US Road Trips
To truly understand and appreciate America, you need to take a road trip. From a Sante Fe sunrise to Texas BBQ joints, Andrew McCarthy sings a hymn to the open roads of the US.
By Andrew McCarthy
here’s nothing wrong that a hundred bucks and a full tank of gas can’t fix. It’s an idea at the core of the American psyche. From the first “road trips” of the pioneers lighting out for the west, to the California gold rush, to the dust bowl refugees of the Great Depression chasing the sun across the continent, sustaining themselves on movement, banking on hope, America has counted on the rewards of the road.
Move forward and don’t look back, your past won’t follow you out here, the highway promises. The American road trip is a rite of passage; it’s a lark, a last gasp. It is the essence of optimism in action. While we Americans claim no monopoly on the open road, the idea that renewal waits just around the bend, over the rise, or beyond that distant horizon, is deeply embedded in who we are as a people. Someone once said that to understand America, you need to understand baseball. I would argue that to truly understand America a road trip is in order. And the more miles you put between yourself and what you’ve left behind, the better.
The extended journey by car is a different kind of travel. You call all the shots. You decide when and where, left or right, turn back or forge ahead. The highway beckons, but it also challenges.
My first road trip was aborted almost before it began. As a young man I bought a sleek old car – a 1967 red Camaro convertible – while in Los Angeles. I decided to drive it back home to New York, 3,000 miles away. At the last minute my travelling companion backed out, so I set out alone. I stopped that first night in Las Vegas, just five hours from LA. I intended to be on the road early the next morning, beating the heat of the Nevada desert. Five days later I still couldn’t peel myself away from the Tropicana. I called my friend who had abandoned the trip, and asked him to fly out to get me. As we drove back to LA, where I caught a flight home, I promised myself I’d take that cross-country drive yet.
The next year I did. I had just finished a long stretch of work and felt depleted, and possessed a feeling of vague yearning. My beautiful Camaro had fallen victim to a motorway pile-up, so my two travelling companions and I rented a boxy Volvo and headed east. It took us more than a week to cover the western half of the country, sidetracking, lingering, following our collective nose; but after almost murdering one another in Fort Collins, Colorado, nearly getting arrested outside Lawrence, Kansas, and suffering food poisoning in Cincinnati, we raced over the second half of the country in two days of continuous driving.
Memories were forged on that trip that still hold a prominent place in my mind, nearly 25 years later: that first view of the Grand Canyon, a sunrise over a purple desert outside Santa Fe, and the shocking, humbling expanse of flat, corn-covered land in the Great Plains. We staggered into Greenwich Village at 2am, exhausted and ragged, but on a deeper level I had been renewed and invigorated by the trip. At the end of that drive I was somehow more connected to America than I had been, and understood myself in a way I hadn’t before. Grinding the miles away, the monotony had permitted my mind a freedom to drift that I had never previously allowed. I got to know myself on that trip in a way I hadn’t till then. It changed me, and it taught me something.
By temperament, an hour in the car is usually enough for me. But ever since that first taste of the road, whenever it’s a “damp, drizzly November in my soul”, there is one cure I favour – as Ishmael took to the sea, I hit the open road.
During a time of personal indecision, I drove across Texas with a trusted friend. We ate BBQ and drank Dr Pepper at one roadside joint after the next. Outside Amarillo we stopped at the sight of a dozen brightly painted old cars with their noses buried in the ground, their tailfins protruding up into the Texas sky at the angle of the great pyramids of Egypt. The Cadillac Ranch was a spooky, playful sight I have never forgotten. I ended that trip clear in what I needed to do.
Another time, during a period of mourning, I roamed through the stark landscape of southern Wyoming and then drifted up into Montana’s vast and lush spaces, staying in roadside motels, eating at greasy spoons with names like Mother’s and Sal’s. I welcomed the anonymous, no questions asked reception the American west often provides, and came home with the feeling of peace I craved.
One of the essential components of any road trip is the soundtrack that emerges to accompany and help propel our movement. Invariably on my travels, one artist, or one record, asserts itself. Bob Dylan has carried me through the south. Sam Cooke swung me across the Great Plains, and I can’t hear Counting Crows’ first album without thinking of my time rolling through rural Pennsylvania, crossing the Allegheny river and coming into Pittsburg. But it is the end-of-the-day driving, when all the music has played itself out and the miles churn underfoot unaccompanied, that haunts my memory most – the width of Utah driven in eerie silence; only the hum of tyre on tarmac.
The road can change not only ourselves but also our relationships to those who travel with us. An intimacy is shared that no one else can understand; something happens between us as a result of all those hard-earned miles. I will always remember the endless hours in the back seat with nothing to do but stare out of the window, counting licence plates of the cars from different states, asking how much longer till we arrived. And my father always trimming time from his answer, so that we knew to add another half-hour to his response. When we crossed over the Bourne bridge onto Cape Cod, then stole our first glimpse of the Atlantic, an excitement filled the car that had seemed impossible just minutes before. These recollections remain the purest memories of my childhood.
American movies have long had an infatuation with the life-altering power of the road. Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert fell in love back in 1934 while trying to hitch a ride in It Happen ed One Night, while Bob Hope and Bing Crosby joked and sang their way around the world in their Road to … movies of the 40s. But it was during the 60s and 70s that the American road movie came of age. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway shot up the central states as the Depression-era bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde. Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek terrorised the plains in Badlands. But it was Easy Rider, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s counter-culture homage to drugs, free love and the endless highway, that solidified the genre in 1969. More followed. Burt Reynolds romped across the south in Smokey and the Bandit, Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise had their version of the road film in Rain Man, and in 1991, Thelma & Louise, in the guise of Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, stole our hearts by driving off a cliff into the Grand Canyon in a romantic declaration of freedom.
That gesture of defiance hints at the secret that rests at the heart of the road trip – arrival is never the true goal. Maybe that’s why, after the initial relief, disappointment is often the accompanying feeling upon reaching one’s goal. Bruce Springsteen admitted to driving across the country, only to arrive at the Pacific and turn around and drive the width of the nation back to New Jersey. What exactly are we looking for with the wheel in our hand?
While still on the road, when still in motion, hope is allowed space and time to play out on its own field of dreams – and hope is something no reality can ever match. Since America is still an idea more than anything else, that hope is indispensable to our national psyche. It’s no wonder that the facts of who we are and what we ultimately do, comes often as a shock and disappointment, even to ourselves.
But no matter. The road is there, calling, like the long and low whistle of a distant train lumbering across that same vast, forgiving landscape of the mind. Whatever you’re looking for, it’s out there, just over the rise. And even if it’s never found, the destination was always just a notion that got you out the door. The time behind the wheel is what matters. So fill ‘er up, check the oil, roll down the window and let the wind blow through – maybe nothing will ever be the same again.