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America at 70 mph

James Dannenberg is a freelance writer living in Hawaii.

It was a dumb idea, yet so simple there was a certain inevitability about it.

When my son Alex was 18, we were so inspired by “Road Fever,” Tim Cahill’s book on his record-setting drive from South America’s Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic, that we sought some similarly impressive challenge. We devised a road trip through all the 48 contiguous states, charting and plotting and mapping an 8,000-mile counterclockwise course. We would aim high. We would go for a record.

Then reality crept in. The more we contemplated the map, the more we realized this wouldn’t be fun; this would be insane. The maps went back in the drawer.

Five years went by and then five more. Alex grew up, got married and moved from our Hawaii home to the mainland. He was in Wisconsin, and the dream was on the back burner.

It simmered there, quietly. Maybe its ridiculousness kept it alive, but I still wanted to do it. And--to my satisfaction and surprise--so did Alex. He suggested coming with me--at least part of the way. Out came the map. This time, though, we decided it would be just--just!--a road trip, no record attempt. We’d get out on the open highway, step on the gas and see America first, if very, very quickly. When Jordan Kramer, an old friend from San Francisco, agreed to tag along for another leg, it was no longer a question. It was time to get this show on the road.

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“The road is life,” Jack Kerouac wrote. That may be an overstatement for others but not for me. I love the road. Always have. Never mind that I moved to Hawaii, where a road trip resembles a dog chasing its tail.

It’s intoxicating to charge the horizon wearing a car like a comfortable suit of clothes. Some deride being sealed in a highway-bound projectile, but to me it brings the near-hypnotic hum of the tires, the splendid sense of isolation, removal from the mundane and routine, insulation from responsibility and time for reflection, not to mention an excuse to eat bad food.

Let the good times roll, I said, and they did. Mostly. For our long-anticipated American odyssey, I rented a big four-door Chrysler with unlimited mileage. Now that we weren’t trying to break records, we decided to take periodic breaks. This was a road trip, not an endurance contest, so I planned to average 600 miles a day, sleep in a bed every night and take some two- and three-day rests. The route was simple, resembling a smaller version of the U.S. profile.

Jordan would join me first. We decided to fly into Las Vegas last September and start from there. There was no better metaphor for America than this anomaly in the desert, no better foil than a town so sincerely and meticulously phony (in the best sense of that word), so outwardly unlike the rest of America, yet nonetheless an avatar of the American tourist dream.

The night before departure, Jordan and I toasted our journey over a steak and frites dinner at that uniquely American institution, Paris Las Vegas. I realized that by the time I finished the trip and was back home, I would have seen every state but Alaska. I would be a 49er.

At 6 the next morning we were off. Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild” blared from the car speakers, as it would every day of our trip:

Get your motor runnin’

Head out on the highway

Lookin’ for adventure

And whatever comes our way.

Within three minutes, we were lost.

Crestfallen, we regained our bearings and headed south through the Mojave Desert for California and our first state line. U.S. 95 plunged 100 miles to overheated Needles and the Colorado River. Interstate 40 beckoned, but we preferred the time warp of Arizona’s old Route 66, passing through Kingman, longtime home of cowboy actor Andy Devine, countless trailers and the lonely high desert. Survivalist country.

Desert gradually dissolved into grasslands and the Coconino National Forest of Arizona, but the wide-open spaces ran out when we ran up against a two-mile traffic jam approaching Grand Canyon National Park. Still, it was an easy first day--376 miles--because I wanted to break Jordan in gently.

The scenery on day 2 was spectacular. There were plenty of treasures hidden in the Southwest’s big empty, but we rarely succumbed to temptation, jetting through Navajo and Hopi reservations, save for a stop at the Kayenta Burger King, unassuming home to a World War II code talkers exhibit. U.S. 160 provided a dazzling but ultimately depressing light show, with miles of broken beer and liquor bottles glistening like diamonds in the morning sun.

