I’ve now driven from coast to coast across the United States of America five times. That’s nothing special if you’re a professional truck driver or an Amtrak engineer, but I’m not. I’m just some guy who prefers gray or dark blue t-shirts.
At the tender age of 19, three fine friends piled into my trusty Explorer and the four of use set off heading west on what would be an epic, multi-day adventure featuring scrapes with local law enforcement, a hit parade of the sites (the Sun Sphere, Grand Canyon, and of so much more) and various unnamed illicit activities. A few months after that, two other buddies came along for an equally fine drive back east.
At 22, I drove from the east coast to the west coast twice, once with a fiancee who would become my first wife (and remains my wife today, FYI, but the term is still correct) and once with a friend with whom I would dive into the world of Hollywood (figuratively, as it’s more of a complex and nuanced industry than a body of water).
Just last week I completed yet another cross-country road trip, this time leaving LA after eleven wonderful years to start the next chapter of life in the greater NYC area. Rather than driving with friends or family or a significant other, this time I was racing to link back up with the wife and son I dropped at LAX early on a Wednesday morning.
In the car with me would be only my thoughts. And two cats. And an aquatic turtle tucked safely in a cooler filled with five inches of sloshing water. And an orchid, three large potted plants, some kitchenware we forgot to box up, a few suitcases and bags… and my thoughts.
This is a brief reflection on a solo cross country road trip completed about as fast as possible, and strangely absent of the romantic charm of those earlier adventures. Or, in other words, I just wanted to get there, goddammit.
I should have known things would be different when the CDs arrived. Weeks ago, I ordered The History of Ancient Rome, a 48-part lecture covering approximately seven hundred years of the history of the Roman Republic, the rise to Empire, and of course the decline. I was thrilled to spend hours digesting concentrated knowledge about a topic I knew heretofore as but a dilettante. But when the order arrived… it contained just 12 of the 48 lessons. My payment was refunded, but there was no time to replace it. Thus I would follow Rome right up until the Punic Wars, the point at which things actually started getting good, so to speak. Oh well.
Leaving Los Angeles that Wednesday morning was hard. As in… wrenching. I love Southern California and will miss it forever, and despite the reasons for our move all being good ones, I was still bereft to pass certain signs and sites for what I knew would be the last time for years, and perhaps the last time forever seeing them as a resident. When KPCC, my preferred local NPR affiliate began to crackle out on me somewhere on the 210 East, oh… a tear or three rolled. Farewell, Larry Mantle, John Rabe, and all the rest.
Anyway, it was time to hit the gas on the past and look ahead. I broke free from LA traffic and neared Las Vegas within four hours, which is a pretty good run, for those not in the know. Vegas traffic stymied things, but I was already planning to stop and see my brother (AF officer stationed near Vegas), sister-in-law, and nephew, so what of it? I had dinner and a very low ABV beer, then got back on the road, planning to stop in Cedar City, Utah, having gone 440 miles that first day. The galling thing was that, in the darkness, I passed signs for Zion National Park, Canyonlands, and so forth. I wasn’t going to stop, but it was still frustrating to know the scenic splendor I could have seen from the road, especially contrasted against the decided lack of natural splendor with which I’d be presented through Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and Ohio. (Sorry, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and Ohio, but you know I speak truth.)
Instead of stopping after 440 miles, I pressed on for almost 600 miles, finally throwing in the towel around 1 AM and stopping at a Comfort Inn… um… somewhere in UT. Ridge something? We’ll never know. I had planned to bring my cats into my hotel/motel each night (the car was configured with food, litter box, water, and hiding places, by the way) but one of our cats is about 85% feral (she chose us six years ago, moving in from a life on the streets) and at times decides to be less cuddly and cute and more of a goddamn wild animal who will, without pause, claw and bite you until one of you is dead or fleeing. One look at her told me that, after all day in a car, a new and decidedly odd environment, this was the latter case. Thus… cats stayed in the car the whole time. (I had suspended a small thermometer from one of my wife’s old classrooms in the car and could tell they would be fine, OK?)
Sleep came poorly that night, as I reflected on all the change afoot and wondered why I had only bought two individual beers at that last gas station. Oh well, eventually I must have slept, and at any rate I certainly rose, ate a protein-rich meal (seven to nine sausages and what were likely powdered eggs, e.g.) and then hit the road.
The next morning did initially bring plenty of scenery, but the day also brought plunging temperatures, low fog, freeing rain, and finally a full-on goddamned snow storm blanketing the Rocky Mountains. This was a Thursday morning in late April, and it was freezing cold with snow blowing in sideways. And from what the radio said, the storm was only to worsen for the next 24 to 36 hours. I had places to go and people to see, so I filled up the tank, bought plenty of water, and got back on the road. Four or five hours later, I was out of the mountains and onto the high plains, my hands cramped from gripping the wheel and my eyes bleary from staring out into the swirling gray waiting for the next time tail lights would suddenly loom in the void. It was… a stressful half day.
