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In October my ex-wife and I decided to take a drive from Asheville, N.C., to Sullivan, Maine, to visit our old college friends, Sandro and Mu. This is Part 2 of that trip. 

Oct. 12

The plan was to drive no more than 200 miles a day. Yesterday, we did 305; today, we did 370. We woke up this morning in somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania, and are going to sleep this evening in Massachusetts. Again, not our plan. But sometimes fortune intervenes. 

The problem, once again, was finding a motel. I’ve driven all over France, where the guide books tell you that hotels are scarce and you should always plan ahead and make reservations. We never did, but always found a place to stay, and some of the cleanest, best-designed rooms I’ve ever seen. You can’t beat the Ibis hotels. 

Who ever thought that we’d come a cropper in upstate New York or western Massachusetts? 

The day began well. A fast trip to the Delaware Water Gap and a slow 15 mph drive up the National Scenic Area along the Old Mine Road on the New Jersey side. At the visitor center the ranger told us to be careful of the potholes. “Some of them are bigger than I am,” she said. The road alternated between pothole pavement and gravel, with a couple of patches of new macadam. We played pothole slalom for most of the way, weaving from one side of the road — call it a path most of the time — and back to the other. For the first nine miles or so, we saw no other car, either coming or going. 

The Gap is a place where the Delaware River has cut through the Kittatinny Mountain ridge, leaving a notch in the hills. On the Pennsylvania side, Mount Minsi rises to 1,540 feet and on the Jersey side, Mount Tammany, about 20 feet lower.

The 40-mile stretch of the river and surrounding country is now the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, and the whole area has been a tourist draw since the 19th century, when landscape painters, such as Thomas Doughty, made scenic and romantic paintings of the region. 

It is also about 4 miles from where I went to summer Boy Scout camp as a boy.   

The Delaware River is gorgeous in the morning. We stopped away from the river at an old bridge and watched a couple of fishermen tossing their lines into the tributary creek.

Bear Mountain Bridge, Hudson River

Then we hopped back on the Interstate in Port Jervis, N.Y., and drove across Orange County and into Harriman State Park and Bear Mountain. By this time, Anne was feeling hungry and bladder-bloated, so we had to find a place to satisfy both urges rather than drive up Bear Mountain. 

So, off to West Point. In the town of Hudson Highlands we found a pizza joint — a storefront with three tables and a counter to order at. We asked the man if they had a bathroom. “No, no bathroom.” But, he said, “They have bathroom two buildings up street.” I hope you can tell by my brazen attempt to capture accent that he was not born in New York.

We walked up the street and found the public library, a tremendous old wooden building white with columns in front. Inside there was no one. You could hear the echo of your own footsteps on the wooden floor. But they had the conveniences that Anne required. We walked back to the pizzeria and had a damned fine pie. New Jersey style. The way it’s supposed to be.

Each time I drive anywhere near the tri-state area, I seek out a non-chain pizza joint to achieve that satisfying foodgasm of a New York pizza, the only real pizza to anyone who has grown up with it. 

Every region has its food chauvinisms. North Carolina barbecue, Seattle alder-smoked salmon, Philadelphia cheese steaks. One of the lesser regional contenders is the soft pretzel. These are the size of calzones, with a malty, bready interior and a thin crisp brown crust coated with kosher salt. They taste like nothing else, especially when they are still warm, and the only place to get them in their true form is in eastern Pennsylvania and in a belt up through New Jersey and parts of New York. Oh, you can find them elsewhere, but they are no better than the so-called “New York style” pizza you find in Kansas or Saskatchewan. Worse: the frozen pretzels you can find in the grocery store. 

Well, Anne, who has barely left North Carolina through most of her life, had never had one of these. We stopped at a turnpike rest plaza and I bought one for the car. She took a bite of it and decided she had to have another. And another. We spent a good portion of the drive all the way to Maine looking for another pretzel, but never found one. We had left the pretzel’s home territory. 

Anyway, we drove up U.S. 218 around Storm King, a great mountain of rock that juts out into the Hudson River with a tiny two land road curving around it above the water and below the summit. This is a road my family used to take when driving up to the family bungalow in West Park and the ride on the thin ribbon of road around the mountain was the part of the trip that I loved most, but gave my poor father white knuckles.

Finally, we got to Newburgh, where we had intended to spend the night. But, I thought — like an idiot — let’s just get over the river on the bridge. So, we crossed over the Hudson to the other side and immediately came a cropper on finding a motel. “Motels are often found along the freeways,” I thought to myself, so we turned north on the Taconic State Parkway. No hotels. No nothing. Robert Moses designed this road in the 1940s and must have purposely routed it through empty terrain to make a pleasant and green drive. But it meant no hotels. We drove for a hundred miles. No hotels.

Got off the parkway and back on U.S. 9, which is a commercial road. No hotels. We drove through Hudson, N.Y., home of Frederick Edwin Church’s Olana. No hotels. Up through Kinderhook, boyhood home of Martin Van Buren. No hotels.

“Route 9 will hit the interstate soon,” I said to Anne. “There are always hotels along the exits.” No, there aren’t always. The interstate turned into the Massachusetts Turnpike. We asked the man at the toll booth if there were any motels along the pike. “Yes, he said, every exit has them after Exit 2.”

We sighed relief and drove on. Turns out, the turnpike runs for more than 30 miles before any exit. We both thought of the old song about “running forever ’neath the streets of Boston.” The MTA.

