Cross Country by Robert Sullivan by Robert Sullivan - Read Online


Editor’s Note

“Summer road trips…”Heading across the country this summer? Robert Sullivan's acclaimed memoir of a cross-country road trip is filled with references to American history, humor, and insight. A perfect read for fans of Bill Bryson's signature mix of fun and facts.
Scribd Editor


Robert Sullivan, who has driven cross-country more than two dozen times, recounts one of his family's many journeys from Oregon to New York. His story of moving his family back and forth from the East Coast to the West Coast (along with various other migrations), is replete with all the minor disasters, humor, and wonderful coincidences that characterize life on the road, not to mention life.

As he drives, Sullivan ponders his Lewis and Clark and other fellow nation-crossers, meets Beat poets who are devotees of cross-country icon Jack Kerouac, and plays golf on an abandoned coal mine. And, in his trademark celebration of the mundane, Sullivan investigates everything from the history of the gas pump to the origins of fast food and rest stops. Cross Country tells the tales that come from fifteen years of driving across the country (and all around it) with two kids and everything that two kids and two parents take when driving in a car from one coast to another, over and over, driving to see the way the road made America and America made the road.

Praise for Cross Country:
"Sullivan writes with precision, humor and empathy, and his own voice carrying us along."-Oregonian
"[A] sprawling, zigzagging, history-drenched memoir."-Boston Globe
"[An] entertaining, eclectic and eccentric memoir."-Cleveland Plain Dealer
"[Sullivan] channels Walt Whitman's sense of wonder."-Washington Times
"[Sullivan] could be the uncrowned king of road tripping."-Seattle Post Intelligencer
"Sullivan is sensitive, witty and well-read, which is why it's so much fun to have him along for the ride."-USA Today
"Sullivan is fascinating...he's in a league with Bill Bryson, a writer who deftly mixes humor and knowledge."-Fort Worth Star Telegram
"Cross Country is, by turns, grand, timely, intriguing...fascinating." -LA Times Book Review
"[Sullivan] is brilliant at
Published: Bloomsbury USA an imprint of Bloomsbury USA on
ISBN: 9781608196616
List price: $11.96
Availability for Cross Country
With a 30 day free trial you can read online for free
  1. This book can be read on up to 6 mobile devices.


Book Preview

Cross Country - Robert Sullivan

You've reached the end of this preview. Sign up to read more!
Page 1 of 1



Setting Out


WE’RE OFF. We’re off across America. We’re in the car and we’re driving and we’re not turning around, even though we usually do, even though we probably have forgotten something. We’re crossing the country. We’re not the first people to do it, not by a long shot, obviously. There’s Lewis and Clark, though they certainly weren’t first, even if people think they were—even if they thought they were. There are the pioneers in their covered wagons, the wagons that in river crossings were used as boats, the wagons that were stuffed with belongings, just like our car is today. There are the very first people to cross the country in the automobile: the people who, in the early 1900s, thought of driving as a kind of daredevil adventure, as something more akin to camping or hiking or hang gliding, as opposed to what we think of it today (i.e., just getting in the car). And then there are the great underground cross-country racers of the 1970s: the drivers who fought to prevent driving from becoming rote, the otherwise pretty conservative automobile anarchists who, when the price of gas went through the roof, were slowed but not halted, who had to contend with lower and lower speed limits, with cops, with angry truckers. (Truckers, of course, are the subset of cross-country drivers who cross the country all the time, every day.) Yes, we are just the latest in the long list of transcontinentalists. We are gasoline-powered footnotes in the travel- and adventure-related annals of a nation that has as its greatest public works project an ever-expanding system of roads, a crisscross and circling of roads that keeps it from ever sitting still.

We’re packed in, the kids in the back, the parents in front, our stuff filling the trunk, piled up around our knees. In our hearts, we’re excited. We’re excited in the part of our hearts that knows three thousand miles is doable, a snap, three or four or, longest-case scenario, five days, which is about as much time as we have—like many Americans, we have stuff to do, stuff to deal with—and about as much time as we can stand. In our hearts, we’re also weary. We’re weary in the part that has done this before, that knows three thousand miles is a long, long way, that has been out late at night on a dark road when our eyes have been trying to stay awake and our eyes only wish like all the rest of our tired bodies that they were not driving anymore. We are about to, first, drive on some of America’s less-laned roads, some of the not-so-super highways, but we are mostly going to drive on its many many-laned interstates, on the main roads, along with everybody else.

I know that this seems, to many Americans, like the wrong way to go. In our time driving across the country, we have met Americans who posed the following question: "Don’t you want to see the real America?"


