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for Conde Nast Traveler Magazine
by Stephan Wilkinson
FANTASY: ACROSS THE breadth and much of the length of the United States on back roads, driving a hyperactive 145-mph red roadster that would turn pretty heads, smoke its fat tires, color me gone and generally function as a rolling fountain of youth.
Reality: the Chevrolet Corvette has no trunk. None. As I scratched around what should have been the bootlid and succeeded in opening nothing bigger than the gas-cap door, my packing plans rapidly changed. Rain or sun, my bags would be fewer and would ride in the breeze, bungeed to a luggage rack like an Okie's wardrobe.
Reality will doubtless intrude upon fantasy again in the two weeks to come, for I've never driven cross-country. Flown it innumerable times in airplanes large and tiny, coursed many of its highways in convenient chunks, fancied myself a been-in-every-state-but-Idaho sophisticate. But always I've known the drive is different. For kids with their life's belongings starting new jobs, for tourists from Liverpool or Rome or Tokyo marveling at all that space, for lonely souls in Mustangs and families in station wagons and retirees holding them all up in their poke-along RVs, the great coast-to-coast drive is the elemental American voyage of discovery.
What do they learn? I'd wager few can say, though something changes from coast to coast. Safer, perhaps, to say what they feel: happy, ruminative, curious, content, unfettered and foot-loose and free. All these I want to feel, but are there lessons in the trip as well? Do the small towns and anonymous cities we look down on from 41,000 feet, delicate as symbols on a map, hold elemental truths from which we're insulated by eight miles of atmosphere and a Boeing's aluminum?
There's only one way to find out.
"WELCOME TO Pennsylvania," the billboard says. "America starts here." Sorry, New York. Tough darts, New Jersey. Yet for me, the boast has a certain relevance. Starting a trip on your doorstep, along familiar roads, is like driving to the grocery store all day long. Pennsylvania doesn't come a moment too soon.
The plan is to drive as much of the trip as possible on back roads and secondary highways. Avoid the brain-deadening Interstates. No eating anywhere one orders by speaking into a sign. Stay in a different kind of hotel, motel, inn or B&B every night, resorting to chain palaces only in extremis.
Most important, have an eclectic destination every night, not just the jungle of franchise neon at Interchange 38. This trip would almost never take up a heading of west. Instead, it would progress intently from point to point: south to Natchez one day and north to Durango another, veering crazily across Texas to touch Amarillo after dipping to the Gulf of Mexico simply to have lunch with a dear old friend in Beaumont.
Right now, the destination is Hershey, Pennsylvania--a town with streetlights shaped like Kisses, air that reeks of chocolate and an unlikely grand hotel. En route to the Chocolate Capital lie the Bologna Capital (Lebanon, Pennsylvania), the Pretzel Capital (Lititz) and a delicatessen's-worth of other Penn-Dutch food duchies.
Emboldened by the region's alimentary focus, I brake for lunch at a Reading diner that styles itself a "Family Restaurant"--one of those eateries with enormous tryptich menus that suggest a hangarful of ethnic chefs, a vast League of Nations laboring to create the hundreds of dishes and sandwiches offered. Road Rule 1: avoid restaurants with the word "Family" on their marquees. It means they serve families, or perhaps are owned by one, but has nothing to do with home cooking.
It's raining, traffic is achingly slow, and I'm reconsidering the wisdom of my no-Interstates plan. Coasting through the mundanity of Allentown, Reading and Wyomissing offers none of the idle fascination of driving through urban Finland, say, and thinking, "So this is what the suburbs of Helsinki look like." At this rate, I'll be a month making LA. But with the scent of cocoa beans in the air, at least I've made it to Hershey, the ultimate company town.
Can any other city have so adroitly marketed the fact that there's a factory looming over its main street? Chocolate World, the Hotel Hershey, Hersheypark, a zoo, tankerloads of brown paint splashed everywhere...it's a shame chocolate isn't a gayer color, so that Hershey could look farther than the local UPS truck for its basic color schemes. But imagine Heinz making a tourist destination of Ketchup World, or Toro bringing them by the busload to Mowerpark, and you have a hint of the genius behind Hershey.
The Hotel Hershey is an equally adroit product--a careful blend of apparent luxury and affordable economy. The small, rather spare rooms are expensive enough to seem special but not priced beyond a wide market; the lobby is a Moorish aberration that veers wildly between kitsch, camp and fanciful artisanry; and the entire hotel bears the imprimateur of the National Historic Register.
THE NEXT DAY, the Pennsylvania sky is as crisp as a piece of Melba toast, and for the first time, the Corvette roadster's top comes down. The air is dotted with hunting hawks scudding along on the spring breeze, balancing and correcting like tightrope walkers, and huge, sky- darkening clouds of starlings [?] drift and wheel precisely in answer to some mystically shared choreography.
