A driving lesson: 'A trip takes us'

On a cross-country trip, relax and let wind and whim steer the course

Postcard: The Road

August 11, 2002|By Erika Niedowski | By Erika Niedowski,Sun Staff

If you've never driven cross-country, do.

That's what I just did. Two weeks, 12 states, 3,447 miles, from Baltimore to San Francisco. I can't think of anything like it.

You've heard it before, as I had: There's something about the open road. But, really, there is. Even driving clear to Terre Haute, Ind. -- some 730 miles -- and eating bad pizza for dinner on the first day was somehow inspiring. It's all about the journey.

A few days before I left, I visited my local library to check out two books on road-tripping: John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley, in which the author and his dog set out to rediscover the country after 25 years, and Larry McMurtry's Roads, a tale of driving America's "great highways." I thought it would be neat to read them along the way, but I didn't end up cracking either one. I didn't have to. Why spend time living someone's else's adventure when you're smack in the middle of your own?

As Chris, my traveling companion, and I would come to learn, driving cross-country isn't just about getting behind the wheel of a car. It's about patience, freedom and a willingness to be awed. Not only by the landscape -- though there is certainly plenty that will leave you at a loss for words -- but by the possibilities of the journey itself.

Our trip took us along Interstate 70 as far as it went: through Wheeling, W.Va., Columbus, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City and Denver, then into Utah, where it eventually dead-ends. We stopped at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, taking the cramped, space capsule-like car to the top, where we considered the rest of our journey west from a height of 630 feet. Heading back to the Camry, we passed a little boy who had just looked up and seen, probably, the sight of his life. "Oh my God, that's high!" he said.

We pushed on into Kansas, eating breakfast one morning at a greasy spoon called Meridy's in Russell, home of Bob Dole. Even with our ages combined we were a good 10 years younger than most of the locals dining there. Before crossing the border into Colorado, Chris had a brilliant idea: Put in a CD by the band Kansas and listen to "Dust in the Wind." Even safe inside the car, it felt like just us against the strong prairie breeze.

Some stretches of highway are best left to silence, others to B-grade radio (when you can tune in any station at all). The road offers plenty of time to talk, too, about everything and nothing. We ranked fast-food restaurants, remembered the ways we got into trouble in high school, tried to figure out how many different kinds of love there are. If you're ever stuck for a topic, one is bound to come along. Somewhere in a Midwestern state -- I can't recall which one -- we passed a screaming billboard for a lingerie outlet that asked: "Got Bra Problems?"

The trip brought all sorts of new and singular experiences, from my first Wendy's Frosty -- I am told it's un-American to have gone 28 years without one -- to the less tangible intimacies that only people in a car on a long road trip are bound to share.

There was the patch of snow hanging on even in July atop Baldy Mountain, 11,000-plus feet, in Breckenridge, Colo.; the little fish that pricked our backs as we swam in the Colorado River near Arches National Park; the cryptic messages arranged in stones alongside the highway in the Great Salt Lake Desert. Who left these thoughts, we wondered, and how long ago?

The trip also brought extremes: One morning we listened to an organ rehearsal in the Mormon Tabernacle and toured the sacred Temple Square in Salt Lake City. That night we checked into a hotel room at Harrah's casino in Reno, where we played the slots. You could practically feel the morality in the air in Salt Lake; Reno's atmosphere was 24-hour neon lights and sanctioned excess.

There are people who pack up and hit the road for months at a time, and I understand why. Steinbeck, in Travels With Charley, refers to the "virus of restlessness."

You can plan a trip all you want, he writes, but once it begins, something else takes over.

"A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us."

And so it was with profoundly mixed feelings that I pointed out a green highway sign along I-80 in California that announced: "San Francisco, 62 miles." Being that close was unthinkable when we pulled out of my driveway 10 days before. Now we were an hour away.

Some time later, I realized this: I hadn't slept in the car once. I guess I thought I would have missed too much.

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