THE REAL AMERICA IS ALSO SOMETIMES known as back-roads America or the heart of America or America’s heartland or, in shorthand, America. This is the America that is calculatedly heartwarming, represented by people who are purported to symbolize America—people who are Platonic ideals of Americans: a lobsterman from Maine, a logger from Oregon, a rancher from Texas, the last small farmer living in Missouri.

That America still exists, to some extent: I have seen a pie on the counter of a diner in Wisconsin that caused the phrase real America to ring in my head and that also made me hungry.* I have driven on roads in Missouri where, instead of giant, commercially produced signs advertising chain restaurants and chain motels, there were homemade signs advertising organic cattle and wildflowers and signs praising coroners hoping to be reelected, to be allowed one more term to investigate the local dead. You can see that America, without too much extra effort, but it is a kind of antique-shop America. It’s an America that appears in magazines alongside recipes; it’s the America where presidential candidates are televised.

But the real America is also the America that Americans generally think they are not seeing on the roads they use to cross the country—or for that matter, on the roads they use to commute to work in Chicago or while leaving Saint Louis to visit their in-laws in Omaha or while driving on I-70, formerly Route 66. It seems to me that the real America is the farthest thing from people’s minds when they are stopping for some fast food on I-5 in between Los Angeles and San Diego, much less driving from the East Coast to the West. But there it is, the real America, right there. For my part, I have seen America on the superhighways all through my years on the road, traveled its present and looked into its past, and today, grandparents waving good-bye at the window and the kids waving back, we’re setting off to see it again.


IN THE ROADS OF AMERICA is the history of America. See the nation grow from an unmapped, just-purchased spread of western land to a wagon-train-crossed compilation of territories, to states bound by a few muddy highways, to the modern United States wired with interstates. In the interstates are traces of our first explorations, our impenetrable mountain passes, our old Santa Fe Trail, our pioneers’ path to Oregon, our race to California’s gold, our first car-happy and nation-spanning private highways. And in the interstates are the paths toward the next America, the one that is always under construction.

See those first roads through young America, those tentative explorations into the unknown, as soldiers and surveyors, trappers and miners push into a West unexplored by white Americans. Then, America breaks away from its eastern beginnings, its coastal fringe: wagon trains lead herds of people to settle the prairies and the plains, to mine the mountains, to farm the fields and work the ranches-to-be. With its national maturation, America champions what it then called Good Roads, the first highways, the aesthetically pleasing parkways that were pleasant to drive, that were the automotive equivalent of a Sunday-afternoon stroll. Then, in the 1950s, America begins its interstate highway system, which itself in turn becomes America, its central arteries, its suburb-expanding and city-smashing nervous system. The interstate system is the centrally calculated roadway of empire, of inland empire, that spawned and fed the military-industrial complex so feared by the interstates’ instigator, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and which also spawned and fed the consumption of fast food, not to mention the automobile industry. Out of this middle age rose the beat poets, who were the midlife crisis of America, who rebelled against the road by taking to it, who did not know that one day their anticorporate Americanism would be taken up by American corporations in roadside ads for mass-produced consumer products that sometimes even featured beat poets. In the fifties and sixties and seventies, interstates destroyed cities and nourished the suburbs, which began expanding forever and ever into what was once the countryside, and then America woke up one day to find that crossing the country—that epic accomplishment that was a dream of America’s founders, that was a death-defying feat for the earliest trappers and settlers and explorers, that later was a kick, the thing to do just for the sake of doing it, for a generation of hipsters and, subsequently, hippies—was simple, a snap.

I THINK ABOUT THESE TRANSCONTINENTALISTS when I’m driving cross-country. I think about them and go on and on to anyone in the car who will listen or feign listening or simply look awake. I think of the stories of all the people who crossed before me, from Lewis and Clark to the secret cross-country highway racers of the seventies—crossing the country gives you a lot of time to think. And I think not just of where we’ve already been but also of what we are about to drive through, not any one place but a collection of places all being passed by, all being missed, partly in the impatient attempt to see what we think we are looking for when we are driving the road—i.e., the antique-shop America—and partly in the impatience that is a patented American character trait. The America that I see is an America that tells you to keep moving, to move on to something better, to get on the road and keep going, to stop only briefly to refuel your car and yourself but then to keep pushing toward the place that is closer to where you should be, or could be, if only you would keep going. America says move, move on, don’t sit still.

When I am on the road, I see the America that is a continual expedition, the never-ending race to the last frontier, rural or suburban or exurban. In other words, America is the road.

