Cross Country Courtney
16 Years Later
Courtney Rile drove across the country with her boyfriend in a ’78 Ford Econoline in 2000. She was 16 going on 17 and eager to see the United States through her viewfinder. Sixteen years later, she reflects on her travels, the (un)reliability of memory, and what will never change.
Learn more as Courtney interviews herself below!
Today I’m looking at pictures of my younger self. I still had teenage acne. By 16, I was done with steel town, Pennsylvania, and determined to hit the road. I had what you might call a major case of wanderlust.
How did your trip come to be?
I moved a lot as a kid, splitting my time between two parents and extended family, so I was used to packing bags and living on the go. I grew up listening to my dad tell bedtime stories about hopping trains in the days of his youth. After graduating high school, I decided to turn the summer before college into a cross country adventure. My boyfriend at the time joined me for the ride.
How did you choose your vehicle?
My boyfriend at the time, who was conveniently a mechanic, lucked into a 22 year old ’78 Ford Econoline van. It looked like a blue collar version of a 1970’s shag van with a bed in the back, although it was lacking the iconic shag carpet. The color was dirt brown with a navy blue interior and bubble windows. (I loved those windows.) The engine never really worked properly and continuously needed repairs. In California, we had problems with a dirty gas tank. In Death Valley, we blasted the heat in 100 degree temperatures, desperately trying to stop the engine from overheating. In Oklahoma City, we finally had to have the radiator replaced by a professional mechanic. A few days after we arrived home, the engine died completely.
How did your family react when you told them your idea?
My parents knew that I needed to fly the coup, but they were obviously concerned about safety. My mom bought a cell phone for me (when most of my friends still had pagers) and asked that I call her every day. She also bought a membership to AAA, which saved the day at least once.
What did traveling with a boyfriend at 16 teach you about relationships?
We had been dating for about five months before we left. I turned 17 while we were on the road. He was 18. At first we really pushed each other’s buttons. It was intense to be spending so much time together in such a small space. I learned a lot about patience and communication on that trip. Looking back on it I think he came along mostly to be with me and make sure I was safe, and not necessarily because he craved travel and adventure the way I did. On the road, we bonded through our shared experiences, but afterwards I realized we had different visions for our lives.
Having had 16 years to reflect, what can you recommend based on your experiences from this trip?
- Date a mechanic. Just kidding, but at the very least learning how to monitor and perform basic vehicle maintenance is a must.
- “You know this is illegal, eh?” Know the laws when you cross borders. In our case, don’t bring knives that can be opened with one hand into Canada. Our trip might have been a lot shorter.
- Carry a spare tank of gas in rural areas. We ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere after passing several gas stations that were closed for ridiculous reasons. We made dinner on our camping stove, then climbed on top of the van to watch an amazing sunset with a full moon rising (see photo to the left). As we were stargazing, a car pulled up. This leads to tip #4.
- Kindness from strangers- It exists. Some folks had pulled over earlier in the day to offer us a ride. We gave them our AAA info, which they later passed along to the closest gas station. It turned out the attendant couldn’t leave the station until he closed at the end of the night. He brought us gas paid for by AAA. Strangers saved the day. (P.S. My friends at American Bear made a whole film about the kindness of strangers on the road.)
- Maps aren’t just for lovers. I admit I have a love affair with maps, but there are practical reasons to know how to read one. Sometimes it’s best to decide your own route instead of letting technology choose it for you. The scenic and most enjoyable route is rarely the fastest or most direct. Plus, some areas still don’t have reception, including one of my favorites, the Adirondack Mountains.
- Be a gracious guest. This includes a host gift or at least a thank you note, however informal, and leaving when you say you will.
- Savor a good shower. Ain’t nothing like a high-pressure shower after five days of sweating in the summer heat.
- Use technology to be safer. I grew up with dreams of hitchhiking, but on the road I heard real horror stories. Today, technology is enabling us to find safer legal ways to enjoy sharing networks, such as Uber and Couchsurfing, which have some accountability. Take advantage.
- Don’t forget to call Mom. I called every other day. I mailed postcards to my dad. Whoever it is you stay in touch with, it’s good to have someone else be aware of where you are. Plus, every time I called, my mom recorded the date and place, highlighting our route on a map as we went. I still have it somewhere.
- Not all who wander are lost. You can really only get lost if you have a plan and a destination to waver from. If you’re willing to go with the flow and embrace the journey, it takes the pressure of expectation off and makes the experience more enjoyable through the process of discovery.
Today you are a professional photographer and filmmaker. What did you learn about photography on this trip?
In the year 2000, digital photography technology was rapidly advancing, but still wasn’t affordable or accessible to the mainstream public. The cost and delay of developing film forced me to be more considerate each time I pressed the shutter. I double checked my work and rationed my exposures. I love the immediate gratification of digital, but I also miss the period of reflection while film is developed. During that time the experience belonged only to me only as a memory. When I would finally see the photograph, days, weeks or months later, it became something else, a document that existed on its own like a piece of evidence. I realize now how unreliable memory really is. I’m grateful for the journal entries I wrote and the photographs I took, which help me to remember more accurately what the experience was like.
America is a gigantic country. Seeing so many different parts of it at a young age really helped me to understand politics and culture by seeing the way people live and interact. It also made me realize how much I still have left to see and explore. I’ve been to about 40 of the 50 states but I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. To anyone who is considering a trip like this, absolutely do it.
Photos by Courtney Rile and her travel companion, taken in 2000 on 35mm film.