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Steve and Ken with a giant statue of a jackalope
Reading time: 5 minutes

Twenty-five years ago today, my brother Steve and I piled into the family van for a grand American tour. It was my first summer in college, and his last before law school. For months beforehand, we’d lived with a map of the country pinned to a corkboard. Every time we thought of a landmark we wanted to see, we’d our a pin in the map: the Space Needle, the Sears Tower, the Grand Ole Opry, the birthplace of the jackalope. Finally, on June 7, 1998, with just some AAA TripTik maps and no cell phones, Google, or reservations, we set out.

Over the next 36 days, we traversed 35 states and 12,728 miles. Besides our shared promise to our parents to return home safely, I had a commitment of my own: once a week, I’d use my laptop’s modem to dial into my hometown’s newspaper and upload a travel column. It ran every Monday under the name “Road Dispatches”, alongside photos developed from rolls of film I would FedEx to the office. In the days before digital cameras, my readers were seeing my photos before I was.

In a way, Road Dispatches was my first experience as a blogger — and, as I was a professional being paid to work from anywhere, it was, even more more presciently, my first experience as a digital nomad.

I expected that road trip and the resulting chronicles to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But invariably, I find my path as a digital nomad intersecting with that adventure of a quarter-century ago, returning me to places I thought I’d never see again.

Midway, USA

Steve and I didn’t stick to highways; we were more about the journey than the destination, and we suspected the best surprises awaited us on country roads.

One such stop was Kinsley, Kansas, which bills itself as Midway, USA. Though not on the way to much of anywhere, it nonetheless lies halfway in a straight line between New York and San Francisco. Since we’d started on one coast and were headed to the other, then back again, this sign marked roughly a quarter of the way to our ultimate destination back home.

Ken pointing in either direction under a sign indicating 1561 miles to both New York and San Francisco
Kinsley, Kansas (June 1998)

After nomading in Kansas City for a month in the summer of 2022, I found Kinsley was not far out of my way to my next stop in Santa Fe. One GorillaPod tripod and a timer later, and I’d recreated that shot of years ago.

Ken pointing in either direction under a sign indicating 1561 miles to both New York and San Francisco
Kinsley, Kansas (August 2022)

Steve and I didn’t get to make every stop that piqued our interest, and the nearby Barbed Wire Museum, featured in our AAA guidebook, was deemed a bit too esoteric to warrant the detour. But in 2022, I was on no one’s timetable but my own, and I finally got to explore the history of barbed wire. It was worth the wait!

Nintendo of America

As recently chronicled on the evening news, I was a huge Nintendo nerd as a kid, showing up to school decked out in Nintendo apparel, head to foot. By the time of our road trip, not much had changed (and still hasn’t, to be honest). So including in our itinerary a trip to Nintendo of America’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington, was a given.

Back then, Nintendo’s main building had a reception area that served as a modest museum to all things Nintendo, with a display featuring an original Game Boy that had been bombed in Operation Desert Storm. Visiting this mecca was immensely cool — and, in the view of my editor, who saw this photo before I did, entirely on brand.

Ken kneeling in front of a Nintendo of America headquarters sign
Redmond, WA (June 1998)

I spent the first Christmas of the pandemic sheltering with friends in Portland, Oregon. One rainy weekend, I was permitted a socially distanced overnight trip to their northernly neighboring city of Seattle. Although Nintendo had demolished and rebuilt their offices, which were closed for the holidays anyway, I still had to stop by and pay homage to the company that has guided so much of my life.

Ken kneeling in front of a Nintendo of America headquarters sign
Redmond, WA (December 2020)

Johnny Appleseed

Johnny Appleseed was the mythical name for John Chapman, an actual historical figure who shares my hometown of Leominster, Massachusetts. Despite that New England heritage, Chapman spent most of his life in the Ohio River Valley and is buried in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Steve and I were compelled to make this stop, connecting the dots between Chapman’s origin and destination. We followed vague signs and asked passersby until we finally stumbled upon the grave. When we took the photo, I wasn’t sure what expression to wear; no matter how long someone has been dead, smiling didn’t seem appropriate. But why am I resting my hand on his grave? Am I checking for a pulse? Traces of this awkward teen can still be seen today.

Ken at John Chapman's grave
Fort Wayne, Indiana (June 1998)

In 2020, on the eve of a global pandemic, I was driving from Pittsburgh to Chicago when I again made the detour to Fort Wayne. My memory played tricks on me, as I remembered the headstone being situated more remotely, not in the middle of a park. And this time, there was a locked gate that prevented me from taking Chapman’s pulse; either it hadn’t been there last time, or my 19-year-old self had hopped the fence, which would’ve been uncharacteristically unlawful.

John Chapman, 1774-1845
Fort Wayne, Indiana (March 2020)

Old Faithful

Steve and I were not and are not campers, and as we lacked reservations for other accommodations, our road trip’s visits to the great outdoors were neither extended nor adventurous. So it was that, sandwiched between overnight stays in Cody, Wyoming, and Anaconda, Montana, we drove through Yellowstone National Park. We got out of our car for only two occasions: a snowball fight (in June!), and to watch Old Faithful erupt.

Two astonishingly handsome young men leaning on an outdoor sign that says "Old Faithful Geyser"
Old Faithful (June 1998)

Old Faithful is not as esoteric an attraction as the other places on this list — but it’s also where I happen to be right now. My three-month sabbatical from work has given me more opportunity to plan ahead, and so I’m writing this post while enjoying a week’s stay at Old Faithful Inn, just a five-minute walk from the world-famous geyser, and exactly 25 years to the month since I was last here.

Ken leans on an "Old Faithful Geyser" sign
Old Faithful (June 2023)

Old Faithful is as powerful and predictable as I remember — though other changes made it harder than expected to recreate our photo: the National Park Service had moved the sign! It took me many head scratches and a consultation with a park ranger to realize it wasn’t the tree that had moved. Here’s the full context of how much farther apart they are now.

Ken leans on an "Old Faithful Geyser" sign with a tree far off to the side
Old Faithful (June 2023) — with tree!


There are other places I visited first with Steve that I have since revisited: the Gateway Arch of St. Louis, the Alamo of San Antonio, the Lone Cypress of Pebble Beach, the Garden of the Gods of Colorado Springs. At first I was hesitant to find myself in these places again: I was worried it would feel like an unnecessary sequel, going back to the well of a prior experience that was already complete.

Instead, I’ve been reminded of why Steve and I crammed so much into so little time in the first place: to get just a taste of what this country has to offer, in the hopes we may someday see it again, in a new context and with more depth. Most of what I’ve seen in my four years as a nomad has been new to me, but I have valued these interludes with touchstones of the past, letting me see these landmarks for the second time, for the first time.

What’s somewhere you’ve been that you thought you’d never see again? Leave a comment with somewhere you’d like to go back to!

Ken Gagne

Digital nomad, Apple II geek, vegetarian, teacher, cyclist, feminist, Automattician.

One Reply to “How it started vs. how it’s going”

  1. In 1970, my 3 older brothers and I took off from New Jersey for a 9 week odyssey such as you had with your brother. We made a big sideways ‘U’, hitting the northern Midwest states, with Mt Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Monument, Yellowstone, Glacier national park and Vancouver. Then down the coast to Disneyland, to Las Vegas, and Hoover Dam (when you could still drive across it). Grand Canyon was next (when you could still drive along the rim), then to Denver and back home.
    I would love to go back to the Rocky Mountain states and the west coast to show my wife some of the places she’s never seen.

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