On a day like this, a country in recession, cringing under an ozone hole while it can do no more than wait till Kuwait's wells burn dry, can look mighty prosperous. Oversize flags flap everywhere, greensward rings the bastions of corporate enterprise dotted throughout Pennsylvania, and enormous numbers of cars, endless cars, attest to our constant peregrinity. "We're all imprinted with the cliche about America's love affair with the automobile," automotive doyen David E. Davis recently wrote, "but America has no love affair with the automobile. Europeans love their cars. Americans put up with them. America loves mobility, and the automobile just happens to provide it."
Going south toward Gettysburg, I pass a woman reading a magazine propped against her steering wheel as she flirts with mobility. She is doing the 55-mph speed limit and doubtless considers me the fool as I pass her at 70.
"From New York? Oh, you'll find New York monuments everywhere," says the volunteer guide at the Gettysburg Battlefield. "Down there is a big monument to the 90th Ulster, up there a Brooklyn regiment, over there a statue of Abner Doubleday, the baseball man. He was killed here." The insularity of a country less than a lifetime away from the mobility that would make it a nation is plain in the forest of monuments to individuals and units, battalions and entire armies: the Boston this and the Virginia that, the Providence Volunteers and the 20th Maine.
Today, regionalism is more in the mind than fact, I'll increasingly find--a matter of accent and geography, but otherwise it's a surprisingly homogeneous country. Even though New Mexicans traveling in other states continue to be infuriated by postal employees who tell them they need foreign-mail postage to write home.
I'm doing the dolt's tour--the 18-mile drive-through of the battlefield--but it has already become obvious that you either drive to California or explore all the byways. But you don't do both; it's a big country.
The Skyline Drive to the day's destination--Charlottesville, Virginia--is another roller, fortunately, and a topless Corvette on a traffic-less spring day might just be the perfect car with which to do it. It's no accident that the 105-mile-long road through Shenandoah National Park is on everybody's short list of the country's best scenic highways. Spring floods the cockpit, and the frequent overlooks offer vistas generally available only to aviators--fascinating juxtapositions of mountain highway and, far below, tiny Monopoly houses on fertile valley farmland. It's impossible not to wonder if the people way down there ever give a thought to the thousands of Skyline Drivers constantly peering down their chimneys.
At a small worksite along the Drive, the flagman lifts his hardhat and salutes the Corvette with a big smile as it rumbles past. There's something about this car--perhaps simply its home-grown, good-natured, heartbeat-of-America swagger--that elicits responses no effete Porsche, Mitsubishi or Jaguar could ever hope to provoke.
Sign on a bus en route to Monticello: Van Go Tours. It's where I'm going too, high on a hill above Charlottesville, and Thomas Jefferson's beloved country home--perhaps the first example of truly American architecture--comes as a shock: it's so small. Has a lifetime of seeing it on nickels made the domed mansion loom that much larger in my mind?
Another revelation is that the brilliant ex-President who I'd always imagined to be the esssence of civilized elegance was also the prototype of generations of Great American Toolmen--the slightly inept do-it-yourselfers who cruise the Sears screwdriver displays on Saturday mornings and think in terms of "projects." Jefferson altered, added, tore down, remodeled and generally puttered with Monticello constantly, and at times his family spent bitter winters in not-yet-roofed rooms. In 1804, one visitor noticed that the pediment of one of the famous porticos was propped up by the trunks of four small trees, and another found the house "in a state of commencement of decay, Virginia being the only country as far as I know where the inhabitants contrive to bring these two extremes as near to each other as possible by inhabiting an unfinished house till it is falling about their ears."
Not so the Silver Thatch Inn, a handsomely restored 18th century clapboard house just north of Charlottesville where I dine splendidly and sleep in a four-poster. On a nearby highway are a Sheraton and a Marriott, for too few travelers are fully aware of superb country inns and bed-and-breakfasts, and many are unwilling to accept the unpredictability they represent. They don't know what they're missing, but with only seven rooms at the Silver Thatch, there wouldn't be room for them anyway.
RAIN POUNDS THE Corvette's vinyl top like pebbles on a drumskin as Interstate 64 creeps through thick, billowing mist toward the Blue Ridge Parkway, which begins where the Skyline Drive ends, west of Charlottesville. "Avoid the parkway in fog, snow and ice," the sign says. Good: that means there won't be any traffic.
The Blue Ridge is almost Japanese in its foggy intensity--strange, contorted pines, twisted, windblown trees looming suddenly out of the grayness. A stooped old woman, shrouded to her nose, is plodding through the downpour, almost an apparation. The highway is deserted, no habitation for miles, but she ignores me.
The Parkway is 469 miles long. After about 35 miles--an hour's travel, in these conditions--I've seen enough fog. Seeing the Blue Ridge will have to await another day, and I put the Corvette's nose down and descend the ridges to Interstate 81, where enormous trucks kick water in my face and make me glad this is only temporary. All that the rainy day promises is Knoxville by dinnertime.
In Wytheville, Virginia, the radio somberly reports, someone has been passing $20 bills "made on a high-quality office copying machine." There has been a tornado in Douglaston, Alabama, and a garage owner is interviewed. "Blew my son slap across the shop," he says. Surrounding such pearls are soggy oysters of religious programming, for thus beginneth the Bible Belt. "I feel halfway to heaven when I'm down on my knees and Jesus and I are alone," a gospel singer wails. I need a microchip that will automatically set the radio to scanning for a new station every time is senses the word "Jesus." I'm sure the Japanese could help.
