I first drove across the United States during the summer of 1982. My mother and I loaded up our family’s 1970s-era American station wagon — you know the kind: huge V-8 engine, body big enough to land planes on, trunk/jump seats in the back..the kind of station wagon the Griswolds drove to WallyWorld — and headed west to my brother’s wedding in Utah. I was 16 years old and my mother had insisted I get my driver’s license as soon as I was eligible so I could help with the driving.
Once we got past Philadelphia, I drove every mile of the trip. And it created a character trait/flaw that persists to this day.
Over the recent Memorial Day weekend I packed my Subaru Outback — a slightly smaller wagon than before — and drove from San Diego to northern Massachusetts. It’s about as long a drive as you can make and still be in the United States, and it was the latest of I-don’t-know-how-many mega drives I’ve done to this point in my life. By “mega drive” I mean something covering at least a couple of thousand miles; something requiring multiple days of all-day driving, so this includes my drives between Alaska and the Lower 48. I’ve done mega drives in that beast of a wagon and a rented Ford Escort wagon, a pair of Subarus, a ’73 Volkswagen convertible and a ’78 Volkswagen camper van, a Ford Ranger and a beast of an F-250 pickup. I’ve done the drives in high summer amid thunderstorms and blazing heat, and I’ve done the drives in a Wyoming white-out blizzard where the snow was door-deep. I’ve covered (from north to south) I-90, 80, 70, 40, 10 and 8, and I’ve covered (from west to east) I-5, 15, 25, 35, and 95. And en route to and from Alaska, I’ve covered the northwestern U.S. and western Canada from the Calgary-Edmonton corridor west to the coast. I’ve done the drives leisurely (that first drive with Mom we stopped each day after six to 10 hours of driving and got a hotel or stayed with friends of hers) and I’ve done the drives with full-on white-line fever (the legal kind: none of that pixie dust for me ever): from Idaho to Anchorage in three days; 19 hours from the East Coast to Des Moines, a six-hour sleep in a rest area, and 17 more hours to Park City.
And so on. My point is: I’ve covered a lot of miles in this country in a wide range of fashions. And every time I’ve done a mega drive I’ve sworn: never again. But despite the wearying fatigue that results from such trips, I keep packin’ up and headin’ out. Why?
Because just as that trip in 1982 was an eye-opening journey, the drive a couple of weeks ago reminded me of what a great way to see this amazing land a cross-country drive can be. Because even if you’re going 100 bleary-eyed miles an hour, you can get a sense for this continent that you’ll never get from 33,000 feet up.
You’ll see that there’s a lot more non-urban area than you think. For instance: westerners have an image of the northeast as one paved-over cityscape, but the reality is that just 25 miles or so outside of New York City, you’re in the woods. Hell, parts of Pennsylvania and New York and Connecticut are practically jungles. There’s a lot more land out there than people think. No, it’s not wilderness in the Bob Marshall sense of the word, but it’s still pretty green and full of non-human life. And a drive at this time of year was particularly green, with trees in bud, wildflowers lining the highways, and crops and fields emerging into summer sunshine from beneath winter storms and spring runs.
You’ll also find some interesting surprises every single time you drive across the country. On this drive, I learned that Arizona is not all one big desert; the mountains of central Arizona are high and green and forested and wild. Who knew? I learned that Oklahoma is way greener and wooded than I expected; it’s not a grapes-of-wrath dust bowl (at least not in May 2016, it’s not).
On the other hand, you’ll see that malls are taking over this country and they all look the same, with the same architecture and having the exact same stores. From Orange County to Oklahoma to New England, we are becoming so homogenized in terms of our experiences that all the chest-thumping regionalism is self-delusional. Nowadays, we all go to the same stores and eat in the same restaurants and hear the same music and see the same signs. Yes, food stuffs will differ slightly, but only if you get out of the TGI Fridays and Chilis (never mind the fast-food chains and Starbucks).
And everywhere along the way you’ll see that our infrastructure is in grotesque shape. Yes, grotesque. The interstate highways are an embarrassment and dangerous, and despite the complaining everyone will do when held up by a construction zone, there aren’t enough projects underway to get our roads and bridges and such back into safe, efficient shape. Political sidebar: If we took those billions we’re spending on the new fighter plane that gets outperformed by existing aircraft, or on a new nuclear submarine in an era of non-state threats, and directed that money toward our infrastructure, we’d not only get our transport systems back up to snuff but we’d also put thousands of Americans to work. I call that a win-win and well worth tacking on an extra half an hour to the drive.
You’ll realize that Americans are shitty drivers. In this culture where driving is treated like a right instead of a privilege, rude and downright unsafe driving habits are the norm. Drivers speeding up when they start to get passed, slow drivers living in the left lane, people making turns across several lines or not merging (or allowing a merge) when lanes constrict — and don’t even get me started on the dearth of turn-signal usage — you see the same shitty driving everywhere. I used to think that there were more shitty drivers in California than elsewhere, but I now realize that the percentages are about the same everywhere. It’s just that in California, where there are simply so many people and such a car culture, the raw numbers are so much higher. But percentage-wise, California is no worse than anywhere else in the U.S. (and after a couple of weeks being back in New England, I’m actually coming around to the mindset that the percentages are higher here). I, for one, can’t wait for the driverless automobiles. Our traffic will disappear when the machines are doing the driving for us.
My recent drive was actually pretty straightforward: three days (of 13, 14 and 12 hours, respectively) from central Arizona to home at Plum Island. The traffic was light until I hit northeast Pennsylvania and southwestern Connecticut, and the weather was fine the entire way. My Subaru ran like a top and I didn’t wind up with a back that felt like I’d been through medieval torture. And I wound up back home for at least the time being for less money than a one-way plane ticket — AND I don’t have to rent a car while I’m here.
Oh, and for you Californians reading this: the rumors are true. Gas IS affordable in America. Once you get east of the border, into Nevada or Arizona, gas prices drop a full half-dollar or more.
So it was a relatively easy drive this time but I once again declared, “Never again” when I pulled into the driveway at home. That is, until I get that wanderin’ jones again and head out on the highway. I’d say…July, at least.