WE were about halfway through Arizona when Jen asked me, “What’s been your favorite part of this trip?”
My favorite? Wow. What a question. A slide show of all we had done since we started driving west from New York began playing in my head. It had been a little more than a week since we had begun our cross-country journey, but there had been so many in-the-moment moments that choosing just one seemed as impossible as picking one highlight of the fading year on New Year’s Eve.
Jen and I, in our hyper-busy late 20s, have been close for years. Since meeting in college, we had often told each other, “You’re one of my best friends.” And we meant it. But we had never really ventured into the world together, never had gone out of our way to have a true out-of-our-element bonding experience.
When she decided to move back to L.A. from the East Coast and invited me to come along for the drive, I couldn’t resist. We began our trip in New York and took a zigzag path from East to Midwest, then south then west again. Here was a chance to make big moments, to make unforgettable memories.
Now that our trip was coming to a close -- California was looming -- she wanted to know what stood out.
Which did I like better, strutting New York’s Fifth Avenue or gawking at Chicago’s stunning architecture? Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum or the Austin City Limits Music Festival in the Texas capital? We had gone up the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and down, down into Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Gorged on deep-dish pizza at Gino’s East in Chicago and pillowy sopaipillas at Su Casa in El Paso. Partied with college kids in Madison, Wis., and gay men in Chicago. Toured the Budweiser factory in St. Louis and quaint shops in Fredericksburg, Texas.
Perhaps the crowning experience was discovering the unexpected charms of Tulsa, Okla. Or maybe it was just watching spectacular scenery as we zoomed down the open road.
I enjoyed blogging about our exploits at The Times’ Two for the Road (www.latimes.com/twofortheroad), but I also loved reading all the readers’ suggestions, especially those that would help determine our next day’s adventure. Maybe that was my favorite part.
Jen interrupted my thoughts.
“I know what my favorite part was,” she said.
Quickly, I tried to predict what she would say. She must have enjoyed Scottsdale, Ariz., the most; that’s where she acquired her first serious piece of art. Or could being atop the John Hancock Center have been her pick?
“Talking with you on our long drives,” she said.
Of course. I had taken her question far too superficially. The best part of our trip was being together.
The nights we had out, the tourist traps we relished, the roadside food we braved (ever tried a chili-mango ice pop in New Mexico?) and even the inevitable frustrations (accidentally soaking all of Jen’s electronics in water) and highway foibles (a moving violation for illegal passing on the right) contributed to the mutual stories we would one day, no doubt, tell our grandchildren.
But between the sightseeing, the photo ops, the ticket buying and the organized touring, here’s what I’ll really remember: talking intently about our dreams, our vulnerabilities and everything we care about. Catching Jen’s eye and realizing we both knew exactly what the other was thinking and toasting to our past and present and future.
Knowing that as Jen worked hard to establish her career as a lawyer and I worked equally hard at journalism, we still took time to reinforce an important friendship.
It’s something too few people my age are willing to do because the almighty dollar seems to take precedence. For those two weeks, we preferred to generate a wealth of memories.
The drives we dreaded most for their intimidating distance -- namely, the one from Chicago to Austin -- flew by. We were so engrossed in conversation, so interested in what the other had to say that sometimes we regretted arriving at our next stop.
Sometimes, we learned, the road gives a better groove than where you’re headed. There is such a thing as getting comfortable with simply being in transit, especially if you’re in good company.
But we did find good (and sometimes bad) company once we immersed ourselves in the destinations. Those aforementioned stories we’ll tell our grandchildren? They’ll be peppered with a rotating cast of characters: the Tulsa gallery curator who invited us to stay overnight at her house (eager to get to the Austin music festival in time, we politely declined), my brother’s party-loving friends at the University of Wisconsin, the menacing Chicago thug whom we escaped by ducking into a gay bar until he went away.
We also found that locals were the best source of local information. Guidebooks are great and so is the advice of others who have visited before, but it was the real people who live there who helped us the most.
The rewards of just asking for advice were so great, I’ll never again feel hesitant to inquire.
Some of the gems we found purely by taking locals’ advice: In El Paso, a fellow Safeway shopper tipped us off to Su Casa, an unforgettable authentic Mexican restaurant. A bearded, burly park ranger named Big Mike at Carlsbad Caverns showed us some of the cave’s secrets, and in Madison, the kids who took us out on the town led us to the liveliest bars.
But ultimately, as William Hazlitt wrote in 1822: “The soul of a journey is liberty, perfect liberty, to think, feel, do just as one pleases.”
Despite all the advice we received and took -- from comments left on the blog and from in-the-know locals -- Jen and I made it a point to sift through the suggestions, sort through the recommendations and merge them with our own itinerary. In doing so, we created one of the most soulful journeys either of us had ever taken.
By the end of the trip, we felt more in touch with the U.S., its cities and its people.
The most significant lesson we learned, though, is that it’s not about the places you go, the things you see or even the big moments you create. It’s about the company you keep. And, Jen, that was my favorite part of the trip too.