You know how sometimes life itself can feel claustrophobic? The monotony of the work routine, day after day, salvaged briefly for the glorious 48 hours dubbed “the weekend,” only to be cut short far too soon by the commencement of another long week.
This time last week, I hadn’t been out of the state of Alabama since March. My soul mate Erin had just left town for her annual trip to Cape Cod, and I was dreading the upcoming weekend without her (separation anxiety is too real—we sat in my car and listened to “I Miss You” by Blink-182 together before I left for work that day).
How am I going to entertain myself for the next three days? I wondered as I drove down I-20 toward Birmingham for work that morning. I was in a foul mood. I really wanted to get out of town, but my trip home wasn’t scheduled for two more weeks. Sigh.
And then, that very night, opportunity presented itself. A friend of mine who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina invited me up for the weekend. As soon as the “You should come up” text came through, I was frantically typing the address into Maps, silently praying that it wouldn't be out of driving distance.
537 miles. I can definitely do that.
I happily agreed to the weekend away, and went to bed that night mentally combing through my wardrobe for what I would be packing. I half-expected to wake up the next morning and feel silly for even considering a nine-hour road trip alone to visit someone I didn’t know that well in a city I’d never been to for three days.
I woke up the next morning overwhelmed with an entirely different feeling. I couldn’t wait to leave. I love Tuscaloosa, Alabama so much that it makes my heart hurt, but I really needed some time away to reflect and enjoy new people and new places.
I woke up at 6 a.m. the following morning, packed a suitcase, filled up my gas tank, grabbed the obligatory road trip Starbucks and hit the road. This is the most random thing I’ve ever done, I thought to myself as I was passing through Atlanta a few short hours later. Doubt began to sink in. Is this a mistake? Am I going to feel really weird hanging out with a bunch of people I don’t know for 72 hours nearly 600 miles away from home?
I considered turning around at least four times by the time I crossed the South Carolina state line. I checked the GPS and saw that I still had about five hours to go. Ugh, I thought, five more hours in this damn car.
But then I stopped myself. Wasn’t this the point of a solo road trip? To spend an absurd amount of time behind the wheel, passing through parts of America I’d never seen before, listening to old Avril Lavigne hits (because they really don’t get old) and mulling over whatever thought floated to the surface of my consciousness?
From that point on, I made a labored effort to enjoy the drive. I thought about who I’d been hanging out with lately, what I’d been doing at my internship, my family, where I want to live after I graduate (a thought I’ve never actually entertained to completion because being a real person is an incredibly daunting task), how many corndogs I could eat without vomiting (at least six).
I was doing a pretty stellar job of living in the moment until I had about 10 miles left and hit horrible traffic. I started to get antsy: so ready to be out of the car and meet up with all my new weekend friends. This has the potential to be one of the weirdest experiences I’ve ever had, I thought as I slowly turned into a parking spot outside a sizeable apartment complex.
The friend I had just spent 10 hours in a car for was someone I had met only once or twice previously, last Fourth of July weekend (making this a very timely post, thank you very much). As I was climbing out of the driver’s seat for the first time since the midafternoon pee break/McDonald’s stop, I saw him approaching quickly from the other end of the parking lot.
I suddenly became acutely aware of how horrible I must’ve looked after baking in my Acura for 600 miles, and discreetly lowered my head to perform the obligatory self-sniff test. The results were less than satisfactory.
Great second impression, KG.
Almost immediately after my arrival, we turned right around to walk downtown toward a pizza place and meet up with all of his friends. This group of people was a little bit older than my usual squad—most were in their early 20s, a few as old as 25. They all greeted me with warm enthusiasm as I sat down at the table.
I was trying to psyche myself up to be funny and charming and relatable and awesome, but I was so mentally drained from my self-induced thinking bonanza in the car that I couldn’t think of a damn thing to say. As they went around the table and introduced themselves, one guy introduced me to his fiancé.
A fiancé. Let that sink in. I was about to embark on a 72-hour rage-fest with people old enough to be engaged.
I am such a kid right now, I realized as I looked down at my high-top Converse and ripped jean shorts. They had seemed like a really cool idea about 30 seconds ago.
By the end of the dinner, I had learned the basics about most of the people sitting around the table. I had a pretty good handle on the group dynamic, too: my friend was by far the loudest and most outgoing (the table got noticeably quieter when he left for the restroom).
We were gearing up to go out for my very first night in Raleigh when someone suggested we play King’s Cup. King’s Cup, for those of you who are ignorant to fun, is a wildly entertaining drinking game that we play all the time (it’s one of Erin’s favorites).
Playing a familiar game with a bunch of unfamiliar people somehow managed to put me at ease. I texted Erin that we were playing. How ironic, I realized, I leave Alabama to have new experiences and here I am playing the same game I play in my own living room every weekend.
