Perhaps you’ve read Jack Kerouac’s coming-of-age novel On the Road or seen one of the classic movies about road trips across America: “Easy Rider,” “Thelma and Louise,” “Sideways,” or the comedies “National Lampoon’s Family Vacation” and “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”
These stories offer a glimpse of the variety, vastness, and grandeur of the American landscape. Maybe they ignited your wanderlust and left you determined not just to visit America but even to explore it, end to end.
Allow me to tell you what you’re in for. I’ve crisscrossed the country more times than my spine and brake foot care to remember, most recently on the trip to and from Nevada’s Extraterrestrial Highway that I described last posting. And along the way, I’ve made mental notes about some memorable and best-forgotten experiences.
Here’s my latest list, with ↑s denoting the highlights and ↓s marking the lowlights that you might run into on a grand automobile tour of America.
↑ Sunsets, especially on the empty plains, in deep mountain valleys, and along the rocky Pacific shore of the American West. Their beams and palette of oranges and reds accentuate the splendor. You’d think sunrises would have the same effect, but I find that sunsets linger and invite contemplation. The morning sun, by contrast, climbs resolutely above the horizon and commands us to get on with the day. We easterners — and foreign visitors who begin a journey in the populated East and wend into the wide-open West — can’t help but marvel at sunsets’ glow against the distant St. Louis Arch, the majestic Rockies, or the endless sea.
↓ Motel pillows. This nit sounds ignoble beside an ode to Old Sol. Fact is, most traveling travails are trivial compared with the delights. For me, the foam-rubber dumplings that motels pass off as pillows are a curse. When your head “hits the pillow” at the Motel 12 or Sleep-Easy Inn at the close of a grueling day, the pillow hits you back. One popular coast-to-coast chain has taken to propping sets of four of these petrochemical lumps on each bed. The slips on two of them are marked “firm,” and on two, “soft.” Case-hardened steel’s not as firm as the firm ones. And the “soft” ones, dropped on you from the balcony, would raise a welt. The housekeeping crew can’t fluff either kind. I picture them punching these pillows with brass knuckles instead.
↓ I might as well get my other motel frustrations out of the way while I’m at it. They’d be yours, too, I suspect, as you stayed in a string of them, and they won’t need much explanation: Powdered eggs, fattening biscuits and sausage gravy, and generic cereal dropped from a hand-cranked dispenser at the free breakfast. (You do indeed get what you pay for.) Blindingly white, cost-saving fluorescent lights in every fixture. Lobby and breakfast-room television sets tuned loudly to an airhead talk show or the shouters channel that matches the political persuasion of the innkeeper — but not necessarily yours. Further din over your cup of coffee, supplied by 35 teenage volleyball players who are wolfing down their Sugar Flakes before heading to the big regional tournament. You’ll wonder why they begin each of their exhortations with the word “Like.” (Another rant for another time.) Front-desk clerks who don’t know where there’s a library, don’t know a thing about their town or its history, have never heard of Billy Graham or John Roberts or their own mayor, don’t know how to get the air conditioning to work — or fathom why it doesn’t — don’t know why the promised wake-up call never came, and don’t have a clue why your room smells like a solvent factory.
Why not stay in a quaint, cozy bed-and-breakfast inn instead? you ask. Be my guest. I’ll do a whole post on that subject before too long.
↑ Two-lane, blacktop highways, along which you can pull over at will and discover a passing parade of quirky attractions: restaurants shaped like teakettles, fairyland children’s parks, Santa Claus villages, gasoline stations built around the shells of B-52 bomber airplanes. These are remnants of slower times worth exploring, even if you’d not really like to relive the days of creaky bedsprings in tourist cabins, guitar-shaped Elvis hairbrushes, or racially-segregated tables at the Greasy Spoon.
↓ Traffic. OK, nobody, anywhere, likes traffic congestion. But there are a couple of really annoying trends on American superhighways these days. One is the overabundance of caution associated with construction zones. There’s no doubt that highway workers have dangerous jobs and need to be protected from idiotic, speed-crazed, and distracted drivers. But do crews need to drop glo-cones in a line five kilometers long, thus shutting one of two lanes along that entire span, when the only construction activity is a knot of diggers and jackhammerers on a 20-meter section of a bridge four kilometers down the road?
And what to do with me-firsters? That’s not a political movement like the Tea Party crowd. It’s a strain of selfish drivers who, rather than taking their rightful place in the long line brought on by construction delays, speed ahead — illegally down the shoulder of the road if need be — and wedge their way to the head of the line. I confess to feeling perverse delight when the drivers in line — including me if I’m among them — band together and bunch bumper-to-bumper to prevent me-firsters from barging in. Invariably, though, a kind-hearted or intimidated soul will leave just enough of a gap for Mr. or Ms. Impatient to squeeze into line.
