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Voices from the Road

How I spent last summer driving across the country to shoot a documentary about bookstores

The purpose of my road trip was to capture the irreplaceable value independent bookstores bring to their communities in a documentary format. I interviewed 25 independent bookstores but visited a total of 85 bookstores in 35 states, and drove more than 15,000 miles. My film project is called The Greatest Bookscapes, and I’m expecting to release it this summer. 

Traveling long distances and noticing the environment dramatically change around me every day took a strange toll on me, and left me feeling ungrounded. I had traveled far from home before the summer of 2022, but never like this—never for this long, and never with such a clear purpose. It was the consistency of the bookstores that gave me a feeling of belonging to a community during a time when it would’ve been really easy for me to feel lonely. There’s nothing surprising about that, given what I had set out to do.

The author stands in front of a large body of water

I was lucky enough to have three wonderful friends join me along the way. They made the travel and documentary-shooting process more enjoyable. With every day came a cache of unforgettable memories forever tying us to a new place. I departed Raleigh, North Carolina, on May 15, 2022. Jennings joined me a few days later in Charlotte, up until we arrived in Austin, Texas, 3 weeks later. Kathryn flew out to Texas and joined me for a little longer than a week, until we arrived in Tucson, Arizona. Georgia flew out to Arizona to join me for nearly 2 weeks, until Sacramento, California. After that, I was on my own for the drive back home. 

I couldn’t have done the trip without Lola, my trusty, red 2021 Toyota Prius. Thankfully, Lola was a new car, and I didn’t run into any trouble during the trip—no accidents, not even a scratch, which I thought was pretty impressive because some of the campsites in the desert or mountain roads were a bit demanding. But I was more relieved because I didn’t exactly know how to change a tire. You may think that’s risky for someone planning to be on the road for so long—I like to think I’m just lucky. Ultimately, Lola prevailed, and she even allowed me to save some money on gas during a time when gas cost $7.50 per gallon in California.

A very special route

Since the main purpose of my trip was to shoot a documentary, I constructed a route along some of the most unique bookstores in the country after whittling down my list of destinations to a realistic travel plan. All of the national parks, museums, and restaurants I fit into the trip revolved around this route. 

I found myself stopping at the cozy Little Switzerland Books and Beans in the breathtaking Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina very early during the journey. I explored the walkable town of Decatur, Georgia, where I stopped at Little Shop of Stories before heading to Huntsville, Alabama, for the sole purpose of barbecue. I had a few days to take in the rich culture of Nashville, Tennessee, before a brief time in Oxford, Mississippi, which has a rich literary history. Perusing the bookstores, delicious food, and vibrant oddities around the French Quarter in New Orleans felt like a stay at Disney World before I spent a week resting at a friend’s house in San Antonio, Texas. 

A sweeping view of an expansive bookstore filled with shelves

It seemed as if it took me ages to simply drive out of Texas—which I’m sure anyone who’s driven through Texas completely understands—before I arrived in Colorado. I spent a magical day in the Rockies and the picturesque town of Steamboat Springs, where I fell in love with Off The Beaten Path Bookstore. After a journey through the deserts of the Southwest, I celebrated my birthday in Tucson, Arizona, following a series of serendipitous exchanges in Santa Fe, New Mexico. 

After seeing the Grand Canyon again, and my first time at Zion National Park, I stumbled upon the only fake bird sanctuary and independent bookstore I’ve ever seen—The Writer’s Block in Las Vegas, Nevada. My week in California passed in a blur of golden hours and dreamy joyrides with the windows down as I went through San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. 

On the journey back, I didn’t have a companion with me. It was an introspective time. I was alone for hours in my car, eyes glued on the horizon. At first, I just missed having someone to talk to while driving. But as I thought about it more, I realized that it was a shame I couldn’t share the memories I was making with someone else. 

Soon, I visited the biggest independent bookstore in the world—Powell’s in Portland, Oregon. I camped outside Bozeman, Montana, where the skies really are bigger than anywhere else in the country. I stopped at Mount Rushmore, before checking out the Crazy Horse Memorial—a marvelous spectacle in the Black Hills that will be the world’s largest mountain carving when it’s completed. Chicago held me captive for a week—and I let it—as I rested up before the final leg of the journey, making a mental note to return soon. 

Portland, Oregon's Powell's Books is the largest independent bookstore in the world

I got lost in Philadelphia for a day, where there were gorgeous bookstores set against the backdrop of historic spaces all around. I took the train in and out of New York City for a few days because I didn’t dare bring Lola into the city. I wandered Washington, D.C., and conducted my final interview along the cobblestone streets of Richmond, Virginia, before returning home, completely drained, wanting nothing more than to sleep in the comfort of home for as long as I could.

Since I had to stretch a limited budget over 11 weeks, I had to be extremely mindful of sleeping arrangements. I thoroughly enjoyed camping, so I didn’t mind roughing it—especially when I was traveling solo. I was completely prepared to sleep in my car if I ever had to, but the moment never arose. 

Before leaving for the trip, I managed to find accommodations for 90 percent of my time on the road. I found last-minute campsites at some locations, and for those nights I couldn’t find a super cheap option, I went for a motel. During the trip, I stayed at everything from Airbnbs to motels and hotels to friends’ couches to campsites.

Looking back

There’s no corner of the U.S. I visited where I wasn’t eager to exchange stories with other travelers I met at campsites or in bookstores. I remember Adam at a campsite who was making a journey similar to mine in scale, telling me he’d keep an eye out for my documentary. I remember jumping in the ice-cold waters of Lake Michigan with my friend Alex, and dozens of excited people unknown to me. Sometimes I get lost in the thought of how this trip allowed me to intersect my path with countless people that I would’ve never met otherwise—and that was precious.

The trip was meticulously planned. I knew what I was doing pretty much every day, down to the hour, well in advance. I knew where I had to be for interviews, where I was going to sleep, and when I would eat. Being organized was crucial to keep track of the interviews I had scheduled across the country in the weeks before I left, but it also allowed me to know when I would have free time to unwind and explore a new city. Overall, I stuck to my original, glorious route for the entire trip, which I was proud of. 

I of course had a few hiccups along the way, I contracted COVID-19 and had to isolate for a week. Then there was the time I accidentally skipped paying a bus fare in San Francisco which resulted in a $125 fine—the moral of the story for me was to stick to driving Lola. But overall, my biggest folly with this project was thinking I could do the whole pre-production, production, and post-production process on my own. In hindsight, I don’t know what I would’ve done if the friends that joined me on the trip hadn’t been there to help me shoot. 

Tushar Varma sits on a green velvet couch surrounded by books

I try to live life without regret, so I can’t say I would have changed anything about my first cross-country road trip experience. However, next time I have the privilege of taking time off to hit the road, I’ll try my best to not make it a work trip. I’ll try to journal at night. I’ll stay in places a bit longer, and make friends. I’ll try to live in the moment and not have every hour pre-planned.

So, I successfully circumnavigated the mainland U.S. in a small car without any complications with my vehicle. After everything, I’m proud of translating my original vision into a real-life experience without compromising much, and I can’t wait to share the experience with others when the documentary is released. 

I completed my journey with a renewed understanding of how to be patient with myself. I had to continuously remember that I’m not a professional, experienced videographer. In the end—and I know this may be cliché—the journey truly mattered more than any one destination.

Tushar’s trip

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