Yesterday, I passed a convoy of automobiles and pickup trucks towing long, thin trailers housing enormously expensive sailplanes. (The trailers are bland metal baguettes on wheels, the sailplanes' wings stowed alongside their fuselages, but the rudders stick up into a revealing little sail-like appendages at the rear of each trailer.) Today, I'm passed by a rolling stable full of horses, its roof covered by wiry, fragile-looking racing sulkies. It's oddly reassuring: no nation still involved in such wonderfully pointless forms of sport can be all bad.
Suckered by a highway billboard giving directions to Knoxville's Hyatt Regency, a grimy concrete ziggurat that appears to be a leftover from the city's disastrously optimistic World's Fair, I check in unaware that the big event this Friday night is a junior-high basketball tournament. The key won't work, the gym is barely equipped, and short basketball fans perform endless team cheers in the lobby--a space as large and empty as the Hindenburg's hangar--until two in the morning.
HUNGRY MOTHER State Park flashed past in the Virginia rain yesterday. This morning's offering is Frozen Head, a Tennessee state park. What's next? Starving Baby Recreation Area? Nonetheless, Tennessee is surpassingly beautiful: a fertile blend of rolling woodland and pasture, a sense of bucolic comfort and prosperity scrubbed gleaming by yesterday's storm.
There is another kind of comfort I've already fallen into as well: wherever I go now, the top-down Corvette is parked open, unlocked, bag and baggage naked on the luggage rack. Doubtless it's naive of me, but people everywhere are so friendly and accepting that there's a pervasive sense this is a heartland of honesty and self-respect. Suspicion, rudeness and venality seem somewhere behind me--or far ahead: in Palm Springs, California, the Corvette remains untouched, but the Honda Prelude parked next to it overnight is trashed, a window broken and its front seat ripped out.
At the airport in Tullahoma, Tennessee sits one of the country's most obsessive small museums, open only on weekend afternoons between March and October. It's a shrine to one of the most unusual and revolutionary biplanes ever built, the Beech Staggerwing. If a pit bull had wings, this is what it might look like. The Stag was the Learjet of its day--the 1930s, though a few were built during and immediately after world War II--and to own one was to demonstrate that you were rich, brave and avantgarde.
Today there are only about 150 Staggerwings flying, worth as much as a quarter of a million dollars apiece. Collectors bring them to the museum's shop to have them rebuilt alongside the foundations's own restorations--the current project involves reconstructing a complete airplane from the few bits that remain of the first Staggerwing ever built, in 1932--so there are usually at least half a dozen of the biplanes in the shop, exhibit hall and ancillary hangars. "A lot of them are going to European collectors, with the dollar so soft," museum aide Bobbie Graves says, "In fact the Porsche Company owns one. We've got another one in the shop getting ready to go to England, and you know it'll never come back."
Not far down the road--two-lane Tennessee 55--is another obsessive attraction: Lynchburg, the six-pack Sonoma, a town entirely devoted to the worship of a whiskey called Jack Daniel's. It's a living Bartles & Jaymes commercial, full of sloping hounds and men in feed caps. (Kinky Friedman said of Texans something that could be modified to apply to Lynchburg, Tennessee as well: "The only thing Jews and Texans have in common is that they wear hats indoors and take it very seriously.")
They'll take you on a tour of the odiferous old distillery, sell you every variety of artifact imprinted with the Jack Daniel's label, feed you whiskey-flavored hamburgers, even supply you with barbecue briquets made of the charcoal through which the whiskey has been filtered. But they won't sell a bottle. Lynchburg is in a dry county. In small towns like Lynchburg, it's hard to avoid the fact that Americans feel a lot better about themselves as a result of the Gulf war. Flags, yellow ribbons and support-our-troops signs are everywhere. But I'll see one in Texas that says, "We Support Those Who Defend America." And in a hotel room in New Mexico, I'll listen to a musician describing a TV concert "for all our troops who fought to save America." Both are rather extreme assesments of Iraq's might, but maybe we just have to go out and beat on someone once in awhile.
Russellville, Alabama: the girl in the gas station says "Y'all come back," with an intensity never communicated by the Haveaniceday crowd.
"I hope so, but it's a long way," I laugh.
"Where y'all from?"
"Oh Lowered, you won't never come back." she sounds honestly disappointed.
THE NATCHEZ TRACE Parkway is another of America's classic scenic roads, so who am I to blow against the wind? Early on a sunny, top-down Easter Sunday, the Corvette takes to the Trace at Tupelo, Mississippi. A third of the Parkway is north of Tupelo, stretching toward Nashville, but the southern 266 miles to Natchez will be our lot. The highway follows what was once a footpath--established by Native American hunters, tramped by European explorers and settlers, and finally worn into a 10-foot-wide forest furrow by the boots of farmers who'd floated their crops down the Mississippi to Natchez and walked back north by the countless thousands.
