Here's a guest post with thanks to our friend Rick Lewis, Executive Director and CEO of Friends of WLRN, Miami Dade public radio:
“One might travel all day and only see now and then a small pleasant grove of oak and walnut,” writes a traveler in southeast Minnesota. As it turns out, Our Correspondent is the British explorer Jonathan Carver, writing in June of 1767, on a road trip before there were roads. It didn’t take much to make his day.
As the price of gasoline rises through four dollars en route to uncharted territory of its own, the Great American Road Trip is among its most tragic victims....
You don’t have to be Jack Kerouac or Paul Theroux to appreciate the experience. The age of the automobile made us a nomadic people, with the good fortune to have a continent big enough, and interesting enough, to merit endless exploration. Now those simple pleasures are out of reach for many, and make almost everyone think twice before traveling just for the sake of the journey, without a practical destination in mind.
Shortly before Thanksgiving in 1985, on the way from Minnesota to a new job in Southern California, I drove through thunderstorms, an ice storm, and a sandstorm in the Mohave Desert, arriving on the third day in a gentle rain at the edge of the Pacific with a feeling of profound contentment.
Like any number of cross-country journeys before and since, often alone, the joy of uncomplicated discovery had waited around every bend. The Midwest’s monochrome cornfield stubble, with thin snow drifted between the rows, gradually gave way to spacious vistas of the Southwest where sunlight and clouds rippled over red buttes and dry, shimmering flats. Weathered billboards offered Native American crafts and souvenir arrowheads to those few who cared to venture off the interstate. I stayed at a no-name cinderblock motel in New Mexico and lunched at McDonalds. Luxury has no place on the road trip.
The little blackout scenes from past trips flicker in the memory like single frames in a movie: the barbecue joint in South Carolina serving beer in mason jars, a kid (probably a runaway) thumbing a ride outside of Amarillo, the long and lonely highway cutting straight and level through thick pines in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula on a chilly August evening. Regional accents crackle on the radio. A gliding vulture smacks right into the windshield in Baja. An approaching car comes soaring over a hill in midair, overturning in a ditch and leaving a chattering family of Quebecois unhurt. The impressions start to blur together over the years. That flat and featureless wheat field with a single tree on the horizon—was that in Kansas or Saskatchewan? Or both? It doesn’t matter.
The demise of the road trip creates an ineffable sense of loss. Lost opportunities, people you’ll never meet, and the unknown discoveries that will vanish from the landscape along with drive-in movie theaters and roadside stands selling fresh produce and genuine meteorite fragments. We still travel, but only to get there, and usually by plane. There’s a reason they call it “flyover country.”
O Pioneers! Imagine them crossing the heartland in lurching Conestogas, pulled by oxen that fed on the unlimited expanse of free prairie grasses, soon to be distilled into ethanol we can’t afford.
May 26, 2008