WHY ARE WE DOING IT? Why are we crossing the country this time? This time, it is summer vacation. It is summer vacation and after visiting relatives, as usual, and going to a wedding, way up in some faraway, nearly roadless Northwest mountains, after crossing the country once, from New York to Oregon, we are crossing the country yet again, from Oregon back to New York, to get home, to wrap up after six thousand miles, to rest. We are heading from one shining sea to another. We are not heading for the Pacific, as is customary in the history of cross-countrying; we are heading east. Once, when I was young, I headed west; I settled there and lived in the Oregon Country for a number of years. In terms of being young and heading west, I was just like the United States of America, in a sense. Now, I’m heading back into the East, which, for me, is a little like heading back into the past. At least when I head east I feel as if I run into memories, and then history itself. I also feel a little nuts. As far as the American past goes, when I travel east I feel like a deranged driver in the wrong lane of the highway of American history. Aside from getting everybody back safe and sound and in time for whatever it is we all have to do when we do actually get back—get to work, get places, do things that we’d said we’d do with friends and other relatives back in the East—one of my personal goals for this particular trip is to run into some of the larger reasons that I am on the road in the first place, the institutional reasons, or at least some of the reasons that everybody else is. I have spent so much of my life on the road that I almost can’t remember why I’m on the road anymore.


SURE ENOUGH, just in these first moments, in these first two or three miles, we are stopping. If you are attempting to drive across the United States of America in a manner that will get you to the other side before you run out of money or patience, stopping is the blessing and the curse, the action you most need to avoid, the dream that sometimes seems to be the only thing to do if you are ever going to get there, to make it to your destination. Stopping, like the trip itself, is bittersweet. This morning, we are stopping for coffee and for something to eat. We are stopping in Portland, Oregon, our beginning. We are stopping along the Columbia River, sometimes called the River of the West, other times known as the end of the road for Lewis and Clark. We are stopping and I am paying for the breakfast and wanting to tell the person behind the counter how many times we’ve set out to cross the country before. I am bringing the coffee and the breakfast to the car—a really late breakfast, as we packed the car all morning and now it’s close to ten—and I am looking at the car and shaking my head and thinking about what a long time it is for our son and his sister to sit in the car and about how many times we have put them through this, we being my wife and I. Something that I said to my wife just the night before, when we were beginning to load up the car and the kids were already asleep, was Why do we do this to them?


THE REASON We do this to them is that, as it turns out, this is who we are. We are people who have crossed the country a lot. This is something we maybe even do too much. When I say we in this case, I am referring to my wife and I and our kids. But sometimes the we is just my wife and I, because we began driving across the country before we were married, before we ever got involved with kids, when we were cross-country dating, my wife’s family on one coast, mine on the other. At first we did it purely to save money; due to the nature of my job, we are never certain about when we are going to leave.* We don’t just jump in a car and head out to wherever, like a bunch of beat poets fueled by booze and sex and whatever else (not that I am against booze or sex or whatever else). We’re the opposite, in a way: off from the East to get to the West or vice versa, and not looking to revel in the restless, soul-searching, drink- and drug-fueled process but simply looking to get there, and maybe see a little something on the way.

After all this time, our cross-country credentials are significant, if I do say so myself. I have crossed the country on dozens of occasions; I have driven from one side of the United States to the other more than anyone I know who is not a trucker or professional driver of some kind—close to thirty times, as best as I can tell from journals, and receipts, and snapshots, and occasional flashbacks. My total is somewhere around ninety thousand miles, which is about three and a half times around the planet. In 2001, for instance, I made six trips across the country, an eighteen-thousand-mile haul. I personally began my transcontinental driving at twenty-five, a typical age, it seems to me, with my girlfriend, who subsequently married me, and continued it with my wife, who would one day become the mother of our children, and with our children, who would one day complain while driving four and five and sometimes ten days in a row, depending on our cross-country route, which is sometimes a little circuitous (such as on the trip just a few weeks before this one, the trip going west across the country, the trip that took us from New York to Oregon via Texas—a trip that we’ve done a number of times and that usually runs a little over four thousand miles).

We have crossed the country for grandparent-related purposes, for work, to move—moving being something we often end up having to do for some reason, maybe because we are Americans. We have moved for work and for school, for reasons that to really understand would take more time than I have on a professional’s couch. We have crossed the country for weddings in the East and weddings in the West, and once, a few weeks after September 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked, we crossed the country when no one was going anywhere, when America stood still for a little while. It was a national fermata, and the interstates were empty and nervous-seeming: America standing still is something that takes getting used to. A few years ago, I traveled across the country by myself, with all our family’s belongings in a rental truck, with our station wagon attached to that truck, and with a paranoid sensation hanging over me like the canvas cover of a Conastoga wagon, alone and exposed on the prairie for the first time. Sure enough, I ran into a lot of problems, some of which I did not surmount, to put it mildly.