Utah’s Monument Valley, locus of all my favorite John Ford westerns, was calling, but we settled for a stop at nearby Goulding’s Trading Post, which straddles the Utah-Arizona line, before heading to Colorado.

Jordan and I had found our road rhythm. We were reluctant to stop, and, though aware of the things we were missing, steeled ourselves against the lure of parks, monuments and tourist oddities as resolutely as Odysseus had resisted the Sirens’ entreaties. Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park, home to ancient cliff dwellings, would have to wait, as would the retro Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and the isolated Hovenweep National Monument, which I have--for no good reason--bypassed perhaps a dozen times over the years.

We were going to make Taos, N.M., if it meant wearing blinders. The scenery gave us reason to keep going, with new riches with every mile: high grassland plateaus, distant mountain views and, past Durango, Colo., mountain forests reminiscent of France’s Auvergne. The trade-off was inevitable: We could see it, but we couldn’t taste it or smell it or feel it. Even without a quest for the record, time was a taskmaster.

As the miles passed Jordan and I talked about music--I had about 50 CDs with me, some classical, some opera, some classic rock--and photography and our families and kids. Sometimes we lapsed into silence, and that was OK too.

We reached Taos at sunset.

Running mileage total: 966.

Leaving Taos, we exchanged the winding mountain roads for the high prairie and the bottom of the nation’s breadbasket. In contrast to the desert, which practically begged us to get out and play, these lonely vistas compelled us to stay in the car. There was little to entertain our senses in the endless grasslands and cornfields, grain elevators and railheads of the Texas Panhandle and northern Oklahoma.

Still, I felt certain that we’d find something of value. Near Gate, Okla., I predicted we’d find the perfect roadside cafe and it would be called Mom’s.

It wasn’t called Mom’s. But it was as close to perfect as you can get.

We walked inside. It was about two-thirds empty. Laurie, the owner whose name the cafe bore, approached us.

“Do you two have a reservation?” she asked, deadpan.

We laughed, sat down, ordered. As we ate Indian tacos made with fry bread and meat, we listened to her life story, her worries about her children in Florida--then threatened by devastating hurricanes--and her hopes they would come home to Oklahoma.

Her tales were far more interesting than our next few hundred miles. Other than Price Tower, a Frank Lloyd Wright high-rise in Bartlesville, Okla., we didn’t see much before leaving the sparse plains, clipping Kansas and making Neosho, Mo., after dark.

Mileage: 1,739.

Dinner at a chain restaurant reminded us about what happens when you eat too much road food. I swear we were the only normal-sized customers in the place. Of the numerous diners attacking the huge buffet of mostly deep-fried food, none, save for wildly overweight children, could have weighed less than 300 pounds. I did succumb to the temptation of fried shrimp, but passed on dessert.

I had misgivings as we approached the south. It dredged up dark childhood memories--from family vacation drives from Wisconsin to Florida--of “white” or “colored-only” facilities, of shantytowns and menacing rednecks. As we slid down Arkansas’ spine, through Fayetteville and Hot Springs, through Louisiana cotton fields and across the Mississippi River at Vicksburg, old prejudices were decanted.

Cruising lonely Mississippi byways, we crossed the Natchez Trace Parkway and charted a course for Philadelphia in Neshoba County, site of the 1964 murders of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner. I was apprehensive. After all, Jordan and I were a couple of aging Jewish guys driving an out-of-state car heading for a spot on the map that might as well have been marked, “Here be dragons.”

Soon we were on the courthouse square in Philadelphia. I had expected a dusty, threatening congregation of good old boys in pickup trucks, but I was wrong. Expensive SUVs outnumbered pickups, and the square reminded me more of Marin County than “Mississippi Burning.” No segregated lunch counter--just an investment office and a number of upscale businesses. People said hello.

There were dragons, all right, but now they existed only in my memories.

Mileage: 2,406.

Through Alabama to Mobile Bay we noted numerous rural churches, the absence of people and the massive logging of this flat, forested country.

