Seeing the United States by car

The summer after I finished college in 1994, my brother and I spent a bit less than a month driving around the United States. He had just finished high school. I was 21, and he was 17. This was, of course, before cell phones and GPS, so we planned out the trip at AAA and had a couple of  triptiks that were inches thick. We also had a number of big maps. And off we went.

I still, to this day, have no idea how we convinced my Jewish mother that this was a good idea. If you ask her, she’ll say the same. Some people might not think such a trip is a big deal, but we were off, on our own, sometimes in the middle of nowhere, for weeks.

We started off in Philadelphia and made a bee line for the football hall of fame in Canton. Then it was further west through Indiana to Chicago. Then up north, into Minnesota before turning west again. We saw Mt. Rushmore (and of course, Wall Drug). We cut into Wyoming, for Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, before continuing on to Utah. Then another blast out west through Reno to the coast. We did San Francisco and Napa, down the coast to LA, then on to San Diego. East then, on to Vegas, then south to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. We did the four corners thing, through New Mexico to Texas. Getting across that state took days, but we saw the Alamo. We spent a night in New Orleans, then cut across the south almost all the way to the ocean, stopping in Atlanta along the way. Up north now through North Carolina and Virginia, where we stopped near DC to see a college roomate. Then we went home.

Four weeks. 8500 miles. We stayed almost exclusively in Motel 6. They let “kids” under 18 stay free, so my brother cost nothing, making it something like $30-$40 a night for the two of us. There was always cable and air conditioning. It’s remarkable when you really think about it.

A friend sent me this video a few days ago. That’s what made me think of our trip. Although the people in the video seem to have taken almost the opposite route, it reminded me so much of our summer. It looks so similar.

It made me think of how much I valued that time. Yes, we went to Disneyland and Sea World and the Grand Canyon and the French Quarter. But what I really remember were not the usual touristy things. It’s the amazing moments we’d never have had unless we were in a car.

I remember that there was a lake in Utah we passed- I think it was called Bear Lake – that was simply the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. We just stopped the car on the side of the road and stared. I remember seeing the bats fly out of Carlsbad caverns and being overwhelmed. We spent a day driving in New Mexico where I’m not sure we say another human being for hundreds of miles. You could see forever, and it was flat as can be. We were forced to pull under a tunnel for a thunderstorm in Minnesota that was awe inspiring – and lasted 5 minutes. There were mountains and deserts and farmland and it was unbelievably huge, and, yet, it was still one country, where the people always seemed to be the same really.

We also saw the sites that most people I know would never bother to see. I’d seen pictures of Mt. Rushmore many times, but none of them prepared me for the actual thing. I was surprisingly moved. I’ve been skiing all over the country, but mo mountains looked like the Grand Tetons, which seem to rise at right angles right out of the ground. We went to Hearst Castle just to satisfy our parents, but that place was amazing. I stood next to a Saturn V rocket at NASA in Houston, and I still bore my boys with the story anytime anyone talks about going to the moon.

I’ve been in almost every state. It was a short trip in the scheme of a life, but enough time to plant solid, visceral memories.

I haven’t traveled the world like many people I know, but I have seen this country from one end to the other. Because it was something we chose to do, and not something forced on us by parents, I think we treasured and cataloged every minute. Many years later, as I sit in my car with voice activated GPS turn-by-turn directions and bluetooth connected cell phone, I still can’t believe we pulled it off so easily.

I wish I had some real message here. Maybe it’s that I wish everyone could see how many amazing things there are to experience right here in the United States. Maybe it’s that I wish people could realize how much more similar we are than different. Maybe it’s that I wish everyone would appreciate how lucky we are to be able to just jump in a car and go almost anywhere.

Or maybe I just realized how lucky I was to have had such an experience, and a brother who could stand to be cooped up with me for four weeks. If that’s the case, I’m very grateful.

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