Growing up in the East, I got in a car every summer and drove to see my grandparents a couple of hours away; like the colonial Americans, I thought the Far West was eastern Pennsylvania. But then it happened one fall day that I met a woman, a woman who was from the West. A few months later, on a spring day that was a little warm and a little cool and just about perfect, we got in a car and went to see her childhood home, all the way across the country. I quit my job and drove off with her—I had never done anything like that, as I am the least spontaneous person you could ever know. That was sixteen years ago. Since then, her West Coast home became my home, and then my East Coast home became her home, and for a while we didn’t really have a home at all. We floated between coasts, ourselves and our neither-coasted children, one born here, one born there. We were simultaneously home-poor, or maybe home-free, and thus free to see America. In the case of my wife, she seems to grow stronger the more she sees. In my own case, I feel a little stronger and a little more like a nervous wreck.


WHEN WE CROSS THE COUNTRY, when we reach the other side, we get a road’s-eye view. This might seem limiting, yet I feel that at some point in the trip we end up getting a glimpse of almost all the American landscape’s glory. All of America’s glory can be divided into two categories: (1) the obviously glorious, such as the Grand Canyon at sunset when there isn’t too much smog from all the cars and recreational vehicles people have been driving to see it; and (2) the less obviously glorious, such as an interstate-dissected and beautiful valley in western Pennsylvania, where you are stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, where you get out of the car and walk around and talk with all the other people out of their cars, where you mingle with people who have driven from as far away as Alaska, and then marvel that you are mingling with people from Alaska while standing on an interstate highway—where, when you finally get to the next exit, you buy a postcard showing a nearby canyon that is Pennsylvania’s lesser-known but also beautiful Grand Canyon, which you never would have guessed was there. I feel as if the kids have seen America almost subconsciously. Trying to understand America while driving across it is like trying to understand a language by playing tape recordings of the language under your pillow while you sleep. The next day, you hear the language and perhaps think you understand it even though you don’t.


SO WE GET THE COFFEE and some pastries in downtown Portland, and we’re off again, on the road at last.

We take a local side street, named for a member of one of the founding families of Portland, which leads us to a busier local street, likewise named, which in turn leads us onto the interstate highway that separates one part of the city from the rest of the city and that was built on an old historic district that only now people wish hadn’t been demolished—a trait of interstate highways around the country. And then we are on that very same highway as it becomes a bridge, a huge bridge with one four-lane deck built directly beneath another four-lane deck carrying traffic the other way, the Fremont Bridge, a bridge named for an American explorer. From high atop the graceful crisscross of interstates and interstate ramps we see the Willamette River, the Columbia, and the Cascade Mountains ahead—the West!

And in the car, I am—like a tour director nobody paid for, like a tour guide nobody can stop, like a human roadside plaque—going on and on about those famous first cross-country travelers, Lewis and Clark, just two among a long line of people I mention. I wish I could control myself; my explications worry me, to some extent. Yes, you, the reader, can put this book down and walk away for a few minutes or even forever, but my family is, at least for a few country-crossing days, stuck with me, trapped.

I try to accommodate them by sometimes not talking, or at least switching topics every day, for the part of me that’s not worried thinks the history of cross-country travel is significant, of interest, even. So fear not: When I’m done with Lewis and Clark, not that I am ever done, there are people like the copper kings in Montana for me to rattle on about, not to mention Carl Fisher, the man behind the first cross-country highway, and Emily Post, who, as it happens, was among the first to get in a car and drive across the country. There are the great motel builders of the fifties or the beat poets or the planners who planned the highways and the planners who did not get a chance to. On the other hand, Lewis and Clark were first to cross the country in the nation’s popular imagination, and they continue to cross the country today, in the roadside signage and imagery that you run into when you start out with that first cup of coffee in your hand on a day like today.

And even though they were not really the first, even though lots of people had gone before Lewis and Clark when they pushed off in the Missouri River in Saint Louis and headed out to Oregon, Lewis wrote of feeling singular. I, however, feel like one of millions who have crossed America, who cross it every day. Clark was worried about wilderness, about running out of supplies, about Native American populations that he considered very foreign and unknown, while I am worried about the opposite—about being surrounded by people just like me, people in cars, maybe driving a few miles or even a few blocks, maybe driving really fast or angrily. Here in traffic on the bridge over Portland or in traffic even in the middle of the Texas Panhandle or on a stretch of highway in Oklahoma that seems far from anything but turns out to be kind of close to Tulsa, I am worried about civilization, about getting hit by a truck, for instance, especially near Chicago.

