Fun with Food

“If this people has so atrophied its taste buds as to find tasteless food not only acceptable but desirable, what of the emotional life of the nation?”

In addition to billboards, the air along the highways is populated with sky signs for individual businesses, many of them familiar from TV adverts or long hours spent on the road. You look out across a town from the highway and see a forest of signs. In this medium you can see every store between the highway and the edge of town two miles away. They are largely recognizable brand names: Denny’s, Carl’s Jr., Super 8, Conoco, Wal-Mart, Starbucks. All vying for your attention, and ultimately, your money. Around here, when they say. “You can’t miss it,” they mean it—you really can’t. They’ve hit you with advertising on every possible surface.

We spent several miles driving behind a Frito Lay truck whose back panel advertised: “Food for the fun of it.” Not because you’re hungry, not because it’s healthy, but because it’s fun. That’s why we eat. Food is the center of social life. And it’s not just a little food, it’s mountains of it. Rice Krispies treats, chips and salsa, peanuts, cookies, sandwiches, potato salad, coffee with vanilla caramel hazelnut creamer, everything with high fructose corn syrup, or butter, or mayonnaise, no fresh vegetables in sight.

These days our food has almost nothing to do with nature. The tide was already turning in this direction when Steinbeck made his journey. “The food is oven-fresh, spotless and tasteless; untouched by human hands,” he wrote. This is no way to eat. “I remembered with an ache certain dishes in France and Italy touched by innumerable human hands.” (71) On our travels we once again observed the truism that everything tastes better cooked over a campfire: steak, mushrooms, bacon, potatoes. Take the best Kobe beef in the world, cook it indoors, and we defy you to find it tastier than a plain old sirlion grilled over an open wood flame. No sauce, no spice, just wood and smoke and meat. It doesn’t get better.

But as we made our trademark campfire burritos with the items we’d purchased at the local market earlier the same evening, we noticed a disturbing trend on the labels of the various packages. The packaging proudly informed us there was no lard, no saturated fat, no genetically modified ingredients, artificial colors, or preservatives in our tortillas. The cheese was “all natural,” the refried beans were fat free. Apart from the question of how on earth it’s possible to categorize something fat-free as “refried,” we were appalled by these efforts to protect our health. We’re treated like big babies who can’t be trusted to choose between healthy and unhealthy. We’re presented with only one option. And this is considered progress.

Steinbeck observed the nascence of this trend too. At one hotel, his “two water tumblers were sealed in cellophane sacks with the words: ‘These glasses are sterilized for your protection.’ Across the toilet seat a strip of paper bore the message: ‘This seat has been sterilized with ultraviolet light for your protection.’ Everyone was protecting me and it was horrible.” (38) Today every gas station and shopping mall offers toilet seat covers in its restrooms for the protection of the consuming public.

Even Steinbeck’s home territory in the Salinas Valley has fallen victim to marketing.  It’s easy to see why Steinbeck was inspired by this landscape. Green and blue mountains embrace green and gold valleys glowing gently in the early evening light. You can smell the life in the soil; the air is full of the rich scent of earth. Blue sky stretches tight like a drum down to the horizon. Small towns dot the landscape and people absorb and spread the warmth of the sun. But there are shadows too; long shadows of migrant workers across the acres of land they till, none of which belongs to them. There are flimsy clapboard houses and sturdy red barns alongside huge Victorian style mansions and enormous warehouses. They all cast shadows across the fields and up the hillsides in the setting sun.

There are still some small family farms here, but there are also agri-business giants, such as Dole, which is responsible for the plastic signs lining the road, telling us about coming attractions. “Coming Soon – Romaine Lettuce,” with a big red arrow pointing at the bare earth, just in case passing motorists don’t know where lettuce comes from. You can imagine the men in suits sitting around a conference table dreaming up a new marketing scheme: How to make vegetables sexy. Farm tours are advertised on giant signs; growing food has become a tourist attraction.

We noticed similar billboards in LA advertising the great outdoors with slogans like, “Rolling hills for your viewing pleasure,” and “You never know what you’ll find in the forest,” with a picture of a famous cartoon character superimposed on an idyllic woodland scene. We’ve reached a point where we have to advertise going outside. People have to be convinced it’s as good as TV.

Throughout this valley, the mobile homes Steinbeck wrote about with curiosity and cautious enthusiasm are parked in clusters with peeling paint, surrounded by slowly disintegrating cars and millions of dollars’ worth of equipment bought from John Deere on credit. Gonzalez, just south of Salinas, is a town of identical tract homes in one of three colors: adobe, beige, or grey. Salinas itself has at least two McDonald’s and two Denny’s, all of which are “always open.” Like children, we need the reassurance that comes with constant access to the familiar; we demand the paradoxical convenience of choice and predictability. It’s all a bit depressing.

California Here We Come

“The Mojave is a big desert and a frightening one. It’s as though nature tested a man for endurance and constancy to prove whether he was good enough to get to California.”

