CROSS COUNTRYFifteen Years and Ninety Thousand Miles on the Roads and Interstates of America with Lewis and Clark, a Lot of Bad Motels, a Moving Van, Emily Post, Jack Kerouac, My Wife, My Mother-in-Law, Two Kids, and Enough Coffee to Kill an Elephant
BLOOMSBURYCopyright © 2006 Robert Sullivan
All right reserved.ISBN: 1-58234-527-9
WE'RE OFF. We're off across America. We're in the car and we're driving and we're not turning around, even though we usually do, even though we probably have forgotten something. We're crossing the country. We're not the first people to do it, not by a long shot, obviously. There's Lewis and Clark, though they certainly weren't first, even if people think they were-even if they
thought they were. There are the pioneers in their covered wagons, the wagons that in river crossings were used as boats, the wagons that were stuffed with belongings, just like our car is today. There are the very first people to cross the country in the automobile: the people who, in the early 1900s, thought of driving as a kind of daredevil adventure, as something more akin to camping or hiking or hang gliding, as opposed to what we think of it today (i.e., just getting in the car). And then there are the great underground cross-country racers of the 1970s: the drivers who fought to prevent driving from becoming rote, the otherwise pretty conservative automobile anarchists who, when the price of gas went through the roof, were slowed but not halted, who had to contend with lower and lower speed limits, with cops, with angry truckers. (Truckers, of course, are the subset of cross-country drivers who cross the country all the time, every day.) Yes, we are just the latest in the long list of transcontinentalists. We are gasoline-powered footnotes in the travel- and adventure-related annals of a nation that has as its greatest public works project an ever-expanding system of roads, a crisscross and circling of roads that keeps it from ever sitting still.
We're packed in, the kids in the back, the parents in front, our stuff filling the trunk, piled up around our knees. In our hearts, we're excited. We're excited in the part of our hearts that knows three thousand miles is doable, a snap, three or four or, longest-case scenario, five days, which is about as much time as we have-like many Americans, we have stuff to do, stuff to deal with-and about as much time as we can stand. In our hearts, we're also weary. We're weary in the part that has done this before, that knows three thousand miles is a long, long way, that has been out late at night on a dark road when our eyes have been trying to stay awake and our eyes only wish like all the rest of our tired bodies that they were not driving anymore. We are about to, first, drive on some of America's less-laned roads, some of the not-so-super highways, but we are mostly going to drive on its many many-laned interstates, on the main roads, along with everybody else.
I know that this seems, to many Americans, like the wrong way to go. In our time driving across the country, we have met Americans who posed the following question: "Don't you want to see the real America?"
THE REAL AMERICA
THE REAL AMERICA IS ALSO SOMETIMES known as "back-roads America" or "the heart of America" or "America's heartland" or, in shorthand, "America." This is the America that is calculatedly heartwarming, represented by people who are purported to symbolize America-people who are Platonic ideals of Americans: a lobsterman from Maine, a logger from Oregon, a rancher from Texas, the last small farmer living in Missouri.
That America still exists, to some extent: I have seen a pie on the counter of a diner in Wisconsin that caused the phrase "real America" to ring in my head and that also made me hungry. I have driven on roads in Missouri where, instead of giant, commercially produced signs advertising chain restaurants and chain motels, there were homemade signs advertising organic cattle and wildflowers and signs praising coroners hoping to be reelected, to be allowed one more term to investigate the local dead. You can see that America, without too much extra effort, but it is a kind of antique-shop America. It's an America that appears in magazines alongside recipes; it's the America where presidential candidates are televised.
But the real America is also the America that Americans generally think they are not seeing on the roads they use to cross the country-or for that matter, on the roads they use to commute to work in Chicago or while leaving Saint Louis to visit their in-laws in Omaha or while driving on I-70, formerly Route 66. It seems to me that the real America is the farthest thing from people's minds when they are stopping for some fast food on I-5 in between Los Angeles and San Diego, much less driving from the East Coast to the West. But there it is, the real America, right there. For my part, I have seen America on the superhighways all through my years on the road, traveled its present and looked into its past, and today, grandparents waving good-bye at the window and the kids waving back, we're setting off to see it again.
