One State, Two State, Red State, Blue State
My wife and I have just completed “USA Road Trip 2004”, a month-long vacation around America. In our minivan, we drove from Boston to national parks and rural backwaters, sunny beaches and snow-capped mountains.
Getting back in touch with America couldn’t have come at a better time. The Abu Garaib abuse scandal in Iraq left most Americans disgusted and ashamed. U.S. standing in the world is at its lowest ebb since the end of World War II. Gas prices are skyrocketing. It’s no wonder 65% of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track.
Four weeks and 8,000 miles later, my faith is renewed, at least somewhat. Across red states and blue, seeing the sights and meeting the people was good for the soul. It is amazing, though, how much you can learn about our country, its commonalities and divisions, from one long car trip.
- 8,326 miles traveled
- 26 days
- Most expensive gasoline (premium): $2.99, Mariposa, CA
- Least expensive gasoline (premium): $1.97, Rock Springs, WY
- 17 states visited/traversed (MA, NY, PA, OH, IN, IL, MO, OK, TX, NM, AZ, UT, CA, NV, WY, NB, IA)
- Motel stops: Best Western (4), Super 8 (3), Econo Lodge (1), Red Roof Inn (1), Quality Inn (1), Lees Inn (1), Others (4)
- Health indicators: weight up 6 lbs; cholesterol likely up 10%
Red State/Blue State, Incarnate
Everything you need to know about the deep political divisions in the United States is captured in microcosm in Missouri. The cultural chasm between right and left is not only reflected in the polls; you can see it from the highways.
The “Show Me” state showed me a lot about the broad expanse of American culture, values, and behaviors. Adjacent billboards on Interstate 44 advertised adult videos, salvation through Jesus, vasectomy reversals, and anti-abortion messages. On the one hand, Missouri offers the Gateway Arch, some first-rate universities and urban blight; on the other, it offers the country-fried kitsch of Branson and a mind-bending litany of fundamentalist churches. I guess it should come as no surprise that Missouri is the home of John Ashcroft. It probably is also no surprise that he lost his senate race there to a dead man.
On this particular trip, we did not journey through the heart of Dixie. We did, though, see plenty of evidence that the Bible Belt is alive and well. While we didn’t see many Bush/Cheney signs per se, we saw some pretty reasonable facsimiles as we made our way through what have been termed “fly-over” (or perhaps “drive-by”) states:
- “North America’s Largest Cross” (Texas)
- YAMRC - Yet Another Massive Roadside Cross (Missouri)
- Billboard – “Jesus Christ: Adult Super Savior” (Iowa)
- Bumper Stickers – “My Boss is a Jewish Carpenter” (Wyoming)
Discretion being the better part of valor, I thought it best not to bring up in conversation my screed, “What Would Jesus Do? An Ethical Guide for George W. Bush in 2004.”
Effete Liberal Elites?
This is not to say that Democrats were not to be seen. For every Amarillo or Salt Lake, we saw the granola-crunching, sushi-quaffing, latte-sipping, Birkenstock-wearing, crystal-clutching denizens of places like Sedona, San Francisco, and Santa Fe. Richard Florida of “Creative Class” fame would have been thrilled.
It’s the Economy, Stupid
America’s interstate highways tell us a lot about the state of the nation. From the decrepit I-90 east of Cleveland, you immediately can tell that Ohio has lost 300,000 manufacturing jobs during the Bush regime. (One exception is the expansion of I-71 and I-70 near Columbus, showing the capital’s assumption of the role of Ohio’s leading city.) The construction in St. Louis also seemed to emphasize decay and blight.
The flipside to the Rust Belt are the gleaming highways of New Mexico, Nevada and Utah. Tourism and natural gas show economic growth and improving state revenue coffers. The new I-25/I-40 interchange in Albuquerque in particular is a striking piece of engineering, resembling a quadruple coronary by-pass on a massive scale. (That may be a telling analogy for Governor Bill Richardson.)