And whereas Lewis was often out in the fields alongside his expeditionary team, looking for flora and fauna undiscovered by the scientists cheering him on back east, I’m on the lookout for things we have already seen, for things everyone has already seen, like rest stops.

Yes, rather than feeling like an explorer, I feel like a guy who has seen his family packed in a car, and even a rental car, dozens of times, and thus I feel anxious, imagining all that could go wrong, remembering all that has gone wrong in the past. At the same time, I somehow still feel really good, as if we were heading out for the very first time. That is what the road and a full cup of coffee in your hand on the road in the morning will do to you.


I SUPPOSE SOME OF THE PRETRIP logistical details made me feel a little like an explorer. I had to think about the car, for instance. I, for one, have never had good luck with cars. Fortunately, my wife has had at least some good luck. When I met her, she had already successfully cross-countryed several times in a 1988 Subaru wagon, the first car we cross-countryed in as a team. For a few years, we crossed the country in a 1992 Toyota Camry; my wife arranged for that car, a car that I could not become emotionally attached to but that nonetheless did the three-thousand-mile job when our children were really young. The car that I was instrumental in procuring was a 1989 Volvo wagon, eleven years old when I paid the guy too much for it. After I negotiated the (bad) deal, my wife picked up the car with our son and they pulled into traffic and the headlights and interior lights began blinking and the horn began honking and it stopped, less than a mile from the guy who had my check. Somehow, we drove across the country in it a few days later. The Volvo always seemed reluctant to make the trip or continue the trip, and yet for some reason I felt good about that car, and eventually became closer and closer to it as it lost its functions, one by one.

Just before we were about to set out this time, on the trip that brought us west to Oregon, I took the Volvo to a garage in our East Coast village to see if they thought it would survive the trip, given that it already had 250,000 miles on it. That garage is a great garage: they make the car work; they don’t charge me a lot; in fact, I get to hang out with the father and two sons who run it. In a weird way, I sometimes look forward to breaking down. I asked Harry, the oldest son, to consider whether the car could make it across the country. After spending the day with the car, after checking the engine and everything else, Harry suggested what he considered the most sane course of action. Look, he said, you drive it cross country, and if the thing dies on you, then you walk away from it. What do you have to lose?

With these words ringing in my head, I debated. I went to sleep and had dreams with images resembling the crudely videotaped rescue footage you see on television news, a helicopter lifting a family from a car in a river under a bridge, scored with the refrain, What do you have to lose?

I talked to my wife. I’m leaving this decision up to you, she said, which I translated to mean, Rent a car.

I decided to rent a car.

Harry was crestfallen. You’re not gonna take the Volvo? he said. He had, it turns out, driven across the country as a kid with his father and brother, both of whom proceeded to gather in the parts’ storage area and recount details of that trip. People remember their cross-country trips; emotionally speaking, crossing the country is a big deal.

The point being that we’d gotten to Oregon from New York state in a rental, an Impala.

I would eventually be pleased that we had rented the Impala, especially on the day when we were driving through Colorado Springs and the interstate was flooded; our old Volvo wagon had holes in the undercarriage and the wipers were mostly for show, and on the day we drove through Colorado Springs, we moved slowly through highway flooding that would have been straight out of the Old Testament if the Old Testament had interstates. Meanwhile, the Christian radio stations, so prevelant in Colorado Springs, played harsh (to me) rock and roll that mentioned Christ a lot, not in the context of a curse, causing me to think the rain was maybe a sign, a message from the heavens regarding my decision to rent a car.

But on the morning of the day I picked up the rental, I was mostly worried about the reception the Impala would receive from the rest of the expeditionary team.

My son, who is thirteen, tested the car first. Already impressed by its fuel efficiency, compared with that of our dying car, he reclined in the back seat and gave it the thumbs-up. Yes, he said, in a positive manner that indicated to me our genetic and gender similarities. Our daughter was likewise pleased. "I like this car, Dad," she said, sweetly.

