The last eight months have been my longest stretch as a digital nomad — but they’re not my first experience living on the road, nor is Roadbits my first time writing about it. That all happened way back in 1998.
It was my first summer in college and my brother Steve’s last before starting law school. Neither of us had seasonal jobs, so rather than spend another summer playing Super Mario Kart, we decided to go on an adventure. We tacked up a map of the United States and pushed pins into every city and landmark we wanted to visit: Mount Rushmore! The Grand Canyon! The Alamo! When we added up all the destinations, we realized our grand road trip would take more than a month.
At the time, I was a weekly columnist for the Sentinel & Enterprise, the daily newspaper of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, one city over from my hometown of Leominster. Every Monday, my column, “Gamebits“, would feature reviews of the latest and greatest video games. I told my editor, Bruce Phillips, that I would need a month off from gaming as my brother and I embarked on this American expedition.
Bruce had a counteroffer: yes, let’s put Gamebits on hiatus, but let’s replace it with a weekly journal of my travels. I accepted his pitch, and together, we devised a new column: Road Dispatches. (Why we didn’t call it Roadbits, I’ll never know.)
Road Dispatches ran for eight weeks before, during, and after our journey. Every Friday, I would use my laptop’s dial-up modem to send a text file to my editor while FedEx shuttled my rolls of 400-speed film back to the Sentinel‘s office in Fitchburg.
Before we left, I laid out a philosophical road map for our readers:
For the next several weeks, we’ll be exploring both my country and yours — but not by highway, as billboards and exit signs are not my definition of beauty. I want to see with my own eyes what makes our tourist attractions so awesome, and why so many people visit them in the words of their custodians. I want to visit not only metropolises, but towns and villages as well. How blue is the grass of Kentucky, or how white the peaks of Colorado? Is there really a Smallville, Kansas? Are there other Leominsters and Fitchburgs out there, in name or atmosphere? Are there still towns where people sleep with doors unlocked?
I’ve thought about that road trip often, especially as my recent nomading brought me back to landmarks I haven’t seen since that first trip. But it wasn’t until I arrived in Madison, Wisconsin, that I thought about the above passage. I had a vague recollection of Leominster being unique in our grand country, but that there was another Fitchburg, somewhere. If so, our road trip was years before smartphones and months before Google; we might have never found our way there in 1998.
Now, it took me only seconds to find where the other Fitchburg was: just nine miles southwest of where I was staying in Madison.
It was surreal to see a familiar name in so many unfamiliar places. I couldn’t quite trick myself into thinking I was back in Massachusetts: this Wisconsin city has more land, fewer people, and less history of mills and factories. But travel isn’t about ending a journey back where you started. Every place provides new perspectives in which to reflect on ourselves and our experiences. In this case, this memory was decades in the making. While I didn’t get to meet the locals and share our unique connection — a pandemic is not the best time to be introducing myself to strangers — it did remind me of that very first road trip as I finally fulfilled the promise I made twenty-two years ago to find Fitchburg, Wisconsin.
To commemorate this occasion, I am re-publishing to Roadbits all eight Road Dispatches from 1998 — an embarrassing collection of juvenilia!