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American Road Trips

We remain a nation of rovers, as driven as Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery were 200 years ago.

American Road Trips, illus. by David McGlynn
Photo caption
If adventure calls, grab a map and roam the roads of the North American continent.


Ask a roomful of Americans what their dream trip would be, and for every "Tuscany" or "Tahiti" you'll get five people saying, "Cross-country drive." The coast-to-coast crawl is our epic road show, our national rite of passage. There may be no consensus on which is the Great American Novel, but we do agree on the Great American Journey.

To traverse is the penchant of a spread-out people. In most wide-bodied countries—Russia, China—train tracks are the preferred cross-country connectors. This has to do with culture, economics, geography—vast stretches of emptiness through which a stocked and peopled train is a much more appealing conveyance than a two-door sedan.

Even Canada, as much like the United States as a country can be, is not a place people dream of one day driving across. They want to see it from the seat of a meandering train, preferably one with a domed observation car. Canada has more wilderness than we do and less of a car culture. And it never had a Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. To say it another way, it never produced a Lewis and Clark.

That indivisible pair set out from Camp Dubois, Ill., and launched their keelboats up the Missouri River on May 14, 1804. President Thomas Jefferson had appointed Lewis (who chose Clark to accom-pany him) to lead some 48 others, a group christened the Corps of Discovery, on an expedition to find the Northwest Passage, a waterway continuously navigable from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, which he hoped would facilitate trade and, eventually, the settlement of the West. (The Louisiana Purchase had taken place the previous year.) After setting up a winter camp in North Dakota, the group made an arduous crossing of the Rockies and found the Columbia River, disappointingly unconnected to the Missouri, and followed it to the Pacific Ocean, arriving in November of 1805. They spent the winter on the coast and then made the long slog back, arriving in September of the following year to a jubilant welcome in St. Louis. Together, they traveled for more than two years and over some 8,000 miles.

In their epic journey, Lewis and Clark didn't just provide a model for America, they were America. Through their vision and stout fulfillment of their potential, they inspired (and expanded) a nation while embodying its ethos. Their vaunted courage, skill, and doggedness—not to mention their openness to the kindness of strangers—are what we can learn from; their questing spirit is what we all, sometimes dormantly, possess.

Americans, it is always pointed out, are a restless people, flitting about from place to place, moving thousands of miles for a job, or going thousands of miles without a job, drawn instead by something less tangible and, in our work-based culture, less respectable: atmosphere, lifestyle, an imagined community of like-minded souls. The British writer Jonathan Raban tried to capture the country in the 1980s by floating down the Mississippi—our Great American River—and must have realized that the resulting book, Old Glory, caught only a glimpse of it, because in a subsequent work, Hunting Mister Heartbreak, he bounced about, renting apartments and hanging out in Manhattan, Key West, Alabama, Seattle. And as a result, this second book is an even greater success, for it is about not just a few diverse places within our borders but about our migratory nature as a people.

Leaving home is what we do; as much as anything, it is what defines us as Americans. Seeing the country is a large part of that, and for some people the only part.

Our mobility is hardly surprising, considering our history. The United States was founded by people who said, "Enough!" and got out of town and sailed away. A few generations in, they did it again, this time with wagons. It is this internal migration that separates us from other immigrant countries—Argentina, New Zealand—where the huddled masses hunkered down. They had had their one taste of flight; they were not, like our forefathers, born to run.

Our restlessness is often perceived as a negative (especially by hidebound Europeans). Lacking staying power we lack roots, and lacking roots we lack—oh, you name it—substance, tradition, meaningful relationships, the long view. We are all strangers in a crisscrossed land.

But our antsyness, apart from having a noble pedigree, is one of our most important qualities. Without it, California might now be Spanish and Oregon British. It is what moved Jefferson to send those two men in search of a Northwest Passage. He was disappointed, of course, to learn that it didn't exist, but there was consolation in the new knowledge that came from the expedition. Lewis and Clark recorded over 170 new plants, everything from silver buffalo berry to silky lupine to red alder, and 122 animals, some of which—the grizzly bear, the mountain lion—have come to symbolize the West. They also made the acquaintance of some 50 American Indian tribes, some of whom they depended on for supplies, information, and a tolerant welcome. Like all travelers, they benefited from the solicitude of those they passed among.

And there was the national example of curiosity satisfied. We needed to know what lay on the other side of the Rockies, and Lewis and Clark told us. They pushed through, overcoming the elements and elevations, and made it to the other side. "Beyond mountains," say the Haitians, "there are mountains." It is the proverb of a set-upon people and a recipe for resignation. You cannot imagine an American saying that. We sing buoyantly, with historical justification, "Climb every mountain!"

