Milestones and Miles, Some 4,100 of Them
The Old Folks Hit the Road
And Return To Tell About It
By Edward Shanahan
As a nation and people, we are curiously obsessed with the notion of anniversaries and milestones, some important, others trivial.
For example, 2007 is the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 nightmare attack on the World Trade Center, and one we all still relive. It was 40 years ago that the Red Sox vaulted from ninth place to win the American League pennant in what has become enshrined in sports memory as the Impossible Dream. These are hardly comparable events.
And 50 years ago Jack Kerouac, as we have been reminded endlessly this summer, published his novel “On the Road,” seen as the birth of the short-lived Beat Generation. Also in 1957, nine African-American students were turned away when they tried to attend all-white Central High School in Little Rock, triggering a dangerous confrontation between the federal government and the governor of Arkansas. In the political and social life of the nation, on the question of race, Kerouac vs. Little Rock. No contest.
My own milestones were on my mind over the last several weeks as Ann and I made an event-filled, cross-country driving trip from Los Angeles to Northampton. By the time we reached home, we had logged some 4,100 miles in the span of more than three weeks.
Of course, another milestone is that it was exactly 51 years ago that President Eisenhower signed the legislation that created the Interstate Highway system.
It was likely during a long day of driving in Texas, or was it New Mexico, or Mississippi, and mainly the secondary roads, not the truck-clogged interstates, that my mind reeled back 25 years to September, 1982. I was making a westward journey across the country with son Mark. He was, in a sense, taking me to college for a year-long fellowship at Stanford. I wanted company for the trip and Mark, who was about to enter his senior year at Northampton High School, signed on.
The principal goal of our trip was speed, to get from east to west as fast as possible, although we made some sightseeing and rest stops at Niagara Falls, Hamilton, Ontario, Chicago, Albert Lea, Minn., Mount Rushmore , Cody, Wy., Old Faithful, Salt Lake City, Reno, with a quick visit to a casino, something exotic back in those days, and finally over the Sierras, and into San Francisco and finally Palo Alto.
Mark was a great companion along the way, although I did all the driving while he remained fixated on the book he was reading, “Helter Skelter,” as I recall.
Shared travel always seems to me more rewarding than solitary adventures, and many of us have deeply embedded recollections of cross-country journeys.
It was in 1957, again a 50th anniversary pops ups, that my college friend Tim and I purchased a 1950 Plymouth for $250 and headed off on the backroads as the interstate concept was still just an idea.
Our overnight stops usually were in cemeteries, on beaches, or in wooded campsites, at an occasional family friend who could not say no to us, in the car when it rained, or simply under the stars as was the case for a prolonged stay at the Grand Canyon, where we existed on tinned cocktail franks provided us by a reluctant host days earlier. There was a stretch of about nine days in the Southwest and along the Gulf Coast when we had been unable to shower, but who cared.
We worked as little as possible, although for one three-week period we toiled under Dickensian conditions in a sweltering pea cannery in Washington State, which didn’t even supply us with enough money to make our journey comfortable, but it was not comfort we were seeking.
That entire trip took slightly less than three months and by the time we limped home we had clocked more than 13,000 hard-won miles, probably paying 25 cents a gallon for gasoline. The Plymouth had one major quirk, poor brakes, which required us to feed enough fresh brake fluid into a slot under the driver’s side floor board to slow the car even as we hurtled down the steep mountain highways in the west. It was a tricky maneuver, but we became accustomed to the challenge
Much of what we saw and might have learned about the country then was lost on us, largely because we did not have the historical background or maturity to appreciate what we were experiencing.
For example, why weren’t we outraged by the “Whites Only” signs at movie entrances we passed through in Louisiana and Alabama? How come we saw the migrants who we lived with at the cannery compound as romantic figures, rather than as desperate men trying to scratch out a meager living? Our social conscious was seriously undernourished at that point.
Like education, sometimes travel is wasted on the young.
This most recent trans-continental trip definitely was not wasted on us, given the 70 years plus of experience both of us brought to the task.
Our trip came up as a spur of the moment idea: our son Ed and his family were driving across the country in August from east to west, but school and jobs meant they had to return home by plane rather than by car. Wouldn’t it be a great idea for us to fly to Los Angeles, spend a couple of days with them and then drive their car – a Scion – back to New York.
Why not. We have nothing but time these days.
We had a pretty clear idea of the itinerary and route we intended to follow, which drifted south after pit stops in Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, then traversing the somewhat barren but often appealing stretches of rural America.
We did not plan to rough it in cemeteries or campgrounds – Hampton Inns and the like were fine and non-franchise, local restaurants would nourish us, definitely no tinned cocktail franks.
Our goal was to find one or two special attractions or activities each day, even if sometimes that meant less driving and more sightseeing; or on other days the driving itself and passing landscape would be the attraction and the reward.
Large cities yielded up pleasures – Austin and the LBJ library – Little Rock and the Central High School site – Memphis and the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel – Nashville and the Country Music Hall of Fame – Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Art Museum.
But towns like Socorro, New Mexico, and Llano and Blanco in the Texas Hill Country, as well as Texarkana, Oxford and Holly Springs, Miss. were worth stopping in and to take a leisurely spin around.
I found it absurd to try to get our arms around this sprawling and diverse – both in geography and population – country and there is no better way to appreciate it than at ground level. It is hard to believe there is an American point of view or opinion. The land mass and its expansive people are too varied, despite every effort there is to homogenize all aspects of life.
As the end of the road neared, we had concluded it was no chore at all to travel so many miles and so many days. In fact, as the distance home became shorter and shorter our sense of sadness increased. It seemed as though we had been given a gift and this personal milestone would dwarf all others in the years ahead.
downstreet.net©2001. All rights reserved.