The Trace's dozens of historic sites, overlooks and pulloffs are contemplative, ill-served by the drive-through dolt on his way to California. But there can be few lovelier, more compulsively landscaped roads than the Trace, even if it is flat and relatively vista-less. In places, it runs past sweeping fields, and in others through corridors of pine and purple wisteria and alongside tea-dark cypress swamps. Here and there, the original Trace is apparent--a gloomy, well-sunken path through eerie glades that swallowed many a Kentucky boatman.
The hoop-skirt Mafia has taken over Natchez, for I've blundered into Spring Pilgrimage, when many of the the city's restored plantations and town houses are open, hosted by period-costumed garden-club ladies. (Why don't you get your husbands to dress up in Rhett Butler duds and help out, I ask one. "Oh, they're much too busy," she says sweetly, "and you know, weekends they have their own things to do." Last year's Spring Pilgrimage netted the Natchez Garden Club $000,000 in three weeks--a tidy month's profit for any man's company.)
Virginia Beltzhoover Morrison, dressed like a lifesize Christmas- tree ornament, shows me Green Leaves, the memorabilia-cluttered mansion where she was born. "Do I mind having my picture taken?" she laughs. "I've been doing this since 1932. My sister and I used to compete to see who got the most pictures taken of them, and I must admit I used to cheat and ask people to take my picture. No, I don't mind a bit."
"For Sale," says the big sign at the entrance to "America's most haunted house"--the Myrtles plantation--in St. Francisville, Louisiana. It's not the best marketing for an expensive inn, but I've never slept in a house where five murders were committed and a total of 10 people died violently. For $130, I take the bridal suite. (Lesser rooms are in a converted, motel-like outbuilding.) Another $30 gets a dinner-by- candlelight reservation, but no amount of money can make the ghost of Chloe appear in my slightly seedy room.
Chloe was the black mistress of a long-ago Myrtles owner, who caught her listening one night at his bedroom keyhole. Furious, he cut off her ear. She poisoned his wife and two children--not for revenge, oddly, but to regain her lover's respect by appearing to then "save them." But either the antidote didn't work or the poison was too powerful, and they died. Chloe is said to wander the halls wearing a bandanna to cover her missing ear, and suggestible guests reportedly insist they've had conversations with her.
An automatic Yamaha player piano rollicks ghostily among the antiques in the decaying manor, but the real ghost of the Myrtles turns out to be the inn owner, a young man who apparently wants nothing to do with his several guests and brushes past impatiently. "He made me feel like a redheaded stepchild," gripes an pretty young woman from Tennessee at breakfast the next morning.
YOU KNOW YOU'RE in the heartland when coin machines in gas-station men's rooms dispense for 50 cents your choice of condoms or--here in backroads Louisiana on the way to backroads East Texas--"totally nude live pussy shots." [Delia et al: this whole paragraph may be simply too raunchy to use at all--maybe you had to be there--but it could be softened a bit my making it read, "'totally nude live' female-genitalia photographs."] The description is admittedly complete, but even Bret Easton Ellis daren't consider the necrophiliac alternatives. Nor do I have change, and I'm too embarrassed to ask for any.
Louisiana 190 toward Beaumont, Texas is so endless and straight that it simply disappears into glassy, mirage-like heat shimmers, and the telephone poles march ahead into nothingness. Highway 190 is empty, a virtual Corvette flyway, and here the country first begins to suggest the bleak, stretch-on-forever immensity that it will increasingly become.
In Beaumont, a young black man in work clothes is drawn to the Corvette when I open the huge hood to check the oil, revealing engine, wheels, suspension, plumbing--the entire naked front of the car. "Aw, I love Corvettes. Aw man, you really gonna torture me?" he says when I tell him to try on for size the soft-leather, six-way-power, lumbar- supported, inflatable-bolstered driver's seat. He knows the car far better than I do, and recites history and specifications. "The twin- turbo Callaway Corvette, that's the one I want, if I'm ever rich enough to afford it. In red or white."
Yet what is far more interesting about the encounter is that this is the first black I've really seen on a trip that has taken me through a considerable slice of the East and the South. Certainly I've driven through towns with black populations, but the lily-whiteness of Traveling America is dismaying, and it will continue to be obvious through Texas, the Southwest and well into California.
The doubtless superficial though troubling conclusion is that only a tiny proportion of blacks can afford the leisure-time freedoms that the vast middle class takes for granted. That blacks are in the cities, or at work, or crushed by recession. Certainly they aren't visiting Hershey or taking Jack Daniel's tours, or traveling to Monticello and other slave-holder mansions (Why would they want to?), or stopping at inns and motels along the tourist trails.
Every road trip needs a little combat driving to relieve the monotony, so this must be Houston. It's odd to be arrowing toward this sudden, immense clump of mirrored high-rises looming in a strangely San Francisco-ish manner from the Texas flatlands, after days of two-lane blacktop and two-story motels. Cut-and-thrust Houston freeway driving is fast-moving and aggressive. The real hardnoses slide through small gaps and across three lanes at a time, just as though they'd trained on Manhattan's West Side Drive. Except that many have pickup trucks. The I-59 freeway dumps me off just before rush hour--ahead, taillights are already glowing as they brake for the afternoon's first traffic jam-- within several blocks of one of the most remarkable hotels in the United States: the six-room La Colombe D'Or.
