Note: This is one of my favorite early essays from 2016, reconstituted and updated.
“Kathy”, I said,–Simon & Garfunkel, America
As we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh,
“Michigan seems like a dream to me now.
It took me four days
To hitch-hike from Saginaw.
I’ve come to look for America.”
The sun is lower in the horizon now, stabbing through the late afternoon windows when we drive westward home. My baseball team is starting to lose all hope of catching the division leaders. Even pet stores have back-to-school sales. It must be mid-August. It must be time for the End-of-Summer Road Trip.
Everybody’s had these. Maybe when you were a kid, and your parents loaded the station wagon/minivan/SUV with odds and ends and headed off to the Grand Canyon or the Smokies or the Adirondacks or Yosemite. Or, in college, when you and some friends just crammed into someone’s old beater and took off for somebody’s friend’s place where you could crash. Road Trips usually take place at the beginning or end of summer, or at the beginning or end of Something. They are part demarcation, part vision quest, like the mythic journeys where the heroes and heroines go into the underworld or across the sea.
Road Trips allow for a lot of staring out the window and contemplation as well as for Seeing Something New, possibly Interesting. Possibly Just Something. Let’s load the car. Personal epiphanies and experience, coming right up.
Long Empty Stretches
Last week, my wife, daughter, and I piled into the scarlet Subaru, which we had originally dubbed O’Hara but which we now just call the Fun Car because she likes to Go! We went bombing up I-5 from the Bay Area to Ashland, a 350-mile trip we’ve taken now half a dozen times in the fall, to see a few plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and eat forbidden foods. On the California interstate that cleaves the state in two, when you get out of the car at the rest stop in Buttonwillow or Redding, the heat hits you like a sledgehammer. If you decide to picnic with sandwiches, the bread usually dries out before you’re finished eating.
There are rules to Road Trips like these.
- The drive takes a full day, at least 5 to 6 hours. A 2 or 3 hour drive is a commute or a visit.
- There must be a driver and a passenger. If it is only you driving, that is called moving.
- Multiple stops are required to empty and fill. Fill gas tanks, empty bladders, fill up on more liquids and empty out the Cheetos bags and soda cans from previous stops.
- Getting lost is part of the experience. There are apps and GPS systems now, which take some of the fun out of interpreting the map. However, as we all know, these things are often unreliable, which puts the Fun right back in. (GPS, why are you sending me up someone’s rocky private driveway as the Fastest Route? Google Maps, why can’t you show me where the gas is NEAR where I just programmed, not here, where I am now?!?!)
- Long stretches of empty landscape pass by, not all pretty. It isn’t a Road Trip if it’s just a scenic drive.
Meandering down the Pacific coast on Highway 101 is a scenic drive; bombing up and down I-5 is a Road Trip. Crossing the country on I-80 or I-10 is much the same. The trip starts to reveal how much of America isn’t full of tall buildings or factories or even houses. Nevada has a surprisingly large amount of wasteland, as anyone who tries to get out of Northern California knows so well. Calling it desert would insult the desert (sorry, Nevada, but I’ve been through Winnemucca, several times). Kansas and Nebraska are corn, corn, and look, more corn! Florida is quite flat and very quickly palm trees lose their novelty, even to Minnesotans.
A little Boredom is part of the experience. The car is packed to include things to alleviate the long stretches, particularly music. We had an informal rule that it was Driver’s Pick, until I realized that KK doesn’t really like anyone else to drive, so she would always pick. Now we negotiate, though she gets First Pick, and it’s always some CD she just made specifically for That Trip. (They’re even labelled, Road Trip 2018, Music to Denver 2017, &c). The first chunk of the drive requires her to explain at the start of each song why she picked it. It’s usually obvious why, but the explanation is still required.
Comics are also excellent for long drives. Patton Oswalt and Wanda Sykes went over very well. An old compilation from 2002–Sugar Ray, the Spin Doctors, the Cranberries (RIP Dolores O’Riordan!) “Circle” movie music from Enigma, Theory of Everything, House of Cards–very good for long empty stretches.
We’ve gotten so sophisticated about choosing audiobooks that we outfoxed ourselves this time. The drive wasn’t going to be long enough for a five or six CD book, so we set out to find shorter ones. We though we had fixed on the perfect one: Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, highly recommended, about five hours in total. However, there was confusion about who was going to order it so at the appointed hour, no one had it. I had a set of Elmore Leonard short stories, Charlie Martz, but I didn’t have a list of the stories and had no idea where they’d start or end. I loved the sparse prose, but I kept dozing off during what were apparently the finales, and so little happened, that I really don’t know if I understood any of them.
It reminded me a little of the debacle from 2016, when I put on Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy out of order, playing parts two, one, and three in that order. Technical difficulties getting my ancient iPod and the Prius to play nicely. On this trip, no one brought it up *again* but I know they were thinking of it. And now I still need to get Charlie Martz in book form from the library.
