The summer before I started high school, my family drove from Maine to California in about a month and lived to tell the tale, three boys and two parents surviving the close confinements of a huge American station wagon, driving sea to shining sea and back again. That trip has played forever in the back of my head, and has much to do with my fascination with that most American of institutions: the road trip.
It was 1965. Things were starting to get interesting in Vietnam. (We were still planning on winning then.) Ralph Nader’s indictment of the American auto industry, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” was a best seller. (It did not keep us at home although we did have a couple of automotive misadventures.) The most popular song on the radio in the West was Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.” We were kings of the road, too. And why not? Gas was 31 cents a gallon.
In preparation for the expedition, we had obtained from the American Automobile Association a primitive map designed to keep us pointed toward the Golden Land and lead us not into temptation. But we often strayed from that path, as many a pilgrim will do. We were not the worse for any detour.
The interstate highway system— especially in the West— was incomplete. Fast food was in its infancy. We ate in old-fashioned diners and little mom & pop restaurants in tiny towns. We drove back roads. Our goal every night was to find a motel with a swimming pool. We sent everyone we knew a postcard. And, why not? A stamp was 4 cents.
Remember “See America, First”? We saw America first. Niagara Falls, the arch in St. Louis and Meramac Caverns in the Ozarks, where we stopped because the countryside from Ohio on west was festooned with signs promoting the place painted on the sides of barns like Burma Shave ads. We crossed Kansas, hotter than a griddle top, and saw Pikes Peak in Colorado. We saw Indians and paid a dollar to have our photograph taken with one. We saw the Grand Canyon. We drove across Death Valley in the middle of the night because the temperature was 120 degrees in the daytime. We went to Disneyland—there was only one then. We rode on a cable car in San Francisco. We bought cowboy hats and looked ridiculous in them.
On the way home we went to Yellowstone and stopped at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D., a building that looks a bit like a Moorish temple except it’s decorated on the outside entirely with colored kernels of corn and other amber waves of grain. It’s the world’s only corn palace, and we saw it! Let the French have the Louvre. We were seeing America first and we were doing most of that along the byways, or “blue highways,” as William Least Heat-Moon called them in a book of the same name.
Given the current state of things, it might be an ideal time to see America again— or even first, if you missed it before. We have a legacy to maintain even if gasoline is predicted to reach $4 a gallon this summer. That’s still cheaper than in Europe.
Let us not forget, Americans invented the road trip. We were taking the road trip before there were even roads, if you think about it, and certainly long before there were cars. Pioneering was a form of road trip. And travelers into the West, from Daniel Boone to Davy Crockett to Jim Bridger to Kit Carson, were road trippers. Our literature is lousy with road trips.
In the summer of 1861, having recently deserted the Confederate army after a mere two weeks of active duty in which he thankfully never saw a Union soldier, an out-of-work riverboat pilot embarked on the greatest road trip in our literature. He crossed the country— nearly 2,000 miles— in a Concord coach with his brother.
Ten years later, Mark Twain got the book “Roughing It” out of that journey. There is no better book about traveling in America. He never took a single note, and he never let the facts get in the way of the story. And many a chronicler of a road trip from Twain down to a beery undergraduate headed for spring break in Panama City Beach has understood the importance of that narrative device. From Walt Whitman to John Steinbeck, we are a nation ready to hit the road, Jack. Perhaps Jack Kerouac understood that most of all.
So this is a fine summer to see America first. We are unwelcome around the globe. Our money is virtually worthless. It takes eons to get a new passport or to have your old one renewed. And it is plainly dangerous, if not merely very difficult, to travel now. But take heart. There is everything in the lower 48 that one could find abroad and it’s a lot cheaper and easier to get to. We’ve even got places in the U.S. of A. that look like Third World countries, if that’s your style! I am not much of a patriotic fellow but going to look for America has never disappointed me.
Summer is a’ coming in, as the poet sang. And before it gets too late, hit the road. Stay off the interstate. Make no plans. Stop on impulse. Talk to strangers. Buy the local newspaper. Read the bulletin board in front of the town supermarket. Drink the coffee in roadside cafés. Ask if they make their own pies. You won’t be disappointed. Bon voyage!