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.

Billboards

“From start to finish I found no strangers.  If I had, I might be able to report them more objectively.  But these are my people and this my country.  If I found matters to criticize and to deplore, they were tendencies equally present in myself.”

One of our sources of information, wonder, and hilarity on our long journey across the desert was billboards, a form of mobile advertising for a mobile society. These days they even alternate; two or three adverts (a.k.a. advertisements) will cycle through on a single electronic billboard, just in case you happen to be sitting in traffic. They wouldn’t want you to get bored looking at the same ad for more than five seconds. These billboards are sparse, though still present, on the open road in the middle of long sections of still-wild land. But they build in a crescendo of marketing as you near what counts as civilization, until they reach their riotous climax in the heart of the next city.

We saw billboards advertising the newest models of pickup trucks: “It swallowed a luxury car.” “If it were any tougher it would be making its own license plate.” Steinbeck knew that American automobiles “are made to wear out so that they must be replaced.” (43) This is “the greatest selling appeal of all – one that crawls through nearly all American life. Improvements are made on these [models] every year. If you are doing well you turn yours in on a new model…if you can possibly afford to. There’s status to that.” (76) Not much has changed, apart from the ubiquity of the advertisements trying to convince you to trade up so you can move up.

But America has also moved into whole new realms of advertising. Even hospitals need billboards these days. We saw one depicting a man on a stretcher being lifted into an ambulance. He looked strangely content under the circumstances, and the slogan in huge letters across this incongruous scene read, “Take me to Swedish.” It was clearly his choice of hospital that made him forget his potentially life-threatening injury. A byline at the bottom of the billboard informed us that the emergency room is open 24/7, as if there were any other option.

You know healthcare is in a sad state when you need to pay for advertisements for hospitals. As if anyone who’s just been found bleeding copiously at the site of a serious car accident will say to the police or paramedics, “Take me to Swedish. I saw their ad, and their ER is open 24/7. Looks like a nice place.” Of course not. If you need the ER you’re going to go to the nearest one, because that’s the definition of emergency.

A billboard for a new wing at Presbyterian Hospital advertised their 34 new private rooms. Because who wants to share?

The highways are also blemished with dozens of billboards for personal injury lawyers. They even have blogs and websites with names like “justice for victims,” as if “justice” and “victim” are words that should be applied to car accidents. This is how important words and concepts lose all real meaning. You’re not a victim because someone accidentally rear-ends you at a stoplight; that’s an accident. That’s why it’s called an accident.

We wonder whether it’s too easy in America to lose sight of what real suffering is. We’ve even commoditized victimhood. The idea that you can put a price on justice is a fundamental misunderstanding of what justice is. Advertising becomes a way to borrow nobility and apply it to the ignoble random occurrences of life.

Together with ideas of justice and victimhood, the concept of need has lost its anchor in reality. At one point we drove past an enormous grey warehouse called the Windchime Center. Because you need a whole center devoted to something as essential as windchimes. Tourist routes in the Southwest are lined with rock shops. Just in case you couldn’t find a suitable rock on your own, Dave’s Rocks can meet all your rock-buying needs. Advertising no longer caters to our needs; beginning with Henry Ford all the way through its latest incarnation in Steve Jobs, advertising creates wants and repackages them as needs.

In no place on our travels was this invention of new necessities more evident than in Los Angeles. LA is packed from the Pacific Ocean to the San Bernardino Mountains, stuffed several stories deep with every conceivable thing its citizens could invent or imagine. When we revisited Denver, we noticed that many things had changed. There was new urban sprawl, new houses, new businesses. But revisiting LA, there was no room for new sprawl. The only way to go is up, and this is evident in the advertising methods, the huge number of billboards and sky signs and enormous banners towed behind tiny airplanes, all pushing some new artificial necessity of plastic, steel, or silicon. And somewhere, sometime, someone says, “Hey, I need that!”

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.

Desert Nights

“At night in this waterless air the stars come down just out of reach of your fingers. In such a place lived the hermits of the early church piercing to infinity with unlittered minds. The great concepts of oneness and majestic order seem always to be born in the desert. The quiet counting of the stars, and observation of their movements, came first from desert places.”

In the Petrified Forest

We left New Mexico behind and flew across Arizona to the Painted Desert, on the border of the Navajo Nation. We planned to spend the night in our tent beneath the dome of desert stars.

Brigitte at the Petrified Forest Visitor Center attempted to derail our plans. “You’ll need to hike in,” she told us.

“Yep, no problem.”

“OK. But you’ll need to carry all your gear and your water.” She stared us down. “For the whole trip.”

“Yep, we’ve got it.”

“OK. But you’ll need a lot of water; it gets really hot out there.”

“We’ve got a gallon for each of us per day.”

“Huh. OK. Well, you’ll have to go at least a mile out from the trailhead. And you’re on your own; there’s no trail, no markers.”

“No problem, we’ve got a GPS.”

“OK. But you’ll need to pack all your trash out with you.”

“We always do.”

Desert Wildlife

By this time she’d decided we were OK. We could tell she had to go through that spiel with everyone and that at some point the would-be campers, presented with all these obstacles, must give up. We know this because she told us this was the first time she’d had to fill out all the paperwork. It was a lot of paperwork. We had to sign our lives away for one night of camping in the Painted Desert.

After we passed the first test with Brigitte, we had to stop and see Bill at the Painted Desert Inn. This was where we would leave the RX8 overnight. There was a sticker on the door of the inn for our benefit: “No firearms allowed inside.” We were in there for 15 minutes or so, during which time he told the same story to three different couples three different times in response to the same question:

“How old is this building?”

There would be a pause while Bill sucked his front teeth. “Well,” another pause, “we’re not too sure. The guy that built this,” he said before pausing to chew the inside of his lip, “he homesteaded first. He registered the Inn with the government in 1924, but he homesteaded the year earlier.” This was an exceptionally long speech, and Bill needed a break to roll his tongue around a bit. Then he took a deep breath in through his nose. “So, it could be 87, or maybe 86 years old.”

As he told this story for the second time while we waited for our turn to speak to him, we browsed the shelves of souvenirs. The main room of the inn with its fantastic views over the desert floor below, a room that had once been a place for sitting and conversing and enjoying the subtle fluctuations of the light over the cliffs and wadis below, was now populated with shelves of T-shirts and coffee mugs, racks of postcards, and one particularly gruesome stand packed with plastic rattlesnakes and stuffed jackalopes. Everything strategically designed to provide hard evidence that the buyer had been there, done that.

After he wrapped up his story for the third time, Bill gave us our instructions in his own idiosyncratic way. “Leave the car by seven tonight,” he instructed before a long pause in which he chewed his lip and punched the keys on the cash register for yet another customer, “And don’t come back before eight in the morning.”

Losing the Light

It’s impossible to describe a night in the desert wilderness adequately. The light from the setting sun turns everything red. As the sun goes down in the west it draws the purple night haze up from the eastern horizon behind it; we watched it bleed slowly across the sky as we raced to set up our tent. The stars seemed to hang in the blackness just above our heads, as if we could reach out and touch them if we tried. They pulse like they’re alive, like they’re watching; it’s easy to see why so many people out here think they spot UFOs. If you stare at the same patch of sky long enough, more and more stars appear, and you realize there really isn’t a single bit of darkness up there. Then the moon comes up and steals the light from the stars, blotting them out with a reflection so bright it casts shadows. We spent the night watching the stars through the tent mesh and listening to the wind and the crickets.

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.

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.

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.