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.

The Best Laid Plans

“A dog, particularly an exotic like Charley, is a bond between strangers.  Many conversations en route began with ‘What degree of a dog is that?’”

Our dog is the one on the left.

Like many thirty-something couples with no kids, we have a dog. Like Charley, our pup is exotic, and she has definitely created bonds for us with neighbors and strangers alike. It is not unusual for burly, tattooed men to get down on their knees in the street and gush over how cute she is. People tend to speak to her first, and whoever happens to be at the other end of her leash second, if at all. However, she is Scottish and requires a passport to travel, not to mention the cost of a doggie ticket on a trans-Atlantic flight. So she spent her vacation with a friend of ours in Scotland. Our point of contact with strangers en route would have to be something else.

It turned out to be the car. It’s a Mazda RX8. Wide and low, with sweeping Ferrari lines, 18-inch rims, and a rotary engine. It makes a sound like a jungle cat, and appropriately is also jungle green. It handles like a racecar, and the great temptation is to drive it like one. Whether you’re doing 90 miles an hour or 20, the car gives off the sort of full-throated roar that turns heads and slows traffic. Other drivers let us pull out in front of them. Men at gas stations unfailingly strike up conversations, always beginning with an appreciative, “Nice car!”  The car is our way back in.

Steinbeck named his truck Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s fabled horse. His journey was a quest, and he felt that his steed needed an appropriate moniker. Our journey is perhaps slightly less epic, but in similar style, we wanted to give our chariot a name appropriate to its temperament. We’ve nicknamed the car Kit, after the artificially intelligent supercar in the old 1980s American television show Knightrider. We named the RX8 after the car in the show because it has a mind of its own.  Set the cruise control for 72 miles an hour, and it slowly creeps up to 73.  If you don’t correct it, pretty soon you look down and it’s 77 miles an hour, then 82.  When you tap the brakes, it groans as if in disappointment. Kit wants to move. The car is as excited about this journey as we are, and it wants to get there faster.

Our plan was fairly simple. We’d fly into Seattle, borrow Dad’s RX8, and drive. We’d circle the American West, through Idaho and Montana, down through Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico, and then west across Arizona. We’d finish by swinging up the coast back to Seattle on Highway 1, one of the most beautiful routes in the world. Along the way we’d see some of the key tourist spots we remembered from childhood, and some new ones we felt were important. To afford all this, and meet more people along the way, we’d spend most nights camping, descending on friends and family at strategic intervals to take advantage of showers, comfortable beds, and washing machines. In a little over a month, we’d cover 5,000 miles.

Our very first day on the road, it was clear that we had failed to take into account the fuel consumption of our borrowed hot rod. We drove east on I-90 out of Seattle at 7am, entering the Cascade Range and Snoqualmie National Forest just as the sun was erasing the long shadows of the fir trees from the highway. The first morning of a long road trip is always exhilarating; a thermos of coffee, a full tank of gas, and the early morning open road in front of you. Our spirits were high. But it only took a hundred miles or so for us to realize that all the performance advantages of the RX8 come at the expense of an appetite for gas that would put Steinbeck’s big truck to shame. We want to relax and go with the flow of the road, but we’re also going to have to count the miles between gas stations and tourist destinations.

So our plan was immediately shot full of holes, just like the road signs in Montana. (Apparently this is a tradition in Montana: if you can’t find a moving target to practice your marksmanship, the next best thing is to be moving and try to hit something standing still. There must be legions of people with guns hanging out of car windows, aiming at those big green signs by the side of the road. An example of American ingenuity at work.) But as Steinbeck knew, any travel plan is potential prey to circumstance. We’ll just have to let the trip take us.

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.