And then it happened. The pinnacle of any pregame: someone showed up with tequila.
I firmly believe that nothing brings two people together like ripping a tequila shot and then desperately sucking on a merciful lime for five minutes. So we did. Seven times.
It was awesome.
And just like that, I felt like I had known these people for years. We spent the next five hours bouncing from bar to bar, and I found myself at a table with someone different every time. I don’t even remember what we talked about, but I do remember realizing on several separate occasions, I’m basically alone in Raleigh having a conversation with someone I’ll probably never speak to again, and this is SO cool.
Saturday carried on in the same fashion. We went to brunch with a few of my friend’s closer pals, and then went our separate ways to nap and refuel for the upcoming evening.
Typically, I feel like I play it pretty safe. I don’t generally commit to the unknown. I buy the same meal at restaurants every time, I fold my dirty laundry, and I've never broken a bone. I'm the epitome of a "colorer inside the lines." In a weird way, taking a spontaneous road trip felt like it unleashed me into this new world of just being unequivocally down for anything. I felt like a new woman.
So when someone suggested we take an Uber 45 minutes away to Durham that night to go to a popular Duke bar, I agreed immediately. Why not? I came all this way to see Raleigh, so I might as well see Durham, too. There was even talk of getting a hotel room and staying there overnight, but a quick scan of the rates on hotels.com shot that dream down in about four clicks.
A funny thing happens when you go out somewhere you’ve never been. In Tuscaloosa, nighttime activity suggestions are treated with the utmost care. Who’s going to be at The Booth tonight? Isn’t so-and-so out of town? I bet that one bouncer won’t be at Innisfree. Johnny’s working at Moe’s.
There’s always an agenda. There’s always the chick who’s too shy to just text that one dude, so she wants to hit this other place so she could maybe run into him. Erin’s concerned about where the drink specials are. I’m worried about how we’re getting back and don’t want to go downtown. There are always so many extenuating circumstances!
But when you’re in a city full of people you don’t know, that agenda dissolves.
I was happy to be at the mercy of whoever had the next fun suggestion. I felt like I could do whatever I wanted and the night was just saturated with potential. I can’t remember the last time I felt that way in Tuscaloosa.
Let me tell y’all—this bar redefined “ratchet.” There was an elevated cage that you could climb into, rules be damned. There was a mechanical bull. An endless row of beer pong tables. It was like an alternate universe where all of those stupid high school party movies were morphed together under one glorious roof.
I fell asleep in the cab on the way back to Raleigh late that night, promising myself I would always remember it.
We spent all of Sunday at the lake with a very nice man named Bill who was kind enough to let about 30 people come out on his boat for the entire afternoon. Never one to learn a lesson the easy way, I got pitilessly sunburnt.
The lake was definitely the highlight of the trip, because I got to spend some quality time with a lot of the people who I had just recently met. But by nature of the new new people on the boat that day, the other new people now became the old new people. It’s a weird phenomenon, but I felt like I was apart of the group.
Monday morning came far too soon, and it was time for me to leave. I hugged my friend goodbye and made my way through the maze of hallways and lobbies to my car, alone this time.
The energy that characterizes a return is so radically different than the energy that permeates a departure (anyone who’s ever been on vacation knows that). I felt electric with nerves and expectations when I had entered my vehicle three days prior, and now all I felt was tired.
A sad song came on shuffle about an hour into my drive, and I burst into tears. I know it’s strange to miss people you barely know, but I did! I already missed them. I already missed how I had felt for those blissful 72 hours of spontaneous uncertainty. I missed my friend who, before this trip, was just a memory from last summer, but now felt like so much more than that.
Life is so weird sometimes. You get all amped up about leaving home to have an adventure, but you assume that as soon as it’s over you’ll be ready to return to what you know. I never thought I’d ever find a place where Alabama wasn’t a tempting return.
I wanted to do something independent and free-spirited and take a random trip to have fun and get away, but I ended up discovering a side of myself that I had almost forgotten existed.
I love my life in Bama and all the people in it, but getting too comfortable in one spot is the fastest way to stagnate personal growth. I think the side of me that resurfaced in Raleigh is the same side that pushed me to move eight hours away for college in the first place: the allure of a new experience and the chance to start over fresh.
Doing something out of the ordinary can feel weird, but it’s weird in the best possible way. There’s something strangely empowering about popping in on a random group of people’s lives for a weekend and getting the chance to reveal yourself to them for the first time. In a weird way, you’re kind of revealing yourself to you, too.
I spend so much time with the same people who know what to expect from me. They know I’m the one who writes every single event in her agenda, washes her pillowcases twice a week and never skips a workout. It was fun to get to be someone else for a few days in a place where nobody knew what to expect from me.
I don’t know what I was looking for when I went to Raleigh, but I think I found it.
The fine print: