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.

Leaving Los Angeles

“I’ve driven this thing all over the country—mountains, plains, deserts. And now I’m back in my own town, where I live—and I’m lost.”

Getting lost is underrated.

We spent several days in Los Angeles seeing friends. Alissa had lived there on and off for over 15 years. And yet she couldn’t remember everything. Once she’d known every freeway interchange, every route and several back-up options depending on the time of day and the traffic. Not anymore.

So we had to trust a computer. The GPS was on loan from an aunt, who insisted we take it on the rest of the trip and return it to her as and when. We’d rolled into LA, hot and covered with the dust of three different deserts, in time for a family BBQ. We told the story of how we spent day two of the trip desperately seeking a road atlas.

We had stopped at three gas stations before we found one with an atlas. Third time lucky. We went in and asked, and the man behind the counter looked puzzled for a moment and said, “I think we have one…somewhere.” He rummaged around and pulled out a full road atlas, the 2011 Rand McNally. It was their only copy. We thought that was odd until we got up to the register to pay, and he said, “So don’t you have a GPS or an iPhone or anything?” It wasn’t until then that it clicked and we realized how out of step we were. A map? Really? What luddites! We could already see our non-existent teenage children rolling their eyes in disgust. And as we were laughing about this over dinner, our aunt apparently decided that we did, in fact, require a GPS, and that it might somehow save us from some as-yet-unidentified horror. It was very generous of her.

We quickly found ourselves relying on the innocuous female voice emanating from the little box on our dashboard. And when it told us to take a wrong turn, we didn’t contradict it. Our instincts said it was wrong, but we trusted the technology. Turns out, technology lies. Or at least makes mistakes. But we had to drive 15 miles before we realized it. That’s how much a person is capable of forgetting in the space of eight intervening years.

After one day of driving in LA, we discovered that maps, and the attention they require you to pay to your route, are in fact much more reliable precisely because they don’t let you complacently sit back and be told what to do by the pleasantly bland and inoffensive voice of a woman who, it must be admitted, sometimes gets it wrong.  We managed to sneak the little black box back into our dear aunt’s study in the small hours of the morning, and we happily cruised up and down the coast with just our trusty Rand McNally and our own navigation skills. And we still got lost, but we had a lot more fun doing it.

That evening after several wrong turns and backtracks, we finally made it to Huntington Beach. We sat on the pier with Oreo milkshakes from Ruby’s and watched the surfers glide over the golden waves in the setting sun. Sometimes getting lost means a sidetrip or a delay; sometimes it changes your destination entirely. Either way, the moments you choose to relax into and enjoy are the ones that matter.

Tourist Traps

“I am happy to report that in the war between reality and romance, reality is not the stronger.”

Just outside of Palm Springs is a robotic dinosaur museum. From the highway, you can see the life-sized T-Rex with glowing orange eyes sizing up a life-sized Brontosaurus. It is one of the worst tourist traps ever, which paradoxically makes it a must-see.

There are amazing places like this all along the desert highways, places that have been there for decades. Out here in the shimmering heat you can always find a place with a two-headed snake on display. There may not be food, or water, or bathrooms, but there is always a two-headed snake. You wonder how they manage to keep attracting generation upon generation of tourists. Is it nostalgia, or curiosity, or boredom? Is it parents subjecting their offspring to the same torture they endured in some endless inter-generational string of schadenfreude? Or is it the same instinct that makes us slow down to gawk at a bad traffic accident?

Steinbeck tended to avoid these places, but we find them hard to resist. Gawking is one of the essential pleasures of a good road trip. Ghost towns, two-headed calves, jackalopes, the world’s largest thermometer; it’s all here, and it’s all terribly wonderful. It’s a sense of wonder that fills the parking lots at these places; not the awe-inspired wonder of a giant sequoia or a raging red sunset, but a surprisingly strong desire to see something unique, something slightly macabre, something great (even if “great” is a very relative term). Time and again we found that we were not alone at these places. Curiosity peoples this country, and for some reason the hotter it gets, the more interesting these little tourist traps become. We were sorry to leave them behind.

There were masses of traffic headed into LA on a sunny afternoon. It was stop and go, 20 mph or less, for over an hour. And then suddenly, for no apparent reason, the lanes clear and we’re back up to 80 mph. It’s just a bunch of people tailgating, slamming on the brakes, swerving between lanes, being stupid and generally creating chaos and gridlock.

There’s a lot of pleasure in a wide-open four-lane highway on a clear California evening with the sun setting over the Pacific. The light has a special quality; we know it’s the smog that does it, but even so.

The Gas Canister Saga

“We’d be lousy explorers. A few days out and we get the mullygrubs. The first white man through here…his little jaunt took eight years. And he himself didn’t make it this far. Four of his men did, though…We’re soft, Charley.”

Epic battle of wills

I feel the need to tell you a story. This is a bit of an interlude, but I think it’s an essential aspect of the trip. Matt disagrees, but that’s as good a reason as any to insist on telling it.

This is the story of our gas canister. Somewhere in the middle of New Mexico, with the sun beating down and the two of us each drinking close to a gallon of water every day, Matt decided we needed a gas canister. Something to carry in the trunk just in case we ran out of gas on some god-forsaken two-lane road and were found weeks later, nothing but dry bones and a great big pile of molten metal and burned rubber.

So we stopped at True Value. This is a compromise between the Mom-and-Pop hardware stores that used to proliferate in small towns across the country and the giant Home Depot warehouses that currently sit just off the highway outside most major cities.

What we found was a place air-conditioned by a series of large oscillating fans, where there is still a gumball machine at the entrance, and they give away free American-flag keychains at the cash register. After searching up and down the aisles, we finally found a large red plastic gas canister hiding atop one of the shelving units against the back wall.  It was $10.99. Matt was horrified by the exorbitant price. He actually uttered the phrase, “I remember the day…” I pointed out to him that “the day” was approximately 12 years ago, which didn’t help. In any case, the gas canister was deemed essential to our emergency provisions, so we bought it, along with two gumballs, which were wonderful and horrible in equal measure.

We went next door to the gas station, filled up the canister, and I left Matt to cap it while I went in to pay. I came out to find him wrestling with the canister while a large man watched from the bed of his pickup truck in the next parking space. I offered to help, but since I am far from expert in these matters, I wasn’t much use. I sat on the hood of the car and drank my rootbeer while Matt wrestled with the recalcitrant plastic hose. After what seemed like forever in the baking heat, he wedged the closed canister into the trunk and we were off.  Temporarily.

Several miles down the road the car began to smell like gasoline. We pulled over and Matt pulled out the canister to find that it had been leaking. Several more minutes were spent in the sun, prodding and pleading with the red plastic demon. We were pretty sure we had it beat, but we wrapped it in a plastic bag just in case, in an effort to save the camping gear from being soaked in gasoline. While our tent is supposedly made of non-flammable material, it seemed best not to tempt fate.

We drove on through the desert and stopped at various points for photographs. At one of these stops, in my search for Wheat Thins and licorice, I made the tragic mistake of opening the trunk. The smell that wafted out was overpowering. I didn’t have to say a word. Matt made a sort of growly sound and yanked the by-now half-empty canister out one more time, laid it on the ground, and proceeded to contort himself around it in an effort to figure out “how the *#@$ ^&%” to make it close.

I helpfully suggested that perhaps if our emergency fuel turned out to be nothing more than a huge fire hazard, it wasn’t actually so necessary to our well-being. Matt did not find this suggestion helpful, so he ignored it and continued grappling with the obstinate canister. I tried again, suggesting that perhaps we should set it free to roam the desert rather than keeping it cruelly caged in the trunk. Matt grunted, wiped the sweat off his forehead, and went right back to it. Now it was a contest of wills, with both the red gas canister and my husband in his red shirt pigheadedly determined to win.

I had taken an endless string of photos and finished most of the licorice when Matt yelled, “Ah HA!” The canister went back in the trunk, and we got back on the road.

When we stopped for the night, the damn thing had leaked again, but only a little bit. I pretended not to notice. So did Matt. But as we drive along taking photos and notes, I’m sure that diabolical thing is smiling quietly to itself in the dimness of the trunk, biding its time.

So now if you read that two unidentified road-trippers have gone out in a blaze of gasoline and glory, taking their RX8, a bunch of camping gear, and one little red gas canister with them, you’ll know why!

