Road Kill and Rapture on the Interstate

Along with my partner Heidi, I recently completed a 14-day, 4,638-mile road trip from New York to Boulder, Colorado and back. (We drove out in separate cars, delivered one, and returned together.) Since writers and bloggers should never use the term ‘indescribable,’ and should avoid superlatives generally, I’ll simply try to summarize what I learned along the way.

First of all, be lucky. Heidi and I were lucky with the weather in mid-May, except for a single torrential rainstorm in western Pennsylvania on the inbound leg. We were fortunate that our two cars never got separated when out of cell phone range (except once in Kansas; I finally found her on the Salina off-ramp). We were lucky that the gigantic thunderstorm we skirted in Colorado didn’t grow into a tornado.

We were lucky that nothing important was lost, stolen, or damaged, except for a reluctance to undertake long road trips.

And on the whole, we were lucky with the wildlife that clot the nation’s arteries. I did hit part of one deer, which was already quite deceased. It was in darkness in Virginia; luckily, the piece of my car that nearly fell off wasn’t essential. But the smell was horrific, and I drove slowly to the nearest Best Western to cry and sleep. The following morning, at a gas station next to the motel, a mechanic put the car on the lift and just ripped off the semi-detached hunk of Volkswagen. He warned me that the deer in Virginia were nothing compared to the elk in Colorado.

Luckily, no elk bothered us. Bit I narrowly missed another deer in Oklahoma, in broad daylight. Either incident could have ended the trip. Everywhere we went there were clean, pleasant motels. But most of all, we were lucky with scheduling. Two weeks was just enough time, driving on average of 400 miles a day.

The second lesson is: plan a little, but not too much. The only essential reference work is the holy scripture of motoring, the Rand McNally Road Atlas. We visited several museums, two presidential libraries, and stopped whenever we felt like it. One of my goals was to get to Kansas and Oklahoma: check. A few miles past the deadline of my fiftieth birthday, I entered my fiftieth state.

Third, bring plenty of audio tapes. You can look at scenery but you can’t hear it, at least not from a moving car. We listened to Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, a riveting narrative of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency (after seeing his birthplace and boyhood home site in Kentucky). Super-sad ending, but never mind.

Fourth, talk to strangers. They are often nice. In Guymon, Oklahoma, we had breakfast with an elderly farm couple. They talked about crop rotation, church groups, and the Korean War. At B.B. King’s blues joint In Memphis, some locals approached us just to say hello to someone from the East Coast (somehow my hat that says “Howdy Y’all from Kentucky” didn’t fool them). Their discernment impressed me. They might not want to drive to New York, but they were tickled that we would come to them. And if it makes them feel special, what the hell. Maybe they are.

But here’s the nub of it: leave the books and movies at home; just get out there and look. Open your eyes and let the scenery pour into your brain like moonshine.

Forget about reading, except maps: if you still have the energy to read after a day of driving new roads then you haven’t driven far enough or looked hard enough. Driving is an excellent way of learning to see -- especially if you stop once in a while to look even harder. And get plenty of rest. The land is your museum, and art is exhausting.

Leave your gadgets behind too. I brought only the bare-bones electronics: laptop, iPhone, digital voice recorder for the car, digital camera, and a digital video recorder. And a shopping bag full of adapters, chargers, and batteries.

We mostly kept to the interstates westbound, shooting down I-81 through the Shenandoah and then across West Virginia into Kentucky. But we saw plenty of towns and one or two cities.

In St. Louis, I made a thrilling discovery. Everyone there roots for the same team, the Cardinals. Men, women, boys, girls, all were wearing the red Cardinal t-shirts. There is no civil war there between competing teams with opposing moral visions. The civic solidarity was astonishing and touching. It didn’t make me homesick.

Then came the grasslands, and I was less homesick than ever. Heading south and east from Boulder, we entered a scenic paradise. Mountains are fine, but they aren’t the only spectacular landscape, or the subtlest, or the most calming. The Comanche National Grasslands in southeastern Colorado are rolling green swells of shifting land and light and color that make you feel like you’re on a boat crossing a verdant ocean.

This was previously noted by another New York writer, Eliza Steele. In A Summer Journey in the West, she writes about passing through Illinois in 1840: “A world of grass and flowers stretched around me, rising and falling to gentle undulations, as if an enchanter had struck the ocean swell, and it was at rest forever. How shall I convey to you an idea of a prairie. Imagine yourself in the centre of an immense circle of velvet herbage, the sky for its boundary upon every side; the whole clothed with a radiant efflorescence of every brilliant hue.”

I have often contemplated making just such a road trip. Like it or not, I am, like Whitman, a “son of the brawny and tall-topt city.” I lead a sedentary life. But I like to move, especially if something else is moving me. At times it’s seemed like a fantasy of escape: driving through the Holland Tunnel and not stopping until the wide-open spaces. When it’s a “dismal, damp November in my soul” (Melville), I get to thinking what it’s like out there in the Appalachians and beyond. But it’s no fantasy. There really is incredible beauty and tranquility out there beyond the Tunnel. Or maybe I should say, beyond the Delaware River.

Returning after two weeks, I was ready to do my laundry and get right back on the road and out again into the open spaces.  Heidi and I had rediscovered our inner nomads -- and glimpsed America the beautiful. The view from the interstates and rural secondary roads  is partial and selective of course, largely devoid of factories, strip malls, bowling alleys. But it is real and stunning: like poring over old photographs of a lover in the attic.  You gird for disappointments that never arrive. The pull of the land is real and deep.

Like Miss Steele, I have a thing for prairies. They beguile the eye, calm the heart, and inebriate the soul. And like I would for Heidi, I would drop everything and drive 2,500 miles just to see them again.

Originally posted on…n-the-interstate/