Houston has no zoning laws and has grown william-nilliam, so it's no surprise that La Colombe D'Or is just down the street from a Jack in the Box and sandwiched between two anonymous glass office buildings. But it is an auberge, a chateau, a chalet, an inn of the highest quality nonetheless. Once the 21-room mansion of Walter Fondren, founder of what is today called Exxon, now--take your pick--it is either an incredible restaurant with a few luxury suites upstairs or an intimate hotel that happens to have the best food in Houston.
"The bankers told me I was a lunatic. Who opens a six-room hotel in Houston?" says Stephen Zimmerman, a frenetic ex-lawyer who bought the mansion in 1979. "I knew I couldn't out-big the other hotels, but I knew they couldn't out-little me." Zimmerman reaped enormous publicity in 1986 when La Colombe D'Or offered full four-course power lunches for the price of a barrel of oil, which at that point was heading toward Pizza Hut levels. (With a computer terminal in the restaurant, diners could negotiate their check based on the spot price.)
Zimmerman is remodeling the already sumptuous suites "as drop-dead rooms to appeal to CEOs. I want the people who are staying at the Ritz-Carlton or the Four Seasons to say, 'It's nice, but I couldn't get a room at La Colombe D'Or.'"
DAY'S A REST: Wash the car. Stroll through the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the sculpture garden and the Comtemporary Art Museum (all within walking distance of La Colombe D'Or). Then put in an easy 170 miles to Austin. At the car wash, a young Frenchman says, "If you 'ave thees car in Frahnce, you be vairy populair." He is a sous-chef at one of La Colombe's competitors and drives a very un-French but doubtless populair Mercury Cougar with gold mag wheels.
On the way to Austin, I fall into the trap that entices many an unwary Easterner: the cowboy-boot store. In Giddings, the Rhodes Boot Co.--"lowest prices clean restrooms"--snares me on Texas 290, and 30 minutes later I lope out wearing a high-heeled pair of $180 snakeskin Hondos, looking like Don Knotts imitating Dwight Yoakum.
Quenten Rhodes, John Wayne-tall, looks like he's been selling boots all his life. But until last year, he'd worked for a natural-gas company, then got laid off. "I'd always kinda wanted a Western store," he admits. Did it scare him to open one in the middle of a recession? "It sure did, but I have a brother who has a boot store, and it gave me a little bit of a feel for the business." Another customer interrupts. "Is this a lady's boot?" she asks. "It is if a lady's wearing it," Rhodes smiles, proving that he indeed does have the feel.
A country-music zealot, I've been looking forward to Austin, where, Waylon Jennings assured me, "Bob Wills is still the king." Yo Waylon: they don't even know who Bob Wills is any more. Sixth Street, the city's club row, is wall-to-wall jazz, heavy metal, rock and reggae. I ask advice of a man in white boots and tight jeans (probably a microchip engineer at the Motorola factory in Silicon Gulch, outside the city). "Country on Sixth Street?" he laughs. "It's been awhile. This is a college town."
I turn to the young doorman at the hotel--the Driskell, a historic, ornate, handsomely restored pile smack downtown. "I had a pair of cowboy boots when I was five, but they were just for play," he says snottily. "You have to go to the Midwest to find people who wear cowboy boots and listen to country music today." My snakeskins peek out from under my Wranglers, setting off boot alarms all over the hotel.
TODAY AN ENTIRELY new, classically Western landscape begins, and like so many geographic transitions on this trip, it's instant and unmistakeable. Near Lampasas, the Corvette crests a rise. Well behind is the urban sprawl of Austin, nearer astern the fertile, dairy-cow green of the Texas Hill Country. Ahead a vista of blue uplands barely seen in the distance, enormous horizons, seemingly untouched harsh land furred with mesquite and sage.
The towns begin to look like leftover sets for The Last Picture Show. The little stripper wells all sit dormant in the fields, for the price of oil is still too low to make it worthwhile to harvest what's down there. Even the few that are running are connected to tanks so small they'd barely provide a family with grocery money once laboriously filled.
Sign on an auction stable: "Best Little Horsehouse in Texas." On the radio, the deejay announces that "Manhattan Model Search is comin' to Way-co Texas to find new models for the top agencies in New York City." New York City! Imagine that. Hail, look where it got Cybille Shepherd. Worth a shot.
In Anson, a trim, sun-baked farm town north of Abilene, it's time for lunch at Bea's, where the 16-seat family-style table just inside the door makes it obvious this is where much of the town gossips. Several people howdy me, almost as though they assume that if I'm so far off any beaten trail, I must have a reason to be here. They just can't rightly remember what it is, but they'll say hello anyway. The waitress asks, in a perfect Holly Hunter voice, "Where y'all from? Oh my God, you might just as well stay in Texas!"