To Australia and Beyond

“At the roadsides I never had a really good dinner or a really bad breakfast…I might even say roadside America is the paradise of breakfast.”

Skull Rock, early morning in Joshua Tree

This morning we were up early, trying to beat the heat of the day. We visited Skull Rock, scrambled on Jumbo Rocks, hiked a short trail in Hidden Valley, and then drove out through the west entrance to Joshua Tree National Park. We had a yellow receipt for the camping, and the park ranger was so busy with the long line of cars waiting to get in on this sunny Saturday that he just glanced at the yellow paper from the other side of the booth, assumed it was a receipt for entry, and waved us through. Really we should have paid an extra $15 entrance fee in addition to the $30 we’d paid for camping, because the camping fee only covers an excursion into one side of the park; there is an additional fee if you want to venture beyond the campground on the south side.  But having spent $30 already, we didn’t feel too bad.

The heat shimmered up from the two-lane highway and engulfed the car. On the way out of Joshua Tree Village we stopped at a place called Country Kitchen for a cup of proper American filter coffee. The owner is a woman named Mariene, originally from Cambodia. She had origami dollar bills on the wall, signs thanking her for her support of the local police officers’ fundraiser, letters thanking her for supporting land mine removal in Cambodia, and one for SMART, a group for retired servicepeople who want to travel “to see the country we defend.” Another letter and photo on the wall proclaimed that her son had recently graduated from medical school.

We sat at the bar and asked if it was OK if we just had coffee. She said, “Fine with me, Hun.” She called everyone, including the giant bearded bikers, “Hun.” We sat and listened to her shout across the tiny restaurant, which only had seven tables:  “IT WAS TWO DIET COKES AND AN ICED TEA, RIGHT HUN?”

The restaurant was packed at 11.30am. There was one open table. A woman came in with a southern accent and a newspaper under her arm. Mariene offered her a barstool. She said she’d prefer a table. Mariene told her the lunch rush would be starting soon and she couldn’t afford to give a table to just one person. The woman huffed and puffed and left waving her newspaper, whereupon Mariene loudly announced to the restaurant in general, “Fine by me, Hun! I have no problem seating four at that table, don’t need your business!” Everybody chuckled and kept eating: biscuits and gravy, country fried steak, shortstack blueberry pancakes. It all looked amazing.

A couple came in and sat down next to us, and in the spirit of re-learning how to be Americans, Matt leaned over and struck up a conversation. Turns out they were Australians, on day one of a year-long climbing tour of the Western US and Canada. That’s America for you: sit down at a tiny bar in a tiny restaurant in a tiny town and end up meeting people from halfway across the world. Matt started off asking if they were on their way into J-Tree, and they said they were on their way out. They’d just arrived the night before, flown into LAX jetlagged and hungover, and thought if they were this close to J-Tree, may as well go see it. Now they were stuck because no place in town had a rental car available to get them back to LA. She was chatty, but he just sat back and nodded along, obviously tired.

They asked where we were from; it’s always a safe opener among travelers in strange places. We told them Denver/LA via Japan and Scotland. They wanted to know why. Everyone always asks why: Why Scotland? The answer to that question is always, Why not Scotland?

We wanted to offer them a lift into LA, but one of the few downsides of the RX8 is the lack of a proper back seat. What little space there is, is stuffed full of camping gear, water, and snacks for the road. We missed that aspect of Steinbeck’s trip, being able to pick up strangers along the way and get to know them in the context of a small shared journey to a shared destination. We decided to brave the weekend traffic into LA and we left them to find their way.

It was the first time we were jealous of someone else’s trip, and not vice versa.

These interactions at tiny cafes in tiny towns are one of the things that define not only the American tradition of the road trip, but America in general. One of the biggest things we’re re-learning is how to approach strangers as friends we haven’t yet met.

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.

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.

Roots

“Perhaps we have overrated roots as a psychic need.  Maybe the greater the urge, the deeper and more ancient is the need, the will, the hunger to be somewhere else.”

As a nation of immigrants, Steinbeck thought we were drifters by nature. Maybe that is more true of some of us than others. People often tell us they wish they could travel like we do, but then they always ask questions about roots, security, financial stability. Perhaps these are vocalizations of their own fears, and the “roots” metanarrative is a myth society propagates so it can profit from taxes and promote ownership.