The deal was that the turnpike runs up and over the Berkshires and there were no exits until the road came back down from the hills. Then we turned off into Exit 3 in Westfield, Mass. Hooray, a single solitary motel. I went in to sign up. No room. All full.

“There’s a dog show in town and a couple of 50th anniversary school reunions and a football game, so everything is booked. You might try the next exit; there are several hotels there.”

So, back on the turnpike to Exit 4. A Miracle Mile sort of place and several motels. But this time, I am pretty well blasted. We have driven 370 miles so far today. I pulled in to a Clarion Inn. Anne stayed in the car and I went into the lobby. Eight people were in line at the desk and when I finally got to the front of the line: “No, we’re all filled up.”

I drove up and down the highway, trying to get into motels that always seemed to be on the other side of the median, making me drive up the street to make a U-turn and back to the place. Full.

“There’s a Red Roof Inn over there,” Anne said. Up the road. U-turn. Into the lot. A room. A blessed room. A holy respite. Peace at last. Second floor, up the exterior stairs with all our bags.

“I’ll go out and get something for supper,” Anne said. She walked up the road to Five Guys and got a couple of greasy burgers and a bucket o’ fries and brought them back. We ate. We watched the glum news on MSNBC.

It was getting dark when we finally pulled into the motel. Sleep will be early tonight. Tomorrow, we head for Portland.

Oct. 13

We are in Portland tonight, at a La Quinta. We are wondering what is it about New England that they try to hide their motels? We came up I-95 into South Portland and took an exit that had a “lodging” sign by the roadway. The ramp emptied into a roadway that came to a stoplight in the middle of nowhere. All around us, vacant lots and empty fields. In the distance, a few office buildings.

I tried to find signs for the airport. Motels usually cluster around airports. But when I got to the airport: Nothing. We circled the airport and found zilch. How is this possible?

Anne thought she saw a Comfort Inn near the freeway, but when we drove to where she thought she saw it: Bupkis. We drove aimlessly for a while, trying to scare up something and finally drove by the La Quinta. Drove by is the operative word. It came up on us too fast and I was in the wrong lane. So, I tried to loop around, but faced a maze of one-way streets. Finally, we got there. It is the most expensive hotel I have ever stayed at, but I wasn’t going to venture out into the jungle again to find something cheaper.

Earlier today, we drove through Concord, Mass. When I first visited Walden Pond, so many years ago, I remember we were dreading that it would turn out to be a tourist trap. We imagined fast food restaurants and miniature golf. But when we got there, there were only a few parking spots beside the road and no one at the lake except a couple of fishermen with their lines in the drink.

I’ve been back to Walden Pond maybe a half-dozen times, maybe eight. I have circumambulated it three times. Each visit back, the site is a little more built up. Still just a wide spot in the road, except for the swimming beach on the east end. Walden Pond, it turned out was the local swimming hole. The last time I was there, for the newspaper, someone had built a replica of the original cabin across the street from the pond.

Well, this time, it was the full catastrophe: Tour busses, parking lots, a new visitor center and the street choked with pedestrians crossing from their cars to the beach. I got into the line for the parking lot, but when I got up near the turn-off, I could see the cars extending like a freight train into the distance and so decided to drive off without visiting the shrine.

“Maybe it’s because it is a weekend,” Anne said. “Maybe we can come back on the way home during a weekday. Maybe it’s because it’s Columbus Day weekend.” I dunno, but it was Myrtle Beach all the way. How horrifying.

The other misadventure was Kittery. It was lunchtime and Anne was hungry, so I got off I-95 and looped into town on U.S. 1, only to find it was clogged with tourists. We found a Dunkin’ Donuts and had a sandwich and got back on Route 1 heading north. At Ogunquit, we found the highway turned into a parking lot. The road into downtown was stock still. It took us nearly an hour to get through town. We felt a teensy bit better on traveling north as we watched the parking lot headed south go on for miles and miles, much worse than we had it going north. Phew.

Anyway, as soon as we could, we got off Rt. 1 and back onto the interstate and cruised into Portland.

Tomorrow, to Augusta, Rt. 3 to Belfast and then zip the rest of the way past Ellsworth and into Sullivan.

Oct. 14

We have arrived in Sullivan, Maine. It has been a drive of 1472 miles. The fall color has been absolutely neon. I don’t remember the last fall with this much color.

It is overcast and chilly this afternoon, and although it is only 4:15 p.m., it is already getting dark. We are a touch on the pooped side, and will probably turn in early tonight.

To be continued

Click on any image to enlarge

This past January, my first ex-wife and I observed our 50th wedding anniversary, but also 47 years of divorce. Between that rupture and last year, we hadn’t talked or seen each other. 

But about a year ago, we reconnected and agreed to drive with each other to see our son in Austin, Texas. That trip proved so agreeable, that she suggested a longer trip. I offered that we drive to Maine to visit our college friends, Sandro and Mu, who live in Sullivan, Maine, north of Mount Desert Island. And so, we made plans. 

Anne and Vanessa Redgrape

When I was young, I thought nothing of driving six- or seven-hundred miles in a day. But my old bones cannot take such treatment anymore, and so we decided not to drive more than two hundred miles in a go. That limit was tested several times during the trip.

We figured it would take about six days to make the 1200 mile drive. 

“What do you want to do when we go?” I asked. 

“I’ve got three things: I want to eat lobster,” she said. “And I want to visit Mount Desert Island; and I’d like to see West Virginia. Is that on the way?”

