In just a few more weeks the kids will be out of school for the summer and Americans will be hitting the road for vacations. Thanks to President Dwight Eisenhower we have a fairly decent interstate highway system that links us from one place to another. Traveling by car takes more time than flying, but it is a far more interesting way to go. Driving gives a real sense of geography, the changing landscape and the enormity of our nation. In some ways it is almost like a pilgrimage, a time for relaxation and reflection, a way of getting to know our landscape more intimately. It is on the hidden byways and along the main streets of tiny towns that I truly begin to understand the variety and diversity of the United States. Those long road trips are filled with unforgettable memories of places that I had no idea even existed. Long after I have returned home I picture them in my mind and almost feel as though I am there once again.
As we whiz past homes along the route I find myself wondering who lives in those edifices and how they came to settle in such places. Sometimes the houses are palatial and speak of money and success. Other times they are the size of small huts, filled with signs of poverty and neglect. Since I have no way of knowing the stories of the residents I create descriptions of them from my imagination. I pretend to know what the rooms are like and what the people within them may be doing. It occupies my mind when the miles stretch endlessly ahead.
I love the towns the most. I wonder what the citizens think of those of us who are only passersby. I try to get a sense of why some small places even exist. I begin to realize just how much of America is so different from the metropolis from which I come. I want to stop and tarry for a time but usually have to continue onward to the next place lest I never reach my ultimate destination.
Some of the most wonderful memories that I have are from unexpected places. I can still see the road to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. It is late afternoon and a storm is brewing. The clouds are dark and foreboding. The people who live in the farmhouses are safely inside with the warm glow of lights radiating from the windows. Even the livestock have taken cover, having more sense than we do as we continue on as the wind whips our vehicle warning us that perhaps being outside is not particularly safe. Then we see a twister moving across a field traveling in our direction. We abruptly change our course as a torrential rain overtakes us. We race back to the tiny town from whence we have most recently come and hurry for cover along with others caught so unexpectedly by the angry forces of nature. As we settle inside I feel a rush of excitement and somehow know that I will never ever forget this experience.
There is another trip that returns to my recollections time and again. On this occasion we are in Utah heading toward Durango, Colorado. The sun bears down relentlessly on our car. Dust on the road coats the paint with a fine red mist. It is unbearably hot but somehow there is a beauty in the utter desolation of the road that we are following. I find myself thinking of the first people who settled in such a wilderness and marvel at their fortitude. While it is magnificent it is also forbidding. I try not to think of what our fate might be if we were to break down or become ill, for there is nobody around. It is as though we have become the only people left on the planet.
It is dark by the time we drive into Durango. We are exhausted and quite famished. We find a restaurant that features a dinner of rainbow trout. A chill has come over the dessert-like climate and so a fire is burning to warm the customers. It is cozy and welcoming and we are quite thankful to have serendipitously stumbled upon such a place. Our food proves to be more excellent than we had imagined it might be. We tarry in the hospitable atmosphere and somehow file away the moment in the part of our brains that holds thoughts of the most treasured times.
Road trips have taken us through Yellowstone National Park in the midst of a raging forest fire. They have shown us a glorious rainbow in Glacier National Park. They have made us laugh as we witnessed the ever present humor of our fellowmen in signs and silly yard displays. They took us along narrow mountain trails and through miles and miles of green corn fields. We have learned of the difficulties of driving through downtown New York City, and chided ourselves for the foolishness in the aftermath. We found old time tunnels through which our vehicle barely made it. We marveled at the manicured vineyards of wineries and the permanent ruts made by the wagons of long ago travelers. We might never have seen any of these wondrous things had we decided to travel by plane. We would have missed them as we flew high above the clouds. What a loss that would have been!
Later this summer we plan to travel to Wyoming in hopes of getting a glimpse at the once in a lifetime solar eclipse that is scheduled to take place in a swath along much of the northwest and midwestern states. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the weather will cooperate and that we will be able to actually witness this phenomenon, but even if things don’t turn out as planned I am confident that our road trip will provide us with many wonderful surprises. We will see things that we had not expected. Just thinking of the possibilities is rather exciting.
Thank you, Henry Ford, for making the automobile accessible to the common man. Thank you, President Eisenhower, for insisting that we have a nation of good roads. Thank you to the little people everywhere who set up the gasoline stations, restaurants and places to rest for the night. Because of such innovations my world has been much more expansive than it might otherwise have been. I am a far different and better person for seeing so much of this wondrous country. I can’t wait to get on the road again with the strains of Willie Nelson filling the cabin of our car. Who knows what lies ahead?