Monday, August 29, 2011

Road Trip Reflections

America along highway 70, between St. Louis and Kansas City

Earlier this year when I was planning to drive from St. Louis to Michigan to see my daughter at college, my French friend Martine asked me about the drive.  What kind of towns would I go through?  What does the scenery look like?  How long would it take?  She tried hard to imagine my description, but she had some difficulty conjuring up the vast expanses of emptiness in a country of over 300,000,000 people.  How could I drive for 50 miles or more without ever encountering a town?  In France you can frequently see the next village before you’ve even left your current one.

Perhaps the size of this country accounts for the fact that only about 20% of its citizens have a passport (OTTI).  Without leaving its borders, I could explore the mountains of the Olympic Penisula, spend a summer on the Appalachian trail, hit the beach along both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, warily commune with alligators in steamy Florida swamps, see some of the world’s greatest art in New York City, or eat at Lambert’s Café (“The Only Home of Throwed Rolls”), in Sikeston, Missouri.  Why would I ever need to leave?

Americans are travelers.  They are Jack Kerouac On-the-Road roamers, they are Lewis and Clark explorers, they are move-West-young-man people.  When I’m traveling south, however, and hit the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains north of Atlanta I look at the deep, black forests around me choked with pine trees and tangled mountain laurel and wonder what motivated anyone to climb another ridge and move forward, or settle in this or that valley with seemingly no way out.  On the other hand, when I’m on the long highways of the American West I try to see with old eyes and understand what could have possibly made anyone choose to settle anywhere in these inhospitable regions.  Was it just pure exhaustion from constantly moving forward?

Same highway, 30 miles down the road

My favorite American traveler, William Least Heat-Moon, questioned why we travel in a Wall Street Journal article.   I think he might be a bit generous as to why many travel today (“we all set out motivated by curiosity of one degree or another”), when so many hit the all-inclusive resort and never leave the tiki bar or the casino, or their curiosity extends only to whether this outlet mall is different from one back home or if this chain restaurant might offer any regional “specialties.”

The therapy of the open road, he reminds us, is always possible:
On a stretch of open road, a driver can roll along with his window reflection laid over the           landscape ahead so that he must see through himself to see the territory …. For drivers who never see past their own reflection and on into the landscape beyond, any road and any place is as good as any other. If travel is not about connection, then it is not worth the carbon expended to arrive….

I’m grateful that there are travelers like Heat-Moon who go farther for longer than I can.  Two of my favorite words are “road trip.”  However, I know that even after a month and a half in France I start dreaming of my own pillow and the familiarity of my kitchen layout.  I want to return to my neighborhood Mexican restaurant even as I linger over the pure chocolate perfection of the mousse at the café down the street in Dijon.  I want to see the trees lining my own street instead of another tree whose name is unfamiliar.

The problem with longing for home is that I get there and grow more complaisant, less curious.  The winds of the moment shape my day rather than a desire to connect with something new.  I’m distracted by who’s up/who’s down in presidential polls.  I find it imperative that I shampoo the carpet or wash the dog.  What I’ll cook for dinner actually becomes an issue in my day.

But then I remember I’m one of those lucky few who has both a passport and a real, non-digital, road atlas of America.  I start imagining where I can roll again.  Sometimes my favorite part of the trip is those 50 miles with nothing but my own reflection in the windshield.  But connecting with the places and people at the end of the road are what give me something to write home about.

The moonscape on a road between the Grand Canyon and Sedona, AZ
Do you have your passport yet?  Where would you go first when you get it?  What's your favorite road trip in America?  Reflect on road tripping in the comments section and give us a reason to jump in the car. 


Mary Lynne said...

You hit a chord here, Julie. I love to travel, especially road trips or train trips. And I love that feeling when I turn on my street and see my house again. Then it's time to start planning the next trip! Because I enjoy that as well -- the planning, the investigation of what not to miss, the anticipation. I'm 64 and am probably not going to do any mountain hiking anymore or river rafting (well, maybe...) but I'll jump in the car and drive from Texas to St. Louis and Chicago to see girl friends. The challenge is how to make Oklahoma interesting! :-)

Anonymous said...

Living in Texas, I have many road trip possibilities. One favorite is the drive to the Hill Country near Austin, specifically Wimberley, as I watch the road change from flat to rolling hills to higher vistas. My other favorite is a drive to far west Texas and the Big Bend National Park, with its dramatic views and raw, untamed scenery. It takes my breath away just to think of it.

thelmaz said...

Great post. I still love Blue Highways.

Julie Farrar said...

Ah, Nadine. I have not yet made it to Big Bend but I've heard from others that I must.

Mary Lynne,sometimes you just need to turn the radio up loud and just drive.

Thelmaz, thanks for visiting. After writing this, I have a hankering to reread Blue Highways.

nancy said...

So many favorite road trips yet to take, so little time . . . I have yet to drive cross-country from coast-to-coast. I think I need to do that at least once in my lifetime!

Mary Lynne said...

I agree about Blue Highways. I've given it as a gift at least 5 times. It's been a few years, I might have to reread it too.

Elizabeth Young said...

I'm following you and I'm following you!!
Best Wishes, Elizabeth.

Bella said...

Julie, I too have both a map of the US and a passport and I have to say I love 'em both! I have traveled to many countries in Europe and I have made so many road trips, it's not funny and you know what? They're both wonderful experiences. That said, as I get older, I'm startig to think I'm going to put the brakes on the road trips. My stomach can't handle all the junk we bring on these long trips! :)

Julie Farrar said...

Bella, I hear you on the road trip junk. When I get home I feel like I need to do a week of nothing but eat spinach (which, of course, I don't).

Annette Gendler said...

Julie - you've been named as a recipient of the Liebster award, head on over to my blog to find out more about it!

Anonymous said...

Love the moonscape!

I've travelled in Europe, and I'm exploring different parts of the UK. My last road trip was to Cornwall in a camper van, which was awesome.

I'm dreaming of the road trip in the US .....

Anonymous said...

I have often dreamed of traveling America by car. I would love to see the country that way. The planes, the mountains and deserts. The east and south. Maybe one day, I'll have to just quit my job and travel. My family, me and a camera. Sounds pretty nice. I love your photos you shared!

Anonymous said...

Julie, what a great post! My favorite road trip was one I took in my early twenties. I had finally found a way to leave the Midwest and indulge my passion for other places. I took a month on the road with my partner, starting in Cleveland, Ohio, heading east to NYC, then driving west across the country to land in San Francisco. We camped along the way, took our time, and I still have that dogeared non-digital Atlas with our route traced in ink. I've written about it in some of my memoir writing, and one day I'll post it on my blog. Thanks for sparking the memory for me today, though!

F.E. Sewell said...

Just dropping in to say "hi" to a fellow Campaigner. Also, I love what you said about longing for familiar surroundings even when you're in amazing places . Sometimes there's something magical about coming home.

Susan Oloier said...

My travel memoir focuses on a year-long road trip our family took through the U.S., so your post truly resonates with me.
It is so great to meet you through the campaign! I will definitely be back!

Anonymous said...

If I had a passport the first place I would go would be Italy. I know, I know..stereotypical. After that, I'd head on over to Mexico and visit the ruins, though I'm not certain that going there is safe.

Related Posts with Thumbnails