“It can be.” Before Anne got here, I made an itinerary that would take us through West Virginia. Originally, I had thought to drive the length of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive, but I rejiggered the route. It added some miles to the trip, but I wanted to show her the state; I love West Virginia, although maybe for the wrong reasons. I love the decay and the dreariness of those parts I knew best — coal country, with its tipples and meth labs, the nearly empty towns of old brick and service stations. 

And so, the departure date was set and on Wednesday, Oct. 9, we packed up Anne’s car — which she has named Evelyn Angelina Buick — and sidled onto the BRP and headed north.

Not everyone names their cars. When Anne and I were married, four decades ago, we owned a maroon Chevrolet the size of an aircraft carrier that I named Vanessa Redgrape, for a cluster of polyethylene grapes hanging from the back window. Our friend, Hank, owned a green VW beetle that he named Gigi, or G.G., for “Green Gonad.” If you don’t own a dog or cat, you can always pet your automobile. 

Evie, as Anne nicknamed the car, is a 2014 Buick Verano the vaguely silver color of pewter that Anne calls “car colored.” Half the cars on the road these days are “car colored.” 

It is a cyborg of a car. It screams at you if you drift out of lane; it beeps if you are backing into someone; it tells you your gas mileage by the second; it has a key that folds up like a switchblade; and a camera in the rear bumper so you can see front and back at the same time. It also has cruise control, which is, for me and my right foot, a miracle. 

I don’t think we could have made the trip if we were driving my own Kia Forte, which is admittedly a very well made car, but a very badly designed one, and with an engine in it with just enough power to start it moving forward on a flat surface. My legs and feet would have cramped up within a few hours of starting out. We took her car. 

Craggy Gardens

Oct. 9

Almost immediately as we started the fog closed in, and we kept driving in and out of obscurity, up and down the mountains and looping around the tight corners. About 20 miles on, at Craggy Gardens, where we stopped, we were above the mist and the view was pure Caspar David Friedrich, with the sun glaring in patches off the clouds underneath us, as bright as fluorescent lights. To the south, fog filled the valleys, but to the north it was uninterrupted whiteness, with two or three peaks poking through like islands in the sea. It was very like flying above the clouds. 

Normally, from the turnout at Craggy Gardens, you can look to the southeast, back toward the towns of Montreat and Black Mountain and see civilization: houses, warehouses, highways and fast-food chicken franchises. But with the white blanket, that was all hidden, and you could have the fresh look one imagines early settlers had on utter wilderness. 

Altapass

At Altapass, we made the obligatory stop at the orchards. It was too late in the season for many apples in the store, but Anne found a jar of preserves she wanted to take to Mu in Maine. 

We continued north and exited the BRP in Ashe County. I used to live there, many decades ago, in a house on a bluff above the South Fork of the New River. A back porch cantilevered out over the hillside drop, about 200 feet down to the water and gave a similar sense of flying. We took a side trip to Obids to see the old house. Time and the river have both flowed on. 

New River

We drove up the drive to the old house, which is now occupied by a family that, while I didn’t see any cars up on cinderblocks, managed to give that impression anyway.

Beside that, it had all changed. It used to be that the land around the house was all grass. We could see the hills on the other side of the river and Mount Jefferson to the north. But now, four decades later, trees have all grown up around the house and the view is blocked in all directions. The house was closed in, but so, I felt, was I. 

I had been feeling deeply nostalgic. But I also realized that however much I might like to travel back to the places of my younger days, I would also need to be able to travel in time as well as in space.

West Jefferson

We drove into West Jefferson for lunch and found the town busier and healthier than it was back then. Stores were open rather than storefronts with rent signs in them. When my late wife Carole and I lived there, there were two restaurants in the whole county — a breakfast cafe and a pizzeria. Now, the joint is jumpin’ with nice places. We had barbecue for lunch and moved on north, through Galax, Va., and into Hillsville, where we found a motel and, tired from the road, a Chinese buffet across the road.

Oct. 10

“Look out, there’s something in the road!”

“I see it.” A lump in the middle of our lane. I slowed, it began to move.

We got up close to it and it began to waddle across the road. It was a badger. I’d never seen one in the “wild” before.

The roads in West Virginia are notoriously bad, with patches and potholes. But things may be changing. As we drive up along U.S. 219, miles and miles have been resurfaced with rubberized macadam. It’s like magic. All road noise quiets down and the ride is perfectly smooth. As we drove along, I kept looking for more of it and was tickled every time we found another few miles of the stuff.

Driving has been fun for me, but not so much for my passenger. Western West Virginia is all Ridge and Valley Province, and the road constantly climbs up the mountains and down the far side, and to do so they are twisty. More than twisty, they are carefully banked, so that speeding downhill, it’s like the 24 hours of Le Mans. I felt like a Grand Prix driver, banking hard to the right or left as we rounded the hairpins. But it just made Anne carsick. We pulled off the road a few times so she could calm her belly.

Despite that, she loved the countryside, although I was disappointed. I had never been to this part of the state before and it turned out to be notably devoid of coal tipples. Instead, it was rolling farmland interrupted by breadloaf mountains. 

The early morning gave us more low-lying fog dropped into the hollows and coves and for about 10 miles, the ridge to our east was lined with wind turbines. They were a constant presence on the horizon. 

We spent the night at Elkins, WV, home of Davis Elkins College, which by the look of it serves as the safety school for those whose first choice was Elon College.

