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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.