I also went to the camping store and bought a specially designed, technologically advanced pack for the top of the car. I wanted to buy tons of stuff, as I often do when I am going somewhere. But the pack was very expensive—so expensive, in fact, that when I pointed it out to my wife, I said as much. If you think we need it, then you should get it, she said. A portion of my husband brain wanted her to say the wrong thing so that I would be liberated, unchained, free to explain to her how her shortsightedness and concern for mere money were about to jeopardize the trip. I commented on the price again but she remained strong.

I’m telling you, she said when I tried to change her mind, if you think we need it, then you should get it.

I was assured by the sales staff at the camping supply store that the pack would fit on our rooftop-rackless rental car. Indeed, I bought extra attachments so that it would. It didn’t, naturally, and after the first day that it rained, the pack was full of water and I had to rearrange our gear, so that we ended up with a lot more stuff in the car. We went one of the long ways across the country—New York to New Jersey to Pennsylvania, and then through West Virginia for a second and then into Ohio and Indiana and Missouri, followed by Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming, and Utah and Idaho, and finally, into Oregon—and the pack that did not fit correctly on the car began to shred by the time we got to Wyoming. I had to jury-rig it—add extra straps, duct tape, and so forth—just to keep it from flying off, which meant that during the rainstorm in Colorado that I mentioned above, water poured into the car and all over the by-then-irate passengers. It was a little bit of a nightmare.

In addition to the pack, I also bought a fancy compass to mount on our dashboard.

The compass fell off the dashboard about two hours into the trip, in Pennsylvania.


AS FAR AS DIRECTIONS GO, we did what we have often done—we went to the Automobile Association of America and got a TripTik®. A TripTik is a nine-inch-long-by-four-and-a-quarter-inch-wide flip-top-notebook-like succession of maps that AAA calls the backbone of your travel package. According to the information on the TripTik that describes the TripTik itself: The detailed, informative strip maps meet the needs of motorists traveling today’s highways. You might think that experienced cross-country travelers wouldn’t need a TripTik. On the contrary, the more experienced the travelers, the more information required—precise whereabouts of motels and gas stations so that, if you are out of gas and in between Fargo and Moorehead and not going to make Saint Paul, Minnesota, then you know all your options vis-à-vis price, continental breakfast offerings, and, on occasions when your younger travelers are so desirous, pools. To get our personalized TripTik, which we did when we were in the East, before we crossed the country, we took a train to Grand Central Station, in New York City, to a subway to Columbus Circle—the statue of Columbus watching us as I pointed up Broadway.

I’m pretty sure it’s this way, I said.

This is why I hate going places with you, my wife said.

We found AAA on the second floor of a small building, and took a number, and sat in the waiting area, where our daughter looked at brochures for cruises to the Caribbean. Our number was called, and we were summoned to the back of the office, to a desk in a row of desks where we would meet what AAA refers to as a travel counselor. Our travel counselor was the person who would put together our TripTik, page by page, one hundred or so miles at a time. The entire package is tailored to the specific needs of your trip, the TripTik itself says. We felt a little sheepish about asking for a cross-country, round-trip TripTik, as it is pretty much the largest, most time-consuming TripTik. Then, to make matters a little more uncomfortable, we realized that our travel counselor had been about to take off for his break at the moment we were suddenly assigned to him. Over the years, we have come to expect a certain amount of shock from travel counselors when we tell them that we are driving across the entire country; it’s like going into a deli and ordering lunch for three hundred. Thus, we greeted this travel counselor as cordially and delicately as we could.

So where are you going? he asked us.

Well, I said, we’re going across the country.

He exhaled. Well, he said, there goes my break! He spun his chair around, and with great dexterity pulled out a map of the United States from his many slots of maps and brochures, and quickly spread it smoothly out on his desk.

Then I mentioned to him that we were driving back as well. He exhaled again. OK, he said, how do you want to go?

We described our route, and as we did, his yellow highlighting pen made its way across the map. As he came to cities and towns, he looked up once in a while to make little jokes and sing snippets of songs; he was getting into it. He gave our daughter a pen shaped like palm tree that advertised a hotel in Florida. When we asked him if he had been to the hotel, he said he didn’t travel, just commuted daily from the other side of the Hudson River, in New Jersey. Like most travel counselors I have been counseled by, he was an expert on highways and directions in the abstract. After he had our route, he went away to gather the individual map pages of the TripTik—each rectangular map of a page deliciously detailed with gas station possibilities, with information regarding scenery and rest stops and food and lodging and bail bonds (in case the accident is your or your driving partner’s fault, or in case you and your driving partner are Bonnie and Clyde, I suppose), with details about state speed limits and child restraints and studded tires, with teeny snippets of history on the back.