Elkins did not impress us. We took the concierge’s recommendation for dinner and went to Maggie CG’s. Walked a few blocks to get there. The place was cavernous and dark, and we stood at the hostess podium for about 5 minutes and not a peep from anywhere in the joint. I grabbed a couple of menus from behind the podium and we sat down. Nothing. One other couple was eating already at one table and a very large man was seated by the front door, obviously waiting for something. But nothing. Not a sound, not a person, not a waiter, not a hostess. We sat at our table for another 5 or 10 minutes and decided to leave.

Elkins, W.V.

Went across the street to Beander’s, which was clearly the college dive of Elkins and a hot spot for college students, who, by definition, tend to be loud and rowdy. No hostess again. We again grabbed menus and picked a table. Eventually a waitress came by. Menu was notably unimaginative, but the food was adequate.

Oct. 11

It’s been a long day. We drove 305 miles. Didn’t mean to. Left Elkin at 8:30 a.m. and took U.S. 219 north into Maryland, past a town called Accident. (Internet says people who live in Accident, Md., are known as “Accidentals.”) Picked up I-68 to Cumberland and U.S. 220 north to the Pennsylvania Turnpike at Bedford. Took that to I-81 at the notorious Carlisle, home of the infamous Indian boarding school. The plan was to get a hotel in Harrisburg. We stopped and discovered there were no rooms in the whole town. A giant car show had them all booked.

So, we kept going on I-81 till we got to Frackville and got a room at the Holiday Inn Express. I don’t like Holiday Inn, but after 300 miles and traffic you wouldn’t believe, we had to take what we could get.

Anne really seemed to enjoy the countryside. Lots of long low mountain ridges with barns and silos, with cows and cornfields. It looked like something out of a calendar photo. Right from Central Casting.

The Turnpike is a toll road and when we got off in Carlisle, the tariff was $12.45. A bit more than I had expected. I paid the man in dollar coins. I don’t know if he gets to see many of those.

Dinner tonight at Cracker Barrel. Again: All that was available.

Tomorrow the plan is to drive up the Delaware Water Gap and maybe get to Bear Mountain on the Hudson River.

To be continued

Click any image to enlarge

toroweap 6I’ve been to the Grand Canyon enough times that I couldn’t accurately count.

But sometimes familiarity makes us lose the magic. If I’ve been to Mather Point once, I’ve been a dozen times, at all hours of the day. And while it is still beautiful, still breathtaking, there is something missing — that virgin sense of seeing it for the first time.arizona highways magazine cover

This is replaced by the proxy pleasure of watching someone else see it for the first time, but now I’ve had even that vicarious fun often enough that I know what to expect.

But there are other places to see the canyon besides the official viewpoints of the National Park Service.

One of my first images of the Grand Canyon came when I was a child in the Christmas edition of Arizona Highways magazine, which was once a year available on the magazine racks in New Jersey. One of the pictures in it was a stunning photograph of the Canyon from Toroweap Overlook. I never forgot that name, it seemed so odd — although I don’t know why an Indian name should seem exotic to a Jersey boy living between Hackensack and Ho-Ho-Kus.toroweap 15

Nevertheless, I always wanted to go to Toroweap, to see that vertical panorama, the 3,000-foot drop to the river.

The overlook is reached by 61 miles of dirt road. And those miles start from a point 9 miles west of Fredonia, Arizona, which is already as remote as it is possible to be in the state. On the Arizona Strip between the Canyon and Utah, Fredonia is a little town you pass through on the way to Kanab, which is no Chicago either.

Fredonia is 120 miles from the nearest Arizona town of any significance, Flagstaff, through the Navajo Indian Reservation and across the northern margin of the state skirting the Vermilion Cliffs. It is so remote that when you pass the turn off for the Grand Canyon North Rim, you still have to press on into the wilderness to get to Fredonia.toroweap 9

How remote is it? Well, it is technically considered frontier. Any place with fewer than two people per square mile is officially called frontier, said the ranger at Pipe Spring National Monument, which is also in this neck of the woods.

The Arizona Strip easily qualifies. Arizona, for instance, has a population density of about 50 people per square mile. When you subtract the population center of Fredonia, with its 2100 people, the rest of the Strip checks in with .014 people per square mile. That’s fewer than 3 people per 20 square miles.

That is the official definition of empty.toroweap 7

toroweap 17Well, a little past the sign that reads “Six Mile Village, 3 miles” you find a dirt-road turn off with a sign to Toroweap Overlook. It says, “Toroweap Overlook, 61 miles.”

At first, you feel rather confident. Anyone who regularly drives the dirt and gravel back roads in this state will be lulled into a false sense of security.

The first 20 miles or so are pretty flat, pretty well kept up and surprisingly civilized. You can do a comfortable 50 miles an hour if you don’t mind kicking up a few stones and hearing them clatter against your undercarriage.toroweap 10

But then, after crossing the Antelope Valley, you have to climb the first small plateau and the road begins to wind and narrow. Patches of sand appear in the hollows of the land and you have to slow down or risk losing control of your car.

Yes, I said car. Every guide book I checked out said the trip can be made in a passenger car. And since I am an intrepid risker of my car, I thought that this sounds like a piece of cake. I have driven my car through mountainside cow pastures, through North Carolina woods with no roads, twisting between the trees like a Daniel Boone in a Chevy. I have taken my car on the 30 miles of washboard someone jokingly called a road on the far side of Death Valley from the highway.

