From Sea to Shining Sea: Reflections on My American Road Trip
With Stephanie staying in Europe to walk the Camino Portuguese, I needed something equally epic to show for the remainder of my summer. I needed to do something gutsy, unique—and preferably really, really American. Somewhere between the Accursed Mountains and the sun-drenched fields of western Albania, I decided on The Road Trip.
Part 1: The Car
|The “Go Cart” in Chappell, NB|
I’ve lived in the adult world of jobs, paychecks, rent and restaurants for close to seven years now, but none of it has ever necessitated a car. First, I’ve always lived in places with excellent transportation (or in some cases, places where parking a car costs more than an apartment). Second, I’ve spent all my spare cash, for as long as I can remember, on plane tickets. One year, I calculated that a full 37% of my (admittedly small) income had gone to Delta Airlines. I was rewarded with a wealth of new memories, along with enough frequent flyer miles to exchange for a pleather toiletries bag. While my willful avoidance of bucket seats and steering wheels might appear as a downright un-American aversion to the automobile, I assure you that—as a Michigan native and an avid reader of Hot Rod magazine until the age of 9—I really do love driving. I just happen to almost never do it.
Luckily, providence came in the form of a sister who had just relocated to the West Coast and was able to give up her wheels for a while. Without further ado, I boarded my ship—a 2006 Hyundai Accent, or what my sister lovingly calls “the go cart”—and hit the road at 5:00 AM on a foggy Oakland morning. First stop: Sunset Beach, San Francisco.
Part 2: From Gridlock to Desert
|Characteristic morning fog covers San Francisco|
Call me naive, but I thought the 5:00 AM start time would let me cruise through the sleeping city and to the beach—a scant 11 km away—with time to spare. 3 hours and half a tank of gas later, I reached my destination with a new perspective on transportation, city planning and climate change. My mind is completely boggled, to this day, as to why so many Americans put themselves through the commute (a strange euphemism for this masochistic orgy of emissions) on a twice-daily basis.
The rest of the day was comparatively easy: meandering through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, past fabled Lake Tahoe and into a steady stream of motorhome pilots heading east to seek their fortunes in Reno; past Reno and into the deserted plains of Nevada, and onward over miles and miles of straight, flat roads.
I set up camp the first night in a KOA in the strange “border town” of Wendover, which straddles Nevada and Utah on the brink of the Bonneville Salt Flats. The town was comprised of a casino, a grocery store and a small strip of hotels and fast-food restaurants. I celebrated my first day with a single-serving bottle of wine and a Subway sandwich, and as the sun disappeared behind the mobile homes I wondered why, in this vast nation just under 2.5 centuries of age, anyone had thought it was a good idea to colonize such an inhospitable plot of land.
Part 3: Salt
At the first signs of dawn I packed up, traversed the Utah border and spent the early morning staring into the sun as it rose above the salt flats. I couldn’t imagine a better time to speed past these mirror-like expanses of lifeless swamp, reflecting in perfect technicolor the warm hues of the sky and the pale, crusted mountains in the distance. The highway here is barely elevated, and the salty earth on both sides seems every bit as navigable as the blacktop, making the 85-mph speed limit seem painfully slow. Utah’s constant roadside reminders to avoid fatigued driving have a formidable enemy in the state’s soothing and hypnotic landscape.
|Mountains reappear east of Salt Lake City|
Nearing western Utah, I was abruptly brought out of my trance by the stench of the Great Salt Lake. While certainly beautiful, this aberrational ecosystem fosters a thriving bouquet of bacteria and other pungent lifeforms that—combined with the rotting remains of thousands of seagulls—casts an inescapable aura of decay across a large swath of the Southwest. Photogenic, yes, but I stowed my camera because I’d stopped here before. I smiled at the memory of racing barefoot through clouds of Salt Lake gnats with my girlfriend. Incidentally, we drove to Vegas that same day and got married.
By the time I could re-open the air vents I was already in Salt Lake City. I’d been here before, too, and I remembered being struck by the city’s diversity. While certainly still the Mormon stronghold it was established to be, SLC is an enthusiastic mix of beer-swilling outdoorsmen, cosmopolitan entrepreneurs and, of course, the darker side of the West as embodied in the meth-pocked girls and the boys who yell at them, congregating near dingy hotels just south of the polished downtown. SLC is still new, but it’s very much a real city.
Soon Salt Lake City was behind me, and I was well on my way to the winter-sports paradise of Park City. At this point, in a simple logical association between Olympic cities, I was reminded of the Sochi games, and thus of the 10 CDs of Russian lessons I’d brought with me. I popped one in as I passed into Wyoming and the landscape perceptibly changed from ear-popping mountains to rolling fields of grass; I had finally reached the comfortable monotony in which I would reside for the next three days.