Appropriately near Justiceburg, Texas, the radical red roadster gets its only speeding ticket of the 4,500-mile trip--a miracle I ascribe to a good radar detector and the difficulty police have getting microwaves to bounce back from the Corvette's fiberglass body. Officer Massey of the Texas Highway Patrol writes me up for 68 on a 55-mph four-lane and is so nice about it that he even thanks me for my courtesy.
[Delia et al: If you think it's appropriate, necessary or called- for, I could insert here several paragraphs rationalizing my seemingly constant speeding: how I jibe it with our stupid lack of a national energy policy, the pointlessness of fuel conservation while 500 wells burn in Kuwait, etc. Also why I think controlled speeding is safer--it makes you vastly more careful and aware than are people who read magazines while they drive a legal 55, etc.--and why police revenue collection is directed solely at quantifiable speeding rather than inept driving, poor lane discipline, stupidity, drunks, etc.]
Approaching Lubbock, I'm apparently atop a more productive pool of hydrocarbons. The air is heavy with the smell of oil, oddly industrial amid this wilderness, and more and more of the wells are working. soon there are fields full of dozens pumping, nodding up and down like iron chickens pecking at the dirt in slow motion.
"Welcome to Lubbock," the clerk at the Sheraton says, "but don't get your hopes up." I do, though, and he gives me directions to Midnight Rodeo, a warehouse-like honky-tonk where hundreds of handsome Texans are longneckin' and two-steppin', doing the dance that is a cross between a waltz and a polka. They sweep rapidly around the racetrack floor, men wearing beltbuckles the size of portable-TV screens, women in tight jeans and colorful boots.
When the occasional rock or disco set is played, they all turn gawky, imitating Easterners as badly as I do Dwight Yoakum. But the two-step, a fluid and erotic dance of four interlacing legs, a kind of human dressage, makes even the men with big bellies look good if their Levi's are long and tight. And if they don't knock off their silly hats as they spin and swirl their partners.
THE RADIO IS playing George Strait singing, "Amarillo by morning, Amarillo's on my mind." If the music were country-and-eastern, perhaps we'd be listening to like fantasies about Poughkeepsie, or Stamford. Amarillo, an ordinary High Plains city of malls and fast-food restaurants, is no less attractive or more magical than either.
When Strait finishes, somebody advertises not a suit but for a suit. Gentleman in Plainview, Texas wants a used black suit, size 44. Give him a call. Funeral, I guess.
Actually, there is one famous restaurant in Amarillo: The Big Texan Steak Ranch and Motel. "Oi read about this plyce in the Rand- McNally and knew I 'ad to see it," says the tough-looking young Brit accessorized with a cowboy hat, shower clogs and a single earring.
One reason the Steak Ranch is featured in guidebooks is its offer of a free four-and-a-half-pound steak if you can eat the whole thing; $29.95 if you fail. The whack of raw meat, on display at the entrance in an iced case with its only moderately smaller normal offerings, is the size of a small ham. "A woman from Perth, Australia three weeks ago did it plus all the trimmings, went to the salad bar twice and then ate a bowl of strawberry shortcake," the Stetsoned maitre'd says, "and she was thin as anything. Thin people generally do better than fat ones."
Just west of Amarillo is one of the most recognizable road icons in the United States: Cadillac Ranch, six tail-finned sedans buried to their windshields in the Texas loam like a squadron of suicidal dive bombers. Collector Stanley Marsh commissioned the site sculpture, but Burt Fite farms the land. "It's a bother to have to plow around them all the time," he laughs, "but we just rent from Mr. Marsh. He pretty much put 'em wherever he wants. No, the cows don't use them for shade, they just rub up against 'em a lot." Will the cars eventually rust out? "They're set in concrete, at the angle of the Pyramids or something. They aren't gonna move." Are they ever repainted? "Yeah, the graffiti gets pretty rank after awhile."
Two tourists arrive while I'm poking around the Cadillacs--there's a gate in the fence and a path across Burt's pasture--and they turn out to be yet more Britishers, driving the length of what used to be Route 66, from Chicago to Califor- nia, in a Honda they're supposed to be delivering straight from Manhattan to an anxious owner in LA. ("I called to tell him why we were so late and fortunately got the answering machine," the woman says.)
Why Route 66? "The music, the mythology, the whole John Steinbeck thing," the man answers, "then five or six years ago, there was a marvelous documentary on our TV. Even the documentary has become part of Route 66 folklore. Everywhere we go, people say, 'Oh you're English, the film crew was here too.'"
They lament how the Interstate has utterly marooned towns that once prospered on old 66. "We stopped for gas in Texola, only about half a mile from the Interstate," the man says, "and the guy at the pumps literally went running into the station shouting, 'There's a car! There's a car!'"
Fifty miles east of Tucumcari, New Mexico, the Corvette enters the desert Southwest with a lurch. The flat Texas farm-land suddenly ends, and the view expands from 20 miles in every direction to 100. In the last afternoon light, small mesas and buttes are washed in wonderful shades of orange and shadowy blue. The first signpost to my ultimate destination flashes past: 1,007 miles to Los Angeles.
