The other day, on a running message board (vague nod to running in this post), a friend asked everyone in general what the best way to traverse the United States might be. The northern route? Southern? Through the middle? Was Mt. Rushmore worth seeing? Where would be the best place to have a Jack Kerouac moment with apple pie a la cheddar cheese?
Just hearing these questions and then reading the varied replies made me all angsty and antsy and irresponsibly desirous of taking off across the U.S. for no particular reason at all. I-40 is about 1.2 miles from my front door, and the knowledge that, if I wanted, I could just hop on it and wheel right on out to Barstow, California is almost unbearable. Across the Mississippi, through the heartbreaking farms and mini-mountains of Arkansas, Oklahoma plains and dust, past the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo where 72-ounce steaks are FREE ( I once ate an 8-ounce steak there that tasted like a bland old shoe), into the hushed and awesome theater of New Mexico where Route 66 is at its ghostliest, across Arizona from inferno to pine peaks to a corner in Winslow, and on into the bowels of desert land California.
One freaking road. Five minutes away. I can’t stand it.
I don’t know how many times I’ve traveled back and forth across the United States in a car. Maybe 10 times, maybe more? The first time was when I was 11, and it was in the backseat of a ’67 Chevy Bel Air station wagon during a majorly-extended family camping trip from South Carolina to San Francisco and back. The car broke down for 3 days in Merced, CA in 110-degree heat, some wacko with a shotgun was taking potshots at picnic tables at a campground in Texas at 3 a.m., my Dad opted for Spam sandwiches and Tab at rest stops as opposed to Dairy Queens and McDonalds, and in a godforsaken crossroads in Arkansas, a remarkably rotund woman in a Razorbacks sweatshirt asked my brother if he was married (he was 13).
I loved every minute of it. It was the kernel of the bug (mixed metaphors? Yes. Caring? No.) that sent me off on a decade of traveling and playing music 20 years later. The last time I boomeranged across the U.S. was 2002. So, what would I advise? Which route to take? Where to go?
I have no idea. The more I saw and experienced of this country, the fewer strong opinions I had. The more miles and far-flung corners, the greater the meshing of an overall affection for (almost) everyone, everywhere. For the ridiculous, and for the awesome. Red state Blue state left right crossroad megalopolis. Sometimes I feel a little sheepishly Pollyanna or icky when I say I Love America. Vague images of cranky people in Wal-Mart parking lots with hands on their hips, cigarettes hanging off their lips, and Dodge Rams plastered with “I Love My Country!” “These Colors Don’t Run!” “Palin for President!” come to mind.
I suppose most of my trips were glaringly void of seeing the “sights.” Nearly all of this traveling was done with my then-partner, piano player, head-ripper-offer of asshole venue owners, driver, and excellent spotter of liquor stores, Kim. We basically had the same outlook when it came to traveling and performing: If we had to get somewhere for a show, we had to drive like bats out of hell. If we had a few days off, we wanted to see things, but not See Things. Getting lost on a 2-lane logging road outside Lander, Wyoming, for example, might take precedence over seeing the Grand Tetons. I know many of you are saying, “That’s just not right.” But there you have it.
Still, we managed to see “sights” galore from the Freedom Trail to Grauman’s Chinese Theater. But nothing stands out in my memory as much as the nameless sights:
Lost somewhere in a swampy area of Louisiana, we stopped at a gas station/store/crawfish blowout/bar kind of place to get directions. An old guy with one eye and amazingly scarred hands gave us directions in such a heavy Cajun accent that all I got was, “Down this road, okay?” Then we had endless Abitas and etouffee and found the interstate the next day.
For reasons I can’t remember, we decided to drive from Alexandria, Virginia, to Cheyenne, Wyoming. NONSTOP. I don’t really recommend this, but I’m here to tell you that it can be done. All day, all night, and most of the next day. We stopped to get something to eat just before sunrise somewhere in Nebraska. The woman who waited on us chatted merrily about the weather, coffee, and her feet. Then she eyed us warmly and asked, “You girls out here looking for cowboys?”
A friend of a friend near Belleville, Kansas, took us on a walk to three farms, nothing interrupting the horizon but grain elevators and silos. At each farm, they gave us something to eat and sent us on our way with something extra. At the last farm, we rounded a corner, and our friend said, “Oops..sorry.” On the ground were three massive buffalo heads left over from slaughtering the evening before…tongues lolling out, eyes all googly. Even so, we took the buffalo jerky the farmer offered.
In Clearwater, Florida, a wine-drenched midnight boat ride with mega-rich retirees. Sunflowers 7 feet tall in northern Michigan. Magpies hopping right into our car and yammering at us in Idaho. And gauzy disappearing ghosts (I swear) on a battlefield somewhere near Montpelier, Vermont, at sunset.
And so, where to go, which way to go, and what to see in a cross-country drive? I couldn’t begin to tell you. In the parlance of Kids These Days, it’s all good. Take as long as you can take, try to make at least one serious attempt to get lost, don’t miss the sights for the “sights,” and take a lot of walks or runs (vague nod #2).
Have fun. It’s an awesome country.