Americans see every mountain—the Rockies, the immensity of space, a stalled career—as a challenge and come up with ways to go beyond it. Sometimes, granted, it's a pusillanimous means of escape (for example, from pressing domestic issues), but more often it's a bald attempt at betterment. ("Follow every rainbow, till you find your dream.")

We have always been attuned to undiscovered potential, captivated by the untested realm. How else to explain the emergence of the Sun Belt? The man on the moon? And we are true Jeffersonians in our belief that happiness can be pursued, often through a change of address. The French, it is said (by the French themselves), are never content, always finding something to complain about. We Americans can be, in our own way, just as dissatisfied (dissatisfaction is what settled the West), but we have the advantage of tremendous space. Unfulfilled in Akron, we can move to Miami. Night-clubbed to death in Miami, we can defect to book-stored Seattle. And we do. We have mobility in our blood, and our history has shown us the value of looking elsewhere.

Growing up in New Jersey, I dreamed, like many Americans who weren't already there, of California. It was the golden nimbus on our black-and-white television and where my beloved, transplanted Giants played. (In America, even sports teams search for greener grass.) Every New Year's morning, my family would gather in the den to watch the Mummers Parade in downtown Philadelphia, rain and sleet and snow alternating from year to year but the skies a perennial battleship gray. And then later in the day, we would change the channel and see beautiful young women waving bare arms from flowery floats in sun-drenched Pasadena. It was like moving out of Plato's cave. California became the promised land for me that my country already was for much of the world.

Yet I didn't see California until my early thirties when, after years of living and traveling in Europe, I headed out one August on a Greyhound bus to visit a friend, a fellow Easterner, who had taken a job in Los Angeles. It was in the days of cheap airfares and I could have flown for the same $99, but I desired a slower, more ponderous, more time-honored journey. Abroad, I had been defined as a resident of the United States; now, at last, I wanted to see it up close.

And since I was going alone, I didn't want to drive. The thing about crossing the United States is that it's not really a solo endeavor. Lewis and Clark had the Corps of Discovery and the doughty Sacagawea, but they set the tone for wayfaring duos.

John Steinbeck was so conscious of the folly of driving alone—all those silent hours, those solitary nights—that he brought along his poodle for his trip around the country, the dog giving him, if nothing else, an irresistible title: Travels with Charley. About 20 years earlier, Henry Miller had returned home from war-torn Europe and made a similar journey, which inspired a very different book, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. Miller too had a traveling companion, the artist Abraham Rattner, though he ended up playing a smaller role than Steinbeck's poodle. And of course there were Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac—our two greatest highwaymen, genius driver and driving genius—talking nonstop through the heartbreaking heartland. On the Road became, and remains today, a priceless ode to carpe-diem, foot-on-the-accelerator, it's-all-fascinating America.

But it is not just American pairs who are driven bicoastal. Vladimir Nabokov, while teaching at Cornell, would head out West in the summer with his wife, Véra, and a driver (since he never learned the skill), ostensibly to collect butterflies but also to gather material for the upcoming road trip—surely the most lapidary in literature—of Humbert Humbert and his little friend Lolita. More recently, the English writer Nigel Nicolson and his son drove from opposite ends of the country, going solo but writing letters to each other along the way, before meeting up in Dodge City, Kan. And in what has to be the most cerebral of cross-country journeys, the writer Michael Paterniti and the pathologist Thomas Harvey transported Einstein's brain from New Jersey to California, a trip recounted in the book Driving Mr. Albert.

The cross-countrying couple turns up in song—" 'Kathy, I'm lost,' I said, though I knew she was sleeping," sang Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel—as well as in film, Thelma and Louise bonding in their central-casting convertible, and Albert Brooks, in Lost in America, searching with his wife for a simpler life . . . in a well-appointed Winnebago that heads, uncharacteristically, east. Of course, when you already live in California, that's one of your few options.

Ours is a history, literature, and popular culture of venturing forth—usually in partnership. (For all our rugged individualism, we make companionable travelers.) Leaving home is what we do; as much as anything, it is what defines us as Americans. Seeing the country is a large part of that, and for some people—only 22 percent of the population possess passports—the only part. It transcends sightseeing, verging now on a patriotic duty: to cross this great land at least once in a lifetime. But it is also a very personal desire. We still need to know, individually, what lies out there, what contains us (and what we contain). And when we finally get behind the wheel—with our brood or loved one or huckleberry friend—joining us in the backseat, whether we're aware of them or not, are John and Charley, Neal and Jack, Vladimir and Véra, Thelma and Louise, Meriwether and William.

Photo Illustration by David McGlynn


This article was first published in May 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.