Hidden Treasures, Curious Sites
I did find a gem in an Oregon used records store–yes, they still have such things and the inventory is increasing as artists are re-issuing vinyl once more. This was a $5.99 used CD of Laura Nyro, whaling away on the piano, with Labelle singing in the background, all Motown and R&B hits from the ’70s. Nowhere to Run is at least six minutes long, and Jimmy Mack is pure delight. The album, Gonna Take a Miracle, was named one of the 60 Most Underrated Albums of all Time.
Such souvenirs are part of the trip, too. You can’t always find the right thing, which is why we generally acquire a lot of crap and then have to find shelves or boxes or places to put the crap. Yet, once in a while, you come across that hidden treasure. Which lead you keep searching on the next trip.
Daughter Lee also came across a delight in a secondhand clothing store. The jumpsuit was cheerful, fit well, and can dress up or down, depending on if she needs to wear it to a work event or go to a casual party. The kind of thing I’d not consider in a million years but looks great on her (even matched her bluish hair). She’s heading back to college to finish her degree in Music Education and will be student teaching in the classroom, so holey jeans and zombie My Little Pony t-shirts don’t quite cut it. At only twenty bucks, the jumpsuit was a Find.
The other requirement is to take side trips and see oddments. We ventured away from Ashland shopping on a hike in Medford, to Upper Table Rock. I chose it, carefully culling through multiple options on a “Kid-Friendly Hike” page, since I have learned that “hike” in millennial-website-commentspeak usually means a twenty-mile jaunt through the gorge of weeping. I picked the blog that mentioned how this walk had a “wide path” and was “perfect for pushing a jogger/stroller or your three old.” Of course, when we arrived, trying to angle our car in the shadeless parking for some sort of sun relief, the trail suddenly seemed steeper than advertised. Lee pointed out that the friendly entrance sign, showing birds and flowers of Southern Oregon, said two to three hours, so I thought, “Uh-oh.”
It was a pretty hike. We didn’t get all the way up there, as it was a mite steep, quite warm, and there was no ice cream shop at the top to entice the more reluctant family members. But I will say that we got good GPS service the entire time, so Pokemon Go was available for playing during the entire hour and a half. And views were pretty because…upward.
The other things to see are those curious Roadside Attractions, the things that line those interstates that form the core of our American road Trips. Last year, we found dinosaur sculptures, the Corn Palace, and candied bacon. Places are created where there was nothing because an entrepreneur realized this was where the Road Trippers must pass through. There are trinkets, world famous whatevers – huckleberry ice cream, fried pickles, cured ham, or pea soup – overpriced, not as good as advertised, but a diversion from the diet of Dr. Pepper and Taco Bell and beef jerky and Twinkies or whatever you got at the gas station that wasn’t a good idea after another fifty miles went by. Even if the Roadside Attraction is bland or kitschy, it is an essential part of the landscape.
During a trip in the 2000s through Philadelphia to see Hershey and Gettysburg, we stopped with the kids at a place literally called Roadside America, an hour before closing. An unexpected thunderstorm was dumping water on the car surprisingly thoroughly, too heavily for KK to drive, and we needed to stop and stretch our legs anyway. Inside a quonset hut the size of a large minimart, they had designed an miniature train city, somebody’s garage project gotten out of hand. While we were examining the thousands of tiny tableaux painstakingly arranged, at 5:55, the 100-year old lady that took our tickets stubbed out her cigarette and announced over the intercom that the “show was starting.” As the fluorescent lights dimmed, she flicked a switch and preset lights started blinking around the walls. The music played “God Bless America” and the blinkers moved towards the big wall, where spotlights flicked on to show a giant image of the Statue of Liberty and Jesus. We applauded wildly at the end. We were the only people in the place.
We fly so much now, but we never remember plane trips like we remember Road Trips. The plane is almost a commute. Road Trips, in contrast, take up space in memory. Being in the backseat while your parents argue about getting lost. Someone gets left at a gas station. Someone else forgets to bring something vital, like a phone charger or the tickets or shoes. Someone gets sick right when you reach a destination that has the most beautiful scenery. You have to find an emergency room and learn more than you want about e coli or bedbugs or how to fix a dislocated elbow. Children teach each other rude games as they bond against the adults, even if they didn’t like each other at the start of the trip.
There is an amazing sunset. You can see a rainbow end to end. There is snow on the mountains, more water in the rivers since the drought years, or the fall colors have just started to pop. Your destination comes into sight and there it is – Mount Rainier or Mount Shasta, Mount Rushmore, Chicago or Dallas or New York City, or the ocean – at last, at last, at last. We’re here!
Oh, and KK just got a ping. Shirley Jackson’s Castle is now ready.