As we waited, we overheard the people in the desks around us planning trips with their travel counselors—trips to the Grand Canyon, to Pennsylvania on a motorcycle, to Canada. Our travel counselor returned and, first, stamped little green arrows on each page of each TripTik. The arrows were to tell us which direction to drive in, and they pointed straight ahead alongside the interstates in the TripTik, which ended up looking like this:

Second, he proceeded to calculate our round-trip mileage. It took him a long time to do so, and as he worked on it, I kept telling him that he didn’t have to worry about calculating the total mileage. But he insisted. There was no stopping him by now; he had a kind of preparatory cross-country momentum. Finally, he filled out the blanks on the back of each TripTik: 3,647 to Oregon and 2,900 to get back. As he passed them to us, he was beaming. On the TripTik that would take us to Oregon, he also wrote, To Oregon. On the TripTik that would bring us back east—the very TripTik that I have in my hands now as we drive off from Portland—he wrote, Home James! (I only found out later that the saying was from a 1923 song sung by Fred Hille-brand, Home James, and Don’t Spare the Horses.)

We thanked our travel counselor. He wished us well, and we felt ready, prepared for our adventure, our trip into the sort-of-known unknown. We stopped at the front desk for a few more maps and more guidebooks full of places to stay and see and eat in every state. On our way out of the building, we ran into our travel counselor in the stairwell. He didn’t seem to recognize us and he looked exhausted.


ON THE BRIDGE OVER PORTLAND, packed in the Impala, with our Trip-Tik opened to the first page, with its stamped, east-pointing arrow, we saw, as I say, the mountains, a preview of the day’s scenery. We saw the glacier-covered peaks of the Cascades, the awe-inspiring mountain range noted, of course, by the native people who traded with the early British sailors who subsequently renamed the peaks after themselves, so that, in 1792, W’y’east, was renamed Mount Hood, for Lord Samuel Hood, by William Robert Broughton, who, in his book Voyage of Discovery, wrote: A very distant high snowy mountain now appeared rising beautifully conspicuous in the midst of an extensive tract of low, or moderately elevated, land. Which is what we see today, as we cross over the Willamette River, which Lewis incorrectly assumed to be a river that connected the rivers west of the Rocky Mountains with the Pacific Ocean. We see the beautifully conspicuous mountain. I like to say it aloud: beautifully conspicuous!

Of course, I mention some if not all of this to the expeditionary team in the Impala—which brings up the final introductory point, a point I should emphasize in case it is not yet absolutely clear: never go on a cross-country trip with me, for I can’t stop rattling on about what I assume or even imagine to be the significance of things, whether things are significant or not, whether the kids want to hear about it or want to sleep or read Little House on the Prairie or Rolling Stone or just want to relax.


Portland, Oregon, to Missoula, Montana


JOY FILLS THE CAR on a day that is alternately sunny, cloudy, and drizzly on Interstate 84. Happiness abounds in the back seat, which may be an overstatement because what I mean is no one is fighting. Yes, we are a little behind schedule, leaving a little later than I’d hoped. Yes, I had a lot of trouble adjusting the expensive cartop pack. Yes, I bought a lot of expensive extra straps to strap it down with and so forth. Yes, we ought to be bored already or blasé, at the very least, given that we have crossed the country so many times, given that we just drove across the country a couple of weeks ago and are now, as I have stated, on our way home. But we are excited to be beginning, to be setting out, to be cruising alongside the Columbia River, the River of the West, and about to enter an area that our AAA map describes as picturesque (an outstanding scenic route). And then there is music playing in the car, the first CD choice of the many CD and radio choices. The music is not the historically appropriate fiddle music I have on hand to match what I have in my head as the theme for this first day of five days crossing the country—i.e., the Lewis and Clark expedition; the music is pop music, chosen by my son, but yes, the music is good and everybody likes it, including me, and the musician, a guy named Rufus Wainwright, is, I have learned, the son of a French Canadian folk singer, and Cruzatte, the fiddler on the Lewis and Clark expedition, was French Canadian, so that works for me, that’s fine. Cross-country driving joy!

