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.

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

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

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

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

“Hey, how ya doin?”

We smiled at his expansive personality.

“What can I do for ya?”

We asked for two of his best steaks.

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

“Cook ’em over a campfire.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The looks on our faces prompted him to explain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertising and Consumption

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

Now you want a donut, don’t you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh,” in a confused tone. “OK.”

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

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

Unexpected Delights

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

Get Your Kicks...

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

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

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

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

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

On the Road Again

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

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

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.

Honeymooning in a Tent

“Every safe generality I gathered in my travels was cancelled by another.”

We came through Eagle’s Nest and Angel Fire and over the brilliant red Sangre de Cristo Mountains into Taos, with its bright blue sky and sun-baked adobe. Here is a place where artists own galleries full of overpriced pottery, paintings, and jewelry, all aimed at tourists, and all done in the bright colors that seem to reflect off every surface of this landscape. The bikers populate dusty bars at odds with the tourist money that lubricates the cogs of the bustling downtown, in silent conflict with the artists over ownership of this beautiful corner of the world. The ghosts of the bohemian artists who originally populated the town would hardly recognize the place. We were surprised by the sprawling suburbs spreading down from the foothills and onto the distant desert floor. There were lines of traffic snaking in and out of town, the blinding sun glinting off German hood ornaments. We turned off the traffic-choked highway and into the mountain passes, looking for a quiet place to spend a desert night.

When we pulled into the campground under a sliver of moon and a dazzling blanket of stars, Matt was muttering under his breath, “Please don’t let us be next to that giant RV, please don’t let us be next to that giant RV… we are. We’re right next to that enormous RV.” But after we met the occupants, we were happy with our temporary neighborhood. We’ve even forgiven them for running the generator several times throughout the day, which is unusual magnanimity for us, reserved for people we genuinely like.

Harold and his wife Alice, and Katie, their little black poodle, are consummate wanderers. We met Harold this morning as he was standing next to our fire pit, practicing his golf swing. We discovered that he is a member of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, an exclusive organization open to membership only by invitation. In the three years we lived in St. Andrews, we never managed to gain entrance. Harold has a world-renowned collection of antique golf clubs, which he started collecting long before it was fashionable. The sale of individual pieces from this collection is what continues to fund their mobile life.

“The first time we came back from Scotland, I had a shipping container full of the things,” Harold remembers. “It came into the Port of Long Beach in California. I had to go down there and pay an import duty, but nobody could decide what a shipping container full of old golf clubs was worth.” Harold grinned and winked one watery blue eye. “I suggested five cents a club. They just shrugged and went for it. I tell you, even in the 1960s that was a steal.”

We were invited in for a tour of their RV, which was warm, comfortable, and convenient. It was the first time during our trip that we got to see the inside of one of these vehicles we had passed so many times on the road. While trying to pass them on two-lane roads and overtake them on mountain passes, we had seen them only as an annoyance, but once inside, they become a place of warmth and friendship, a truly mobile “home” in which you can welcome strangers and turn them into friends. While we preferred our tent for its privacy and mobility, we were tempted by the comfort and camaraderie of their self-contained world.

Harold and Alice told us tales of their travels and their migration from an old, square-sided canvas tent to their current 22-foot RV, which Harold calls “cheating.”

“We honeymooned in Yosemite, 66 years ago, in a tent.”

We did the math and figured out that Harold was 94. He and Alice have been all over. Their first RV trip was in Tasmania, where they rented a rig. He had fond memories of Adelaide and the Great Barrier Reef. He kept up their rig himself, Alice informed us, and while he insisted it was no trouble, she told us it was a lot of work. We believed her. Harold and Alice come from an active generation, where everyone did for themselves, and all that activity keeps them young. They have no children, which seems to have given them a lot of freedom and maybe even promoted longevity. Harold jokingly suggested that having kids takes 18 years off your life expectancy.

Our time with them was short. “We’re keeping you from your hike,” Harold kept saying. “Nobody wants to listen to old people talk.” On the contrary, they gave us hope and courage. It was much needed. Harold said he’d see us in Scotland. We really hope he makes it.

We know we’ve been surrounded by these Leviathans too long when we see their RV in our rearview mirror and Alissa comments, “Actually it’s not that big.” Everything American is huge. The cars, the trucks, the landscape, the farms, even the sky is bigger out here.

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.

Adventures in Banking

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

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

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

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

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

Driving and more driving

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

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

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

Re-Learning American

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that the model with the rotary engine?”

“Sure is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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