Of all the many wonderful things about this country, its 4 million miles of road that allow you access to nearly every nook and cranny must be one of the best. No YouTube video or Google Image search can replace the wonder of seeing mile after mile of untouched American splendor laid out before your windshield, and on this 4th of July, I’m reminded that independence means Interstate 40 just as much as it means a brazenly-signed document.
I’m not particularly outdoorsy; too much quiet makes me nervous and I’m convinced that bears are hunting me at all times. But damn, do I love to get out and drive. My family took at least three major road trips per year when I was young, leaving Chicago to visit relatives in Kansas or camp in North Carolina. Driving that much sounds boring, and it usually was. But there were books and music, and there was Road Trip Bingo with my sister, and trying my damnedest to get truckers to honk their heads off.
When all that got tired, you could simply lean your head against the window and watch the United States roll by. I distinctly remember being awed by the power of a bloated Mississippi River, being shocked that the Smoky Mountains were actually pretty smokey, and being way too excited to bring some red Arkansas dirt and blue Kentucky grass back home to show my friends. (They weren’t impressed.) When it was time to move out to California, we threw the dog into the back of the van and headed way further west than I’d ever been before. I didn’t love every second of every trip, but I’ll never trade the memories I have from those days.
So when the thirst for adventure became too strong for a young and dumb college kid to resist, I leapt at any chance to make new memories. There were at least a dozen trips to Las Vegas, a few to Sacramento and one to Lake Pleasant, Arizona with the Long Beach State wakeboarding team that nearly got us all banned from the state. Good times, all.
I took two massive road trips in the summer of 2006 alone; one to Kansas with my family in the 2002 Oldsmobile Bravada that broke down in Seligman, Arizona and forced us to stay in a hotel that I swear was the inspiration for the Bates Motel, the other a meandering parade of roadside attractions to Columbia, Missouri in a friend’s 2001 Ford Escort. We went out of our way to take pictures with the 30-foot tall hobo statue in Buckeye, Arizona, the third-oldest lightbulb in history (still working!) in a firehouse in Mangum, Oklahoma, and the second-largest electric land-mover called Big Brutus in West Mineral, Kansas. By the time we finally made it to Columbia, I was convinced that there is no other way to travel America than by car.
I got another chance less than a year later, when the Long Beach State basketball team made the NCAA Tournament and would play in Columbus, Ohio. My newspaper staff took one look, turned to each other and collectively said, “Road trip.” We left the next day with seven people in two cars, me the third driver in our Editor-in-Chief’s 2002 Mitsubishi Montero Sport nicknamed The Mobile Command Center. Running on adrenaline and Funyuns, we dodged a tornado in Texas and fought a mighty downpour in Indiana, arriving hours before gametime. Long Beach lost by 40, but I was giddy on the way back. We watched the droopy sun melt into the Mississippi, stopped at my grandparents’ house in Kansas for 2:00am hugs and cheese sandwiches, and drove through the night to see the sun rise triumphantly over the Rocky Mountains. Light sprayed across the landscape as if the world were making its grand debut, the scope and splendor of this great nation on full display. An hour later, I quit my cashier job over the phone and have been writing full-time ever since.
Seeing this country through side windows has brought me to tears since then, too. In 2009, I drove my future in-laws’ 2005 Toyota Sienna up through Oregon and Washington, and have never smelled air so pure nor seen anything as beautiful as the Columbia River in twilight. Have you ever seen farmland sparkle? It was like someone had just sliced a 50-mile honeydew in half. A year later we drove my 2009 Lancer through the night to carve into the daunting canyons of Utah’s Zion National Park in the morning. I thirsted for more, so we left Provo to ride horses in Sundance and gape at pristine lakes and waterfalls on the way to Park City. Who needs beer with all that beauty? (Note: I did eventually seek out some beer.)
I’ve seen my fair share of this country, thanks to the convenience of the automobile and the ingenuity of the American highway system. We talk a lot about freedom in the modern political landscape, and what’s more basic than the freedom to move and explore and encounter and appreciate this incredible land?
When I think of the country that our forefathers declared they would govern independently I don’t think of the rights they bestowed upon us to hold caucuses and posture for political office; I think of a pink sun splashed across the desert and I imagine peering out my window all the way to the left and all the way to the right, to see nothing but horizon staring back. I think of wild epiphanies inspired by the United States of America and I think of the many automobiles that have made that all possible, and I think of the amazing adventures that I’ll share with my kids when they learn to love road trips, too.
And I try not to think of bears.