On a cross-country quest

From Atlantic to Pacific, the sightseeing promises to be terrific.

July 23, 2000|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff

And away we go . . . Three days ago, my 17-year-old son and I left Baltimore for a 10,000-mile journey through America. Up, down and sideways we will go, in a counter-clockwise road trip from coast to coast, Great Lakes to Gulf.

This morning, we should be in Cincinnati. By midnight, the St. Louis Arch should be in view.

We are making the trip in a 1999 Volkswagen Beetle with a five-speed stick that Jake learned to drive for the expedition. The trunk is packed with clothes and books, dry cereal and peanut butter. Our bright blue buggy's dashboard vase holds ballpoint pens. The tape deck is cued to rock and roll.

"I'm so glad," sings the prophet. "I'm living in the USA!"

Beyond the Midwest lie the Badlands of South Dakota, the Great Salt Lake, the coast of California and, as the trip curves southeast toward home, the deserts of Nevada and Texas before New Orleans emerges from the swamps.

Two-thirds of the way into the five-week trip, Jake and I will part company. He'll fly back from Las Vegas to spend the last weeks of summer with his buddies. By Labor Day, I will be back home in Highlandtown.

Between now and then, there will be overnight stops in more than two dozen cities and cups of coffee in a hundred towns along a 22-state route selected on three criteria: places with friends or family, things we had never seen, and the mystery that shimmers between the two.

The lure of things not yet experienced was best articulated for me on a less ambitious trip in 1994 when my daughter Sofia and I visited the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

Amid huge silk screens of Marilyn and Mao, walls of cows and movies in which nothing moved strolled an old man who looked as though he'd lost his way from an American Legion bull roast.

After watching him eyeball the art, I asked why he had bothered. He said: "I want to see everything before I die."

So do I.

The Badlands -- alive in my imagination since 1991, when I saw the Terrence Malick film of the same name at the Orpheum Cinema on Thames Street -- was the first piece of the puzzle. The rest fell into place one phone call at a time.

"Do you know anyone who lives in Minnesota?"

(I want to walk by the boyhood homes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Robert Zimmerman.)

"Anybody you know live in Montana?"

(I have to see the mythical crops of dental floss.)

"What about Austin, Texas?"

(The university there has the private library of Evelyn Waugh.)

Between South Baltimore and South Dakota, where we will look forward to seeing Mount Rushmore but will be almost giddy in anticipation of the monument to Crazy Horse, is the Chicago home of my Aunt Dolores.

Dolores Alvarez Kelly, my father's older sister, grew up in the Macon Street rowhouse where I now live. We have traded visits for years. She comes to Greektown, admires her mother's rosebush and sleeps in her parents' bed. I go to Chicago and chase the blues.

This time around, we will take the El from downtown to Northwestern University, so Jake can get a glimpse of a major-league campus before deciding on a college after his senior year at Mount St. Joseph this fall.

Jake's impending commencement -- from the Xavierian halls of Irvington to the world at large -- was a big reason for taking this vacation now. His older sister, Amelia, now considers Manhattan home. It won't be long before he gets his mail outside the 21224 zip code as well.

At first he was somewhat reluctant. Not because he didn't want to be with me (we've taken many trips together, from Smith Island to the Grand Canyon) but because he didn't want to be away from the neighborhood. In a teen-ager's mind, the month of August represents one-third of the disappearing pie called summer vacation.

I did what my parents always did (and sometimes still do) with me. I sat him down at the kitchen table and started preaching.

"Jakey," I said, "After next year, you'll be too busy for your old man."

"No I won't, Dad."

"Trust me," I said. "Things change when you leave the house. By the time we have this opportunity again, if ever, you might be pushing me in a wheelchair, trying to find a nice spot to park me in the shade."

A deal was struck: Jake would go along if I promised to fly him back from out west. My mom found a one-way ticket from Vegas to Baltimore-Washington International Airport for about $230. I'll put him on the plane after we search for the ruins of the old Aladdin Hotel, where Elvis married Priscilla in 1967.

In the thousands of miles to come, Jake will pass time with a portable Game Boy and I will groove to the Fleshtones. He will read "Shogun" for the second time in a year for pleasure, and I will continue a months-long trudge through Melville's "Confidence Man," trying to learn something.

There will be spirited discussions and long silences. Home-cooked meals and junk food. We will take turns driving, get on each other's nerves, miss everyone back home, capture 21st-century America on a digital video recorder and share the adventure with you every Sunday for the next five weeks.

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