by ANN M. COLFORD & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & wenty years ago today, on April 17, 1988, I embarked on one of the great adventures of my life -- a journey of 11,350 miles by car across the United States and back again. The trip took three months and cost me thousands of dollars, but what I received far outweighed what I spent. After all, how can you put a price tag on a life-changing experience?

I was coming off three years as the accounting manager for a research startup company near Boston. After months of hard work and late nights, the struggling company had received an infusion of capital -- and I had been promptly "assigned to special projects" and replaced by a Harvard MBA and his leggy acolyte. I decided to keep my dignity and ditch the job.

I moved out of my apartment and stashed my worldly goods in my parents' spare bedroom. Into my 1987 Plymouth Sundance -- hey, don't laugh; it was a turbo with a sunroof, and it could accelerate like a scalded cat -- I crammed two seasons' worth of clothing, about 50 cassette tapes, a box filled with books I'd been meaning to read, a bag of Triple-A maps, some nonperishable snacks, a cooler and my vintage 1978 Minolta SRT-201 SLR camera with all-purpose zoom lens.

My rough itinerary came together after a few long-distance phone calls to friends and family around the country: "Hey, remember when you said to call if I was ever going to be in your neighborhood?" On a sunny Sunday morning, I got into the car and pulled out of my parents' suburban Boston driveway to follow the tire tracks of the great American road-trippers: John Steinbeck, William Least Heat Moon, Jack Kerouac. (This was before Thelma and Louise.) Heading west on the Massachusetts Turnpike (I-90) through the Berkshire Hills, I listened as James Taylor sang about the Turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston. At "With 10 miles behind me / and 10,000 more to go," I felt a shiver of recognition.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & lthough I had a journal with me on the trip, I wrote little. I did not conceive of myself as a writer then, and I didn't trust my voice. I was an empirical woman of business -- albeit an unhappy one -- and it would be several more years before my career path would veer from numbers to words.

Looking back at the journal now, though, its words bring me back to that time, to that person I used to be. First, there are pages of financial tallies -- lodging, food and gasoline (at $1 a gallon) -- but they end rather abruptly about a month into the trip. (In hindsight, I take that as a good sign.) On April 26, I wrote, "It's taken me a few days to relax and get comfortable with my new role (bum/wanderer/vagabond)." Two days later, sitting on a hotel balcony in the French Quarter of New Orleans, I wrote, "The air is fresh, and smells of spring blossoms ... This place is gritty around the edges. It has dirt under its nails. Everything is well worn. But it's easy to overlook that in the moonlight."

The remaining entries are mostly rambling outpourings about relationships gone awry. But amid the rambles are hints at changes unfolding: In early June, I noted, "I can't fall back into the same kind of routine I was in...."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & n June 15, I left Seattle and drove eastward across Washington. One of those phone calls I'd made before leaving was to my cousin Peter Colford, who'd just moved to Spokane the year before to become the weather anchor at KREM. Peter and I had been close as young children -- he even lived with my family for a time -- but I hadn't seen much of him for a decade. Still, he and his wife Pam graciously agreed to take me in for a few days.

Like a lot of Easterners, I had no visual image of the Inland Northwest in my head. Peter talked about mountains and crystalline lakes, towering Ponderosa pines and a semi-arid climate, but I favored the ocean: In California, I had driven like a madwoman straight to the closest beach, kicked off my shoes and ran barefoot, laughing, into the Pacific for the first time. After leaving the lush greenness of Seattle and crossing the majestic Cascades, the starkness of the Columbia Basin took me by surprise. The same James Taylor song I'd heard in April came on the radio, but this time it gave no comfort. I was on the final leg of my trip, and I felt no more enlightened than when I'd left. I pulled over at the rest stop near George and sat in my car and cried.

For the rest of my drive that day, I felt low. I couldn't imagine what Peter saw in this country. Finally, about 20 miles from Spokane, I began to see trees. When I dropped over Sunset Hill and saw the city nestled in the river valley, sparkling in the late-afternoon sun with the mountains as a backdrop, I thought, "Oh. This is what he was talking about."

Instead of staying with Peter for a few days, as I'd planned, I spent three weeks. I celebrated my 30th birthday at Patsy Clark's. I worked as a sharecropper in Peter's Garden. I drove all over the area and began to appreciate the subtle, minimalist aesthetic of the Palouse. And within two years, I was planning to move here.

The intangibles I gained in my travels 20 years ago weren't obvious at the time, but they helped me along the path to becoming the person I am now. As the cost of gasoline approaches $4 a gallon, I wonder what will happen to the Great American Road Trip, and I worry about the loss of those intangibles. There's an essential sense of wanderlust in the American spirit, I think -- a sense of the open frontier and endless freedom to reinvent ourselves. I don't think that's going away. I'm optimistic that somehow we'll find a way to keep moving down the road.

Northwest Winterfest @ Spokane County Fair & Expo Center

Fridays, 5-8 p.m., Saturdays, 4-8 p.m. and Sundays, 3-6 p.m. Continues through Jan. 1
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