Part 4: America and Me, a Mini-Essay
As you may have guessed, this road trip wasn’t done in the style of Jack Kerouac (or Tom Green, for that matter). I didn’t have any benny tubes or tea, nor did I bring girls or good friends to laugh and fight with; I wasn’t there out of desperation, ennui, or to reconnect with a lost love. I was there to drive, to stay awake and in control during all daylight hours, and to reach my destination in less than four days. Of course, I was also there to see my country inch by at 80 miles per hour, to experience the full breadth of this isolated chunk of the map that, I had been told, was partially mine. I’d replaced Simon and Garfunkel with где находится Красная площадь, and I wouldn’t say I was “going to look for America,” but I was certainly keeping my eyes open in case it popped up.
My relationship with my home country has always been strained. While I grew up in a rural and decidedly patriotic corner of the Midwest, my parents often took a contrarian standpoint to local views. They avoided church services, even when it meant I wasn’t allowed to attend the local preschool, and they offered lectures—in parallel to those I received in school, on Abraham Lincoln’s racism, Thomas Edison’s thievery, and the inhuman cruelty of WWII’s explosive conclusion. I was bred with a natural irreverence toward patriotism, and an instinct to scoff at things most Americans hold sacred.
It wasn’t until years later, when I was living in Budapest, Hungary, that I realized how quintessentially American this perspective really was. I found myself enjoying bragging matches with all sorts of nationalities about whose country is more harmful or more backwards. Oh, the people in your village have more eyes than teeth? Well, my neighbors used local pets for target practice (unfortunately true!). Budapest is building ghettos to separate Roma from the rest of the city? America institutionalized racial segregation until 1968! You think Russia has an income gap? Check the facts, мой друг! I win this round by a landslide.
But wait, look at me—I’m actually a really cool guy! By attempting to dispel rumors that America was comfortable, progressive or modern, I crafted my own identity as a self-made man—except that the wealth I accrued was cultural. I shed the poverty and moral bankruptcy handed down by generations of dubious American values and in their place invented my own cosmopolitan, global outlook. At least the way I like to tell the story, I’ve come from nothing and, through my own sweat and blood, molded myself into a successful, well-rounded person.
Was I the first to follow this trajectory? Absolutely not; in fact, I’ve modeled my own story on the basis of America’s legends. After all, the stories I’ve heard most are those of the cowboys, entrepreneurs, rockstars and presidents whose paradigm is more quintessentially American than fast food. From Abraham Lincoln to Johnny Cash, true Americans don’t just achieve, we achieve despite. The more I criticize America, then, the more I highlight my ability to rise above its influence…and the more American I become.
Part 5: Wyoming
|Rock Springs, WY: Pacific Union depot|
Wyoming gets its own section because, frankly, I like it. For what Wyoming may lack in roadside scenery, it makes up in culture—not the Louvre kind of culture, but something more immediate and organic. In many ways it reminds me of Eastern Europe: humble, but full of unique charm and scenery; always a bit gritty, and always ready for a party.
Just a lesson or two into my Russian curriculum, I stopped in Rock Springs, WY for a quick lunch of cheese and raw kale, and I parked in a public lot across from two bustling bars. I was glad to see what appeared to be close groups of neighbors and friends toasting a hot summer day with ample buckets of Miller High Life and ample packs of cigarettes enjoyed both in and out of doors. These were true American dive bars: the kind that even the toughest Williamsburg or Portland kid would fear, and the kind that can only be found in healthy, working-class towns hundreds of miles from the nearest urban center. The sight was refreshing, especially coming from the chain-laden, gluten-free haven of California’s Central Coast. I might have joined them if I didn’t have a job to do.
Speaking of which, I realized later that I had parked sometime between 10:30 AM and 11:00 AM on a Tuesday. This was evidently the weekday brunch crowd.
|Downtown Cheyenne, WY|
Even better, I took a walk across a nearby pedestrian bridge overlooking the largest Pacific Union station I’d ever seen (oh yeah, America DOES have trains). On the other side I found a town parade, complete with pickup-truck floats carrying everything from cheerleading squads to Korean War veterans. It’s difficult to describe the mixture of emotions conjured by such a sight: something like nostalgia tinged with guilt for leaving home—then with a drop of doubt as to whether either feeling was my own or just borrowed from some football movie I saw in the 90s.
I made a point of stopping in Cheyenne before leaving Wyoming for good. The state’s capital and largest city is home to nearly 60,000 individual people—roughly the size of Webuye, Kenya, for reference. I wasn’t disappointed. Cheyenne’s downtown is a mixture of well-preserved government buildings, pawn shops, urban decay and cowboy stores. While states like South Dakota and even Colorado relentlessly push their uniqueness on visitors through a variety of anticlimactic tourist traps, Cheyenne didn’t seem like it was trying to sell anything. I got the feeling that Cheyenne doesn’t know how cool Cheyenne is, and I hope no one tells it because it might change.