We’re out of Portland, the last big city for 2,000 miles: it’s 434 miles to Boise or 800 miles to Salt Lake City or 1,291 miles to Denver or 1,700 miles to Omaha or 1,700 miles to Saint Paul, Minnesota, a place we are headed. We’re on the edge of the city and the beginning of the country—or what stands for country, these days—when we see our first cross-country-specific facility, the Flying J Travel Plaza. In the language of the interstate, the travel plaza is sometimes called the truck stop, the truck plaza, or the travel oasis; the word truck is gradually falling away as more truck stops have become eager to sell to truckers and nontruckers alike, as the interests and needs of truck drivers and non-truck drivers have begun to overlap: Books on Tape, cell phone equipment, little mirrors that help you see a car coming especially if you are in a large, trucklike car. I have never stopped at this particular travel plaza, it being so close to my destination or departure point, depending, but I can say that when I first drove west, when I first passed it, fifteen years before, it was a lonely outpost of automotive convenience. Now it is so crowded by restaurants and chain stores that it’s difficult to distinguish between long-distance cross-country travelers and shoppers headed to the store for groceries: Sherri’s 24-Hour Restaurant, an RVs-for-sale lot with rows of giant recreational vehicles, a Conoco, a Taco Bell, a Holiday Inn Express, a Wendy’s.

It is a veil of commerce marking the separation between worlds, or the nonseparation, for this travel plaza and car-minded environs are the last retail outpost before the scenic area—the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, in fact—where, by law, no travel plaza can exist.

And as we see the gorge, scenic in signage and on maps and actually scenic in plain view as well—its skyscraper-tall walls of red basalt run through by the Columbia River, a wide, flat, gray, watery parallel to the gray, flat interstate that races alongside of it—we see the results of that one day, millions of years ago, when a rush of water that was like something described in a myth flowed through the broken ice dam that formed Lake Missoula, a state-sized pool of water that swept through the Columbia’s little valley and blew it out, made a gorge. And as soon as we see the gorge, at the moment we are able to look into its miles-away infinity, in the same orgiastic Acadian scenery, we spot that most ubiquitous of Great Pacific Northwest road signs—the sign that marks the beginning of what I shall call our Lewis and Clark leg.


IT IS WITH ONLY THE MOST Herculean effort that the highway traveler traveling through the Great Pacific Northwest avoids the thought of either Lewis or Clark. The foreigner, first arriving in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota, even in Iowa, Missouri, and certain parts of Illinois, could be forgiven if he or she supposed that Lewis and Clark were contemporary elected officials or some ancient and still-worshipped rulers or deities. Lewis and Clark signs are everywhere in the Northwest—specifically the brown road signs that are the size of No Parking signs, each sign decorated with a white-lined drawing of two men, one kneeling, one pointing, one in late-eighteenth-century decorative military plumage, the other in frontier buckskin, both presumably facing west, because westward, in the parlance of the age of the Lewis and Clark generation, is toward empire. In the Great Pacific Northwest, Lewis and Clark signs are as ubiquitous as signs for hospitals—the sign is a brown and white (or sometimes blue and white) icon of history, recreation, commerce, and tourism, even if it doesn’t do a great job representing Clark, who was tall and red-haired and gregarious, or Lewis, who was less gregarious, often moody. In my experience, people generally follow the Lewis and Clark trail from Saint Louis to the Oregon coast, where the expedition spent the 1805 to 1806 winter. But it is well known, at least among members of our Impala-driven expedition, that I personally prefer to think about their trip back to Saint Louis, in 1806, when everyone thought they were lost or maybe dead.

And so for this first day of the trip, I proposed—not really seeking any input from the rest of the crew on board the Impala, I understand now—that we follow the Lewis and Clark trail back on this return trip home of ours. Aside from that general idea, I had two particular goals. First, I wanted to see a part of the trail they took across the Bitterroot Range of the Rocky Mountains, a piece of the westbound trail that nearly killed them the first winter, when they were lost and without supplies: one of those untouched-seeming Lewis and Clark trails in the middle of the mountains, the kind that you see on television shows or in National Geographic photo essays. Second, at the end of this leg of the trip, I wanted to rest our expedition, just as their expedition rested, in the hot springs on the far side of the mountains—in the very spot, just outside of Missoula, where what President Thomas Jefferson called the Corps of Discovery rested and soaked. For them it was a kind of mid-expedition vacation break in the first national cross-country trip. I had this idea that we were going to rest and relax too. We Americans don’t just like to read about our history; we like to experience it.

I should point out that while it was by no means the longest day of driving we have ever had in terms of mileage, it felt really, really long due to bad planning on my part and due, also on my part, to a temperament that might be described as Lewis-like, by which I mean moody.

THIS MORNING, AS WE SET OUT, I am very excited, very Lewis and Clark excited, maybe too Lewis and Clark excited.

If I had been paying better attention, I would have noticed that everyone in the car is already excited, as much by the Lewis and Clark leg as by the usual cross-country adventure. But foolishly, in order to rouse even more excitement in my party, I encourage our son to read aloud