We turned north at Pensacola, Fla., and headed into Alabama on a cushion of sunshine between two hurricanes. We ate a down-home lunch in Selma, and paused at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where civil rights marchers on their way to Montgomery were attacked and beaten in 1965. The specter of hate, once again, was sobering.

From there we sped to Athens, Ga., which reminded me more of Berkeley or Madison, Wis., than a stereotypical Southern town.

This was the end of the road for Jordan. In the morning, I’d continue the quest and he’d take a shuttle to Atlanta to catch a plane home.

Mileage: 3,031.

Jordan was asleep when I left at 5, so there were no protracted goodbyes. Alone now, I sliced north through half a dozen interlocking states. The Daniel Boone Heritage Trail flowed gently through the Appalachians like a river. Narrow Kentucky towns seemed chiseled out of the river valleys. It was scenic but difficult driving, with no straightaways for hundreds of miles. Passing through Bluefield, Va., to Bluefield, W.Va., two towns next to each other that were indistinguishable, I took the freeway east, reaching Charlottesville, Va., about 9 p.m. I was exhausted, and I wasn’t looking forward to my East Coast leg. Too many people. Too many cars. Too much congestion.

Mileage: 3,714.

The next morning, I made an end run around Washington, D.C., hit Maryland and crossed the Chesapeake Bay into Delaware and rode the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway to Westchester County, N.Y., where I happily bunked with relatives. The crowds in Manhattan were a startling contrast to the sparsely populated South. I visited ground zero. It was Sept. 10, and flags ringed the area around the massive hole, reflecting the enormity of an event that forever changed the country I was seeing.

Mileage: 4,120.

The route into Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts took me again into wooded rural areas, where the maples were turning. In Hawaii, I miss the change of seasons--that is, until it gets cold, and then I don’t miss it a bit. After lunch with old pals in Connecticut, I sought respite at my brother Harry’s place in Brookline, Mass. Mileage: 4,342.

Other than driving north for a lobster lunch at the Weathervane restaurant in Kittery, Maine, just a hair over the border, I vegetated for three days.

Mileage: 4,492.

Leaving Harry’s, I headed west toward Madison, where I had spent my college years and where Alex and his wife, Dalia, live. An early start took me through New Hampshire, across a corner of Vermont, and into the forested hills and mountain ridges in upstate New York--James Fenimore Cooper country, thickly settled yet definitely not urban. It was easy to imagine Uncas and Chingachgook--the last of the Mohicans--here.

The Ohio Turnpike was dull. After 815 miles that day I finally called it quits near Fremont, Ohio. In some nondescript motel off a highway exit, I faded quietly into the background for the night. This, I realized, was America at its cookie-cutter worst.

Mileage: 5,305.

Sick of the turnpike and the anonymity, I jogged into Michigan the next day, taking U.S. 12 past pristine farms to Lake Michigan, which I followed to Chicago and the inevitable construction delays. Back roads north of Chicago led to Madison, a reunion with Alex and a few more days off.

Mileage: 5,785.

Western Wisconsin’s U.S. 14 rambles through hilly farmland, where Frank Lloyd Wright lived and worked, and beyond to the Mississippi River, which we crossed into Iowa’s undulating eastern countryside. Interstate 94 circled the Twin Cities and headed into the lake country of western Minnesota.

I knew what was ahead and had told Alex to keep an eye out. Near Vining, he exclaimed, “Dad, there’s a big toe.”

He was pointing at a huge representation of a foot, one of the area’s odd outdoor sculptures, which also include a giant cup of coffee and a pair of pliers holding a bug.

The eastern Dakotas aren’t quite as rib-tickling. They’re flat and empty, and it’s impossible not to speed. In Redfield, S.D., I got nailed going 40 in a 35 zone. Alex, who’d stacked up his fair share of tickets in his youth, took a perverse pleasure in seeing his father tangled in the long arm of the law. It was even funnier to him, I suspect, because of my profession: I’m a judge.