Window Rock

We were engulfed in a huge sandstorm between Winslow and Winona. Red dust obliterated the highway for just under a mile; we could see it from several miles down the road, stretching away into the desert on either side and hundreds of feet into the otherwise clear desert sky. Out to the north the horizon disappeared in a red haze. The wind wreaked havoc with the semis and the giant RVs on the road around us.

At this point we made an unfortunate discovery. The RX8 had made its home for years in the Pacific Northwest, where air conditioning is rarely necessary. So the fact that the car’s AC was broken didn’t bother Dad. Up to this point it hadn’t bothered us either; we were cruising along with the sunroof open and the windows down, because at 11am it was already 87 degrees. But it presented a problem in the presence of the swirling desert dust. We had to roll the windows up to avoid choking and ended up sitting in our very own impromptu sweat lodge for several miles.

When we turned off I-40 onto Highway 89 south, we were suddenly in the pine forest. It was high and shady and cool. The temperature dropped to 72 degrees, and in place of adobe houses we started to see log cabins.

Sedona Rock Slide

Nestled in a narrow mountain valley, Sedona is beautiful. Slide Rock State Park was heaving on a holiday weekend, with families swimming and picnicking, but the natural rock slide is long enough and the park is big enough that it doesn’t feel crowded. The slide itself is a combination of slides, jumps, and pools for swimming. Cold, clear water and hot sun; the perfect complement to a dusty night in the desert. Everyone was talking to each other, talking to strangers. Both the atmosphere and the weather were warm. One guy did a backflip into the water and landed on his belly, hard. In Scotland, everyone would have chuckled softly while looking discretely in another direction. In America, everyone shared a laugh, some pointed, and he came up for air yelling “Ow! That hurt!” at the top of his lungs. Complete strangers clapped him on the back as he got out of the water. The town of Sedona itself appeared to host the most massage parlors in ten square miles we’d seen since Bangkok. Every place trumpeted the need for relaxation, offered us an opportunity for rejuvenation, told us we were “worth it.”

After cooling down, we wound our way up through Jerome and back down into Prescott. The road in and out of Jerome is terrifying; hairpin curves and two-lane switchbacks clinging to the sides of sheer cliffs. Matt thought it was a fantastic opportunity to test the RX8’s cornering capabilities. Alissa disagreed.

In marked contrast to the vertiginous roads in the Juniper mountains, we drove the incredibly flat, incredibly straight stretch of highway between Yarnell and Blythe. Up till then it had been high desert, with dry grasses, scrub brush, and sage. Now we began to see Saguaro sentinels on the ridgetops, silhouetted against the high white desert sky. This was stereotypical desert, with the colossal cacti marching in and surrounding us, escorting us to the California state line. These are giants of the earth, growing over 40 feet tall. In the heat haze of the late afternoon the road melted into the horizon, leaving us with the feeling that we were cruising into the sky.

Scott Joplin & Breakfast Burritos

“There are times that one treasures for all one’s life, and such times are burned clearly and sharply on the material of total recall.  I felt very fortunate that morning.”

Why It’s Called the Painted Desert

When the sun came up over the desert we could feel the heat instantly; it was that more than the light that woke us. The wind and the air were still cool but we could feel the sun burning holes through the night air in preparation for a blazing day. The sky was clear, deep blue. On the hike out we met a father and son from Arkansas on their way to Pilot Rock. He wanted to know whether we’d seen any animals, and whether it was going to rain. He seemed disappointed that we’d only seen birds, and coyote prints, and that as far as we knew there was no rain predicted.

Home Sweet Tent

As we reached the lip of the canyon after a long hot climb from the desert floor and were loading our gear into the trunk of the car, we heard the surreal waft of ragtime music on the wind. We looked up to see an enormous cavalcade of 25 motorcycles snaking their way along the cliff-top highway. The lead motorcycle was playing Scott Joplin at high volume, and the whole train was caboosed by a 16-passenger van towing a trailer with “Bob’s Harley Tours” scrawled on the side in big orange letters. Selling the quintessential American experience, complete with soundtrack and emergency provisions.

Joe and Aggie’s Cafe, an institution on Route 66

After our long hike out of the desert we were starved. We stopped for breakfast at Joe and Aggie’s, a locals’ place with faux wood panelling on the walls, ceiling fans and a swamp cooler, leather booths, reading material on the tables, kitschy souvenirs for sale at the glass-topped front counter, and an old jukebox that’s probably been “Out of Order” for a decade or more. It’s family owned and operated, by which they mean that Grandpa sits silently and stoically behind the glass counter that doubles as the gift shop, Dad waits tables, and teenage daughter mopes about with a plastic tub full of dirty dishes. By their own admission they serve Mexican and American food. At 10am on a Saturday, it was full of families, elderly couples, and one biker in leathers who stopped to chat with a Native woman in the corner about custody battles and how he wanted to “get his kids back.”

A family of ten had the table in the middle of the restaurant. At least two of them were called “Bubba.” One of the Bubbas ordered a breakfast burrito to go after finishing his full plate, which was piled high with at least two recommended portions to start with. The waiter made the mistake of trying to take a plate too early and got an actual slap from one of the women, whereupon he announced, “Well, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been bit.” One of the older children, who went by the eponymous “Junior,” had a large plastic spike through his left ear and black horn-rimmed glasses that were missing the left ear piece. After a particularly loud burp from Junior, the oldest Bubba offered to let the waiter keep the kids, and the waiter replied, “We’ve got the perfect closet for ‘em.”