All over the world, governments are trying to stamp out rootlessness. It’s increasingly about counting, controlling, pinning people down. Bedouin, Roma, Indonesian boat people – the states whose boundaries they traverse are trying to force them to settle down. Maybe Steinbeck was right and travelers are not iconoclasts; we’re just doing what’s natural in spite of the myths. In some cases, as Steinbeck notes elsewhere, myth becomes reality through the familiarity of long usage. Will the myth of roots do the same? Maybe not. Maybe the reality is too strong. And in fairness, we have to acknowledge that for rootless, mobile people like us, one motivation is the fear of being tied down, the fear of permanence. For some people change is a way of reviving their vitality; for others, it’s a threat to the life they’ve spent so much time and effort building. But Steinbeck wondered whether the deeper, more ancient need is “the will, the hunger to be somewhere else.” Fifty years on, it’s still hard to know whether he was right.

From Belgrade to Amsterdam via Yellowstone

Many of the places we pass on the road are reminiscent of somewhere else. Glasgow, Oregon; Amsterdam, Montana; Aberdeen, Wyoming; Greenland, Colorado. The adventurers and nonconformists who settled these towns in search of something new still seemed unable to cut the roots completely.

There is still something about identity that is tied to where we come from, even if it’s nothing more than a name.

On the road we saw license plates from nearly every state: Alabama, Indiana, California, Texas, Oklahoma, Maine, North Carolina, Michigan, New York, Vermont, Virginia, Alaska, and even other Washington plates in New Mexico. The number of out-of-state license plates is impressive when you consider that seeing a Maine license plate in Arizona is equivalent to seeing Turkish plates in England. These, too, are a sign of place, a way of establishing connections between people who are otherwise just strangers in a parking lot. “Oh, you’re from Washington! Whereabouts? I got a cousin that lives in Walla Walla. Nice place.”

Even here, though, there is a need to assert some prior socialization, the independence of an identity that is rooted elsewhere. Many of the people we met accomplished this through the medium of license plate frames and bumper stickers. These are identity markers; you may have a Colorado license plate, but your license plate frame identifies you as a fan of a particular football team, which indicates where you’re originally from, or the place you identify with most strongly, or the place you consider home. So if you meet a guy with Colorado plates and a New England Patriots license plate frame, you can safely utter the phrase, “You’re not from around here, are you?”

In all our travels, we saw very few hitchhikers; only four in 5,000 miles. As children on long family road trips, we were constantly on the lookout for those interesting individuals by the sides of the highway, many covered in dust from the road and in varying degrees of disarray, all with their thumbs stuck up hopefully into that big sky. Our parents, of course, always warned us that it was not a good idea to pick up hitchhikers and we should never do it, even if they occasionally did it, because those times were exceptions and you could tell those people were trustworthy but still it wasn’t safe and we shouldn’t ever do it ourselves.

Now the government has taken over the parental role. There were “No Hitchhiking” signs everywhere, symbolized by a picture of an upraised thumb surrounded by a red circle with a line through it. Hitchhiking is now illegal in many states, and pedestrians are no longer allowed on the Interstates at all. This is all part of a greater effort to link safety and sterility. No littering, no hitchhiking; the two are often equated. The idea that this sort of mobility is a blight on the landscape and a threat to the safety of the average motorist is a different aspect of the roots myth. It’s a whole traveler culture gone.

On a clear night as we sailed across the flat desert there was a line of cars coming from the opposite direction, stretching miles into the distance. Headlights in a steady stream curved towards us from the right, and as we crossed the Arizona state line, the lights of a prison lit a hole in the black night sky for miles around. The headlights twinkled and pulsed as they advanced, like stars; the prison lights were steady and penetrating, immobile and permanent. A sheriff flew past us in the inside lane, lights flashing, throwing all the cars around us into momentary panic as they wondered who he was going to pull over for speeding, but he kept right on going. As we passed the exit for the prison we saw him parked on the overpass, facing the compound, highbeams on. Something was up. Again, signs by the side of the highway advised, “Do not pick up hitchhikers.” This time we nodded in silent agreement.

Sanitizing the highways is partly about cleaning things up, and partly about making life safer, more predictable. The impulse is discouraging for rootless travelers, but perhaps understandable.

