, and my heavy, matted hair.

Some days the cumbersome logistics of living on the road wore me down but even at my most weary, these details were mere background noise to the heart of the adventure. It wasn’t about the imperfections. It was about the abundance of moments that day by day, with a foot on the pedal and a coffee in my hand, slowly lifted the bell jar.

Joshua Tree. Photo: Torrance McCartney
Joshua Tree. Photo: Torrance McCartney

It wasn’t walking through a swarm of tarantula wasps in Joshua Tree. It was sleeping under a cold starry sky and using the privilege of solitude to wrestle my demons, where so many before me have done.

In Utah, it wasn’t eating food about to turn from my warm cooler. It was the mountains that, in their quiet grandeur called to me like a siren song, teasing me to discover their secrets. It was my friend’s baby goat that fell asleep in my arms, spending a night in Sundance with her tribe of raw and inspiring women, and soaking in remote hot springs under a full moon.

California. Photo: Torrance McCartney
California. Photo: Torrance McCartney

It wasn’t the two-hour drive each day to and from Carmel-By-The-Sea in California, ladened with standstill traffic. It was reading my book and eating chocolate as I nuzzled my toes into the sand of pure white beaches, the cool ocean air nudging awake the deepest parts of me that had fallen asleep.

It was climbing to the top of Airport Mesa in Sedona and watching a storm roll in over the red rocks, meditating to the deafening song of the New Mexico cicadas, dancing away summer nights with my friends in Nashville to twangy country-pop. It was the sunset over Lake Erie in New York that turned the whole world golden, and it was the ethereal landscape of Wyoming, its sheer majesty that still fills me with an ache of longing to go back.

It’s only in retrospect I realize the cinematic perfection of America was romantic, not in spite of the dirt that the dusty roads are made from and the sadness that inspired the melancholic tunes of Patsy Cline, but because of them. If I had avoided the sweat and grit as I had originally planned, I would have missed out on the exact experience that had been beckoning me from across the ocean for all those decades. All this time while waiting for things to be perfect, I had been missing out on how good life could be.

Cover photo “California Hike” by Torrance McCartney