This is the type of diner Route 66 is famous for, and the type of place it’s increasingly hard to find these days. In between getting slapped and offering to closet people’s children, the waiter was running around breathlessly preparing the back room for a huge tour group coming in shortly. We questioned him a bit and discovered that it was a group of 34 Norwegians on a guided Harley tour, presumably the same group we’d seen on their bikes early that morning, blasting the still desert morning full of holes with the manic jackhammer cheerfulness of ragtime music. They were due into the café in 40 minutes. We high-tailed it out of there.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

“In my own life I am not willing to trade quality for quantity.”

In one small town, we stopped at a butcher shop to buy some steaks for the campfire. The walls were lined with a range of Italian goods, from tinned tomatoes to panettone, and the refrigerators were stocked with homemade fresh pasta in resealable sandwich bags.

We were greeted by a tiny man behind a huge meat counter.

“Hey, how ya doin?”

We smiled at his expansive personality.

“What can I do for ya?”

We asked for two of his best steaks.

“Great choice. Everybody needs a good steak. What are ya gonna do with ’em?”

“Cook ’em over a campfire.”

He nodded enthusiastically. “Best way to do it. I’ll give you sirloin. It’ll be best for an open flame. Not too thick. Cook more evenly. Inside’ll be done before the outside’s burnt.”

We asked where his meat came from, if it was local.

“Of course,” he squinted at us. “It’s my shop. I buy the meat. Buy it from a friend of mine down the road. Grass-fed cattle.”

We asked how long he’d been running the shop. He had come to small-town America from Italy 48 years ago, and he’d been running the same store in the same location for 40 years. He showed us an old photo. He still has the same haircut, although his hair is white now, and he still makes his own sausage with a hand-crank grinder.

“We passed a huge supermarket just a few blocks from here. Does that kind of place hurt your business?”

“Nah,” he said. “It’s a different thing. They don’t do what I do.”

“They don’t sell meat?” We were confused.

“Nah, nah, I mean it’s not the same thing.”

The looks on our faces prompted him to explain.

“Its about respect,” he told us. “You have to respect the customer. People don’t come back because the shop is pretty, even though it is; they don’t come back for the opera I play all day long, though lots of ’em comment on it; they come back because they like me and I like them. They come back because we have a relationship, and that starts with respect. That’s what’s missing in those giant wholesale discount places. Respect.”

In retrospect, that respect was absent from many of our interactions as well, even in the smaller towns. We reflected on one particularly warm afternoon, when we had passed a string of wineries along the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico. Since we’d never tried New Mexican wine, we decided to stop. After a quick wander, the very friendly woman behind the counter showed us their tasting menu. Prices were listed by the bottle or by the glass. We decided to taste several wines.

“It’s three dollars for six tastes,” she explained, “but you can share the tastes if you want and just pay for one. And if you buy a bottle you don’t have to pay at all!”

This sounded like a good deal to us. We participated enthusiastically as we talked to her about our travels, about the reasons for the trip, about the curiosity that enticed us to pull off the dirty two-lane road into her gravel parking lot instead of making tracks for Santa Fe.

“Sounds like you’ve had quite a trip already,” she told us.

We chatted for a while, but after our six tastes of six underwhelming wines, we decided we weren’t interested in a bottle.

“Thanks, but I think we’ll pass this time.”

Her smile disappeared as she pursed her lips. “Oh. Okay.” She whisked away our glasses and stabbed at the cash register. “That’ll be six dollars. Plus tax.” So much for respect.

In this consumer’s world of competition and commoditization, difference becomes a disadvantage. Stores focus more on merchandise and less on building relationships with customers. At the winery, the personal connection was nothing more than a sales tactic; the sale, rather than the long-term connection, has become the most important thing. This in turn drives standardization of products because no one can afford to be different. Hotel rooms, coffee shops, banks, are all standardized to the point of absurdity. There is certainly a sense of comfort in the sameness, the familiar sign that entices you to pull off the road, the familiar furniture inside, the familiar uniforms and colors and smells and tastes. But when you stop to think about it, the point of travel is to experience difference, and if everything becomes standardized, then the experience of travel, even the point of travel, is diluted.

Steinbeck noticed this in its early stages, with the standardization of language through mass consumption of TV and radio. Even our food has fallen victim to this tendency. “Just as our bread, mixed and baked, packaged and sold without benefit of accident or human frailty, is uniformly good and uniformly tasteless, so will our speech become one speech.” (82) He lamented this loss of regional accents and the homogenization of language. He also experienced the loss of regional foods and the standardization of cuisine brought about by the highway culture of fast, cheap hamburgers, the same in California as they are in New Jersey, all untouched by human hands. At the same time, he also acknowledged that the days before this standardization left something to be desired, despite the attraction of nostalgia. Mom’s home cooking was not always tasty or healthy, and the bygone days of fresh, unpasteurized milk were also days of illness and early death from unknown diseases. It is in our nature to protest change, even if it’s change for the better, but Steinbeck also argued that trying to hold it back would only result in bitterness, because it is a battle that can’t be won.

