So we have a letter. Our next mission: find out whom to send it to. Jill pounces on that one by e-mailing a former coworker — the recently laid-off automotive editor at The Arizona Republic. Within a day we have a contact and an e-mail address. And within two days, we have a reply from Honda:

Hi Scott & Jill,

I was  forwarded your lovely note, as my department (Honda Automobiles PR) is taking all requests and ideas re: the Dog Friendly Element.

At this time, we are only collecting all inquiries and requests – we simply do not yet know when we’ll have anything to work with – even prototypes.  Once we understand further about timing and actual product, we will begin to further evaluate the abundance of opportunities that have come our way.

People love their pets! We knew this going into the Dog Friendly Element’s development, and that’s been validated ten-fold after our New York press conference where we debuted this vehicle.

Times are … challenging, and Honda is in the same boat as others where our resources are very slim.  I really can’t comment on your proposal at this time, but please know that we will consider within about a month.

In the meantime, feel free to write/call me with any questions.  Thank you so much for reaching out.

Not a yes … but not a no. Obviously, we don’t have Steinbeck’s clout. But we do have hope. Our fingers (and paws) remain crossed.

In the meantime, I’m sizing up the old CRV for a new rooftop gear box. Rocinante or no Rocinante, our trip must go on.

Scott

The best way to casually browse new cars is lying in bed, on your belly, with a laptop perched in front of you. This is the position Jill and I are in when we discover Honda’s Dog Friendly Element.

It’s a mid-sized SUV with a built-in dog bed, a spill-resistant water bowl, a cargo-area fan and rubber floors you can hose clean. It gets 25 miles per gallon on the highway and has 75 feet of cargo space.

Jill rises to her elbows, deepening the arch of her back. “This car is made for us,” she says. We click deeper into the Dog Friendly Element’s web page. We view every photo from every angle. We download the fact sheet.

Jill is right. This car is made for our trip. But I’m thinking the reverse also holds true: Our trip is made for this car.

So, inspired by a book I read in college and PR savvy I gained during my recently vacated job, I carry my laptop into the office and write the following letter:

Dear Honda,

Fifty years ago, in the autumn as his life, American author John Steinbeck set out on a yearlong road trip to rediscover his own country. His only companion was his dog, a standard poodle named Charley, and they set forth from the New York coast in a truck specially outfitted for the journey. Steinbeck christened his vehicle “Rocinante” in honor of Don Quixote’s horse, and he painted those letters across the truck’s side in sixteenth-century Spanish script.

On January 1, 2010, my soon-to-be wife and I will embark on a journey similar to Steinbeck’s, only our mission, in our relative youth, will be to discover parts of our country that have so far eluded us. We, too, will travel for an entire year, and, like Steinbeck, we will bring along cherished canine companionship in the form of our two dogs, Jack and Isabel. We have everything we need for this epic journey — passion, insouciance and commitment. All we lack is our own Rocinante.

That brings me to the reason behind this letter. We are both loyal Honda owners, and we cannot imagine a more suitable vehicle for our journey that the Dog Friendly Element. We want to load up our mutts and put one to the test. For a year.

Some background about us: This road trip will constitute our honeymoon, but it will be a working one. I am a professional writer, and my fiancée is a professional photographer. Throughout our travels we will be crafting articles for magazines and websites, maintaining a blog dedicated to our journey, and updating followers (and soliciting destination ideas) via Twitter and Facebook.

After working more than a decade as a newspaper reporter and editor I have spent the past the three years in the media relations department of the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau. In the latter role I have learned much about the public-relations value of well-placed media content, and developed relationships with editors at national and international travel publications. My fiancée, meanwhile, has conceived and produced several freelance photography projects, including the national marketing campaign for one of Phoenix’s best-known resorts. We would not think of making this request were we not certain we could give a degree of editorial value and online exposure to the Dog Friendly Element that would far exceed Honda’s investment in our journey.

As you may know, Steinbeck’s cross-country journey with his dog 50 years ago resulted in the classic piece of nonfiction “Travels With Charley: In Search of America.” In that book he wrote, “A dog is a bond between strangers. Many conversations en route began with ‘What degree of dog is that?’ ” For a year, we will be traveling to places where dog owners congregate. National parks, state parks and dog parks. Dog-friendly campgrounds, hotels and resorts. I can only imagine that the paw-print emblem on the Dog Friendly Element would engender as much conversation among our like-minded travelers as the dogs themselves.

Steinbeck also writes in the early passages of “Travels With Charley” about how he came to select the truck he named Rocinante: He mailed a letter to the “head office of a great corporation which manufactures trucks” to specify the purpose and needs of his trip. So I guess we are following in his footsteps in more ways than one. Steinbeck got his Rocinante. We hope you will loan us one of our own. We cannot promise you an American literary classic at our journey’s end, but we can promise you that the Dog Friendly Element would be a full-fledged character in our story. (We also promise to not defile its paint job with sixteenth-century Spanish script … you know, unless you’re into that.)