We pushed on to Pierre, capital of South Dakota.

Mileage: 6,600.

South Dakota attractions seem to be crammed into the southwest corner, and near the border you have choices to make: the Black Hills, Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Deadwood, Badlands National Park, Wall Drug.

Exiting at Cactus Flat, we cruised the Badlands and the Pine Ridge Reservation, hardly affluent but less depressed than I remembered from an earlier visit.

We also paid our respects at the Wounded Knee Battlefield National Historic Landmark, a lonely and forlorn memorial commemorating the last big battle between U.S. troops and Native Americans. We bought beaded handicrafts from some young Sioux girls looking to support their school softball team, and then rode in near-silence to Casper, Wyo., the weight of history hanging in the air.

Mileage: 7,061.

It’s hard to pinpoint the perfect road-trip moment, but crossing the Sweetwater River in Wyoming on U.S. 287 came close: You could see forever, cruising a long, empty road toward the Rockies, all the while watching storms scud across the darkened high plains. Alex dozed. I could imagine myself the only conscious being for 100 miles--alone but not lonely.

The Rockies in September can be treacherous. We discovered this as we crossed the Continental Divide at 9,658-foot Togwotee Pass, half-blinded by a snowstorm and leery about skidding off the occasional cliff.

Grand Teton wasn’t much better, with the mountains shrouded in clouds and snow in the forecast. We drowned our climatologically induced sorrows with margaritas in Jackson, Wyo., and hoped that the sun would honor us with an appearance.

Mileage: 7,361.

The sun obliged, and we had a couple of fine hiking and touring days, charismatic fauna included, topped off by dinner at Grand Teton National Park’s Jenny Lake Lodge. Alex had red trout, and once more I tempted the cholesterol gods--I had another steak--and fell in love with the lodge all over again.

We dawdled through Yellowstone on the way to Alex’s plane in Bozeman, Mont., past carpets of trees germinated since the 1988 fires. Neither of us was in a hurry to part. We’d had a chance to visit, had disagreed only once (over which way to go, and he turned out to be right) and had grown closer as we closed in on our dream.

After West Yellowstone, Highway 287 followed the Madison River, opening into a large dry valley before snaking through high canyon country reminiscent of “A River Runs Through It.” We had it mostly to ourselves.

And then Alex was gone. I missed him almost immediately.

Only two more states, Washington and Oregon, but many roads ahead.

Past Missoula, Mont., the Lewis and Clark Highway traverses the Lolo Pass and tracks several rivers for 200 splendid miles across Idaho. Leaning into the hundreds of curves along the way, I was part of the road, now happily alone in the muted fall light. I saw few cars, but each felt like an intruder.

Civilization reemerged in Clarkston, Wash.

Mileage: 8,496.

The next morning, at 8,540 miles, I reached Oregon, state No. 48, and continued through the Wallowa Valley and then looped westward around the Wallowa Mountains to Interstate 84 and back east through Idaho. It was a lovely, quiet morning in this farm and pasture land, obscured occasionally by ground fog.

Soon to close the circle, I rushed through drab southern Idaho to Twin Falls, catching U.S. 93, the Great Basin Highway, south 200 miles to Ely, Nev. Mileage: 9,187.

My last day was among the best.

Great Basin National Park in Nevada was an unexpected treat. Surrounding 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak, it’s an oasis in truly barren country. A 12-mile drive climbs to 10,000 feet, through thick forests of pine and aspen, the latter yellow and gold in full fall mode, and the basin’s panorama stretching 50 miles to the horizon. I saw only six cars along that road and felt as though I owned the place. I didn’t want to give it up.

But time was running out, and soon enough I was approaching Vegas. The closer I got, the more barren the landscape seemed and the more concrete replaced nature.

Final mileage: 9,587 in 16 days of driving. It wasn’t a record, but it was a reaffirmation of sorts.

