What's all the fuss? Reconsidering the cross-country road trip

Depending on how you define these things, I've made seven cross-country road trips in these 40 years of life.

The first two (my only round trip voyage) occured when I was about eleven or twelve. Family summer vacation: driving from Albuquerque to Maine and back again in a Ford Van with two parents and six kids. It felt endless, cramped and really boring. It was the pre-walkman era or car-cassette-player era–even though cassettes were in wide circulation. Every half hour or so we adjusted the radio, keeping ourselves tuned-in to local stations. Mostly AM stations back then. The seek and scan buttons had yet to penetrate the car market. God, that feels so long ago. Anyway, the dial twiddling got pretty tiresome and we gave up for long stretches. Plus, Mom and Dad were really into teaching us how to sing songs from Broadway Musicals. I learned how to solve the Rubik's cube on that trip. It's remarkably easy once you own that book that teaches you how to do it and you have a hundred or so hours to fine-tune your skills. I think I could solve it in 3 minutes or so–far from the world record, but enough to beat most of my friends when we were back home. Besides mastering the Rubik's cube, what sticks with me about that journey is the return trip. The smell of a two-year-old's diaper with a case of diarrhea. Mom had flown home from Maine suddenly to attend a funeral, so for the final days the task of cleaning up the pungent green poop fell to the oldest two sons while Dad kept the Ford hurtling back to New Mexico.

The third trip was traveling with a girl friend from NYC to Albuquerque by Greyhound. I was 23. This was the CD era, but barely. There were no CD burners available commerically, so you still used recordable cassette tapes on road trips. The process involved the tedious copying of new CDs to cassettes and the manufacturing of mixtapes from older tapes. It was so labor-intensive! I can't believe we used to do that. Anyway, the cross country trip was also really labor-intensive. But I saw Graceland. What I remember most is how weird it felt traveling with a bus full of people in very different life circumstances than me and my girl friend. There were many great stories of the interactions we had with quirky bus-travelers, but those have all faded now. I have few clear memories of that trip. And no, I wasn't using substances at that point. Damn, the brain is a problematic recording device.

The fourth trip was with another girl friend traveling by car from NYC to Albuquerque using one of those vehicle delivery services. I was 24. I'd just finished college. The Pontiac ultimately had to get dropped off in Denver, so I stopped in Albuquerque and unloaded my belongings, drove to Denver, and then took the bus seven hours back home. It was cost-effective. It was also still the pre-CD burning era, so we played tapes again, mixes mainly, copied from our CDs. It was 1994. The summer belonged to the Beastie Boys (Ill Communication) and was rounded out with Pavement's Crooked Rain and Frank Black's Teenager of the Year. Not to mention Liz Phair, Beck, the Breeders and Sonic Youth. We smoked a lot of weed. I remember driving past a really bad accident somewhere in Kentucky, just minutes after it had happened–two mini vans mangled-up in the grassy median and people running towards it from both sides of the highway and no emergency vehicles yet–and feeling super horribly freaked-out paranoid for the next several hours of driving. Not paranoid enough though to not smoke another bowl before getting on the road again the next day. The other thing I remember of that trip was an early morning discovery that one of my possessions, a big ceramic god-like sunstone-like sun-face that decorated my college wall for a couple years, had cracked while tied to the roof. I remember privately throwing the shards in a river next to the motel and feeling the weighty symbolism of that act.

The fifth trip was the only true coast-to-coast cross country drive. Another vehicle delivery service. LA to Boston. I was 25. I drove solo until I picked up some hippie acquaintances in Boulder on their way to Hampshire College. We stopped off in Chicago and crashed at Rachel's place. We got a speeding ticket in Pennsylvania. We arrived at Hampshire on Halloween eve. We all took mushrooms. I remember heading out still kind of high about 5am the next morning to visit Jack Kerouak's grave site in Lowell, MA on my way to drop off the car and stay with the Watermans in Boston. I remember that visitors had written stuff in chalk over his grave stone. There was a piece of discarded chalk. I wrote something too. I can't remember what. Something a little cynical. I remember feeling like I was quite done with my romantic fascination with the Beats and all that go-go-go velocity stuff. It was a cool crush while it lasted.

The sixth trip was from Albuquerque to Philly. I was 32. It was the best cross country trip I've ever had. It was with Rebecca. Crazy in love. Driving a 24 foot Uhaul with all our stuff, lives officially combined for the first time, three crying cats in the cab, and a Toyota Tercel on a two-wheel trailer dragging behind us. We had a bunch of Adderal from a friend. We drove late into the night. It was finally the CD-burner era. We played friend's roadtrip mix CDs on a battery-operated boom box. Alas, Uhaul did not offer CD playing vehicles in that era. We snuck cats into motel rooms. Fucked like we were outlaws. And left big tips at the Waffle House. Made it to the East Coast in under three days. Phenomenal.