Road Warriors

“Permanence is neither achieved nor desired by mobile people. They do not buy for the generations, but only until a new model they can afford comes out.”

As we pulled back onto the highway from our latest rest stop, we passed a long line of semi-trucks parked at the far end of the lot, their drivers nowhere to be seen, most likely holed up in their cabs for a much-needed rest. These titans of transport rumble up and down the Interstates, enthroned like kings in their cabs, their kingdoms moving with them from one roadside diner to the next. “The truckers cruise over the surface of the nation without being a part of it.” (72) Steinbeck had an appreciation for truckers as professionals, keepers of a specialized knowledge and bearers of a secret language. He was lucky enough to be accepted among them, as a fellow wanderer with his own wisdom, his own secrets. In our sports car, which marked us out as amateurs, we were never so lucky. We had to make do with the occasional longing look or appreciative nod.

Rest areas in some states have started offering free coffee, presumably to help keep these legions of truckers awake and alert. Since we were trying to awaken our inner Americans, we decided to stop and try this free coffee, because Americans don’t turn down free anything. After tasting it, we decided that in the future we would pay for our coffee. It just proves the old adage that you don’t get something for nothing. But after spending so many thousands of miles sharing the roads with those giants of transport and more than once wondering what our little Mazda would look like after an altercation with one of them, we submit that we as a nation owe our truckers better coffee.

In addition to these ubiquitous semis, giant RVs seem to be proliferating across the country. They are starting to rival the trucks for numbers and size, though certainly not road dominance. These are 40-foot behemoths towing luxury four-wheel drive vehicles. You’d never know gas was hovering around $4 per gallon. New and shiny, these giants of the road are driven by white-haired retirees in convoys collectively worth millions of dollars.

These glistening wheeled residences parade through the tiny towns where their dusty, road-weary cousins are parked permanently next to rusting water tanks, surrounded by waist-high grass, with boards propped against the peeling sides to cover the wheels and give the whole thing the illusion of permanence. But there is nothing more precarious. For some people mobility is freedom. For others it’s a threat.

Yet the attraction of mobility seems undimmed since Steinbeck’s day. There are thousands of residents of RV Parks along incredibly straight stretches of highway. Collectively, they sponsor a section of the road, paying for its maintenance and cleaning up the trash people jettison from the windows of moving cars, just like the boys in Colorado. This lends a sense of ownership, of control over a symbolic stretch of freedom. Where else but America would so many people live in their RVs and spend time and money beautifying a stretch of highway? You can even adopt a highway through the American Highway Maintenance Corporation, which provides recognition for your efforts by means of huge signs along the side of “your” stretch of highway, advertising your commitment to beautifying your environment. Some of these signs display names of individuals and families, others advertise “Capital Bail Bonds,” or “Conservative Evangelical Christians.” For the young boys we met, it was a sense of social responsibility that compelled them to clean up after their less responsible compatriots. For the older generations it seems to be an unquenchable desire for a sense of place. They’ve rejected the obligations associated with a traditional home and replaced them with others.

At another of the infamous rest areas, we met a former pastor who had supplemented an allegiance to Jesus with an allegiance to the road. He and his wife have been living in their fifth wheel trailer for about a year now. They travel around between RV parks and people’s driveways. They subscribe to newsletters and magazines all about the RV culture (though we were unsure how all that mail gets delivered). The Reverend said that an estimated one million people in the US live exclusively in an RV. It’s a completely nomadic, mobile culture. The most recent US census calls these “people on the move” and counts them as an entirely separate subset of the American population, like students or military personnel. This is the road warrior culture, where a vehicle is a status symbol, an indicator of independence and imagined individuality. It will take more than high gas prices to change that.

We also found RVs inhabiting the various campgrounds where we spent our nights. These existed in various states of permanence, from those just parked overnight to those leveled with wheel blocks for a longer stay, and even some who planned to stay for entire seasons, with potted plants growing outside and above-ground pools set up in the next campsite. Either way, nearly every RV we saw had a satellite dish, some affixed to the top and some set up on tripods outside, so the occupants never had to be out-of-touch with the all-important TV culture. As Steinbeck drove through the country he noted, “It is a rare house or building that is not rigged with spiky combers of the air. Radio and television speech becomes standardized, perhaps better English than we have ever used.” (82) The loss of the regional particularities which he observed continues apace in America’s campgrounds, all thanks to the ubiquity of TV.