Nobody shouts "There's a car!" when I pull up to the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico, but the prototypical old Route 66 palace has seen better days. There are 34 motels in Tucumcari--the same number as in the entire city of Albuquerque--and it is a riot of neon. But the Blue Swallow is the oldest. "Oh, yeah, it used to be somethin' else," muses a woman in a gas station. "It was the most famous motel around. All kinds of famous people stayed there. Yeah, it's still doing business--not nearly as much, but I always see people there."
"We have two types of rooms," says Lillian Redman, who has been running the crumbling motel since 1958. "Hardwood floor and black-and- white TV is $10. Carpeting and color is $12.50." I go for the deluxe room, a tiny cubicle with a leaking gas heater and wheeled TV, its cord stretching across the little alcove containing the bureau.
Lillian scoots her wheelchair around the cluttered little office to make change, get me a key, fetch some matches for the heater and carefully personalize a little form letter unlike any I've ever gotten from Mr. Marriott or even Mrs. Helmsley: "May this room and motel be your 'second' home," it says in part. "May those you love be near you in thoughts and dreams. Even though we may not get to know you, we hope that you will be as comfortable and happy as if you were in your own house."
The Blue Swallow is the only motel I've ever seen with a garage attached to each room. It's an odd touch in a desert town where it rarely rains, and surely it wasn't done--as a friend later suggests--so couples could tryst with their cars hidden. Nobody would have driven drive two days into the desert from Los Angeles for secrecy, and the tiny, remote town of Tucumcari could hardly have supported a hot-bed trade among its few residents. Some of the garages still work, others are padlocked and crumbling, but they're all a sign that the Blue Swallow was once "somethin' else."
SPORTS-CAR DRIVERS in much of the country never get a chance to answer that most basic question, "Wottle she do?" but today is the Corvette's chance to show its stuff. On empty, two-lane, early-morning Highway 104 from Tucumcari to Las Vegas, New Mexico, the speedometer quickly settles on 134--11 mph slower than the car's actual top speed, but the power-sapping altitude--probably 3,000 [?] feet--and the drag of two duffle bags that threaten to lose their grip on the luggage rack easily explain the difference.
The engine tinkles and pops while aluminum and iron shrink into repose as the car sits cooling in the silent plaza of Las Vegas, a lovely town that is becoming a retreat from the commercialism of nearby Santa Fe and Taos. "We have 900 buildings on the historical register, which is more than even Santa Fe has," a clerk at the restored Plaza Hotel says.
A handsome young woman in a long, flowered skirt over silver-toed boots reads a book while she breakfasts in a sunny corner of the dining room, and there are hints Las Vegas is on the cusp of discovery. It's a working-class town, though--small, remote and insular--and there's already some resentment of the auslanders and their historical- register/shops-and-galleries concerns.
If Santa Fe is the specter, their fears may be well-founded. In 15 years, the town has gone from gentle Southwestern intimacy to concentrated Californian cuteness. Total gentrification has brought it congestion and uniformity, with trolling shoppers everywhere, and the core of what has become a small city is like an extended resort-hotel shopping arcade.
It's Friday night, so a slow-moving stream of jacked-up pickups, hoodless musclecars with their engines exposed and stiff-gaited lowriders endlessly circles the streets, cruisin'--the paseo on wheels. From a Camaro jammed full of Mexican-American kids, a boy with a hugely pregnant woman sitting on his lap asks with exaggerated politeness, "Excuse me, sir, can you tell me the way to the Plaza?" It's several blocks away, so I give him complex directions and even a tourist-bureau street-map. They drive off convulsed. It's minutes before I realize it's as though I've been asked directions to the Atlantic Ocean by a Cape Codder standing on a sand dune.
"WE'RE FROM NEW Haven originally," says the nice lady running the gas station with her husband, outside Durango, Colorado. "Came out here 18 years ago on vacation and decided to stay. The dope was just starting back East, and my lord, at the great Yale University they were going to school with no shirts, barefoot. We decided to get out of there. Of course, the dope is everywhere now." There's also now a Ralph Lauren factory outlet in Durango, once a town of saloons, brothels and miners' gang wars.
Elevation 10,640 feet: the summit of Coal Bank Hill Pass, en route to Telluride, deep amid the San Juan Mountains. My flat-lander's lungs can barely support a slow stroll around the pull-off in which I've parked the Corvette, yet as I slump back into the seat, there's the crunch of gravel in the crisp mountain air and I turn to watch a bicyclist pull up.
He ignores me, for this beast with bridge-cable tendons, thighs like stumps and a heart probably the size of a basketball has pounded up the mountain from Durango, 40 miles [?] back, while I wimped along in my silly red convertible. He retches painfully, upends a water bottle, spits and gasps, then turns and begins the descent back to Durango. This is Colorado, where the seriously bad bikers don't ride Harleys but pedal 12- and 14-speed Merlins, Paramounts and Colnagos.
The road from Durango to Telluride is magnificent, cresting three passes over 10,000 feet high and winding its way, guardrail-less, through high peaks and past the old mining towns of Silverton and Ouray. (A local I'd met in Santa Fe told me of having done part of the trip as a human windshield wiper, during a snowstorm, lying on the roof of a friend's VW van and reaching down to sweep the driver's glass clear. "The things we did as college students," he groaned.)
