Cancer was at the center of Suleika’s life for over 3 years. It came at age 22, when she should have been navigating the opportunities of post-college life with her contemporaries. Instead, her days centered around treatment and a hospital, inspiring her to write about her journey in the New York Times Well Column, “Life, Interrupted.”
With a clean bill of health, Suleika took to the road last autumn with her rescue dog, Oscar to reconnect with herself and her country. She also set out to meet readers of her column in person, structuring 100 days on the road and leaving room for surprises in between.
Learn more in the interview below.
Meet Suleika Jaouad
How did your trip come to be?
At age 27, I found myself at a crossroads. I’d recently finished three and a half years of cancer treatment and I was looking for some kind of road map to help me move forward with my life. When I couldn’t find one, I decided to draw my own road map — in the most literal sense of the word. I decided to go on a solo 100-day road trip around the U.S. with my rescue pup Oscar as co-pilot.
How did your route take shape?
I planned my route around the addresses of some of the unexpected strangers who had written to me and supported me during my illness. These visits led me on a giant, counter-clockwise loop around the US, starting and ending in New York City. Over the course of 15,000 miles, I went everywhere from the home of a retired art history professor in Ohio to a fourth-generation ranch in rural Montana, to a maximum security prison in Texas where I visited a convict on death row.
Your 100 days on the road is a story of firsts: Your first time driving, traveling solo, and meeting and staying with strangers. Were you scared to jump in?
Scared? More like, terrified! I think anytime there’s long-term planning involved in a trip, especially such a long trip, there’s a gnawing disbelief that it’s ever going to happen. I set an arbitrary start date of October 5, 2015 and decided to trust that things would fall into place by then. Over the course of the next two months, I learned how to drive, passed my road test, cleared out my schedule, rented out my apartment to help fund my travels and borrowed a car from a friend. With a lot of support from loved ones and a good bit of scrambling, there I finally was, on October 5, 2015, sitting behind the wheel with my bags packed and Oscar panting in the backseat.
You were diagnosed with leukemia at 22, an age where many young women are forming their identities and entering the “real world.” You’ve paralleled the uncertainty of cancer with the uncertainty of life on the road, yet behind the wheel, you control your direction. How did illness at a young age equip you for travel?
I spent the majority of my cancer treatment living in a state of uncertainty. I never knew what the next day would bring. With this road trip, I decided to choose uncertainty for myself. In between my visits with people, my route was largely unplanned. I wanted to lean into not knowing what the day would bring, and to have fun with it. Some of my favorite adventures came from these wide, open spaces in between.
What places in-between stops surprised you?
The sandhills of Nebraska, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the Oregon coast and White Sands National Monument in New Mexico.
What did you learn about yourself while on the road? What did you learn about the United States?
I’ve failed to discover the 10 secrets to happiness, I’m not a drastically better person, I still hate going to the gym and most of the time I feel like I’m pretending to be an adult. But this time on the road has showed me that I can stand on my own two feet even when I don’t have a working GPS and I’ve run out of gas in the middle of a desert. It’s given me a deep appreciation for the wild landscapes of this country and the wonderful souls that inhabit them.
Take a photo of your five must-haves for “life, interrupted” on the road.
- scar the rescue dog
- Road Atlas
- Coffee Press
What books accompanied you on your travels?
I brought along a mobile library (ie. a big box full of books). I didn’t read any travel or adventure narratives during my time on the road, I saved those for when I got home. Some of my favorite reads were The Liars’ Club and Lit by Mary Karr, Geek Love by Katherine Dunne and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanthi.
How did you feel upon returning to NYC? Did it feel like home?
I met a wise soul on the road who told me: “Whenever you travel you actually take three trips. There’s the first phase of preparation, anticipation, packing and daydreaming. There’s the trip you’re actually on. And then there’s the trip you remember. The key is to try and keep all three as separate as possible.”
I tried not to think of coming home as the end of my trip otherwise I knew I would get the blues. It’s been the beginning of a different kind of adventure — one of reflection, stillness and writing.
While you won’t be hitting the road for 100 days again (at least not anytime soon), how do you incorporate exploration into your everyday life?
I try and find a healthy balance between city life and spending time in nature. These days I’m able to do all of my writing remotely so I’ve been splitting my time between New York City and a little cabin in the woods in Vermont. Having a rambunctious pup helps too. Regardless of where we are in the world, we’re always exploring and getting into trouble.
Photos (C) Suleika Jaouad
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