↑ The wind in your hair. True enough, for most folks the air comes from your air-conditioning vents, since only 5 percent of cars on the road, according to a leading travel expert (me) are convertibles. Still, to someone accustomed to crawling through rush-hour traffic back home, or around the traffic-clogged plaza back in Europe or Asia or Latin America, pushing the proverbial pedal to the metal, engaging the ol’ cruise control, and tooling down a long, nearly vacant length of highway is one of adulthood’s simple pleasures.
I know, I just grumped about traffic jams and road boors. But you’ll find surprising stretches of open road. On our latest coast-to-coast trip, Carol and I spent many a carefree moment breezing along the highways of North Dakota, Montana, eastern Washington, central Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, and parts of Kentucky and West Virginia. (The drive in between wasn’t so uncrowded or carefree.) You’ve heard that America has “spacious skies”? Head west of Minneapolis for two or three or four days, and you’ll drive under plenty of them.
↓ Music. This could be an “up” arrow, too, since you’ll be alone in your moving, private space for days on end and can program the tunes or music stations of your dreams. Carol and I are fortunate to have satellite radio wired into our beast of an automobile, so between my baseball broadcasts, we dialed up music from our relevant decades. I won’t tell you which decades they are. Let’s just say dinosaurs still walked the earth at the time. My down arrow regarding music refers to the times you won’t be in the car. At the end of your trip, you’ll wonder why American restaurant owners think honky-tonk in the background whets diners’ appetites, why store managers believe sales will double if they blast boy-band tunes throughout the store, and why motel managers take their “quiet space” — the lobby, with its comfy couches and inviting overstuffed chairs — and pipe in Lady GaGa.
The last of these examples is most exasperating, since much of the crowd at the Do Drop Inn are seniors on a bus tour.
But as I said, once you get back in your car, you’re the deejay.
↑ Microbrews. If you go way back with me, you’ll remember that I collect beer bottles. They surround me in my den, and I don’t much care whether I acquired them empty or full. If you, too, like varieties of beer, you’re in luck along the American road. I don’t mean in the gullies and gutters. In every state save for Oklahoma and North Dakota from what I can tell, someone is bottling interesting beer. In St. Louis, Missouri, and in Bellingham, Washington, on our last trip, I walked into collectors’ heaven: beverage stores that set aside entire rooms for individual bottles of American microbeers rather than the usual six-packs. The labels are evocative, and the names are a treat: Moose Drool Brown Ale, Dead Guy Ale, Lucky U IPA, and what these days, as microbreweries flourish, are thousands more.
That’s one reason we needed an SUV — for the three cases of carefully selected beers, shoehorned among the camera equipment, that would push my collection past 1,800 bottles when I got home.
↓ Gasoline prices. It’s not just the high dollar figure, which is bad enough when you’re putting 11,000 kilometers (7,000 miles) on a piggish SUV in a single trip. (I know, a divine little hybrid would have been better, but where would we have put Carol’s 18 stout photography cases or my beer?) Especially unsettling is the wild discrepancy in prices from state to state, town to town, even neighborhood to neighborhood. Prices for the same product — regular-grade gasoline — varied from 66 cents per liter ($2.49/gallon) somewhere in Kentucky to 92 cents a liter ($3.49/gallon) in California. That 26-cent-per-liter difference to fill our bottomless gas tank amounted to a $21 surcharge. Mr. and Ms. Rockefeller, we are not.
(The motel clerk wouldn’t know who they were, either.)
I got pretty good at guessing how far we could get without running out of gas, in order to reach stations with cheaper prices far down the road. But the “empty” light and the ding-ding on the dashboard more often dictated when fill-up time had come.
Reading all this, you must think me a real grouch — and I haven’t even mentioned the speeding trucks dropping gravel that nicks your windshield, or the space hogs who straddle the lines in an otherwise full motel parking lot.
The fact is that our people — at least a lot of us — may be your most pleasant discovery should you cross America the Beautiful on wheels. We’re proud, not just of our country, but also of our little patches of it. We actually look forward to bidding you welcome, showing you around, and getting you where you’re going.
Not that we’re always good at it. I’ll never forget the time Carol and I were lost in North Carolina and stopped at a country crossroads to ask for directions.
“How do we get to Raleigh,” we asked the local mechanic.
“Depends on where you’re starting from,” he replied.
As I said, I think Americans ourselves are tourist attractions. I’d cue the schmaltzy music here if I could. I’m humming a bar right in my head.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Boor. A crude, uncouth, really annoying person.
Brass knuckles. Metal weapons molded to fit over the four fingers that face forward in a fist — all those f’s in that alliteration came along by accident that were prominently featured in early movie gang fights.
Greasy Spoon. A roadside or small-town restaurant of dubious quality, whose food may taste delicious but will leave you loosening your belt after the meal.
Ignoble. Of low status or character. Lacking in nobility.
Schmaltzy. Poignant, mushy, or maudlin, often applied to a story or tune that’s deliberately designed to provoke tears.