Shifting Gears Across America

Shifting Gears Across America

by Carly Thaw

I grew up running barefoot in the woods of West Virginia with minimal supervision and lots and lots of ambition. I left after high school to study in Washington, DC and then checked all the boxes I had laid out for myself: a degree, a job right out of college, and in my field, a life in a bustling city.

To my surprise, however, I watched this very clear life that I had been manufacturing in my mind, morph into a corral. This was a hard pill to swallow for a very stubborn but very free range gal.

I am young (just 24) so I recognize that not much “life” has really passed me by yet, but as I settled into the routine that I so meticulously chose for myself, I just felt confused because it so was not what I was expecting.

I don’t even know what a “good life” is, but I knew this wasn’t right. I had no reason other than a feeling that I needed to pull the plug and try again. So against all rational judgment, I did.

Alone, with my journal and paints, I drew my way across America and back.

I quit my stable day job, moved out of the city that I had made home, and used the money I had saved to drive around the USA by myself in pursuit of finding my passion again.

Alone, with my journal and paints, I drew my way across America and back. This was the start of a brain-scrubbing, priority-evaluating series of events that puts me on the path I am now, and that I am still very much paving.

Here are the things I knew: I wanted to be more creatively fulfilled, I didn’t like the routine of a 9-5 job, I wanted to move out of the city. I had an absolute blank canvas in front of me so I tried to think of all the things I’d always wanted to do.

Cue the ever-romanticized all-American road trip.

I always dreamed of those scenes from the movie Forrest Gump when he is running across the US. I wanted to see those places. I assumed I’d do it with a friend, and for years I tried, but each attempt failed to take for one reason or another. Then I was out of school and watching that adventure opportunity fade, and here was my opportunity. No one else was available, so I decided to take a risk and do it myself.

I was apprehensive, but tried my best to live up to the “badass” expectations 10-year-old me would have had for myself. I spent the last few months of my lease in D.C. loosely planning my trip. I contacted my friends all over the country to see if they were available and mapped my route based on where I had a place to stay, and also places I’d always wanted to go. And then I just… went.

I cried as I was pulling out of the driveway, thinking, “What the hell am I doing?!”

To avoid stirring up anxiety, I made some goals for myself because, if I was going to forfeit structure, I at least needed to use that grinding ambition productively. My goals were to:

  1. Write every day

  2. Draw as much as possible

  3. Only draw what I want to draw, not what I think is most likeable.

The most important part of this goal setting for me, and I can’t stress this enough, was NO SELF JUDGMENT. This was very deliberately, a confidence manufacturing project. If I felt insecure (which was often), then good news: me and me got to sit in the car for 10 hours alone, and we were going to get to the bottom of it!

My first day of driving was a blur. It was very bright and sunny, through virtually identical landscapes from when I left my mountains in Appalachia to when I pulled into downtown Chicago. Cornfields and cornfields, and also some soybeans. Oh and a strip mall or two.


In my first journal entry, I wrote about the clouds. They were cumulous and so fluffy across the flat land. I got to see an incredibly dynamic, heliotrope sunset reflect off of the impossibly glistening windows of downtown Chicago skyscrapers. This view became my first illustration of the trip.

I stayed with friends for the first three nights, then I had my first night of camping alone. I paid to stay at a well populated campground. But it became clear that the price tag on even campgrounds was out of my range, so I slept in my car every night I wasn’t staying with friends from there on out.

Some of you might be thinking: “Yikes she’s crazy!” But it really isn’t as bad as you think if you just back up and practice some good old fashioned risk-assessment. Before my trip, I got my back windows tinted black so you couldn’t see inside. It gave me more privacy and anonymity. My backup plan was tacking up sheets, but the window tint was much more inconspicuous. I also brought some self defense items like a knife etc., just because I could, and why not? Of course I never needed them.

The most valuable skill I developed was to trust my spidey senses; that primal gut feeling that seems to have no evidence. I would do research before I chose my spot, and if I got there and felt weird, I’d leave. Even if nothing was wrong. After a few weeks, I trusted that sense. I never slept in my car in a large city. I really only went to cities where I had friends to stay with. I had a tent, which I used some, but I preferred my car honestly, because I could lock it. I got to sleep in some insanely beautiful places for free—mostly public lands out west. Free dispersed camping is legal in most national forest areas I learned!

I tried to settle in to the hours and hours of time alone in the car, trying my best to appreciate even the “boring” drive as part of the experience.

I pulled over on the barren North Dakota highways to take photos, and did an impromptu hike in a nature preserve I passed in Wisconsin. I pulled over and stood outside in the 118F Arizona heat to see what it felt like to breathe air so hot, and drove across deeply pocked dirt roads to visit ancient ruins.

North Dakota clouds

I tried to settle in to the hours and hours of alone time in the car, trying my best to appreciate even the “boring” drive as part of the experience.

The freedom was something I hadn’t considered. I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. Craving pork rinds? No one can judge! Want to skip a planned destination to just hang out and have a beer in a different town? No one to protest! There are an infinite number of things to do and see all over the USA, in places you’d never expect. I could do this whole thing 10 more times and never repeat a thing.

I had a moment on my way back through the southwest. I was sitting on the otherworldly, glowing white dunes of White Sands National Park in New Mexico, literally and viscerally alone.

I arrived there in a monsoon. It was absolute blinding rain and I ran my windshield wipers on full blast.

White Sands is a naturally occurring dune field of pure gypsum in the middle of nowhere moonscape New Mexico, next to a US nuclear testing facility. It is eerie.

When the storm finally lifted, I was left there on a mountain of salt with my notebook and a 360 degree view: rain visibly falling over there, a soft pink sunset illuminating an electric yellow edge on the cumulonimbus storm clouds over there, the navy blue spikes of the distant mountains over there.

I distinctly remember standing, thinking about how grateful I was that I did this. I just so desperately needed inspiration, and here it was surrounding me in a plethora of ways.

For better or worse D.C. was just not providing that for me anymore. D.C. is a wonderful place, and I loved living there, but it is ok to move on. I keep saying my time there “expired,” but that absolutely doesn’t negate the value of it.

I truly believe that passion is the guide to confidence. Passion can’t be faked, but it can be strengthened. If you are passionate and confident about what you are doing, the haters can quite frankly suck it. We have one life here, and I don’t know about you, but I want to enjoy and be proud of mine. That, to me, is success.

Carly Thaw is an artist from West Virginia. Learn more about her at, find prints of her work on Etsy, and see more on Instagram @outthaw_

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *