Until two weeks ago this country was for me, as it is for most New Yorkers, an abstract concept. I had ideas about what was meant by terms like the Great Plains or Small Town America...
Until two weeks ago this country was for me, as it is for most New Yorkers, an abstract concept. I had ideas about what was meant by terms like the Great Plains or Small Town America, but despite a career in journalism, 12 years of presenting other peoples’ freakish and far-flung stories to the wider world, I had, myself, virtually no experience of life beyond the Hudson River.
So when the opportunity came to move to Seattle, I decided to do it with a road trip. Solo. I would throw my clothes in the car, pack a cooler with trail mix and hit the highway perhaps change my world view and have a life experience at the same time.
“Sounds very impulsive,” said a fellow writer, clawing at his necktie.
I was living in a sweet but backward town at the foot of the Catskill Mountains, two hours north of New York City, and I planned to leave it all behind on a Tuesday morning in September. Pittsburgh, city of bridges and broken industry 488 miles southwest, was to be my first stop.
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Inside my Volkswagen, life had been arranged into a meticulous jigsaw puzzle. It included two computers, 11 years worth of newspaper and magazine clips; a book-in-progress and 50 pounds of attendant notes; 16 old journals; “The White Album” by Joan Didion and 37 other books I considered essential for the journey; various leather boots, suede jackets and clothes for every possible future function; a box of old bills; articles I’d read 15 years ago and magazines I still hoped to skim; a 20-year collection of cassette tapes; the addresses of numerous ex-friends; a new cellphone.
Plenty of apprehension
Until that day, I had never driven more than three hours in a single stretch, and fear darted like a little bird through my mind. Whom would I meet? What would they tell me? Would my car, at 97,000 miles, hold up? Would I?
But by the Pennsylvania border, I was laughing out loud. Sweeping valleys opened before me, and even the gas stations looked charming. Near midnight, I finally knocked on the door of the college acquaintance who’d agreed to put me up in Pittsburgh. Tamra and I stayed up until 3 a.m., talking about being 30-something and trying to find the path to Somewhere.
The next day I sped through the final 70 miles of Pennsylvania and all of Ohio.
“Where are you now? What are you seeing?” a former boyfriend asked from his desk in a Manhattan real-estate office. I was in Indiana by then, racing past a tractor-trailer full of mangy cattle on their way to slaughter, but I spoke instead about biblical sunsets and the open road. A few hours later I pulled into a South Bend, Ind., Motel 6, and a teenager with sullen eyes and a blotchy buzz cut met me at the front desk. He flung a pink rubber ball against the wall as I pulled out my wallet. Fling, thump, catch.
“I’ve made a reservation,” I began.
Fling, thump, catch. “Just you, is it?” he said, keeping his small eyes averted.
I slept poorly, but the road washes away every indignity, every unquiet memory. You pound forward down the concrete and the past drops away.
I’d be staying next in Chicago, at the elegant loft of a Medievalist and her computer-wizard husband, friends of my sister’s who were charmed by the idea of a woman chucking her life and hurling herself across the country just because she could.
“We’re all living through you,” the Medievalist said.
Getting a taste of Chicago
The best thing about the Windy City is its unabashed grit. You can smell the meat-packing district, and the air is sooty. Places like Margie’s Candies on Western Avenue, where the pepper shakers are filled with chocolate sprinkles and china dolls stare down from the shelves, still serve the same fudge Al Capone used to love and you can talk to soda jerks wearing skinny bow ties.
“What’s in the Royal George?” I asked. At $49.95, this sundae was the only item on the menu that seemed to be a recent creation.
“Everything in the store,” the counterman said, waving at the ice-cream tubs, the topping bowls, the white clamshell dishes in which they were served. “It’s huge when you get it you can’t eat the whole thing.”
Chicago deserved more than one day, but the road was my anchor. Whenever I stopped for too long I began to feel lost, which was why I’d resisted visiting any of America’s gazillion roadside attractions. But my sister, an art historian with a penchant for the wacky, insisted that The House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wis., was not to be missed. Admission was $19.50, and the staff said I would need five hours to absorb the experience fully, but I had only 60 minutes to spare so I sped through the place as if chased by demons, which fit perfectly.
Built between 1945-1960 by a medical-school dropout turned professional dreamer, Alex Jordan’s 14-room “house” is, in truth, a monument to eternal childhood and gluttonous hoarding. Cavernous halls crammed with arms and armor lead to others filled with ivory tusks, vintage cash registers and jeweled crowns; the corridors are lined with model ships, miniature circuses, doll houses and automated orchestras. And at the center of it all a great, clanging carousel with 239 serpents, mermaids and satyrs circles round and round.
A bizarre mix
“All by yourself?” breathed a staffer behind me as I hurried through the noisy darkness past an enormous calliope. Naked, winged mannequins floated from the ceiling. Mechanical instruments rang all around. It felt like wandering through a child’s nightmare, or what we may find when Michael Jackson dies.
Outside, I was starved, and feeling slightly dirty, so I decided to buy a bag of apples at Greenspirit Farm down the road and eat them all the way into Minnesota. An old man with a thick white beard sat on a bench, whittling.
“When’d you leave New York?” he asked, barely looking up.
“Four days ago.”
“Where you headed?”
“Seattle,” I said. “Do you have any apples?”
A younger man emerged from the shed carrying a blond baby. “I used to live in New York,” he said. “Crown Heights. What street did you live on?”
We talked about Woody Allen and Coney Island as the sky turned magenta in the valley. Greenspirit had no apples, but I left feeling strangely satisfied anyway.
Dark hills framed my drive and I felt like shouting, or sobbing, at their beauty. Then I drove by a sex shop in Rochester, Minn., where a 50-foot neon sign beamed solicitous messages toward the highway “Welcome sinners, we accept checks!” and wondered how it all fit together.
Right out of the ’50s
Wykoff, Minn., (population 400) might show me, said my mother. She’d heard that there, time had stopped and you could still taste the 1950s. I doubted this. But I hadn’t had a real breakfast in several days, and she’d mentioned a diner where the waitresses greeted everyone by name. It sounded impossible, like walking into a time warp, which it was. The main street in Wykoff a town tucked into farm fields was so quiet you could cross it diagonally without glancing for traffic, and I had the feeling that if I drove through five years from now, the whole place might have blown away.
If only Jesse James had tried to rob their bank in 1876, instead of Northfield’s, 70 miles away. Northfield now has an Indian restaurant, three coffee shops and two bookstores because people like me cannot help ogling the place where the James Gang met its end. The museum charges $3 to watch a video re-enactment of the final shootout, but my bloodlust was satisfied by buying postcards of the dead criminals with bullet wounds dribbling down their chests.
Still subsumed in Minnesota prairie after a day of driving, I pulled into a gas station and watched two Jehovah’s Witnesses watching me. I wished they’d say something I’d heard nothing except Garrison Keillor’s radio voice for hours. But I probably looked quite fallen, having driven through the fields in rumpled shorts and a sweaty tank top. The silence between us was vast.
The last person who’d actually spoken to me was a used-books dealer in Northfield, who’d shaken his head with pity when I asked for recommendations about things to see in South Dakota. “I’m a native,” he said, “So it’s OK for me to tell you. There’s nothing.”
Maitre d’ gives his take
I was hungry and lonely, vulnerable to the Perkins Family Restaurant sign looming over the highway in Mitchell, S.D., with its suggestion of warm gravy and homemade soup. Ten minutes later I was poking through a waxy taco salad and writing postcards while the maitre d’ laughed and said this was proof of my wrongheaded youth the mistaken belief that one must always be doing something when the truth was that chawing your gristle and staring into space was just fine.
Sunday morning, I blasted out of the state, making a $10 detour through the Mars-like Badlands landscape on my way to Glasgow, Mont., because Tamra, back in Pittsburgh, had a friend who’d agreed to put me up for a night.
“There’s just one condition,” Andrew McKean had said. “Be entertaining. We don’t get many visitors out here.”
I was getting younger with each passing mile the clock turning backward while I sped forward but by the time I reached the McKeans’ dirt-path home, 11-½ hours and one bag of cheese popcorn after McKeans’ call, my accelerator foot had cramped into an arthritic V and my legs were shaking. This was the day I doubted myself and my friends, sped wild-eyed through the prairie and created road kill for the first time in my life. When I collapsed into the McKean boys’ bunk bed at midnight, I felt like I’d aged a decade.
“You won’t want to hear this,” McKean was saying the next morning, “but your tire’s real low.”
Of course, I had a flat tire after tearing over endless road construction the night before, after hitting a jackrabbit at 80 miles an hour. I’d known I would be punished. But a mechanic at Glasgow Tire-Rama charged me $12.50 for a patch, smiled quietly and promised it would hold me through the High Plains. At a gas station in Malta, Mont., a friend called to say his dog had died and his girlfriend was sleeping with someone else. In Shelby, an aging trucker asked if I was on my way to college. I shook my head. College had been almost 20 years ago.
“Well, I graduated in 1996!” he crowed. “Graduated high school in 1959!”
I was headed for the Rockies now, trying to decide whether to tackle Going to the Sun Highway in Glacier National Park.
“Is it worth it?” I asked the trucker’s wife.
“Beautiful,” she said. “Absolutely beautiful.”
Drawn to Going to the Sun
I was worried about my tires, about driving through a mountain pass with evening soon to fall, about a thousand possible disasters. But something about the name. Going to the Sun, held me.
“Go for it!” said the trucker couple with two goofy thumbs up.
I’d made a smoked pheasant sandwich that morning in the McKeans’ warm kitchen and I pulled it from my cooler. A vegetarian for 21 years, I’d hacked at the meat they offered, squishing it between two slices of brown bread and trying not to think too much.
“Watch out for buckshot,” he’d said.
Now I took a bite, tasted hickory branches and a fire lit by the hand. I tasted human intent, and something else, too something hard and small and metallic. I spat the shot into my coffee mug and kept driving. I was in Montana.
It was 3 p.m. when I pulled into Glacier, hot and weary, unsure about where to go afterward and still recuperating from my detour into Glasgow. Nature was powerful, yes, but how much could a landscape really do for me?
I set out along a road lined with golden aspens, passed a glittering lake and touched rainbow droplets from a streaming waterfall. Above me, the dark peaks seemed to be breathing, watching, murmuring assent. It was only 15 miles on a trip that had already spanned 3,000, but Going to the Sun changed everything. My parents called and I was unable to explain where I was or what I felt. A friend wanted details and all I could say was I knew now that what I’d done chucking my old life and propelling myself across the country on little more than hope was right. That whatever happened to me afterward, I had been meant to see this.
In 10 days I’d met mystic truckers and talked film history with an organic-farmer; I’d wandered gas-station casinos and a thousand miles of prairie. I’d tasted bullets and felt more connected, alone in my car, than I had during the last decade at home.
I pushed a song into my tape deck that I hadn’t played in 19 years and drove the rest of the way into Seattle knowing what it was to feel blessed.
Claudia Rowe is a writer who now calls Seattle home.