I can go anywhere.toroweap 8

But the road to Toroweap became hinkier. About 45 miles in, just after the turn-off for the road to Mt. Trumbull, the road gets questionable. And I mean, like I question that it deserves the name road at all.

Since I was two-thirds of the way to my longed for magic dream, I pushed on.

After all, I am the man who drove my car across Thompson Wash to the north of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. I am the man who keeps an entrenching tool and a Hudson Bay ax in the trunk at all times in case I need to dig out of the sand and chop down brush to thrust under the tires for some purchase.toroweap 13

There were some sand pans along the way, where your tires no longer go where you point them and your careen through the powder like a raft going downstream. The steering wheel becomes a tiller and you just try to keep pointed forward. But if you get up a head of steam going into the sand, you can more or less bull your way through.toroweap 14

But after the Tuweep Ranger Station, where you enter the national park lands, it started getting tricky. I had had some touchy moments in the sand, but nothing I didn’t think I could handle in my Pontiac Grand Am. But in the final eight miles from there to the overlook, the road gets positively grim. The sand — I call it sand, but it is really a fine, pulverized powder that sits axle-deep in the roadway — had previously been in recognizable pans, small patches of up to 100 feet in extent. But along the Toroweap Valley, there is a stretch of about a quarter mile of unrelieved sand.toroweap 4

As I was driving along — careening, really — I came upon the ranger in a road grader smoothing the roadbed. He should have saved his effort. The grader was smoothing off the top of the sand, but that didn’t make it any easier to plow through. In fact, the ruts provided better traction for the tires, as long as the high sand in between didn’t contain any large rocks waiting to score the bottom metal of the car.

With the sand passed, the road got narrower and rockier. The rocks were bumpy and you had to take them slowly, especially around the tight curves up and down the canyon, but they were negotiable. The final three miles slowed me down to a pace of between 5 and 10 mph, but I didn’t mind so much, since at least I knew the road wouldn’t swallow my tires.

At the end, Toroweap Overlook was a small rocky parking lot with a port-o-let to one side and a giant hole in the ground to the other.toroweap 2

They view was spectacular and the rawness of the experience made the South Rim look positively urban. There are no guard rails, no interpretive signs, no ranger walks, just an edge of rock with a vertical drop down to the river of three-fifths of a mile. The canyon at Toroweap is very narrow — it is about a mile to the southern rim across the gorge, and directly below, you can hear the roar of the rapids.toroweap 11

Two German couples were there looking down the hole and taking pictures of each other on the ledge. One of the men, seeing my once-bright red sedan now a uniform dun of dust — and comparing it with their two high-water SUVs, came over to me and asked me which route I had taken. When I told him, the looked at me like I was crazy, laughed and said, “In that car? How did you do it?”toroweap 3

And, you know, I’m not completely sure myself. But I knew that ahead of my was another 61 miles of the same thing just to get out again.toroweap 1

So, this is a warning to you. Don’t believe everything you read in a guidebook.

Yes, it is possible to get to Toroweap in your car, if you have the gumption.

But don’t expect any yellow brick road.toroweap 16

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

State Line tex-NMTo 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.Clouds from plane

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.Sunflowers North Dakota

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.Baldwin Co. Ala. sunset

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.Bear Mtn Bridge

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.Cadillac Ranch Amarillo Texas

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.Columbia River Gorge Oregon-Washington

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.factory, trees, Lowell, Mass

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. New OrleansThat’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.Frosty dawn Wisconsin

Part 2

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.Golden Gate Bridge SF Calif

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.Gorilla, Am Mus Nat Hist04 copy

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.Imperial Dunes California

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. Forest Lawn cemetery LAI 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.pacific coast highway California

Part 3

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.Greylock Mt from Melville home Mass

–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.leo carillo st beach california

— 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.Mississippi barge

Part 4

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.Niagara Falls

Part 5

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.mobile bay point clear

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.Page Dam Arizona

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.Sierra Nevada Mts California

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.Thunder hole Acadia NP Maine

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.Yellowstone Nat Park Wyoming

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.Monument Valley Arizona

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.Zabriskie Point Death Valley Calif

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.Zion National Park Utah

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.Mississippi River Hannibal Missouri

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.mobile bay

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.

west texas road
Two things about Texas: It’s big and it’s empty.

For most of us, crossing Texas along the interstate, it is two days of tedium, flatness and gravel, waiting to get from the desert West to the humid East.

But there is another way to eliminate the tedium of the unavoidable crossing of the world’s largest vacant lot: Slow down, take your time and enjoy it.

That is what I decided to do when faced with yet another transcontinental automobile trip. I stayed off the interstate and took the back roads from El Paso to Beaumont, passing great views, interesting topography, peculiar history and even more peculiar people.

Mile 0 is the boundary between New Mexico and Texas, entering the state at Anthony. I drove through in the early morning, with the sun just sitting on the horizon, the Franklin Mountains to the east looking the color and texture of gray suede. The dew had raised the smell of the creosote bush.trans mountain expressway franklin mts

The first real chance to get off I-10 comes with the Trans-Mountain Expressway, that lifts you up and over the mountains and into Fort Bliss, just north of El Paso. As you descend, you pass the U.S. Border Patrol Museum and the streets of the military Bomarc missilereservation named for out of date missiles: Minuteman and Bomarc.