Sincerely,

Scott Dunn and Jill Richards

Scott

The first step in cleaning the garage is backing out the vehicle that occupies it. The vehicle that occupies our garage is a 2003 Honda CRV. It belongs to Jill, and it serves as her roving office.

And let’s just say Jill does not keep a tidy office.

Pompeii. Oscar Madison’s closet. The Collyer brothers’ apartment. These are places less cluttered than the interior of Jill’s car, which on any given day is a panorama of paper scraps, business cards, stray pennies, Taco Bell bags, gum wrappers, AA batteries, uncapped Sharpies, melted lip balm and half-full Nalgene bottles.

Also strewn about are clothes — sweaters, scarves, socks, boots, the occasional bra — and jewelry — hoop earrings, bracelets, twisted chains of unprecious metal — all of which seemingly starts the morning on Jill’s person only to be shed during the course of her peripatetic workday.

Then there is the photo gear. Sweet Jesus, the photo gear. Monopods, tripods, light stands. Reflectors, diffusers, strobes. Tangled cords, orphaned lens caps, crinkled gels.

And everything covered in dog hair.

I sit in the driver’s seat and survey this mess. Then I look at the odometer: 129,571 miles. The keyless entry doesn’t work. Recently the transmission has been issuing a loud clunk between reverse and first gear. Hard turns at parking-lot speed have long generated vibrations in the front wheels — little seizures that we’ve grown accustomed to over the years but now, sitting alone in the garage, suddenly give me a pang of worry.

Can we really take this thing across the country?

Later in the day, driving this trusty yet disheveled steed home from lunch, Jill and I pass the corridor of car dealerships along Camelback Road. I see the big blue Honda sign and hang a hard right. The front wheels vibrate.

“What are you doing?” she asks.

“Let’s just look around,” I say. “This is purely exploratory.”

Of course, the last thing we need as jobless wayfarers is a new car payment. But maybe we could sell the CRV and my car and buy a used van or a bigger SUV. Something that better fits our crazy quest. It’s not like we haven’t talked about it.

As soon as our shoes touch the car-lot pavement, a salesman materializes from the rows of glinting sheet metal. He is 150 pounds of desperation wrapped in a baggy Men’s Wearhouse suit. This is before Cash for Clunkers. The lot is full of cars and devoid of shoppers. The hunger in the salesman’s eyes betrays a capacity for not just duplicity but raw evil. He reminds me of the roving flesh hunters in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. He makes me uncomfortable. I look at Jill; she is downright scared.

We circle a car. The salesman stalks us, three steps behind and gaining. The car is called the Element. We are clearly out of ours.

“Let’s get out of here,” Jill mutters to me. But I’m not leaving until the flesh hunter shows me how the front seats unfold. I’m curious as to whether they fold flat, merging with the rear seats to create a sleepable surface. Turns out they do.

In his desperation, the flesh hunter mistakes my mild intrigue for something more. He leaps straight from folding seats to financing, like a deluded rattlesnake striking at prey a mile away. I snap back to my senses. “We’re just looking today,” I tell him.

The flesh hunter follows us back to our CRV, proffering business cards and talking about trade-in values. I repeatedly click the “unlock” button on the key fob, to no avail. Jill opens the passenger-side door the old-fashioned way and reaches across to let me in. When I shut the door, the flesh hunter lingers outside it, a little too close, his eyes dead and his hand raised in a languid goodbye wave.

“We really need to get that key thing fixed,” Jill says. I make a mental note to look into that and a whole lot more.

Scott

In our relationship, to overgeneralize, I’m the thinker and Jill is the doer. I muse; she makes things happen. If we lived in Tsarist Russia rather than present-day Arizona, I would be a character in Chekov play, listening to the sound of my own sentences as cherry blossoms fell in the orchard; Jill, meanwhile, would be Lenin, whipping Bolsheviks into action with revolutionary fervor and excessive gesticulation.

So I wasn’t surprised when, mere days after our crazy breakfast conversation in Tucson, she ordered a book entitled Live Your Road Trip Dream. I came home from work one day to find her reading it, a notepad in her lap and a pen between her teeth.

The first thing I noticed about the book was the photo of its authors on the back cover. They were a husband-and-wife team—“the Whites”—who appeared to be my parents’ age. They were probably retired, living their golden years. That, of course, is when most Americans, if their health and finances allow it, entertain the idea of an extended road trip. They sell the house, buy an RV, and set forth to rediscover their own country.

Other than an itching wanderlust, Jill and I don’t have much in common with the Whites. We’re 30 or 40 years from retirement; our recently purchased home isn’t worth what we paid for it; and, even if we could afford an RV, we’re not really RV people. (We’re more tent people.)

Jill had already skimmed the book’s first chapter (“You Too Can Make This Happen”) and was immersed in Chapter 2: “Financing Your Dream.” Good luck with that, I thought. Take copious notes.

