Road Trips: America in Miniature

“Kathy”, I said,
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.”
–Simon & Garfunkel, America

Everybody journeys. Everyone takes trips on roads, travels to see new worlds, journeys of self-discovery and trips to the store, commutes to work and visits to see family. But there is a particularly American invention – the Road Trip.

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The United States is a large country with substantial variation in climate and terrain, crisscrossed with interstates that allow travel through and to nearly all of it, though it takes hour or sometimes days.  In early civilized history up until the 20th century, towns were near waterways whether in Europe, Africa, or North America.  Now they are all aligned along interstate hubs or around airports and the arterial traffic system is perfectly designed for long car journeys.

Having lightly polled friends in other countries, I believe the flavor of their trips is different. Australians drive across the outback, but that is as much a journey into or through the wild. Europeans head with campers “down south” to the Mediterranean or warmer climates, which sounds more like Spring Break at American colleges. More often, the European train journey is more like the American Road Trip. Going to and through involves stops along the way in big cities and quaint villages, and a key part of the trip is looking at the scenery and self-entertainment.

Most Americans growing up take a Road Trip at some point with their parents, school buddies, significant others, or their own kids.  These Road Trips include several key elements:

The drive takes a full day, at least 5 to 6 hours. A 2 or 3 hour drive is a commute or a visit.

When I was asking about other people’s experience, our New Zealand friend mentioned they drive 3 hours often to take people to hospitals which aren’t available in the most rural areas. That is not a Road Trip. That is being a friend beyond reproach. Also known as paying into the Good Karma bucket.

A driver and a passenger. If it is only you driving, that is called a vision quest or moving.

Multiple stops are required to empty and fill.

Fill gas tanks, empty bladders, fill up on more liquids, empty Cheetos bags and soda cans from previous stops. You get to know the rest stops (taxpayer dollars, what a wonderful thing!) and the best mega-gas-truck stop-convenience store towns.

Long Empty Stretches

Last week, my wife and daughter and I drove from Castro Valley (suburb of San Francisco) up to Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We’ve made the 350 mile drive now four times, Karin more frequently than that, so that she knows which rest stops are arid and windy and which have the cleaner bathrooms. On California’s I-5 in August, when you get out of the car in Buttonwillow or Redding, the heat hits you like a sledgehammer, and if you decide to picnic with sandwiches, the bread usually dries out before you’re finished eating.

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 coast on Highway 101 is a scenic drive; bombing up and down I-5 is a Road Trip. 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.

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Beautiful downtown Winnemucca,

There’s even a subset of American Road Trips called Driving Across the Country. This does not require visiting all 48 contiguous states or even going ocean to ocean, but you should pass through a part of the Midwest or Texas as a general rule for the “Across” part. I’ve driven Across the Country from Detroit to Sacramento through South Dakota. From Detroit to Miami through Tennessee. From San Francisco to Iowa. Driving in a circle around the New England or North East corridor or around in Texas or Florida – even though it may encompass several days – these are Road Trips, but not Across the Country.

Being Bored

Boredom is part of the experience. The car is packed to include things to alleviate the long stretches. If all adults, a mix music tape/CD/playlist may have been created just for the trip.

During the drive to Oregon, I acquired from the library the radio version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (I am aware that the radio version preceded the books.)  I had technical difficulties getting my ancient iPod and the Prius electronics to play nicely, so we ended up listening to Part 2, Part 3 and Part 1, in that order. It was so funny and random that it didn’t really matter but, of course, since I provided the entertainment, I was still at fault and will never hear the end of it.

Last year, I brought Cary Elwes reading his book about the making of The Princess Bride. I also still fondly remember two weeks in the Southwest when Karin and I were still childless, listening to Emma Thompson read Mansfield Park, before she won an Oscar for making Sense and Sensibility.  All of those I highly recommend for Road Trips, though I do suggest determining how to do them in the proper order before you go.

If there are children, the adults will teach them games involving license plates, animals, I Spy, car bingo, or famous people.

We taught our kids the game I played with my parents, Botticelli, which involves identifying famous people with clues and a single letter. Kelson called it “Pot of Chili” when we first played which tickled me to no end.  Eleanor was infamous when she was very very very young at seeming to play with precocious astuteness until you realized that she never had anyone in mind when she was providing clues. That would stump us every time.

When we drove through South Dakota, coming down from the obligatory Mt. Rushmore viewing that is part (or ought to be part) of every family’s itinerary, we came out of the hills into a majestic plain covered with a herd of buffalo. As we oohed and aahed and pointed for the children’s benefit, the seven year old scoffed, “Well, it’s not on my bingo card….”

Roadside Attractions

Small Curious Waysides loom large. They have their own designations: Roadside Attractions.

If you’ve gone through South Dakota, you’ve probably stopped at Wall Drug. Billboards announce for miles around when you are approaching Wall Drug, and as you’ve been to Wall Drug, you know there’s not much to Wall Drug, but you visit anyway because out in I-90, at least it’s something. (I last saw Wall Drug in the 1990s, so I expect it may have taken on more of a Las Vegas-like atmosphere by now. But only because it’s pretty much all there is on I-90).

The Corn Palace, also in South Dakota. The giant Paul Bunyan in Brainerd, Minnesota. On I-5, the artery that bisects California north to south, there is the Olive Pit in Corning, 140 miles outside of San Francisco. And Pea Soup Andersen’s in Gustine, 100 miles below Sacramento on the way to the LA Basin.

Places are created where there was nothing because an entrepeneur 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.

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Roadside America in 2005

During a trip 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 Karin 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 intricate 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.

At the end of the Oregon trip last week, I flew up to see family in Seattle and the other two gals drove home without me. They were selecting music I hated and planning to eat food I abhor as they dropped me off at the airport. I flew back yesterday and though I don’t begrudge them the enjoyment of one less person to please, I miss that I didn’t get to drive home.

We fly so much now, but we never remember plane trips like we remember Road Trips. Certainly we remember if something awful happens, bad turbulence or lost luggage, but mostly we think of the plane as a kind of 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 croup 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 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!


Post Script–today’s Daily  Post word is miniature. Research for this post also revealed a wonderful site, The site is a Curious Wayside on the internet, worth browsing further if the topic interests you.

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