THE ROADS ARE AMERICA
IN THE ROADS OF AMERICA is the history of America. See the nation grow from an unmapped, just-purchased spread of western land to a wagon-train-crossed compilation of territories, to states bound by a few muddy highways, to the modern United States wired with interstates. In the interstates are traces of our first explorations, our impenetrable mountain passes, our old Santa Fe Trail, our pioneers' path to Oregon, our race to California's gold, our first car-happy and nation-spanning private highways. And in the interstates are the paths toward the next America, the one that is always under construction.
See those first roads through young America, those tentative explorations into the unknown, as soldiers and surveyors, trappers and miners push into a West unexplored by white Americans. Then, America breaks away from its eastern beginnings, its coastal fringe: wagon trains lead herds of people to settle the prairies and the plains, to mine the mountains, to farm the fields and work the ranches-to-be. With its national maturation, America champions what it then called Good Roads, the first highways, the aesthetically pleasing parkways that were pleasant to drive, that were the automotive equivalent of a Sunday-afternoon stroll. Then, in the 1950s, America begins its interstate highway system, which itself in turn becomes America, its central arteries, its suburb-expanding and city-smashing nervous system. The interstate system is the centrally calculated roadway of empire, of inland empire, that spawned and fed the military-industrial complex so feared by the interstates' instigator, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and which also spawned and fed the consumption of fast food, not to mention the automobile industry. Out of this middle age rose the beat poets, who were the midlife crisis of America, who rebelled against the road by taking to it, who did not know that one day their anticorporate Americanism would be taken up by American corporations in roadside ads for mass-produced consumer products that sometimes even featured beat poets. In the fifties and sixties and seventies, interstates destroyed cities and nourished the suburbs, which began expanding forever and ever into what was once the countryside, and then America woke up one day to find that crossing the country-that epic accomplishment that was a dream of America's founders, that was a death-defying feat for the earliest trappers and settlers and explorers, that later was a kick, the thing to do just for the sake of doing it, for a generation of hipsters and, subsequently, hippies-was simple, a snap.
I THINK ABOUT THESE TRANSCONTINENTALISTS when I'm driving cross-country. I think about them and go on and on to anyone in the car who will listen or feign listening or simply look awake. I think of the stories of all the people who crossed before me, from Lewis and Clark to the secret cross-country highway racers of the seventies-crossing the country gives you a lot of time to think. And I think not just of where we've already been but also of what we are about to drive through, not any one place but a collection of places all being passed by, all being missed, partly in the impatient attempt to see what we think we are looking for when we are driving the road-i.e., the antique-shop America-and partly in the impatience that is a patented American character trait. The America that I see is an America that tells you to keep moving, to move on to something better, to get on the road and keep going, to stop only briefly to refuel your car and yourself but then to keep pushing toward the place that is closer to where you should be, or could be, if only you would keep going. America says move, move on, don't sit still.
When I am on the road, I see the America that is a continual expedition, the never-ending race to the last frontier, rural or suburban or exurban. In other words, America is the road.
* * *
WHY ARE WE DOING IT? Why are we crossing the country this time? This time, it is summer vacation. It is summer vacation and after visiting relatives, as usual, and going to a wedding, way up in some faraway, nearly roadless Northwest mountains, after crossing the country once, from New York to Oregon, we are crossing the country yet again, from Oregon back to New York, to get home, to wrap up after six thousand miles, to rest. We are heading from one shining sea to another. We are not heading for the Pacific, as is customary in the history of cross-countrying; we are heading east. Once, when I was young, I headed west; I settled there and lived in the Oregon Country for a number of years. In terms of being young and heading west, I was just like the United States of America, in a sense. Now, I'm heading back into the East, which, for me, is a little like heading back into the past. At least when I head east I feel as if I run into memories, and then history itself. I also feel a little nuts. As far as the American past goes, when I travel east I feel like a deranged driver in the wrong lane of the highway of American history. Aside from getting everybody back safe and sound and in time for whatever it is we all have to do when we do actually get back-get to work, get places, do things that we'd said we'd do with friends and other relatives back in the East-one of my personal goals for this particular trip is to run into some of the larger reasons that I am on the road in the first place, the institutional reasons, or at least some of the reasons that everybody else is. I have spent so much of my life on the road that I almost can't remember why I'm on the road anymore.