The next goal is the Hueco Mountains along U.S. 62. As you get to the top, at mile 56, you can spot the Guadalupe Mountains, highest point in the state, some 75 miles in the future.

The road passes along the dry regions of western Texas, with few people and even fewer gas stations. The first is at Cornudas, a one-time Butterfield State stop, now a dilapidated gas station and cafe, with souvenirs.cornudas texas

The sign outside reads, “Welcome to beautiful downtown Cornudas, pop. 5 or 6.”

Inside, the cafe is covered from head to foot in collectibles: old hubcaps, old postcards, things written on old napkins, old license plates, old photos and newspaper clippings. The ceiling is hung with things, including souvenir ballcaps, each individually wrapped in clear plastic.

The tables, too, are loaded down with writings, some printed, some hand-written, then covered with plastic. The table legs are wrapped in blue-jeans legs and bottomed with cowboy boots.

And on every table, along with menu and salt and pepper shakers, are copies of Lyndon LaRoushe’s wack-o New Federalist newsletters. This is a cafe with a political point of view.

And one table, near the cash register, sit two or three aging, potbellied “cowboys,” dressed in overalls and scratchy with whiskers. They look up at me as I enter, as if I were a spy come to undo their righteous cabal.

Nevertheless, I have a wonderful breakfast, which I recommend to all, a good Spanish omelet, toast and sliced fried potatoes.

When I finish, I ask if I can get gas.

“Sorry, we’re all out,” the waitress tells me. “But you can get some up about 15 miles at Route 1111.”

Paying the bill, I say to the nice woman behind the counter, “You sure are a far piece from civilization,” and she said with a smile that was only slightly ominous, “That just the way we want to keep it.”salt flat texas

Unfortunately, the gas station at the crossroads is closed. But another 15 miles down the way, at Salt Flat, there is another. Actually, it is a pile of corrugated tin and stucco buildings surrounded with cyclone fence. I pull in, amble up to the office and find it is locked, despite the “Open” sign in the window.

A dog barks, then another, then a few more. Behind the fence they are howling. A house sits across the dirt lot from the pump. Its door is closed. No one stirs. The sun is beating down. I honk my horn. I ring the doorbell. Nothing. Silence, except for the dry, angry barking of junkyard dogs.

West Texas is a very empty place. The air is desiccated, the ground is sandy, the mountains are heated stones, even in October.

It is not surprising that this group of shanties in Salt Flat seems like a set for one of those cheap made-for-TV stalker films. The area was also the site of the 1877 El Paso Salt Wars, when private industry bought the land and began charging for the salt that had previously been collected free by Indians and Mexicans. Many lives were lost.road to guadalupe mts

The road curls just south of El Capitan, the prominent peak at the head of the Guadalupe Mountains and one of Texas’ national parks.

To the east at mile 105, the Delaware Mountains are lined with some 65 electricity-generating windmills.

el capitan guadalupe mountains

But it is the Guadalupes that dominate. In their wrinkled canyons are trees and streams. There is birdlife and butterflies. At the visitor center little yellow butterflies wink in the butterfly weed.

“We had fall color here last week,” the ranger tells me. “But we had a 90-mile-an-hour wind come through and we don’t have any fall color anymore.”

They also don’t have any gas. The nearest is in the next state, 35 miles to the north at White City, N.M., near Carlsbad Caverns.

But I take the turn southeast to Orla. At mile 145, I enter the Central Time Zone, but time is certainly meaningless here among the cows and chaparral.Orla Texas

At the Orla Grocery, mile 185, the sign says, “It’s a long way to anywhere from Orla Grocery.”

The town is made up of a few sagging shacks, some tilted all the way over. There is also a yard filled with oil-drilling machinery, marking a change in geography. From here to the Hill Country, there is oil.

Reeves County, which includes both Orla and Pecos, is a flat, arid grassy land. In Pecos, the historical marker tells about the Pecos cantaloupe:

“Nationally famed melon, originated in this city. Residents from 1880s grew melons in gardens, noting sun and soil imparted a distinctive flavor.”

It goes on to say, “Famed lecturer Helen Keller, Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson, and many other distinguished persons have ordered and appreciated Pecos cantaloupes.”iraan roadcut

But it is oil that is most apparent, especially as you enter the rocky hill country near Iraan.

The town is named for Ira G. Yates and his wife, Ann. It was under his ranch that the Marathon Oil Company — then Ohio Oil — discovered the biggest oil field in Texas and one of the biggest in the world.iraan 1Previously, oil experts had agreed, “You won’t find oil west of the Pecos River.” But they did. Within a year of the first well, struck in 1926, the Yates field had 100 wells dug. It now has more than 600.Alley Oop

Iraan is also the birthplace of the comic strip, “Alley Oop.” It was created by V.T. Hamlin while he lived here. Giant statues at the town playground immortalize Oop, his girl friend Ooola and his dinosaur, a 65-foot-long Dinny.

In the middle of town, the school sports a sign that says, “Iraan Braves, 1996 Double-A State Football Champs. 16-0.”

It is a long draw — some 90 miles — to the next town, Eldorado. The road, U.S. 190, passes some of the most beautiful scenery in Texas, with mesas and buttes, trees and scrub.

But at the halfway point through the state, at Brady and mile 507, is the geographical center of Texas. Or so the town claims.Brady texas sign

As the crow flies, it is 437 miles to the state’s westernmost point, 341miles from the most easterly point, 401 miles from the most southerly point and 412 miles from the most northerly.