Fumbling copy

Let’s get this out of the way right now: We ain’t rich. The few friends with whom we’ve shared our intention to take yearlong honeymoon know as much, and they tend to respond to our news in a strikingly similar way — with expressions that at once convey sincere happiness and deep confusion (and, in at least one case, poorly concealed pity at our utter naiveté).

Every time I tell someone of our plans I feel a bit like a morbidly obese man who’s just proclaimed he’s going to run marathon. The typical reaction is like, “Wow, that’s really great, and I totally support you. But … um … how exactly are you going to do that?”

It’s a fair question. In fact, I’ve looked in the mirror and posed it to myself a few times. How are we doing this?

The simplest answer is that I live with Lenin. After reading (skimming?) the Whites’ book Jill constructed a ramshackle budget, pounding our poor calculator is if it had committed a sin and scrawling unrecognizable figures in red ink.

“I think maybe the red pen is a bad choice,” I said. She ignored me.

In short order Jill created a rental flyer for the house, tossed all her unnecessary clothes (there were legions) in bags for Goodwill, and hired a financial planner to manage the extra dough she made through her freelance photography this year. (This last bit, by the way, is where she and Lenin sort of go separate ways.)

Jill also quit her job with startling ease — dare I say gusto? — and purchased a shit-ton of new camera gear. I should mention, too, that she taught herself, through many nights of trial and error, the rudiments of HTML and codex so she could build this blog. (I admit freely that I was of absolutely no help in this matter. Until very recently I thought codex was a brand of tampon.)

It was apparent to me that if I didn’t do something, apply myself to some moderately helpful task, Hurricane Jill might leave me behind, standing dumbly in a field of swirling cherry blossoms. So I stopped fiddling with the still-weird wedding band on my finger and did what I know best: I cleaned out the garage and sat down to write a letter.

Scott

It started in Tucson, with an observation and an offhand remark.

Jill and I were having breakfast at Hotel Congress, in the little café adjoining the lobby, and I found myself surveying the room between gulps of pulpy-fresh orange juice. A guy in motorcycle leathers sat at the counter, his helmet perched next to a steaming cup of coffee. Two stools down, a scraggly dude in hiking boots shoveled huevos rancheros into his mouth while reading a paperback book. At the table behind us a twentysomething couple, unmistakably European, studied a map amid empty plates and half-filled glasses.

“I miss that,” I said.

Jill followed my glance to the scraggly reader at the breakfast counter. “You miss what?” she asked.

“This place is full of travelers. I miss being one of them.”

“You are one of them.”

Technically, she was right. We were 120 miles from our home in Phoenix, relishing the back end of a one-night getaway. We had attended a concert by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit in the hotel club the night before. But now it was Wednesday morning, and a workday awaited us both at the end of a drive northward.

Nuts QuoteAt the time (April 1, 2009 — a fool’s day), Jill and I were four months removed from an impromptu engagement and six months short of a fantastical-seeming wedding at a Tennessee campground. It was a dreamy space we were living in, a nebulous swirl of romance and possibility that momentarily obscured the responsibilities of planning a far-away marriage ceremony. In such spaces casual observations sometimes mutate into actual ideas. And suddenly I had one.

“What if, for our honeymoon, we take a month off work and do a big road trip?”

In retrospect, the idea doesn’t seem all that audacious. But back then the notion of convincing our employers to set us loose for an entire month was laughable. Then there was the question of where we would go. As our conversation unfurled, it became clear that our wish list of road-trip destinations could never be checked off in a mere 30 days. I wanted to take Jill to a few of my favorite places and visit states I’d never set foot in; Jill wanted to take me to places I’d never even thought about going. The cities we respectively reeled off are separated by thousands of miles of interstate and terra firma.

Then she said it.

“Why don’t we just quit our jobs and travel for a whole year?”

She said it with a smile. I smiled, too. I took a swig of juice and rubbed at a smudge of black ink on the back of my hand, a remnant of the stamp pressed there by the guy working the club door the night before. I was 37 years old. I had stayed up until 3 a.m. on a work night, nearly 2 hours from home. I was running woefully late, and my head hurt from too much whiskey. But I felt good. A pretty girl sat across the table, and soon I would marry her. We had our whole lives to rush to work, pay bills and play house. But we had just that fleeting moment to commit to something completely nuts.

“I’m in if you are,” I said.

Photo by Michael McNamara

Photo by Jill McNamara

“What would we do with the dogs?” she asked. We have two, and they love a road trip as much as we do.

“Bring ’em,” I said.

Walking out of the café and into the Arizona sun that morning, I sort of figured our grand plan would fade nearly as fast as the inky smudge on the back of my hand. But it didn’t. It hasn’t.

Now here we sit, jobless and anxious, hoping someone will rent our house and wondering how we’ll ever fit a year’s worth of stuff and two big mutts into an aging Honda CRV.

Scott