Even so, we hope the kind of respect we encountered at the butcher’s shop prevails.

Advertising and Consumption

“Having too many things, Americans spend their hours and money on the couch searching for a soul. A strange species we are. We can stand anything God and Nature throw at us save only plenty. If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick.”

Now you want a donut, don’t you?

Advertising is a funny thing, in that you are being told what you want. You don’t think you need anything until you get into the store or the mall, and then suddenly you’re bombarded with posters and displays and salespeople, and a whole wellspring of wants bubbles up inside your head, flows through your fingers, and spills over into your credit card balance.

Of course the irony is that you never really needed any of it in the first place. This over-consumption has reached such a pace that the storage business is booming. Americans have too much stuff to store in their houses, so they rent space elsewhere and fill it with the extras. It’s reassuring to know that you can take all that stuff to the local Fortress Self Storage Annex, evocatively named so you can be sure that all that crap that won’t fit in your house is safe with them. We even saw advertisements and billboards for a company called Got Junk. The phone number is 1-800-GOT-JUNK. You call them and they come and haul your junk away. Everybody’s got junk; they may not realize that’s what it is, but they’ve got it. And then the cycle repeats.

At the urging of an old friend we visited along the way, we spent several hours at a home consignment store in an Arizona suburb. The warehouse was in a rich neighborhood, where wealthy people compete with each other to buy even wealthier people’s castoffs: furniture, art, jewelry. The competition is the thing. It’s a high-pressure environment, with holds, second and third holds, better snap it up because someone else is looking over your shoulder and you don’t want them to get it. Our friend had a house full of paintings, some of which she didn’t even like, but she was buying more art, even though she didn’t have room to hang what she already had. The idea was to resell what she bought and make her fortune. In the process, caught up in the search for a bargain, she also bought tables and chairs, lamps and headboards. More furniture for a house already stuffed to the rafters. This is a different kind of mobility; the transience is in the objects around you. Everything else changes while you stay rooted.

“Look at this table! It’s a steal for $150.” But somebody else snapped it up, so she bought a similar one for double the price.

At this place we found a painting that we wanted to take home as a souvenir of our journey. It was a numbered print in a nice frame, and Alissa pointed it out enthusiastically to our friend.

She considered it for a moment with one eye and a certain amount of undisguised disdain. “But you know you’re never going to get any more than you paid for it, right? It’s just a print. It’ll never be worth anything.”

“But I’m buying it because I like it. I want to hang it. I don’t plan on selling it.”

“Oh,” in a confused tone. “OK.”

And that’s where the enjoyment lies for so many Americans, in the process of acquiring and disposing, not necessarily in the objects themselves. The thrill is in finding a better deal, a cheaper car, winning in the hunt for the best bargain. And on some level, this is acknowledged. In one shopping mall restroom in Phoenix, Alissa saw a sign that read: “Fresh flowers to enhance your shopping experience.” The experience of shopping has itself become commoditized.

Along with commoditization comes homogenization. Buying and selling used to be something that was done on a personal level: with a local shopkeeper, someone the customer knew personally and interacted with regularly; with a door-to-door salesman, who came into your home as your guest even as you became his customer; with members of a neighborhood community, people you knew in their personal as well as their professional aspects. Throughout America, this sense of personal interaction between buyer and seller is diminishing. Even in small towns, where main streets used to boast shops staffed by generations of the same family, shoppers increasingly drive to major discount outlets to get the best deal. For the consumer the bargain is the thing. For the seller, the customer is a number, not a face. That’s one thing we’ve found disappointing about this journey, how easy it is to be anonymous in America these days.

Unexpected Delights

“I never saw a country that changed so rapidly, and because I had not expected it everything I saw brought a delight.”

Get Your Kicks...

In a culture focused on mass consumption and brand names, it’s easy to forget about the small town Mom-and-Pop places scattered along the stretches of back roads just off these sanitized highways.  These two-lane roads used to connect the major population centers but are now often bypassed by a faster, newer, sleeker lifestyle of which the eight-lane highways are just one aspect. We were lucky to re-discover some of those quirky, truly unique places along the way.

For example, who could resist stopping at the Enaville Resort and Snake Pit? Or Soap Lake? Or Flaming Geyser State Park? Or the Railroad Interpretive Center? Half the fun is trying to guess where these names come from. “Moses Lake. Does it occasionally part itself?” Turns out Moses Lake is parted by the Interstate, which cruises through the center of the lake on a strip of land as thin as the proverbial prophet’s miraculous staff. Then there was the Molly B’Damned Motel. The name raises the obvious question: who was Molly? An ex-wife? An unsupportive mother-in-law? An unhelpful real estate agent? A nay-saying neighbor? Whoever she was, somebody sure showed her.