America is too vast to know in just three weeks, but in my blitz across it I sensed that regional differences are disappearing. Should we lament this or celebrate it? I can’t say for sure. I can say that I saw some of the scars of America’s past, the product of hatred born out of the way we see differences. In this regard, perhaps the sameness will be the salve that begins to heal our wounds.

In my three weeks on the road, I found my share of solitude and natural beauty. I realized that once I get out on some lonely highway stretching to the horizon, where, as Kerouac said, “my witness is the empty sky,” the years melt away and I am at peace with the world. Little can burden my heart. In the end, the road is enough for me.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

10 rules for a righteous road trip

1. Use someone else’s car. A rental probably costs less than using your own, with no damage and maintenance worries.

2. Get off the interstate. Back roads usually are more fun.

3. Never pass up a clean restroom. You never know where the next one is.

4. Get out of the car. The cocoon’s comfortable, but adventure’s outside.

5. Never order fried shrimp. Bad food can be good, but resist.

6. Keep an open mind. Experience new things. Don’t assume you know about them already.

7. Sleep. Driving all night can kill you. Hard to see much then, anyway.

8. Watch that speed. The longer your trip, the more desensitized you’re likely to be.

9. Ask. Many of us are basically shy, but you’ll miss a lot if you don’t talk to folks along the way.

10. The right exit will call to you. It’s a Zen thing.

*

GUIDEBOOK

Hitting the Highway

Planning: Good maps are required, plus one or two road atlases. The AAA North American Road Atlas provides excellent state maps, while the Michelin North America Road Atlas is organized by geographical grids.

Car rental: Watch the fine print for geographical restrictions. Go big and four-door.

Where to stay: Accommodations ranged from $35.99 (Motel 6, Clarkston, Wash.) to $255 a night (Signal Mountain Lodge, Grand Teton National Park, Wyo.). Book special places in advance. Moderately priced chains and independents are everywhere, from $35 to $100. Destination hotels included Signal Mountain Lodge ($99 to $255), (307) 543-2831 or signalmountainlodge.com; and Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Lodge ($49 to $240), (888) 297-2757 or grandcanyonlodges.com.

Where to eat: There’s good and bad out there. Jane and Michael Stern’s “Roadfood” and Magellan Press’ “Where the Locals Eat: The Best Restaurants in America” are useful, as are AAA TourBooks. Some interesting places I found:

Mon Ami Gabi, Paris Las Vegas, 3655 Las Vegas Blvd. South; (702) 944-GABI, monamigabilasvegas.com. Steak Classique, $21.95.

El Tovar Hotel Dining Room, Grand Canyon; (928) 638-2631; under $25.

Five and Ten, 1653 S. Lumpkin St., Athens, Ga.; (706) 546-7300. Contemporary American: duck confit, $20; Frogmore stew, $20; pecan chocolate tart, $7.

Laurie’s Cafe, 106 W. Main St., Gate, Okla.; (580) 934-2671. Lunch, $5-$8.

Le Perigord, 405 E. 52nd St., New York; (212) 755-6244, leperigord.com. Fixed-price dinner, $62; fois gras with figs, roast duck with fruits.

Matt Murphy’s, 14 Harvard St., Brookline, Mass.; (617) 232-0188. Irish pub/restaurant; shepherd’s pie, fish and chips, under $20.

The Weathervane, 306 U.S. Route 1, Kittery, Maine; (207) 439-0330. Lobster; mostly under $20.

Plaza Tavern & Grill, 319 N. Henry St., Madison, Wis.; (608) 255-6592. Plaza burger (with secret sauce), $3.60.

Jenny Lake Lodge, Grand Teton National Park, Wyo.; (307) 733-4647; $55 per person for a five-course dinner.

Road trip tips: Buy pillows for your back and arms, and visor organizers. Take flashlight, magnifying glass, tissues, trash bags, extra drinking water and paper towels. Store luggage in the trunk, but keep a small bag with a change of clothing, jacket or rain gear, plus camera equipment and other items you might need, in the car.


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