Passing through the Denver area, I got snarled in a traffic jam so bad I decided to reroute my entire trip largely to escape the weather steadily pursing me. I left I-70 and made north for Interstate 80. So much for Kansas City and St. Louis.
Seven or eight 24 ounce cups of coffee got me through that long day and somewhere into Nebraska. I finally pulled off the highway a little after 2 AM, having not seen a motel for many exits and figuring I’d better take a bird in the hand and stop at the next one I saw. Which I did… but would regret.
Let me be crystal clear about something: I’m not a prissy, squeamish, or even picky guy. I’ve spent many nights bedded down in a tent with just my own mountain sweat for company; I’ll sleep on a floor or couch or in a car without a complaint, provided I’ve been treated to a good martini or a can of wine first. I savor the occasional step outside of the tidy, ordered life, but this? This was something else.
From across the cracked asphalt of a damp, misty parking lot, I approached the motel wondering if I would even find a manager on duty, as the office was dark. Then I spotted two young-ish ladies wearing hooded sweatshirts while seated on a staircase beside the building and enjoying an evening cigarette and cans of light lager. One of the ladies identified herself as a resident and manager of the establishment, and took me into the office. I filled out forms, paid $68 via credit card, and accepted my room key.
On entering the room, I was met with an interior about as shitty as expected: threadbare quilt, faded carpets, pleather-upholstered chair, etc. Who cares? It was a room, I was tired, it all adds up!
Then I turned on the shower. The water came out brown. Mix a properly brewed cup of coffee with a cup of water to see the approximate shade. The water was not hazy, not a bit grayish, it was brown, goddammit. Fortunately, I had already unpacked! I quickly re-packed, walked back to the office, and relayed my discomfort (quite politely, given the time, my fatigue, and the brown water). The ladies were understanding and took me to another room. A few minutes later, as I began to again strip off my road-sodden garments, there came a knock at the door. The manager had just remembered that “Someone broke th’ handles off th’ sink in ‘ere. Yeah, it duddn work, we gotta put ya in ‘nother room.”
I repacked my few toiletries and sundries again, and followed her to yet another motel room. This time, the proprietress preceded me into the room and checked the sink and the bathroom taps herself, confirming that the water was indeed flowing and was indeed not brown. Satisfied, she left and I undressed and turned on the shower to heat the water.
When I drew back the curtain, not only was the drain so clogged thus that the tub was half-filled with water, the water was… brown. So the hell with that, I dressed again, threw my gear back in the car, and went to the office. When I politely (seriously, I was cool) requested a refund, the woman did not even bother trying to rectify things; she produced the needed forms with a quickness and I was on my way.
It turned out there was an exit with multiple hotels not five miles hence, and I spent a pleasant six hours in a Motel 6. I had driven 1,160 miles that day.
The next day I drove across a portion of America so flat and boring (sorry, that portion of America – I know you’re great for crops! And tornadoes) I don’t really have anything to say about it. My History of Ancient Rome seminars had long since run out, and listening to Dune on CD (provided thanks to a friend) gets weird after a few hours at a time, so I was left scouring the sparse airwaves for bits of news, random sermons, and even occasional music. (I didn’t once listen to any of my own albums or old mix CDs during the entire drive — odd, right?) Mostly, I just thought about things and tried to drive as fast as I could without risking a ticket.
I spent the last night on the road in an Ohio motel that looked, from the exterior, even worse than the brown water spot, but which was in fact clean enough (clear water, anyway) save for the lingering odor of smoke and the rather random assortment of furniture tucked into the room. I awoke bright and early the next morning to the sounds of sex drifting through the wall by my headboard. That got me up and out of the room fast enough. Not kidding, this happened.
Five or ten cups off coffee (actually, it was six) got me across the rest of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. There were rolling hills, even low mountains, trees, pastures, and other fine things to see, but for the record, I was under a solid gray sky or actively being rained on (or snowed on) for the entire drive. Seriously. I left LA in the sunshine, and woke up the first morning in Utah having seen the sun for the last time for days. The clouds began to break as I entered NY, which seemed a fine portent. Then I hit the traffic for the George Washington Bridge. I spent the last two hours of my cross country road trip moving about five miles. In that time, I could have driven 170 miles across most of the nation. So it goes.
Driving long distances alone is one of the finest things a man can do. I’ve traversed the eastern seaboard and driven around the western states solo enough to know that well. But driving some 2,900 miles alone, when undertaken with the destination as the goal, rather than the experience as the purpose, is something else entirely.
It was not difficult to do, nor was it exactly easy, and certainly not relaxing. It was not transcendental, nor was it especially grounding. Perhaps it was a product of my age or the immediate facts of family life, but rather I felt obliged to do nothing more than get there fast, stopping and even seeing as little as possible on the way.
Maybe I missed something out there on the road this time. Or maybe I was just missing something that still lay miles ahead.