The most recent trip was from Florida to Utah. It was just two weeks ago. My sister and I drove a 26 foot Uhaul with my sister's stuff and a 4 door sedan towed behind. A well-mannered dog shared the cab with us. We drove through 12 states. And sampled four different brands of mini bottle energy shots from trucker stops. We kind of got a little hooked (Red-top 5-hour is our favorite.) We listened to the radio here and there. Mostly we played MP3s on a portable battery-operated speaker. We cruised the internet most of the trip on an iphone 3gs. But there is an almost 60 mile black-out zone in Nebraska. What?! And then a few patches through the deserts of Wyoming and Utah. The trip took four days.

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Here's what I've learned during these drives:

1.) Vehicles perpetually lag behind audio technology. Cassettes existed for years before you could play them in a car. The market shifts to CDs, but vehicles come outfitted for cassettes. Finally car CD players become ubiquitous, just as people move on to MP3 players. And most recently, people are streaming their music and assorted programming, but vehicles don't have WiFi. Road trips inevitably require lugging along converter cables and battery operated devices, while never quite achieving good sound quality. Will this be a problem for the ages?

2.) As the years goes by, the drive seems a lot less interesting. For decades America has been losing its charming roadside regionalisms. Gas stations are identical. Truck stops are homogeneous. Road-side commerce is indistinguishable from state to state. Local accents are getting thinned. Food options are virtually all provided by trans-national companies. The trek across America is pretty dull.

3.) One amusing thing is witnessing the out-of-nowhere cultural phenomenon of fast food restaurant combinations. One of the best songs of this summer turned the restaurant combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell into an adorable call and response anthem. But the truck stop allows it to reach inspiring heights: We saw combination Hardy's n' KFC. Subway n' Dunkin Donuts. Baskin Robbins and Godfathers. And my favorite: Taco Bell and Long John Silvers–in a stand-alone restaurant, not just the truck stop combo where restaurants share a mutual soda fountain but have separate kitchens. Stand alone. Yeah, I'll have a side of fiesta chimichangas with my deep fried Alaskan flounder platter. Awesome!

4.) The romance of the road still does not help the Taco Bell or the Long John Silvers taste any better.

5.) The speed limit in Nebraska and Wyoming is 75 mph. In parts of Utah it is 80! Holy Shit, that's fast, when you're driving a Uhaul and a trailer. There's a see-through sticker in the Uhaul that says “Slow down, Speed Kills.” You don't notice it pasted on the speedomoter, until the needle rises above 70 mph and disappears behind those words. Good move, Uhaul.

6.) There are still an absurdly large number of roadside fireworks vending structures with giant signs (the painted sides of these large warehouses!) that visually assault you along the interstate off-ramps from Kentucky to Nebraska. Can someone explain how these businesses are financially viable what with only one 4th of July per year?

7.) I remember on a long-ago bus trip through Morocco thinking: Wow, even in this part of the world, the road is marked by wooden poles carrying power lines, fences marking off people's private land, and plastic bags caught in those fences–the same man-made tropes I'd witnessed everywhere else I've ever traveled. Now, I add to that the presence of Giant Wind Generators. I'd seen them for years in California. Now they dot the road side in Nebraska, Colorado, and Utah. It's only time before they are everywhere.

8.) East to West coast is the best road trip direction. The sublime reenactment of America's grand manifest-destiny expansion. And across the miles the change of terrain from East to West is a glorious revelation.

9.) The possibilities of local radio still surprise me: Years ago living in New Mexico, I remember driving through Shiprock a couple times a year and picking up KNDN (get it?) that played Navajo tribal chants alongside Elvis and Dolly Parton. There is a radio station in Nebraska that does nothing but broadcast a DJ moderating a Craigslist-like show. People call in with items they have for sale or for barter and she repeats their description and their phone number, then moves on to the next caller and their item. Truck tires, rifles, dogs, lawn-mower repair, chicken feed, stereo equipment, elk meat, pest control services. It is awesome! I wanted to have it playing while I was busy in my garage rebuilding the engine of my John Deere tractor. I was quite deflated when the signal finally gave out and we went back to stupid boring All Things Considered.

10.) NPR can now be found in every part of every state. For better or worse. Mostly better, I suppose.

11.) Taylor Swift in a statistically insignificant non-placebo based study with an n of approximately 12 states seems to be the far-away most played artist across America.

12.) There are still scary wild-eyed flip-you-off assholes all across America.

13.) There are still really nice get-out-of-their-cars-and-help-you-back-up-your-trailer-jacked-Uhaul-and-then-offer-you-fried-chicken people all across America.

14.) Important: Don't go out of your way to make this trip. Let it be the result of circumstance. Don't go on Grey Hound, or with your parents, or with a toddler. Or without good music. Or without a great travel companion. And, I hate to say it, but substances really do make the trip more special.

15.) That Kerouac crush hasn't really ended.