At the Little Big Horn Casino, the natives are getting their own back. Bumper stickers advertised the locals as “FBI – Full Blooded Indian.” The Community Theater in Loveland was putting on an original play, “Murder at the Howard Johnson’s,” a comedy in two acts. We wished we could get tickets. The sign for Fort Courage encouraged us to “Take Pictures of the Past!” Every little place exhorted, “Don’t Miss It!” Cameron, Arizona advertised itself as “More than just a hole in the ground.” Fame is a relative thing. On the way out of Holbrook, New Mexico, we passed the Wigwam Motel with a sign out front: “Have you slept in a wigwam lately?”

We stopped at God’s Little Church in the Desert in Brenda, Arizona, and we passed the exit for Mecca just before we arrived in Joshua Tree, California.

The unique slogans extended to shops we passed and local political problems we stumbled upon. One sign demanded that we “Bring Benjamin Home,” but offered no explanation of who and where Benjamin was. We passed a Chinese restaurant that advertised itself as the place “Where the Pot Stays Hot!” Rosie’s Wild Woman Creations informed us, “Normal is not an option.” “PUD Chips” were advertised without explanation. Unfortunately the shop was closed, so we have to live with our ignorance. We passed Bond Girls Bail Bonds right next door to Bonk & Bonk Investigations. Advertisements recommended, “Eat fish, live longer. Eat oysters, love longer.” T-shirts philosophized, “You can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning.” And one particularly sage bumper sticker urged, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

On the Road Again

The one thing that ties all these seemingly random places to each other is the road itself. The road is the thread that runs through the national narrative, linking all the people and places we encounter along the way. When you get off the main road, as Steinbeck advocated, you discover the individuality of the places and people outside the world of Wal-Mart and McDonalds. Out here, nothing is standardized. Each state, each community, each character, is an individual and proud of it. This seems to be a linking theme in our rediscovery of America. Steinbeck observed it too: “Every safe generality I gathered in my travels was cancelled by another.” (120) America is a nation of misfits.

Overarching it all is the lure of the open road. On Highway 89 south of Prescott, coming over Ponderosa Pass, we flew through the tight turns on the winding road, windows down, enjoying the way the RX8 cornered, downshifting through six gears and letting the rotary engine rev to levels not possible with pistons. It was a balmy 78 degrees. We drank root beer and Matt spat sunflower seeds out the window, the quintessential American scene, music up, enjoying the road, the car, and the sun. We are feeling very content again.

Adventures in Banking

“Americans are a restless people, a mobile people, never satisfied with where they are as a matter of selection.”

After our excitement about food and our dismay over gas, the next important thing was to find a bank that would let us withdraw money from our account in the UK. This turned out to be surprisingly difficult. ATMs in the States didn’t recognize our card as a debit card; apparently the chip-and-pin system was too much for them, and they would spit the card out with instructions to contact our card provider. After a few panicky attempts at different ATMs and one nervous phone call to our bank in Scotland, we realized the problem was not that all our money had mysteriously disappeared, but that the machines themselves were unable to access our account information overseas. We didn’t want to carry around one big wad of cash, because that plus the car plus our general air of good-natured confusion was likely to make us an obvious target. We needed to find a bank that could accommodate our strange foreign card.

That bank was Wells Fargo, which got its start 150 years ago transferring mail from the civilized East to the wild West, and later offering banking services to the gold miners of California. Their heavily armed stagecoaches predated the famous Pony Express and were one of the first links between America’s geographical and cultural extremes. At the time, they were considered more reliable than the US Postal Service and prided themselves on the courtesy and honesty of their employees. This turned out to be true of their modern incarnation as well.

Once we figured out that this particular bank could handle the strangeness of our little blue debit card, we learned to pull off the highway every time we saw one. The sight of one of their red and yellow signs, with the iconic stagecoach and team of horses, became as welcome as the sight of an old friend. We still weren’t able to use the ATMs outside the bank; we had to go in and talk to an actual human being. Strange for us in this age of digital everything. But it turned out to be both a pleasant chance to chat and a good source of information about the local area.

The tellers we encountered were the financial world’s counterpart to TJ, genuinely friendly people who actually seemed to enjoy talking to their customers. This was a far cry from many of our experiences in European banks, where the customer is an annoyance to be disposed of as quickly as possible, with as few words as possible, and preferably given as little money as possible. The system required us to make a cash advance off of our card, and this strange transaction always elicited a series of questions from the teller: “So where are you from? What brings you here? Where are you going?” There was always a sense of fascination in encountering two Americans who chose to live elsewhere. “Wow! Scotland? What’s that like? Don’t you miss America?” There was also, as Steinbeck discovered on his trip, a sense of envy mixed in with the questions. “Wow! I wish I could just pick up and travel like that.” “I’ve never been outside of the country; I’d like to go. Maybe someday.”

Driving and more driving

At the outset of our trip, we wondered whether Americans still felt this desire to be elsewhere. The wanderlust Steinbeck knew so well in himself was something he also encountered in others as he began to prepare for his journey. His neighbors, his son’s friends, strangers he met along the way, all demonstrated a sense of longing for the unknown, the open road, the mystery over the next horizon. But these phrases had become clichés, stereotypes of an American past, and we were no longer sure if they were an accurate reflection of the American present. We wondered whether people had become more wedded to place, to home, to a job and a role and a set of material goods, the combination of which would kill that spirit of adventure and wanderlust that has characterized America from the Pilgrims to the pioneers, from the cowboys in the American West to the beatniks of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s. Is it as prevalent in 2012 as it was in 1960?

