Driving an arc of a planet
To see the world, you fly around it; to learn about your neighborhood, you walk through it; but to appreciate something about the country you live in, there is nothing better than an automobile.
A jet flies too high and fast to take in any detail. The country is too big to slog through on foot. A car is the perfect compromise, letting you pass over a significant portion of the nation each day, but allowing you the leisure to stop and sniff the magnolias in Mississippi, the rank ecstatic yellow sunflowers in North Dakota — and the lingering odor of peanut butter at Graceland.
It’s summer again, and once more, I open up another brand-new Rand McNally road atlas and begin planning a drive around the North American continent.
In the past 15 years, I’ve made the round-trip across the United States at least a dozen times. I feel like Magellan when I start once more on the circumvehiculation of America.
I’ve done it alone and with my wife. I’ve done it camping and in motels. I’ve done it in summer and in winter. I’ve done it in as long as two months and as short as two weeks. Last year, I made it from Phoenix to North Carolina over a weekend, but I’m not likely to repeat that butt-numbing feat.
Yet I am planning another road trip this spring.
Friends tell me I am nuts, a masochist torturing myself or a sadist torturing my wife, but I keep setting out.
There is always something new to see, or some old friend to revisit: I’ve been to North Carolina’s Outer Banks something like 40 times, and I’m beginning to develop the same relationship with Maine’s Down East. When I have lived in the East, I couldn’t wait to visit New Mexico again.
There are soft-shelled crabs to be eaten in Virginia, salmon in Seattle. There are pirogis in Wisconsin and scrapple in Philadelphia. You can only get pizza in New Jersey, you can only get barbecue in eastern North Carolina, or a real Cuban sandwich in Miami.
Barns in Pennsylvania have stone foundations; in Georgia, they rest lumber right on the ground. In Wisconsin, the barns are red; in North Carolina, it’s the dirt that’s red; the gray, weathered barns aren’t painted at all.
I remember passing through Iowa and being astonished to see a farmfield filled with hogs and each animal had its private home, looking like a Levittown of doghouses.
In southern Arizona, I passed something very similar, but it was for fighting roosters.
American regionalism is alive, despite network television and corporate advertising. America hasn’t yet been completely turned into one great food court of McDonald’s and Arby’s.
If you think you have only a choice between Pepsi and Coke, wait till you pop the top of a Double Cola in Reidsville, N.C.
Try one at the Sanitary Cafe, where calf’s brains are the breakfast special.
I’ve been to most of those landmark places you’ve heard of: International Falls, Minn.; Walla-Walla, Wash.; Langtry, Texas; Cairo, Ill.; Appomattox, Va.; Intercourse, Pa.; West Point, N.Y.
There are some great old iron bridges across the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, some great concrete bridges in central New Jersey that speak of the the great age of American highway building in the 1930s.
I’ve been up Pikes Peak in Colorado and up Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.
I’ve been over Lake Ponchartrain in Louisiana and across the floating bridge over the Hood Canal in Puget Sound north of Seattle.
It helps if you love to drive, and I know not everyone has that passion. My brother hates driving, for instance. He views an automobile vacation like a two weeks stuck in an elevator. He can’t wait for his floor to arrive so he can get the heck out.
But most elevators don’t have windows.
As I watch the landscape pass across my windshield, like a travelog on a movie screen, I get a sense of the whole elephant, not just his trunk or tail.
Of course, we are talking here about a two-lane blacktop trip, not a bland rush down an interstate highway, where one stretch of concrete pavement can be distinguished from another only by the names on the exit signs.
It is a particular kind of travel and has nothing in common with the destination-vacation of the tourism industry. I have no interest in waiting on Disney World lines for thrill rides or Lake Winnibigoshish for a week of trout fishing. You can have your three days lounging on the sands of Bimini or your Love Boat cruise.
Instead, I get to travel an arc of the planet, get to feel in my bones the curvature of the earth and the roughness of its skin. It is through driving across its surface that I get some body-feel for the size of the globe: It is roughly 10 times the distance I drive to get from Phoenix to New York City. That’s not some numbers on some mileage chart, but a distance I know by the seat of my pants.
It’s also a lot smaller than the world seemed before I began driving.