12 responses to “What's all the fuss? Reconsidering the cross-country road trip”

  1. Rachel says:

    Loved this post, Farrell. And I’m very happy to be part of your story. That was the fall I was brand new to Chicago, didn’t know anyone, was totally broke waiting for student $$ to come through, and didn’t even have any furniture for my apartment beyond my childhood bed and a futon. You were a gracious guest, considering all I had to eat was cookies and gin.

    A couple years ago I drove solo from NH to WI in two days in my grandparents’ car, which was equipped only with a tape deck. Thank God for the iTrip. I set the whole damn thing on shuffle, and my rule was: no song skipping allowed! It was amazing how much on my iPod I had either a) forgotten about completely or b) never even heard before. Most brilliant discovery: farmers’ markets at interstate rest stops. Finally, something to eat that’s not chips or beef jerky.

    When I lived out west, my favorite parts of road tripping (besides the surface-of-Mars scenery) were Native American gift shops and Sonic.

    Someday I would like to road trip with you.

  2. Dave says:

    I kind of love how bad radio can be in many parts of the country, but I feel your pain about lagging audio technology in rentals. I’ve never taken a road trip as long as yours. These days I’m fantasizing about a long bike tour.

  3. Jeremy says:

    “The trek across America is pretty dull.”

    Say it ain’t so! I’ve never been on a cross-country road trip, though it’s been a goal of mine for just about forever… and, frankly, this post makes it seem not-so-boring, though I also wonder if I might’ve missed a window in my life when I would’ve truly enjoyed the trip…

    I didn’t want this post to end.

  4. I loved this post, too.

  5. ks says:

    I can’t recall anything in a long time that has elicited so many, um, interesting memories of by-gone road trips. I saw a twisted, dead body on the side of I-70 in Kansas (age 19) and the motorcycle the poor guy had been riding about 100 ft away, front wheel still spinning. Horrifying. I also SWEAR I saw a severed hand on the roadside of I-64 in KY, but my traveling companion thought I was suffering heat stroke and saw only a “mirage”. Your post brought these long-dormant memories back to the surface…for better or worse.

  6. I’ve done the NE to Los Angeles trip once, in a UHaul, back in 2002. The battery operated boom box was a must, but I lacked the pharmaceuticals, so the trip could have been much better. Books on tape can make a somewhat reasonable alternative to weed. I love road trips, and I loved this post about road trips.

  7. farrell fawcett says:

    Hey Rachel, I would love to road trip with you too! And the graciousness compliment goes to *you* for letting me and a couple ragamuffin strangers crash with you. And for having cookies and a giant bottle of gin.

    Dave, a long bike tour? I’m intrigued. Where?

    Jeremy, I think you wonder correctly. At our age, I think there are many better ways to spend 4 or 5 days.

    Kate, thanks for saying that.

    ks, I’m sorry. Those are terrible memories. I hope you can put them back to sleep soon.

    Rogan, I’ve never listened to books on tape. weird, huh? I’d like to try it though, but I hardly drive much in my current life. But that can easily change. Oh, and for the record, I rarely smoke weed these days. Not that I consider MJ a bad thing. In fact, the opposite. And I do miss it. I’m just too unfunctional on it now. So, sure, alternatives, I need that, I’ll try out those old paper and ink thing-a-ma-jigs recorded on to those old plastic magnetic tape doo-dads. Maybe they make them for CD now? We should hang out someday and swap road trip tales.

  8. Scotty says:

    Thanks for the catalyst for remembering some of my wonderful road memories — the warbly cassettes, the drinking Jim Beam out of the bottle in seedy model rooms, the landscape opening up (and the first time I saw the West) in Wyoming, the tornato warnings in Iowa, the blizzard in Nebraska, the ice storm and accident in Idaho, rock shows infront of the two people including the sound-guy and the bar tender, the romance!

  9. LP says:

    I loved reading this, Farrell – made me feel like I was in the car with you the whole way. Cassette tapes! Rubik’s cubes! Roadside greasy food!

    I’ve made the cross-country journey twice, but both times I was too little to remember much of anything. Like Jeremy, it’s something I’ve always wanted to do as an adult, but have never gotten around to. Jeremy… road trip?

    In case you missed it, there’s a nice feature on cross-country road trips in today’s NYT. Once again, TGW scoops the Gray Lady!

  10. Dr. Cedarbrook says:

    Hey FF. Very entertaining post. I still remember that poop.

    Also, similar comment to what LP said: “Marketplace”, the nightly business show on NPR, did a story on Friday on radio stations that auction off products on-air
    like a CraigsList or EBay. I think it even interviewed some of the
    people behind the program that you had heard on your
    roadtrip. How funny they’d run a story the same week that you did.
    Maybe Kai Ryssdal reads TGW.


  11. Jeremy says:

    LP: Yay, road trip!

  12. Marleyfan says:

    Best post in a long time. You almost convinced me to quit my job, and become a long-haul trucker.

    “My daddy was a trucker, Lord, my son’s a truckers son, love that Rig I’m drivin’ and that highway that I’m on, but I gotta keep rollin’, rollin’, gotta keep rollin’, gott keep rollin’ day and night, night and day”