Road trip! Off we go, a tank of gas and a road atlas, ribbon of blacktop winding into the trees, over the ridges, into the mysterious night, away from the neat little nests of offices and homes, the appointments and paychecks and deadlines. And the chance, the cherished chance, that you will find something unexpected and perfect in, say, Oil Trough, Arkansas. (An accent as deep as tobacco root, a ball of twine bigger than the record-holder in Kansas, a black vulture along the ridge trail soaring in at eye level.)
You can make the drive from Wyoming to Baltimore in 28 hours — I did that once by myself, a younger self, crazed on coffee and other stimulants, rushing to visit a sick relative. We gave ourselves a week this time, so Berthenia and I could meander south into places we didn’t know well – the Nebraska stubble fields, the Ozarks, the Appalachian “mountains” (quotation marks for Wyoming readers).
Road trip! It’s a particularly American thing, spawned by Henry Ford’s cheap cars, one of the great democratizing agents of our country’s youth. It’s a particularly western thing, because we are car and truck people here, we have to be, with little public transportation and vast expanses of unoccupied space to cover. It’s a particularly 2015 thing, because gas prices are astonishingly low, and they won’t be for long – because either we’ll tax our carbon gases to “save” the environment (quotation marks, again, for Wyoming readers) or the energy oligarchs will figure a way to make us pay more.
Road trip! But…not off to a great start. We want to get by nightfall to the stretch of the North Platte where the sandhill cranes gather this time of year. But we depart a bit later than planned, so that by evening we are only in Scottsbluff, in the first flush of ignition, having an unhurried dinner in an outdoor patio restaurant. Not thinking, in that happy moment, that we still have miles to drive, one or two…hundred miles to Kearney, NE., where the cranes wait croaking on the Platte River sand bars.
Which means we get to the hotel at 2 a.m., and I’m up at 5 a.m. hiking in the dark to a footbridge over the river. And then, after the stillness, the ominous rumble of clicking calls that rises with the first glimmer of dawn, and finally the great tidal lift of birds, winging and backwashing and passing over (bring an umbrella, warns my friend Dewey)…
Well worth it, but then there is another long day of driving, a volcanically grumpy day. Veering south, as if we still had to avoid late winter weather on this planet — to Eureka Springs, Arkansas. This was where Berthenia planned a steamy soaking break, only to find that while there were indeed springs in Eureka Springs, they are temperature-wise more trout-friendly than human-friendly. It didn’t matter, though, since we arrived way late again, late enough that the bed & breakfast proctor had already gone to bed, late enough that the next morning she had to scold us (mildly) for forcing her to re-heat our breakfasts.
We were happy nevertheless. It wasn’t the slightly-too-precious foofoo décor, or the supposedly original Rembrandt self-portrait hanging in the front room (really!?!), it was the noisy tree frog that greeted our arrival and continued to sing through the night. This was a different place in America.
Things just got better. We slowed down a bit, and kept off the interstates. We took an afternoon to hike to overlooks above the Buffalo River, where the first spring blooms were opening (redbud, trillium, plum) and the vultures cruising the ridgeline swooped in for a close look at us. We noted the sign at an Arkansas federal courthouse warning “Wipe your feet – prevent the spread of poultry and livestock disease,” the Mexican restaurant with a tie-dyed peace banner hanging off the porch, and the Ozark invitation to “Parrot Mountain and the Garden of Eden — God’s beautiful tropical birds.”
In Tennessee, we detoured south to sightsee along the Natchez Trace to the place where Meriwether Lewis died in 1809. Most of us know Lewis for his extraordinary exploration of America’s new territories in the Northwest from 1803 to 1806 with William Clark. Fewer know that he died only a few years later in the South.
Lewis’ end remains something of a mystery, perhaps fitting for a man so visionary and conflicted. He was deep in debt, assailed by political foes, and traveling overland from St. Louis (where he served as governor of the Louisiana Territory) to Washington, D.C. Normally in that time one would journey by boat down the Mississippi and then by sea to the east coast; the Natchez Trace was a road used mostly by Tennessee traders who had delivered their goods by river barge to New Orleans and then came back to Nashville on foot or horseback. There would be cash in their pockets and highwaymen along the route. Lewis was sick when he arrived for the night at Priscilla Grinder’s cabin, and talking to himself. He died that night of two gunshot wounds, and it’s been debated ever since whether they were self-inflicted.
The cabin at Grinder’s Stand no longer stands, but there is a stone monument over Lewis’ lonely grave. A trace of the Trace is still there, a green path through the deep woods. There is perhaps no need to explain why it means so much for a student of Lewis’s life and work to take a few steps down that trail, feel the threatening ghosts behind the trees, and imagine Lewis, and his mood, as he walked.
Such immersions are necessarily brief, though — road trip! We had found another alluring, and very different, point on the map: Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park.
One aspect of the road trip that requires a bit of forethought is reading material. This is specifically an opportunity for books — not magazines, not travel brochures, and certainly not internet messages on a cell phone. Books. There will be hours when your partner is driving, or you’re taking a break in a state park, when the mind, unmoored from the daily mental routines of home, wants to be fed. Berthenia is reading one of those fat history books that explains how – omigosh! – the Chinese explored America before Columbus. I brought along science fiction by Terry Pratchett, but instead find myself reading E. O. Wilson’s On Human Nature.
Casper biologist Will Robinson suggested I read this in hopes that it would stop me from babbling questions about death and afterlife and the mystery of human self-awareness. His strategy is to let Wilson persuade me that mankind is just a bundle of gene-generated instincts trying to perpetuate the species. Thus, a little light reading for the road.
Wilson’s arguments, I have to admit, were getting the better of me around Oil Trough, Arkansas, but then we got to Dollywood. It is, for those unfamiliar, a bizarre assemblage of thrill rides, country crafts, and music from places like Tuva (look it up), populated by a drifting herd of alleged humans with drawls wider than the Cumberland River, heavily armed with funnel cake and kettle corn. In the goofy kitsch and appalling creativity of this monument to all things Dolly (“It takes a lot of money to look this cheap”), surely lies evidence that man’s purpose is not merely survival of the species. Man’s purpose is…well, the mystery deepens.
Road trip! By its nature, it’s a scout trip, a flutter from branch to branch, keeping notes for that next trip, when you will float the Buffalo River for days rather hike along it for hours. It is endlessly surprising, boring, educational, aggravating, stimulating. To share it all would require a book, and that book would make most readers restless after a few pages, unless it had the unflagging excitement and discovery of On the Road. So, let’s give Jack Kerouac the last yearning word on this distinctly American form of freedom:
“That last thing is what you can’t get, Carlo. Nobody can get to that last thing. We keep on living in hopes of catching it once and for all.”