After three incredible weeks, my family’s voyage across the country has finally come to a close. All photographs by Christina Teodorescu.
Vacations are supposed to end gradually: the curtains fall and the lights come on and you’re left with ample time to reflect on what you’ve seen, to pore over photographs and etch your favorites into your memory. But this trip feels more like a dream than a vacation — a twenty-one-day blur of one discovery after another, more emotions than moments, sensations rather than sights.
We found the heartland of America in the farmland of South Dakota and Wisconsin; we found the epitome of American consumerism in Minnesota’s Mall of America. We people-watched in Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square until well past midnight and ran frantically through the galleries of Chicago’s Art Institute; we stood at the edge of Niagara Falls and watched millions of gallons of water gush down into the mists of oblivion.
It wasn’t perfect. Especially in the last few days, we grew tired, despite our attempts to switch drivers and rest we found ourselves falling asleep at the wheel. In order to take advantage of as much daylight as possible we were forced to eat on the go, juggling maps and hamburger wrappers and stray French fries while attempting to simultaneously take in the scenery. Relatively empty stretches of road were sometimes a relief from the near-constant sensory overload.
But all in all, the trip went as smoothly as it possibly could have. We made good time, arrived home on schedule and unscathed, and managed to cram ten thousand miles’ worth of sights into a few short weeks; we had the experience of a lifetime.
Our visit to Yellowstone and subsequent crossing of South Dakota marked our last truly stressful drive. As we made our way back east the country began to grow smaller again. The vast expanses of the south and west disappeared and the distances between cities and towns shrank to a manageable size.
The landscape, too, became progressively more familiar. The endless fields and rolling plains gave way to hills and forests, much like those in Massachusetts. For the first time since we’d left the Northeast we couldn’t see the summer storms gathering on the horizon or the road fading into the distance. It was a bittersweet sensation: at last, we were almost home.
In Minneapolis we visited the Mall of America, the epitome of American consumerism. Everything was bigger there — the stores themselves, the parking lot, and – most notably – the amusement park that greeted us as we walked in, three stories of steel roller coasters that nearly touched the glass roof. The mall was a fascinating commentary on our society’s obsession with materialism, but it was impossible to be judgmental while sipping coffee and staring wide-eyed into shop windows that stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions.
From Minnesota we drove into Wisconsin and temporarily back into pure farmland: picture-perfect red barns dotted rolling fields and dairy cows stood lazily in the sunshine, swishing their tails and mooing softly as we passed. We toured a small cheese factory and received a warm welcome from the Swiss manager, who gave us a personalized description of the cheese-making process and provided us with a fantastically delicious variety of cheese to take with us on our travels. We feasted on fondue for dinner and wandered the streets of a tiny Swiss town while snacking on Swiss chocolate cake: all in all, the day was a culinary success.
We sat in traffic for hours on our way to Chicago the next day – highway construction threw us off schedule and we arrived in the city only an hour or so before the Art Institute closed. In desperation, we hailed a taxi and sped at breakneck speed through the busy Chicago streets, leaping out in front of the Institute and dashing up the steps with only minutes to spare. Our hurry was not for nothing, though; we were rewarded with galleries filled with the works of masters, from Hopper’s Nighthawks to Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte and an entire gallery devoted to Renoir.
After nearly being kicked out of the Art Institute’s gift shop we wandered the streets of Chicago, drinking in its energy. We viewed the city from the top of the Sears (now Willis) Tower, rode the subway “Loop” and meandered our way down to the waterfront after sunset. It’s impossible to confine Chicago to words — the constant bustle, the towering buildings, the many bridges, the partially insane taxi drivers all combine to create a city that’s larger than life with character to match.
At the waterfront we bought tickets for a short cruise along the shoreline and grabbed some Chinese takeout to eat on the boat. As we glided along the Chicago skyline, munching on crab rangoon and listening to the narrator weave the tale of Chicago’s history, I realized that in the span of hours I had already fallen in love with the Windy City. Of all the cities we visited on our three-week voyage, Chicago instilled in me the greatest desire to return, to wander through its streets and bridges and museums without the time constraints of a pre-college road trip.
The German town of Frankenmuth, Michigan was our next stop. We made our way through Ann Arbor and Detroit before arriving in Frankenmuth and visiting the incredibly impressive Christmas store, festive even in August.
Crossing the Canadian border was relatively uneventful, and soon enough we found ourselves in Toronto. We walked around the University of Toronto and the neighboring shopping districts, then zoomed to the top of the CN Tower for a gorgeous view of the city. We ate at Yonge-Dundas Square underneath giant flashing billboards, listening to street performers and watching the city go by well into the night, the activity never faltering even as midnight came and went.
Our final stop of the trip was Niagara Falls. Although the drive from Toronto to Niagara was short we arrived exhausted and stressed. Fortunately for us Niagara Falls only really has two streets, so we were able to wander around downtown and relax. We ate dinner with a view of the falls and visited some of the museums, trying all the while to ignore the fact that this would be the last night of our trip.
The next morning we awoke to a homemade breakfast of delicious French toast and fresh fruit – easily the best of our trip. As we crossed back into the United States it finally hit me that after everything we’d seen, we were finally returning home.
On our drive south through New York State I had plenty of time to reflect on what the end of our trip actually meant. When I returned home I would have to think about college, about packing and organizing and mentally preparing to live on my own. I would be mere weeks away from having to negotiate classes and extracurricular activities and socialization, from trying to sneak a couple of hours of sleep in between studying and exercising and studying some more. Though I knew the transition wouldn’t hit me until I actually started packing — or even until I arrived on campus — this was the first time I fully realized that moving forty minutes away from home could be as life-changing as a ten-thousand mile journey across two countries.
I learned more on this trip than I ever thought possible. I learned that there’s almost nothing as awe-inspiring as the night skies of Montana, that everything really is bigger in Texas, that Rocky Mountain oysters are absolutely not what they sound like. I learned that I could drink Southern-style sweet tea all day every day for the rest of my life, that bison are as adorable as they are intimidating, and, perhaps most importantly, that the best moments are the spontaneous ones, the surprises and unexpected occurrences that make any experience truly worthwhile.
Christina Teodorescu ’16 is happy to have a pit stop at home before making the journey to Harvard.