Steinbeck wondered whether it was genetic, something inherited from the spirit of the restless immigrants whose progeny we are. In the words of one of Steinbeck’s interlocutors, “Lord, I wish I could go.” And Steinbeck replied, “You don’t even know where I’m going.” The rejoinder: “I don’t care. I’d like to go anywhere.” (21-22)

That spirit of adventure still infects the descendents of people who crossed unknown wildernesses in covered wagons, who hopped freight trains without knowing their destinations, or hitchhiked across the continent, trusting in the kindness of strangers. Fifty years later, it is true of us and many others.

Re-Learning American

“At Custer we made a side trip south to pay our respects to General Custer and Sitting Bull on the battlefield of Little Big Horn…I removed my hat in memory of brave men, and Charley saluted in his own manner but I thought with great respect.”

As we flew down the highway in Wyoming between Billings and Casper we kept shouting out the names of the restaurants we passed: Dairy Queen! Arby’s! Wendy’s! Junk food we can’t get abroad. Things we associate with childhood road trips, comfort food, cheap fare for college students who spend most of their money on books and beer. It was the same in the supermarket. We walked up and down the aisles pointing and shouting like crazy people: Cheez-Its! Beef jerky! Barnum’s animal crackers! Junior mints! Barq’s root beer! The list is endless. Every road trip requires a bag of emergency snacks, little things for munching between rest stops, late night provisions to help you stay awake, something to eat should you get stranded in the middle of nowhere. Our bag of emergency snacks grew bigger and bigger, then surreptitiously multiplied into two bags, then three.

We passed the Cracker Barrel, the Pickle Barrel—you’d think our food still comes in barrels. Maybe the names are meant to lend an air of authenticity, of home cooking, fresh-from-the-root-cellar kind of food. For some reason it evokes apple pie. It worked—we stopped.

The Perkins in Sheridan (home of the historic Mill Inn—once a flour mill, now “The Best Rest out West”) still has glass partitions from the old days of smoking/non-smoking sections. Breakfast was country-fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, waffles, bacon, and eggs.

The waitress took our drink orders and expected us to be ready to order food 30 seconds later when she reappeared with two glasses of milk and two cups of coffee. But the menu was 12 x 24 inches and 14 pages long. It took us awhile to choose.

Every time she put something down on the table we said “Thank you,” and she responded with “You’re welcome,” which sounds nice and polite but very quickly turned into a farce in which we said “Thank you” six times in 20 seconds and she felt obliged to say “You’re welcome” each time, and we all realized this was getting ridiculous but didn’t want to stop saying “Thank you” for fear of seeming rude, so we kept up our Laurel and Hardy routine until she walked away and we breathed a sigh of relief. We’re sure she did, too.

Once we ordered, the food arrived in less than six minutes, and she asked us if we wanted anything else. How would we know? We hadn’t had a bite yet! When our silence stretched beyond ten seconds, she dropped our check on the table and said, “Thanks for visiting.”

We left the smooth highway and tested Kit’s off-road capabilities (don’t tell Dad!) to get to the battlefield at Little Big Horn. The land itself has absorbed the memories of that dismal battle as it had absorbed the blood of brave warriors, and it seemed to exude that melancholy back to us as visitors. Under a steel-grey sky, we paid tribute to those whose lives were lost. The sculptures of Native warriors seemed to infuse that lowering sky with their lingering spirits.

As I-90 met I-25 in Buffalo, the temperature plummeted rapidly through the 50s and the 40s to the high 30s. Rain drummed steadily on the car roof and the road began to swim as we moved south. Our hopes of outrunning the weather proved to be in vain.

Just north of Casper Matt asked, “Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve seen a tree?” Central Wyoming is known colloquially as moonscape, and although it has a beauty of its own, it is indeed very, very flat. All along the highway at intervals are huge, 12-foot high sections of wood, and from a distance they look like bleachers at high school sporting events. They’re snowdrift fences. Apparently you can fence in the snow. The fences are set up at intervals along the windswept highway in this open country where the snow blows fiercely across the flat plains and forms huge drifts. They capture the snow around them and prevent drifts from blocking the roads. There are also red-and-white striped barriers at intervals along the highway. They look like the barriers at railroad crossings. It never occurred to us that you could close a whole interstate, but apparently you can. Or “They” can. “They” can also fine you $750 or put you in jail if you ignore the barrier. It’s serious business. It’s a reminder of what winters up here are like.

And then, as if to prove the point, it began to snow. As we drove east out of Casper we both tried to ignore the snowflakes stealthily infiltrating the ranks of raindrops. Over the next two hours our progress was measured in tens rather than hundreds of miles. The snow got heavier until we were experiencing a mini-blizzard. Three to four inches of snow accumulated, with larger drifts accumulating around the snow fences, and visibility was down to 100 yards at times.