In those years, my wife and I have been to each of the 48 contiguous state at least twice and most more frequently; we have been to all but one of the Canadian provinces; and even skirted into Mexico a little bit.
And each of those trips could have produced a Blue Highways, a book-length summation of what we saw and learned.
Over the past decade and a half, I’ve put enough vacation miles on the cars I’ve owned to equal driving around the world 2 1/2 times. You don’t drive that much without learning a few things.
The first is, of course, to stay off the interstates. You may get there faster, but not by much, and you’ll be bored the whole drowsy way. And in much of the country — and especially in the West — speed limits on smaller highways is not much lower than on the four-lanes, and with less traffic.
Have a rough itinerary and plan how many miles per day you are willing to drive. This is more important for a passenger: Driving will keep you occupied, but your partner may go stir crazy sitting in a seat while going across some of the flatter places in Texas; Don’t overdo it. Marriages hang in the balance.
But never make your itinerary too rigid. You will discover unexpected things along the way; let yourself enjoy them.
We never reserve motel rooms, so we never feel forced to get somewhere by nightfall. There are enough motels along the way. Even national parks, with their crowds, often have last minute cancellations. We’ve pulled into the Grand Canyon and into Yellowstone and gotten a room. But have a contingency plan.
One year, we hit South Dakota the week of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and there were no vacancies for 200 miles around. We had to drive into the next state to find a room. But that brings up the next lesson:
Don’t be afraid of mishaps and adventures. They may be uncomfortable during the trip, but they will be the best stories you tell your friends. No matter how bad it gets, it will provide the most vivid memory.
Don’t drive every day; take some time to spend in a single spot. Three days we spent in a cabin on Daicey Pond in Maine’s Baxter State Park were three of the best days we ever spent — hiking, canoeing, watching moose and listening to loons at the base of Mount Katahdin. Not once did we start the car. When we finally left, we were ready for more miles.
There are things you should always have in your car: water, a blanket, Fig Newtons, a road atlas, your address book with phone numbers. I also carry an entrenching tool — one of those small folding shovels you can buy at army surplus stores — for digging out when I get the car stuck in sand or mud.
Don’t be afraid of dirt roads. There are some amazing rewards at the end of a bit of gravel.
We also always carry a small library of Peterson nature guides, two pairs of binoculars, camera equipment and twice the amount of film I think I can possibly shoot.
And finally, my nomination for the greatest invention of the 20th century: cruise control. It keeps your right foot from cramping up on the gas pedal. I was 45 before I ever tried it and I’ll never be that stupid again.
What makes for good driving?
I don’t know about others, but for me, optimum driving conditions include:
–Little or no traffic for infinite miles ahead, with no stoplights.
–Interesting and varied weather; I don’t want incessant sunshine any more than I want endless rain. A front moving through gives me a constantly changing cloud show.
–An old road with a history. Route 66 is the most famous, but not the only one. I especially enjoy roads that follow geology: along a mountain range or river, so that the road seems to belong to the earth, rather than denying it.
–Occasional side roads, preferably gravel, for a change of pace.
–Periodic change of landscape, such as when you drive from the Plains to the Rocky Mountains, or from the white sands of the Atlantic Coastal Plain into the hilly interior of the Piedmont.
— A regional food specialty you haven’t tried yet and no chain restaurants.
— A few museums and a few national parks. I gotta have both.
— A used book store in every town.
— A pile of Haydn symphonies on CD to run through the dashboard player.
–A clean windshield. This last must be renewed frequently. Bugs bust on the glass.
The dozen most scenic drives in the 48 states:
1. Beartooth Highway, U.S. 212 from Red Lodge, Mont., to Yellowstone National Park.
2. The Pacific Coast Highway, Calif. 1, from San Luis Obispo to Leggett, Calif..
3. Blue Ridge Parkway, from Waynesboro, Va. to Smoky Mountains National Park, N.C.
4. N.C. 12 from Nags Head to Okracoke, N.C.
5. Ariz. 264 from Ganado to Tuba City, Ariz.
6. U.S. 1 from Miami to Key West, Fla.
7. La. 82 from Perry, La., to Port Arthur, Texas.
8. U.S. 1 from Ellsworth to Calais, Maine.
9. Kancamagus Highway, N.H. 112, from Conway to Lincoln, N.H.
10. Tex. 170 from Presidio, Texas, to Big Bend National Park.
11. Utah 12 from Red Canyon to Torrey, Utah.
12. Wash. 14 though the Columbia River Gorge from Camas to Plymouth, Wash.
It isn’t just the flashy, famous places that draw the true driver. In fact, commercial destinations, such as Disney World or Las Vegas, are probably best gotten to by airplane and shuttle bus, so you can give over all your time to waiting in lines.