After Cheyenne, I wasn’t long for Wyoming. Nebraska loomed ahead, and I braced myself for the green, straightly plowed fields of the American Midwest. From here to Pennsylvania, the road would look exactly the same as the one that cut through my town in Michigan. For better or worse, I was home.
Part 6: Back in the Midwest
|A rainy morning outside Chesterton, IN|
The American Midwest, by my observation, boasts the country’s largest diaspora. Everyone I’ve ever met knows someone from Ohio. Everyone on my block in Brooklyn incubated in a state bordering Lake Michigan. Filling condos in San Francisco and lofts in Berlin, Midwesterners have proven their adaptability, curiosity—and will to leave home—many millions of times over. While I count myself among those who left, I still maintain that this is one of the world’s most under-appreciated swaths of paradise. First, the much-maligned weather is actually the perfect balance of extremes. Winter is long, but at least it’s snow-covered instead of slushy; summer is muggy, but perfect for swimming; spring is short, but it smells really good. Then you’ve got a cornucopia of natural attractions: the Great Lakes like saltless oceans, the surreal amethyst fields of the Upper Peninsula, the lush forests carpeting everything undeveloped from Nebraska to New Jersey. Last but not least, there’s the unyielding cordiality of people everywhere. It’s not that they’re bound by some cryptic Scandinavian code to be polite to strangers, as New Yorkers would like to think; but rather, in my experience, Midwesterners genuinely do hope you have a good day.
All that said, the highway scenery is extremely monotonous. In my entire trip, the only place I had to stop for a nap was Ohio—and it was just 4 hours after I’d started the day. Highway driving Illinois and eastward is also surprisingly expensive. Tolls are nonexistent in Western states, but between Chicago and New York I racked up nearly $70 in fees. As a proponent of infrastructure investment, I won’t complain, but seriously Ohio—a new toll every 10 miles? That’s just silly. Knowing I’d be back in a few short weeks I sped through the Midwest, blaring abrasive talk radio to subdue my nostalgia, heading straight for the hills of Pennsylvania and the Atlantic coast.
Part 7: The East
|Grey cliffs of Pennsylvania|
Some claim that Pittsburgh is part of the Midwest, but they are mistaken; Pennsylvania, in its entirety, is an Eastern state. The speed limit is lowered, rocky cliffs start to show their faces, and the percentage of BMW SUVs quadruples as soon as you cross the border. Still, while Pennsylvania is welcomingly exotic with its rolling hills, pine forests and polished rest stops, it’s also disappointingly long to drive through. Thus, by the time I reached New Jersey, I was actually glad to be in New Jersey.
Boasting a long line of celebrities, from Abbott and Costello to Snookie and “The Situation,” Jersey has colonized media far and wide for over half a century. The state’s motto, “Liberty and Prosperity” blatantly places equal value on wealth and freedom, something that many Americans do but would be loathe to admit. New Jersey is a small and noisy state with a high population of individuals, from a remarkably diverse set of backgrounds, bent on getting rich at any cost. I drove 100 miles across the Garden State diligently, despite constant traffic jams and perilous drivers trading stocks via text message.
|Leaving the Holland Tunnel,
When I reached Newark, I already felt like my journey was done. The New York metro area often includes all of New Jersey, but its jungle-like infrastructure doesn’t start until here. Home to the region’s 2nd-busiest airport and an industrial landscape that makes Gary, IN look like Palm Beach, Newark is just the kind of modern Hell that I love. It still took me over two hours and another $13 in tolls to reach the bosom of New York City, but I made the trip with the windows rolled down, taking in the shouts, honks and fumes of the country’s densest megalopolis.
When I lived in New York City, I would use my spare time to explore the outer reaches of Brooklyn and Queens via bicycle. Once, with a few friends, I chanced on the discovery of a lonely and secluded beach, flanked by enormous missile silos, somewhere toward the end of Rockaway Peninsula. We went back dozens of times before the weather turned cold, opting for either the 2-hour bike ride or the 3-hour subway trip. We weren’t the only ones who “discovered” the beach that summer: Williamsburg ‘zines started giving Fort Tilden write-ups, and East Village publications diligently followed. Soon, the narrow stretch of Rockaway Peninsula was a haven for tattooed graphic designers and savvy NYU students—but we didn’t mind. To us it represented success: we had discovered it on our own; we had found something new and good in the midst of 8 million restless souls, and that meant it was ours.
I hadn’t seen the beach since before Hurricane Sandy, and I wasn’t even sure if it still existed, but once I hit Brooklyn I beelined straight for the coast. The beach was there, albeit humbled, its sandy barrier reduced to sidewalk level. No matter—I jumped into the warm water and relished my accomplishment. Somehow, though, I knew that this wasn’t my last stop. In a mirror reversal of manifest destiny, I understood why the colonists, the settlers and the pioneers had continued west. I felt the momentum of the journey compelling me to press on, past the sunless horizon and forward to the next discovery.