Most intriguing were the roads in Silicon Valley. The once empty office buildings along Route 101 are starting to fill up again; new construction is also beginning. That the tech bust has bottomed out was confirmed at Palo Alto cafes and restaurants. The smugness and pretension that so endeared the Valley to America are back.
Bad Acid Trips Turned Good
One of the fringe benefits of any road trip is the people you meet, especially the staggering array of oddballs, miscreants, the over-medicated and the under-appreciated. Toss our fairly social Pembroke Welsh Corgi into the mix, and you’ve got a recipe for seeing the extremes in human behavior.
Luckily for us, we were able to meet some good-hearted folks who, though no doubt couple of standard deviations from the mean, definitely added to the trip:
- The Corgi Cowboy of Jackson, Wyoming. Across from the town square in Jackson, we met a dred-locked ski bum who had one (or perhaps 10) too many to drink. With great excitement, he praised our dog. He went on to describe his close friend who had apparently trained other corgis to ride sheep bareback.
- The Flower Man of Santa Barbara. At an ocean-side park, we were approached by an inebriated though pleasant ex-hippie with the face of Beck and the clothes of Jed Clampett. He proceeded to present to our dog a white rose he had inserted into the bottom of his hollow, bamboo walking stick. She proceeded to eat the flower. He smiled and moved on, his mission apparently complete.
- The Warrior Goddess of New Mexico. At a rest stop along I-40 in New Mexico, we met a woman asking for money to continue her travels. Obliging, we were presented with a hand-written thank you note combining Norse mythology and American military references. God knows what it meant, but it was comforting to know that the Winged Angels of Vengeance will smite our transgressors.
One Nation, Indivisible
Symbols are one powerful means by which societies communicate their common values, beliefs, benefits and sanctions to their members. Today, there is perhaps no better iconic representation of American cultural homogeneity than Starbucks.
Much as McDonald’s ushered in a “Burger Index” of national cultural unity in the 1970’s, the Starbuck’s “Latte Level” is now almost universal across the United States. Ever the automatons of middlebrow culture ourselves, we visited Starbucks locations in no fewer than 11 towns (Liverpool, NY; Terre Haute, IN; Albuquerque, NM; Santa Fe, NM; Flagstaff, AZ; Santa Barbara, CA, Saratoga, CA; San Francisco, CA; Elko, NV; Salt Lake City, UT; Buffalo, NY).
The cultural low point came in Elko, Nevada. There, I wandered through a casino, stumbling through row after row of slot machines, all in search of espresso advertised on a highway billboard. While the Starbucks played its reggae compilation featuring Jimmy Cliff and Burning Spear, I gazed out at the hordes of senior citizens at the casino, showcasing “Your Social Security Dollars at Work.” I knew then I had become everything I ever hated or feared.
Rock Formations for $300, Alex
This USA Road Trip heavily emphasized the national parks of the Southwest. As a result, the bewildering array of natural rock formations we encountered throughout the trip became one of its central themes. Taken individually or collectively, these spectacles in rock may or may not prove the existence of God, but they do at minimum represent a striking teleological coincidence that implies the existence of a higher order deity.
- Hoodoos (Bryce Canyon National Park). Bryce features thousands of multi-hued, tooth-like structures called hoodoos. Produced over tens of thousands of years, these formations were one of the high points of the trip.
- Tufas (Mono Lake). As its water is diverted to southern California, Mono Lake has revealed extensive calcium deposits and spiked formations called tufas. Wild stuff.
- Rock Walls (Zion National Park). Though discriminating against dogs of color, Zion offers breath-taking views of massive walls of rock, in sharp contrast to the jagged hoodoos of Bryce only 75 miles away.
- Petroglyphs (Petrified Forest National Park). While the pueblos and “forests” were disappointing, the numerous rock carvings from the past were intriguing. (Interesting sociological side note: the father of six blond haired children told his kids that the petroglyphs date back to the time “when Jesus was in Palestine.”)