Rubbish and Rest Areas

“Every few miles the states provided places of rest off the roads, places sometimes near dark streams. There were painted oil drums for garbage and picnic tables, and sometimes fireplaces or barbecue pits.”

We’ve never been to prison, but rest area restrooms are what we imagine prison toilets to be like. With the exception of the baby change station, at least. Everything is stainless steel: the toilets, sinks, mirrors, everything. The toilet paper holders are pad-locked, presumably to prevent the theft of a valuable resource. When you close the stall door, it makes the sound of a cell door slamming. A final, echoing, bone-chilling, despair-inducing Ka-Wham.

Steinbeck knew these places in their former guise, when they were apparently idyllic little oases scattered across a desert of black asphalt. It is true that America has an endless string of rest areas stretching from Seattle to Miami, Maine to California, but in our experience they are universally horrible. Derelict picnic tables on a patch of scrub grass eight feet square, provided for your convenience so you can sit and have your lunch while traffic whizzes by on the Interstate six feet away. The barbeque pits have been replaced with vending machines.

But a rest area is a lifesaver when you’re out on the highway 40 miles from the nearest town and you’ve just finished an American-sized 64-oz Coke. You live for the signs. You count the miles. Rest area ten miles. Five miles. Two miles. There it is! The big blue signs are like water in the desert. Until you see the traffic cones. Closed for repairs. This in a country where public urination is a crime, and the next nearest toilet is 35 miles in the direction you’ve just come from. Then what you wouldn’t give for a squalid toilet stall with two inches of standing water on the floor.

At one of these rest areas, under a bright noonday sun, we met a crew of teenage boys lounging on the peeling picnic tables, wearing their own version of a uniform: oversized T-shirts, baggy jeans, and baseball caps. Perhaps understandably, we assumed they were out for a joyride on a Saturday afternoon. Then again, you know what they say about assumptions and asses. Their van, parked nearby with all the doors open, was emblazoned with a logo: Environmental Youth League. Turns out they were spending their Saturday afternoon picking up trash by the side of the highway. They had stopped at the rest area to take advantage of both the facilities and the chance to sit and relax. They all turned their heads to follow the progress of the car as we pulled in. Inevitably, this is where we started.

“Nice car!”

We tried to grin modestly. Matt wandered over within conversational distance. “Yeah, I wish it was mine! Belongs to my father-in-law.”

“Wish we had something like it. We’re stuck driving around in this stinking box all weekend.”

Matt turned to look over his shoulder at the dust-caked van. It was hard to tell what color it was supposed to be, but the logo on the side was clear.

“So what’s the Environmental Youth League? Some sort of work-release program?”

Beautify this

The oldest of the boys laughed and shook his head once, from right to left. “Actually it’s a volunteer organization. We’re out here by choice. Just picking up the garbage people chuck out of their car windows, trying to keep the place looking nice.”

The “place” was a stretch of highway ten miles long, surrounded by flat, high prairie, with scrub grass stretching away to Kansas in the east and the Rockies in the west. The spring fields were high with wheat and alfalfa, the road tracing a black scar through green and golden grassland. These boys were like contemporary cowboys, riding the range in their loyal steed, righting wrongs as they went.

The trash by the side of the highway is nothing new. Steinbeck saw it long before we did. “American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash—all of them—surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles and almost smothered with rubbish. Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much.” (22) For a while those rings seemed to expand with the growth of the cities, and gradually began to tail out along the highways, so that even the open stretches between cities were strewn with the detritus of American civilization. But these young men were personified evidence of a new social awareness. Having grown up with the garbage, they nevertheless saw it as Steinbeck did, as a blight on the open land.

Steinbeck wondered whether there would come a time when we could no longer afford our wastefulness and would be forced to adapt our lifestyles and methods of production to a necessary austerity. These boys weren’t yet able to influence the causes, but they were sacrificing their spare time to mediate the effects. They were even sorting the trash they collected for recycling.

We left them to their work with a sense of chastisement as well as renewed hope for the future of our open spaces. The appreciation for the natural world which Steinbeck wrote of fifty years ago is still out there among the young, even if its opposite is clearly written along the sides of the highway in discarded Coke cans.