OUR FIRST STOP
SURE ENOUGH, just in these first moments, in these first two or three miles, we are stopping. If you are attempting to drive across the United States of America in a manner that will get you to the other side before you run out of money or patience, stopping is the blessing and the curse, the action you most need to avoid, the dream that sometimes seems to be the only thing to do if you are ever going to get there, to make it to your destination. Stopping, like the trip itself, is bittersweet. This morning, we are stopping for coffee and for something to eat. We are stopping in Portland, Oregon, our beginning. We are stopping along the Columbia River, sometimes called the River of the West, other times known as the end of the road for Lewis and Clark. We are stopping and I am paying for the breakfast and wanting to tell the person behind the counter how many times we've set out to cross the country before. I am bringing the coffee and the breakfast to the car-a really late breakfast, as we packed the car all morning and now it's close to ten-and I am looking at the car and shaking my head and thinking about what a long time it is for our son and his sister to sit in the car and about how many times we have put them through this, we being my wife and I. Something that I said to my wife just the night before, when we were beginning to load up the car and the kids were already asleep, was "Why do we do this to them?"
WHY (WE DO THIS TO THEM)
THE REASON we do this to them is that, as it turns out, this is who we are. We are people who have crossed the country a lot. This is something we maybe even do too much. When I say we in this case, I am referring to my wife and I and our kids. But sometimes the we is just my wife and I, because we began driving across the country before we were married, before we ever got involved with kids, when we were cross-country dating, my wife's family on one coast, mine on the other. At first we did it purely to save money; due to the nature of my job, we are never certain about when we are going to leave. We don't just jump in a car and head out to wherever, like a bunch of beat poets fueled by booze and sex and whatever else (not that I am against booze or sex or whatever else). We're the opposite, in a way: off from the East to get to the West or vice versa, and not looking to revel in the restless, soul-searching, drink- and drug-fueled process but simply looking to get there, and maybe see a little something on the way.
After all this time, our cross-country credentials are significant, if I do say so myself. I have crossed the country on dozens of occasions; I have driven from one side of the United States to the other more than anyone I know who is not a trucker or professional driver of some kind-close to thirty times, as best as I can tell from journals, and receipts, and snapshots, and occasional flashbacks. My total is somewhere around ninety thousand miles, which is about three and a half times around the planet. In 2001, for instance, I made six trips across the country, an eighteen-thousand-mile haul. I personally began my transcontinental driving at twenty-five, a typical age, it seems to me, with my girlfriend, who subsequently married me, and continued it with my wife, who would one day become the mother of our children, and with our children, who would one day complain while driving four and five and sometimes ten days in a row, depending on our cross-country route, which is sometimes a little circuitous (such as on the trip just a few weeks before this one, the trip going west across the country, the trip that took us from New York to Oregon via Texas-a trip that we've done a number of times and that usually runs a little over four thousand miles).
We have crossed the country for grandparent-related purposes, for work, to move-moving being something we often end up having to do for some reason, maybe because we are Americans. We have moved for work and for school, for reasons that to really understand would take more time than I have on a professional's couch. We have crossed the country for weddings in the East and weddings in the West, and once, a few weeks after September 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked, we crossed the country when no one was going anywhere, when America stood still for a little while. It was a national fermata, and the interstates were empty and nervous-seeming: America standing still is something that takes getting used to. A few years ago, I traveled across the country by myself, with all our family's belongings in a rental truck, with our station wagon attached to that truck, and with a paranoid sensation hanging over me like the canvas cover of a Conastoga wagon, alone and exposed on the prairie for the first time. Sure enough, I ran into a lot of problems, some of which I did not surmount, to put it mildly.