“Enclosed within the 4,137-mile perimeter of the state are 267,339 square miles or 7.4 percent of the nation’s total area,” says the historical marker. “Fifteen of the 50 states could be readily accommodated within Texas’ borders — with more than 1,000 square miles left over.”Brady texas

It isn’t only the land that changes as I head into the eastern half of the state. The humidity rises, so that when I wake up the next morning after a night in the motel at Brady, the streets are so wet with dew, it looks as if it had rained in the night.

The heavy dew also brings out the smell of the grass and the dirt.

South of Brady, U.S. 87 enters the Texas Hill Country, an bubble of limestone that rises in the center of the state and continues north from the Balcones Escarpment. It is an oasis in the monotony of Texas landscape, with streams, forests, lakes and the former home of former President Lyndon Johnson.lbj state park entry sign

It comes as a shock to me how incredibly beautiful the LBJ Ranch actually is. And it is also a shock to hear Johnson, in old TV footage shown at the visitor center, talk about his love of the land.

I grew up at a time when Johnson was demonized for his policy on the Vietnam War. I never thought of him as anything but a power-mad monomaniac. But the LBJ Ranch, mile 592, humanizes him considerably.lbj ranch house 2

On the TV footage, he talks about watching deer jump the fence on the farm, about watching a yearling fawn, about raising the cattle and sheep. He speaks with genuine affection and without any of the boilerplate rhetoric that was his signature.

And I realized how Southern he must have been, how much the land meant to him, despite anything he did in the “halls of power.”lbj ranch pedernales river

I walk around the property on the edges of the Pedernales River, along Williams Creek that empties into the river.

There is the tannic smell of autumn leaves on the ground; there is hackberry and post oak and Virginia creeper along the fenceposts.

The creek is filled with bluegill sunfish, Texas softshell turtle, minnows, yellow mudturtles, bullfrogs, Rocky Mountain toads, crayfish, Rio Grande leopard frogs and the blotched water snake.

It is nature full of its variety. The river itself has kingfishers, mallards, Texas sliders, coots, largemouth bass, red sunfish and catfish.Pedernales River

As I stand on the bank of the river, under a pecan tree, hundreds of years old, a black anhinga flies up over the small dam that creates a cascade in the river, and four white geese try to cross the dam from the opposite shore. No, it’s five.

A nature trail winds around a fenced in deer enclosure and one of them comes up to nibble some grass I hold out for it.lbj ranch farmstead1

The trail continues into a small demonstration farm, typical of those in the area when Johnson was young. Five sheep and two little lambs are resting and sleeping. One of the lambs is curled up in a ball next to the woodpile. lbj ranch farmstead2Uncounted chickens run around the yard under the shade of post oaks and sumac and one big old live oak.

A few feet on, I spot a newborn lamb, just a few months old, his ears sticking straight out, catching the sun from behind. He is looking right at me.

Over my head, I can’t quite see him in the sunlight, but I hear him tapping: It is a flicker.

And over the very top, there is a hawk flying, soaring over the top of the farm. The little lamb shakes his head and flaps his ears.

The ranch is a paradise, an Eden, and I want to stay here.

From the ranch to the Louisiana boundary, Texas becomes increasingly Southern rather than Western. The landscape becomes more forested, the towns closer together and the traffic thicker. And the humidity becomes intense.dripping springs texas

I pass Dripping Springs at mile 629, Ledbetter at mile 728. At mile 766, I cross the Brazos River. It is still full from last summer’s heavy rains.

At mile 803, I see my first mention of the word “Cajun,” and I know I am near the end of the state.dixie's cajun seafood

At mile 823, I enter Cut and Shoot, a town more memorable in name than substance. It is just another junked up Southern town, filled with pickup trucks and Carol Sue’s Country Kitchen: “Dine in, Carry out, We deliver, Barbecue and fixin’s.”

After the dryness of western Texas, it is frightening to see the Trinity River in flood, swollen way over the woods on each side of its banks. The adjoining farm fields are lakes, with a few old cornstalks sticking up through the surface. The river water is still moving with a swiftness that looks as if it could wash away a town.20120106-OC-AMW-0698

And north of Sour Lake, the many sections of Big Thicket National Preserve looks as if it might as well be Louisiana, with its cypress sloughs and dense forests of beech, magnolia and loblolly pine.sabine river 2

I join I-10 once again in Beaumont, mile 905, and it will be interstate from here on. And I cross the Sabine River into Louisiana at mile 933. The interstate mile marker reads 881, which means I have only added 52 miles by taking the back roads.

But I have seen, heard, smelled and tasted so much more.

Driving 1It was the weekend I drove across America: I left Phoenix after work on Friday and pulled into North Carolina before breakfast on Monday. I was hauling macadam.

But to paraphrase Mr. Bernstein from Citizen Kane, “There’s no secret to piling up miles, if all you want to do is pile up miles.”

At any rate, I logged 1,886 miles between work on Friday and sleep on Sunday.

People sometimes ask me if driving doesn’t wear me down, but it doesn’t. There is nothing I find as relaxing as spending a week on the highway, watching the scenery scroll by and the sun roll around heaven all day.

I get up at 5 each morning and count a hundred miles on the odometer before stopping for breakfast. You notice the difference from one edge of a time zone to another: On the same day, 5 a.m. can be black night in Williston, N.D., and broad daylight in Pensacola, Fla., both in the Central Time Zone.driving 2 - night

It gives you a cosmic feel: You know you are moving across the arc of the planet’s edge. In Saskatchewan you can watch the grain elevator behind you sink below the horizon in your rear view mirror, like the sails of a ship dropping under the curve of the earth, just as the next elevator breaks the surface in front of you. You are always on the top of a mound that falls off to every side.

