In Buffalo, your plans will fall through. Don’t get discouraged, even though this is your first night on the road. Go to a bar. Call the friends of friends of friends. Something will work out, sometime after midnight.
The next night, quit town and share a campsite with Scott and Amy, friends of someone you knew from college. Try to keep pace with the drinking. No one will reward you for self-restraint, and it’ll feel more natural if you seem drunk when you’re recruiting people to go skinny-dipping in Lake Erie.
In Columbus, speak slowly and more quietly. Leave more thought-provoking conversation topics for the morning after everyone has had their coffee. Insist that you’re comfortable with minimal sleeping arrangements but don’t refuse repeated offers for extra pillows. Get in the habit of not saying “back East.” This expression will endear you to no one, even if you’re talking to someone who wants to move to New York. The same goes for Indiana and Iowa while we’re at it.
In Chicago, stay with the perfectly suburban, middle-class family your friend Tanya is living with while she finishes school. Be ok with the fact that they seem to resent you. Leave them a note that reinforces their notions that (a) you’re a jerk-off college-educated twenty-something with a penchant for mooching, and (b) they are the hard-working backbone of this great country. This is all you can do for them.
In Denver, begin perfecting your road stories. Develop a repertoire of three or four good ones, rotate the weaker ones out as the better ones come along. Nothing is worse than a guest with bad stories, so feel free to embellish for the sake of reaction. Practice them on Rob while he grills burgers for you in his backyard. Eat two. Don’t tell him you’re a vegetarian.
In San Francisco, buy the first round of drinks when you’re out. This will be the only round that everyone will clearly remember the next morning and attribute to your generosity. Know when it’s appropriate to touch, to hug, to offer a friendly grope if necessary. Dance the way you danced when you were 15 and your cousin’s friends would take you to their high school proms. These are the things you can always offer to others, especially after you run out of cash. The cash will run out.
Know when to stare a second longer than deemed socially acceptable and understand when you should use your mother’s maiden name as your alias. Don’t kiss. Repeat, kiss no one. There’s no room for sentimental crushes in your 1997 Toyota Camry. It will be hard enough to leave this town, especially after you lie and tell some dreamy-eyed barista that you just moved to the Mission. Don’t get caught walking around Jeff’s apartment naked. You will likely fail at this, but if you’ve done everything else right, this won’t be a problem. In fact, this occurrence will move to the top of your story telling repertoire. People like naked stories for some reason.
In Portland, don’t be impatient when the service is slow. This will give you away as an out-of-towner. Offer to pay for Florence’s lunch and do. Offer to clean her kitchen and don’t. Leave earlier than you said you would, in the hours before the house wakes. You will be bad at saying goodbye at this point.
In Seattle, let Terry and Mark treat you to dinner without putting up much of a fight. Tell them they remind you of family members. Terry – your aunt, and Mark – your grandfather (before the cancer). They’ll appreciate this, and it will be one of the few genuine things you’ve said on the road. Promise Jay that you won’t tell anyone about his secret houseboat. Don’t overreact when shit gets weird. Call the cops if you need to, but you won’t. Hail a cab and get everyone the fuck out of there.
In Wyoming, split a campsite with two women who say they’ve been traveling since March. Swap your whiskey for their moonshine. For a moment, question who is hosting whom. Forget their names the morning you leave.
Drive for days across the Midwest, don’t stay with friends you promised you’d visit. Consider the fact that you may never see these people again (this being South Dakota, after all), but still choose to not stay with them. Convince yourself it’s easier to be around strangers.
In Pittsburgh, shake Sarah’s mother’s hand and look her straight in the eye when your paths cross by the second-floor bathroom at 5:30 in the morning. Tell her you’re sorry for having arrived so late, that she has a lovely home, and that you really should get dinner next time she’s in Boston. Finish by saying “thank you” in three different ways in the course of one sentence.
Back at home, see friends you haven’t spoken to in months and pretend you never left. Do your best to bring a bottle of wine wherever you go – the expensive stuff for good friends, the cheap kind for the better ones. Call up old lovers but look for new ones. This will all seem like traveling, too, which is ok as you’ll miss the road and the strangers and their couches. Always carry a toothbrush in your backpack.