No, in a car, some of the best experiences come by rolling through the kind of places that fall through the cracks of marketing. Places “below the radar,” so to speak, of commercial development.
The small towns, endless farms, mountain ranges, Indian reservations — these are the places you have the opportunity to discover things for yourself. In the big theme parks, you get a uniform experience, developed through marketing research. The ride you take is the same ride millions of others take.
But when you talk to the harried but chummy waitress in Doumar’s, an original ’50s style drive-in on Monticello Ave. in Norfolk, Va., you are talking to a real person, a one-on-one experience that is particular and individual. You get a flavor of place, of culture, of people, of individuals.
To say nothing of the flavor of ice cream, in a cone as close to identical as possible to the original waffled cone Abe Doumar is credited with inventing in 1904. They still make them on the same old wheezy portable machine. If your lucky, they’ll be making them while you eat.
Likewise, there is nothing predictable about the starfish you find in an Oregon tidepool, or the bears in the Smoky Mountains. You get to experience the infinite variety of real life.
Of course, I have my favorites.
Among the 48 states, I can never find the end of either California or North Carolina. They are both richly varied.
California seems to have everything from the world-navel of pop culture to the most remote wilderness. It has more than any other single state.
But North Carolina is nearly as varied geographically, and it has B&G fried pies, the most soul-satisfying food in the world. North Carolina also has the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Outer Banks.
And I cannot get enough of the great, grassy, rolling middle of America. When I tell people I love driving through Nebraska, they look at me like I just said I was born on the Hale-Bopp Comet. But just pull into one of those one-street towns with the grain elevator towering over the single railroad track and have lunch in the cafe where the farmers eat.
Or imagine the wagonloads of immigrants trudging along the Platte River, with Scotts Bluff on the horizon.
The pace is slower, more humane in Nebraska.
Humankind developed on the grasslands of Africa, and Nebraska, especially, seems to call atavistically to me, reawakening my genetic love of savannas.
It’s easy to love the broad vistas of the West. Southern Utah doesn’t seem to have a square inch that isn’t photogenic, and the Grand Tetons of Wyoming are mountains right out of central casting: They are to other mountains what Cary Grant is to most men.
But I also love the Mid-Atlantic states. Sometimes, a Western forest is too much of the same thing. You can walk for miles in the Cascades of Washington and see only two kinds of trees: Douglas fir and Western redcedar.
It’s different in Pennsylvania or Tennessee. In the great Appalachian mountain chain of the East, there are more species of plant life than in all of Europe. The variety is blinding: Redbud in spring, Tulip tree in summer. White pine, pin oak, red maple, sweetgum, sycamore, witch hazel, horse chestnut — and hundreds more.
And there is something humanizing about the landscape. This is land which has been lived in for hundreds of years. It is still wild, but it has made peace with the humans who live there and send smoke up their stony winter chimneys.
In the past, I avoided cities the way I avoid Justin Bieber songs. The noise, nuisance, dirt and traffic were everything I was trying to avoid by getting on the road.
But I have come to terms with them, also. After all, it is in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and Boston that you find the symphony orchestras, natural history museums, ethnic foods and imposing architecture.
The greatest city for driving is Los Angeles. It may be the home of the cultural antichrist, but it is also a great fermenting, creative pot, with lots of roads that take you past inventively loopy buildings: The Tail ’o the Pup hot dog stand, the downtown Coca-Cola bottling plant in the form of an ocean liner.
In LA, you can’t get anywhere without wheels. It is the perfect American city.
There are two states that I have to admit I don’t particularly enjoy: New Jersey, probably because I grew up there and don’t feel much urge to go back; and Florida, which is supposed to be a Southern state, but it has been given over to graceless Yankees. But even in Florida, I have to admit I love the Cubano culture of Miami and the Everglades, proving that there is always something of worth.