When we turned south toward Cheyenne, the snow stopped as if on command. We needed sustenance after the snowstorm, so we stopped at Wendy’s, where we encountered a Texan in the parking lot. The first thing we noticed was his twang. The first thing he noticed was the car.

“Is that the model with the rotary engine?”

“Sure is.”

His boot heels rang against the asphalt as he walked beside us. “That’s a nice car. My buddy down in Dallas used to have one. Couldn’t get it serviced. No one worked on the rotary engine. Had to give it up. Shame, too. It was a nice car.”

We smiled our way across the parking lot, but once inside the restaurant we let the conversation die. We just went quiet. He let us join the line ahead of him, and we gradually turned our backs to him and started analyzing the menu. We could have asked what he was doing in Colorado, whether he lived in Dallas, anything, but we didn’t. Britain has infected our social mores. You don’t probe, don’t ask questions; you passively receive information and once it stops being freely and gratuitously offered, the interaction is over. The only acceptable way to keep a conversation alive with a stranger is to discuss the weather in grim, soul-crushing detail. The first step in re-learning American turns out to be re-learning how to connect with strangers.

The next step is re-learning how to speak American. We always forget how much our speech patterns have changed. For the most part our accents are as they ever were; that will never change. But speaking to Americans in America, we still use Scottish lingo. So Matt tells a confused Shell station attendant that he was “phaffing about” with something; Alissa says weekend with the emphasis on the second syllable. This morning Alissa was queuing at Starbucks when she gave Matt a fiver to pay while she went to the loo. No she wasn’t. She was standing in line at Starbucks when she gave Matt five bucks to pay while she went to the restroom. The little differences are endless.

And we have definitely adopted a British speech volume. No one in America can hear what we say. Alissa asked for a chai latte at a perfectly normal British conversational volume, and the woman at the till (Wait, it’s not a till, it’s a cash register) shouted back, “A what kinda latte?” Yesterday Matt was speaking to the cashier at the supermarket and she kept interrupting him mid-sentence and talking over him. At the time we thought she was just being rude, but now we get it: she couldn’t hear him.

One thing you notice as an American abroad is how loud we are. Maybe it’s something to do with that friendly openness we’re famous for. Maybe it’s something to do with (over)confidence ,the idea that what we have to say is something everybody within earshot really needs to hear. Maybe it’s just that our voices have to carry across America’s wide-open spaces. But apparently it affects our hearing too.

We’re not only going to have to re-learn words and expressions, we’re going to have to re-learn volume.

A Great Splash of Grandeur

      “Montana seems to me to be what a small boy would think Texas is like from hearing Texans.”

On our second day we traversed the mountains with their tiny ski villages brown and bereft of snow, mountain lakes at their summer lows, and descended down out of the foothills into the Columbia Basin. The great river rolls along here like a native spirit, giving life to one of the country’s richest agricultural regions.

Here be dragons.

We drove on across the upraised thumb of Idaho, up again through mountain passes with evocative names like Lookout Ridge and Potlatch Hill. We skirted deep chasms full of indigo water and rushing streams colored pea green, milky white, and rust red by the minerals leeching out of abandoned silver and gold mines in the hills. We traced the edge of Montana’s Rattlesnake Recreation Area, perhaps one of the least inviting names conceivable for trying to entice tourists out of their cars.

In the early evening light the first northernmost peaks of the US Rocky Mountains reflected the copper sunset while the color slowly bled from the mountains behind, leaving them in violet shadow. As we streamed into the night while the sun ran the other way, we crossed miles of open land where not a single light winked from the surrounding hills. There is still a vast wilderness here, where wolves roam and bison outnumber two-legged creatures.

When it came time to stop for the night, we thought it would be no problem to find a cheap motel, one of those old places that used to line the highway and offer rooms for $30 a night. But things have changed. We drove through several towns with no sign of any accommodation, and when we finally found a Super 8 motel in the wilds of Montana, the clock read 11.30pm, the car was running on empty, and we had to pay $90 for the room. And that was the Triple A discount rate.  They also had suites, which basically just means that for an extra $30, you can have a couch in your room. We know – we asked. The room itself was a cookie-cutter copy of virtually every hotel room we’ve stayed in around the world. The McDonaldization of the hotel industry. There’s something both comforting and disconcerting about sleeping in the same room on six different continents.

TJ, the manager on duty, was full of enthusiasm and superlative information in spite of the late hour. For instance, did you know that Montana is the prettiest of all the fifty states? After spending the best part of eight hours driving through it, we might be inclined to agree. Steinbeck wrote about Montana with a profound joy. It was his favorite of all the fifty states, lacking only the ocean to make it perfect. He found it to be a place where “people had time to pause in their occupations to undertake the passing art of neighborliness” (121), and fifty years later, that was still true of TJ.

“What brings you to the great state of Montana?” he asked with a smile that never left his face.

Matt told him about the series of weddings and family events that sparked our epic road trip.

“Why would your sister want to get married in Denver when she could get married in Montana? Montana’s the most beautiful state in the union.”