The point of this particular dash across the continent was to collect my wife, who had been visiting her mother in North Carolina, and continue on our vacation, making a great loop across the Northeast and back through central Canada.

I left the office at about 4 p.m. on Friday and drove the 289 miles to Gallup, N.M., where I stayed in a chain motel and ate supper at a tiny, empty  dive, where a Navajo woman made a great turkey sandwich.

Saturday took me from Gallup to Oklahoma City, some 725 miles. I could have gone further, but I did some sightseeing in Endee, N.M., and in Amarillo, Texas.

Sunday, I stopped for a couple of hours in Arkansas, but still managed to make 872 miles, stopping in Kingston, Tenn., just short of Knoxville.

I usually avoid the interstates, but to waste as little time as possible before joining my wife, I took I-40 most of the way, playing dodge-cars with semis, terrorizing slow-moving RVs and watching my odometer spin like a slot machine.interstate mt airy

The next day, I drove across the Smokies, up along the Blue Ridge and down into the Piedmont, managing to cruise through Andy Griffith’s Mount Airy.

There are some disadvantages to this kind of travel. Meals, for instance, are either awful or non-existent. Mostly, I keep a box of Fig Newtons in the back seat and gnosh occasionally. The entree is beef jerky bought at a truck stop; I’ve become quite a connoisseur of jerky. A liter of bottled water sits on the back floor.

When I do stop and eat dinner, it is uniformly greasy, oversalted and overcooked. And don’t even mention the salad bar.

Then, it’s into the motel room for a night’s sleep before getting up again at 5, to see the dull light in the east spread out along the fuzzy line that separates the sky and its brightening clouds from the ground below and the road that stretches toward the rising sun.

texashillcountry1

I’ve gotten an early start on a long day’s driving. It is dawn on the plains of west Texas and as the sun pops its first bright blast over the horizon, Schubert’s Trout Quintet plays on the car stereo.

Its first chord is also a bright blast, beginning like a sunrise, with a skyrocket of an arpeggio on the keyboard that bounds out like that first instant blaze as the edge of the sun explodes on the horizon.trout score 2

And when the quintet’s first melody breaks free, the arpeggio is joined by the string bass descending to rock bottom. It’s like the unfolding of a musical universe. It’s almost like getting out of bed, stretching your arms up over your head and planting your feet firmly on the floor.trout score1

I often find myself whistling along with the music when I’m driving, but with the Trout, I find myself singing along, bellowing like a playful calf.

It’s a different thing altogether. The whistling is just a kind of inattentive tagging along with the tune.

The singing, however, is my physical presence in the music.

Bump-bump-bump-bummmmm, I yell out with the string bass.

It is that deep resonance that gives an anchor to the music. It is like the footings of a skyscraper dug 60 feet into the bedrock.

The Texas hill country glows in the first rays of the sun, each rolling rise of earth catching the light like the drapery on a Greek statue.

There are a few low sunrise clouds, but the sun enters underneath them and the road is so empty, they just undulate as they run up over the hills. There is nothing on the highway for miles, just the occasional transfer truck that you pass.

What gives the Trout its phenomenal sense of emotional rightness is its constant balancing of the upward and downward motion of its melodies, often at the same time, like the bass and piano at the outset.

It’s not often in life that the emotions coincide in such a perfect sense of morning, light, a new day, optimism and hope.

Such is the Texas daybreak; such is the Schubert. It is a sunny quintet, with hardly the whisper of a shadow in its five bright movements. Even the minor-key variation in the fourth movement is dispelled with a major chord — “I was just playing,” its composer seems to be saying.

Yet, the Trout is an anomaly among Schubert’s major compositions. He wrote it when he was only 22 and it spreads sunshine from beginning to end.

Through most of his best music — the late piano sonatas, late quartets and the great C-major string quintet — there is a strain of despair that is heartbreaking. Even in his short piano pieces, beloved of amateurs for a century and a half, there runs a vein of deep melancholy that shades even his happiest moments.

For soon after he wrote the Trout, Schubert knew he was going to die, and to die soon. He had contracted an incurable syphilis, and it left him an outcast. He was dead before he was 32.

That knowledge, along with his poverty and his habitual sense of isolation and loneliness, give the dark tincture to his mature music.trout titlepage

And even the Trout gives expression — although in the most oblique way — to the melancholy that was constitutional in the composer: The earlier song he had written, also called The Trout, was the basis for his variations in the fourth movement of the quintet. The song tells the story of a bright, wily trout — “who gaily shoots past me like an arrow” — who then gets caught by an “cold-blooded” angler. The poet laments the loss of such a happy, bright fish. It is a miniature exposition of the theme, “Et in Arcadia ego.”

Somewhere east of Balmorhea, sunflowers begin showing up on the shoulders of the highway, great yellow clumps of them — sunshine growing from the roadside dirt.

I drive along in the shade under a cloud, but the sunlight rings the horizon with the tawny sand color of dry grass. I am an audience in the shade, but the spotlight is on a stage in all directions.

The rays of the sun break through the clouds in the north, making lines like rain hitting the ground.

There are lots of birds — finches, and swallows and swifts — darting around in the air over the road. I’m one of them.