Disasters Narrowly Averted
It has often been remarked that tornadoes are divine retribution against trailer parks. If so, God’s wrath was visited upon America’s heartland early and often during our month-long journey around the country.
On Friday, April 28th, we just missed powerful storms and tornado warnings in the Tulsa metro area. While massive storms pounded Wyoming on May 20th, we barely skirted most of the rain, wind and hail on Interstate 80. On the 21st, we listened to hours of tornado alerts while speeding across Iowa, Illinois and Indiana. We were lucky enough to elude the twisters in Iowa, but torrential rain finally grounded us for the night in Elkhart, Indiana. Thanking our maker for our narrow escape, the next day we drove right into a new (and rare) tornado warning in central New York.
Acts of God definitely added to the excitement of the trip. As Bill Clinton supposedly said of Paula Jones, “close, but no cigar.”
Going to the Dogs
Traveling with a dog changes your calculus for dining, lodging, and recreation. Where to stay, where to eat, and how to manage the canine gastrointestinal system became central issues of the day.
Luckily, most motels were prepared to accommodate the beast. Three locales were particularly dog friendly:
- Santa Barbara, California. Many of the town’s cafes provided outdoor seating that allowed dogs. Our hotel (our one extravagance of the trip) welcomed us with treats and a bandana for the dog. It offered an array of luxury canine services, from room service to massage (and, who knows, perhaps escort services as well). Somewhat embarrassed and not a little ashamed by the excess, we did not avail ourselves of them. (Take note Bush administration: it's OK to feel guilt and shame, and even to apologize for it.)
- Albuquerque, New Mexico. The city’s parks, cafes, and merchants were all a big help, especially in much-cooler-than-we-are Nob Hill. The Flying Star Café and Kelly’s brew pub near the university were key finds.
- Santa Fe, New Mexico. The beer garden at the Second Street Brewery and the patio at Savour were excellent pit stops for us and our semi-trained pooch. Santa Fe’s huge Ortiz Park also allowed dogs off leash, providing a great venue for watching the much-discussed clash of East Coast/West Coast dog gangs.
Affronts to the Coalition of the Willing
Not everyone was so supportive of our canine companion. At Yosemite, one Japanese woman called her a “rodent.” One man among a group of German tourists outside a restaurant in Tropic, New Mexico said she “lacked discipline.” And a French visitor claimed that she “smelled bad.” I think this is the point where Donald Rumsfeld would go off on a rant about “Old Europe.”
Best Dining Experience
The winner here, hands down, was the Jackson Hole Wing Company in Jackson, Wyoming. Porting around our surly dog in a town not yet open for the season, we faced total rejection by Jackson’s unique mix of cowboy steak houses, organic cafes for the earth muffin crowd, and toney bistros for the arrivistes. Our host at the Wing Company, a transplant from Knoxville, Tennessee, saved us. Spicy wings, Old Scratch beer and Wyoming’s “big skies” became one of the highlights of the trip.
The Petrified Forest National Park east of Flagstaff was one of the big disappointments of the trip. After entering the park from the north, we saw the dramatic vistas of the Painted Desert. Upon reaching the petrified forests at the south end of the 28-mile circuit, all we saw was a few tree stumps lying about. Apparently, most of the petrified wood was poached 100 years ago. The anti-climax of the desolate Petrified Forest does have social value, however; it represents the future of America’s natural legacy under George W. Bush.
Best Kept Secret
We stumbled upon Mono Lake almost as an after-thought following our visit to Yosemite. After the dramatic drive through the Tioga Pass, we weren’t expecting the bizarre calcified moonscape rising out of the water. The contrast to the 10,000-foot snow-covered peaks of Yosemite was marked.
Bryce Canyon in Utah was the award-winner for the trip. Though we were constrained by our dog (not allowed on most trails), Bryce’s stunning vistas and endlessly complex hoodoos were well worth the effort. The only cautionary note: prepare your food plan in advance; nearby dining choices are essentially limited to fried, dead animal, to put it politely.