INTERSTATE 94 — Who knew there existed two Topekas? Certainly not I, fresh, in June, from my yearlong stint as the Independent’s crime-Dougie-dredging correspondent and 1,000 miles into a summer road trip designed to steer me to post-Covid college life.
And yet: barreling towards the Kansas capital from a stay with Olivia Weeks (of Southern Illinois and the WOMR Indie News Hour), wondering vaguely why four breakneck hours of driving had yet to carry me to the Sunflower State, I discovered — in a flash — not just that there is a Topeka, Indiana, but the problem with my ability to trust blindly in an iPhone GPS.
What can I say? Route 6 had been less treacherous.
I spent last year thinking hyperlocal. Want to sink your teeth into a place? Write for its newspaper. I never thought I’d know so much about ADUs, or clearcutting, or Helen Miranda Wilson’s thoughts. I’m so glad I do. I never thought I’d have a stretch of highway memorized. I’m so glad I do.
I zigged and zagged for three months this summer — zipped across 21 states, added 12,000 miles to my odometer. It was a thrill. It was the opposite of hyperlocal. Yet, somehow, the Outer Cape came with me. I wrote a crime story from Charlottesville, Va., edited it in Nashville. On the radio in Nebraska, two country-station hosts laughed about a Massachusetts man who’d been spit out by a whale. P’town’s July 4th Covid cluster made headlines as I hit California. And everywhere, I read the Indie.
Like in Crestone, Colo., self-proclaimed new-age religious capital of the world. Pop. 216 (almost all white, almost all dreadlocked, almost all unvaccinated), Crestone is said to have more spiritual centers per square mile than anywhere else on the continent, and a market that sells only dairy-free cheese. A dear friend and I spent a week roaming the town, where stupas and ziggurats and geodesic domes bloom from an ordinary Colorado landscape, and no one can quite explain why. We celebrated the UFO watchtower’s 21st birthday and left a token at the alien shrine. At the only café in town, we shelled out $17 each for a coffee and a lemon bar. We learned crystal-speak; we skipped the dreadlocks.
Then we — plus two more friends — arrived a world away: to a windowless, unwired shed in Whitefish, Mont., where we spent two weeks WWOOFing, harvesting hydroponic lettuce, traipsing around Glacier National Park, and wondering aloud whether we could be living a collective fever dream.
The farmer: Tim, a multi-millionaire, failed Republican Congressional candidate (charges of tax evasion tanked the campaign) who loved hugs and asked us all to call him “Uncle Tim.” Which took on new meaning when we learned — from Google, not from him — that his wife, Harline, had been his adopted-daughter Harline first. The couple loved Montana politics, and steak, and doing astonishing things with their money.
Like owning 10 acres of fertile Montana farmland, but choosing to grow hydroponic lettuce exclusively in one 5-by-15 former freight car. Like buying 12 horses, building enormous custom stables, realizing horses are too much trouble — plus, they buck too much for Harline — and giving them away. Like buying 36 exotic chickens (really exotic: think fluff, plumes, Disney animation) but not particularly wanting to take care of them, so installing said chickens in a coop not only without any subterranean netting, but also without any overhead protection, so that birds of prey and digging predators had picked up 13 chickens in a span of two months, leaving the remaining 23 chickens with such anxiety that one of the farmhand’s regular tasks was to make sure, each day, that no chicken had succeeded in drowning herself. Et cetera.
I peppered the drive back East with stops at nudist resorts: in Southern California, in Colorado, in mid-August at a Florida young nudist recruitment festival (drum circle! empowerment hypnosis! fire!). It was all research for a piece about the demise of American nudism, which might have gone more smoothly had I learned to nude-interview at the Indie.
In between games of tennis, water aerobics classes, and interviews with the aging clothes-free, I rummaged through nudist archives where, time and again, I read about Wellfleet’s fight for free beaches — and remembered the Wellfleet Select Board’s 2021 squabble over beach-appropriate attire.
I’m back in New Jersey now, entering week three of my junior year of college. I miss Mac’s. I miss the sunsets. I miss running to the beach once I’ve filed a piece. And everyone has the same question: “What did you do during your year off?”
“Well,” I say, “I worked for a newspaper in Massachusetts. Which doesn’t really do it justice. How much time do you have?”
Former Independent journalism fellow and staff reporter Josephine de La Bruyère is a junior at Princeton University.