“Actually she lives in Montana, not far down the road. She’ll be coming back here to live after the wedding. She loves it up here.”

He nodded once, as you do when someone states the obvious.

“So how do you feel about your little sister getting married?”

“Makes me feel old.”

He nodded excitedly, still grinning. This question was merely a prelude to him sharing his feelings on related subjects.

“That’s exactly it. I had my first nephew when I was 18. It didn’t really sink in for me then, because it was my older sister, but it really hit me when my little brother had his first kid. And my sister’s labor was so painful!  It went on for, like, days. It was crazy. We were all waiting around at the hospital, falling asleep on the chairs. Then I had my first kid when I was 25. Let me tell you, that changes everything. Everything, man.”

TJ was something we discovered to be fairly typical about the country we were driving through: a 30-something guy who just plain enjoyed his job, his town, his state, and his life in general. He liked meeting people, talking to people, sharing pleasantries and information. He was content. Contrary to pop-culture wisdom about small-town Americans, he just wanted to know about stuff.  It didn’t matter what it was, so long as it was something new. He may not have been “sophisticated” in conventional terms, but he had a friendly curiosity and his own kind of wisdom. TJ was open; too often we underestimate the value of that. And when he told us to have a great trip and enjoy ourselves, he meant it with every fiber of that genuine good nature of his.

We had forgotten what it’s like to be told to have a nice day. All day, every day, after every transaction. And most people mean it. “Have a nice day” is a phrase some Europeans make fun of; something stereotypically American, unsophisticated, even invasive. But now, being back here, it’s natural. Because it’s genuine. When people tell you to have a nice day, they mean it. And you walk out smiling. That phrase is both cause and effect.

"I am in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love."
-Steinbeck

In the silvery light of early morning, we left the hotel and drove towards the sunrise, where clouds parted and the newly reborn sun spilled pale blue light over the mountains. We ate apples purchased from our green grocer in Scotland several days before, on the other side of the world. They had entered the USA without being declared and were probably contraband. We enjoyed them immensely.

Preparing for the Journey

“A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

Mexican food. Those probably aren’t the first words you expect to see on a blog about reconnecting with America. But for us that’s what it’s all about. The first thing we want when we step off the plane from Scotland is a big, greasy, smothered burrito. Which isn’t really Mexican food anyway, at least not as they know it in Mexico. In Mexico, it’s gorditas y poblanos, pozole y chilaquiles. This version of the burrito is a hybrid, a cross between authentic Mexican cuisine and what appeals to your average gringo. A melting-pot burrito. A microcosm of the macro-America we’re trying to get to know all over again. A welcome home.

As a starting point, we should introduce ourselves. We’re expats, people who live outside our country of birth by choice rather than necessity. People for whom wanderlust is a way of life. We live to experience rather than accumulate.  Our savings accounts are not dedicated to a new car or a down payment on a house but to the excitement of slinging well-worn backpacks over our shoulders and stepping onto a train. Or the tingling sensation of take-off, half fear and half anticipation. All the little nuisances and annoyances of security lines, ticket checks, passport control, and checked baggage weight limits fall away in that moment of departure. For wanderers like us, train stations and airports are cathedrals, holy places of transition and in-between-ness. The start of a trip is a blank slate, a chance to re-invent ourselves. Each one is a mini mid-life crisis, a vain attempt to realize a permanent desire for change.

Several years ago, we read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Search of America for the first time. It was a revelation, a vision through a glass darkly. In 1960 Steinbeck was living in New York, far from the characters who filled his novels. He felt he was missing America, that he didn’t know his country or his people anymore. So he kitted out a camper shell on a customized pick-up truck, stocked it with more stuff than he could possibly need (as we all do when travelling), and took off on a four-month trip around the continental US with only his brown Standard Poodle, Charley, for company. He wanted to reconnect with the America he used to know so intimately.

That loss of connection is something we also felt.  As colonials living in Scotland, our knowledge of America was mediated by emails from friends and family, the BBC website, and the common stereotypes perpetrated so enthusiastically by Yanks and foreigners alike. We no longer had a personal connection with the real America. In a way that is perhaps typical of thirty-something Americans, we were searching for ourselves.

We spent months planning our trip. We watched ticket prices rise and fall and kept hoping for the big fall that never came. The morning ritual of checking Expedia, Last Minute, and Opodo to see how the prices had changed from the night before became as addictive as the daily caffeine hit. We planned routes, booked hotels and camping spots, contacted family and friends to beg for couches and spare rooms, all before we’d even purchased plane tickets. And of course, the minute we stepped out our front door, all that planning was at the mercy of the personality of the journey itself. Steinbeck was right about that.

In fact, Steinbeck was right about a lot of things. One of the things that strikes us as we read an re-read Travels with Charley is how prescient he was about the future of the America he went in search of. Another goal for us on this journey of ours is to see how America is faring 50 years on. Have we as a nation lived up to Steinbeck’s expectations? Have we fulfilled his best and worst predictions? Would he recognize himself in the people we meet? Would he recognize himself in us? In a way, we are travelling with Steinbeck in search of America.