And the prize--the tiny ski and film-festival town of Telluride, in a mountain cul-de-sac--is worth the effort. It's not the poor man's Aspen, it's the rich man's Aspen. "When the billionaires chase the millionaires out of Aspen, they'll move here," says Gary Eschman, one of the owners of San Sophia, the town's best inn. They already are. "Land prices are already higher than Vail's," says his wife, Dianne. "We see a lot more fur coats than before, and we never used to get the problem of women guests complaining there wasn't enough space in the rooms to put out all their makeup."
NAVAJO, FULL OF glottal stops, rising inflections and abrupt word-endings, is English played backward. It is a discovery I make as the Corvette approaches Monument Valley, its radio sniffing out increasing numbers of Native American stations. In the distance, the sandstone Goliaths of the Navajo national park on the border of Utah and Arizona loom dimly, like a flotilla of man o'wars on the horizon. The haze is a sandstorm, and soon the talc-like red dust is everywhere, writhing across the road in playful sheets, flattening the skirts of Indian women standing resignedly next to their dust-caked trinket trays.
In one desolate spot, a Navajo is lying comfortably on his side on a sandy bluff above the road, propping his head on an elbow and watching the very occasional traffic. It seems as strange as seeing somebody sleeping in the snow, but to him, red Corvettes must be an equally odd spectacle.
A crude sign, "Dinosaur Tracks," leads to Melvin, another Navajo. How much does it cost to see the ancient footprints? "Whatever you want to pay," Melvin says. He leads me past his sister's trinkets-and- jewelry shack to a series of huge chicken-tracks that were pressed into the red stone when it was mud. Melvin lopes goofily along one series of tracks from print to print, demonstrating the length of the little dinosaur's stride, and rattles off names and statistics with aplomb. he's been doing it, he says, since he was a little boy.
The tracks were discovered in 1942, when the highway--Arizona 89-- was being built. I ask Melvin who now owns the land they're on, but it is a baffling question for him: "ownership" of the earth is not a Navajo concept. "Well, that's where I live, over there," is all he can say.
Part of the fun of driving back roads is the freedom to take the time to find the offbeat places to stay, but this is ridiculous. The gas gauge is banging its peg and the "reserve" light is glowing, and I'm heading off into the desert, on a dirt road, searching for the resort Enchantment, outside--way outside, by Eastern standards--Sedona, Arizona.
Finally, two mountain bikers turn me back the right way. "Yeah, we keep putting up signs. We're in the middle of the Coconino National Forest, so the rangers keep taking them down," says the bellman at the resort. Enchantment may forever be hard to find, but it's worth the detour--a cluster of luxurious pseudo-adobe "casitas" snug in a canyon of the vivid red rock that is Sedona's stock in trade. Tennis, golf, pool-lazing and other pastimes of little use to the gotta-make-it-to- California motor-head predominate, but it's a splendid place to wash a Monument Valley sandstorm out of your scalp.
JEROME, ARIZONA ISN'T even on my map: a town of 480 that has lapsed some in population from its 1929 high of 15,000 but that has gained in grace. Jerome is staked to the side of a mountain thousands of feet above a hot valley floor that stretches toward Phoenix, 80 miles to the south, and in ways it is oddly like an Italian hill town. Its main street is the vertiginous switch-backs of Highway A89, and flights of stairs lead from one level to the next, where tottery, stilt-built houses threaten to slide all the way down to Sedona.
Today the tiny town is an open-air museum of sorts, an entertaining ghost displaying the artifacts of its past as the site of one of the world's richest copper mines. Like little Lynchburg and striving Telluride, "the other" Las Vegas and sleepy St. Francisville, Jerome is a town the mainliners might miss. Yet these are the communities that make worthwhile a westward voyage that as often heads straight north or half-south, that gives meaning to the meander and turns a 3,000-mile trip into 4,300.
The farther I go and the faster I drive, the more I encounter places and people that need a longer visit, that beg you to stop and stay. In one sense, this cross-country epic is becoming a voyage of discovery, but in another of discoveries neither claimed nor colonized.
The envelope, please: A89 to Arizona 71 from Clarkdale through Jerome and on toward the "ghost town" of Congress turns out to be the champion road of the entire trip. Sure, there have been nice backroads, scenic parkways, vista-ed drives and irresistible straightaways, but this simple, little-trafficked arterial is smite- your-forehead fantastic as it winds and switch- backs and hairpins through the mountains where I play the double-the-sign game. (When the corner sign says 25 mph, try it at 50.)
At Congress, the lady in the convenience store says, "Ghost town? Maybe once, but even then it wasn't nothin' I'd call a ghost town. Whoever made the map decided to put 'ghost town' on it, and we've had to live with it ever since. But a whole lot of people moved in, and the ghosts moved out."
A89 and 71 will turn out to be the end of the line for this cross- country journey's good roads. Southwest of Congress, the highway straightens. Straightens? Hell, it turns into God's own ruler, into blacktop infinity. Far ahead, the road disappears into a gelatinous Lawrence of Arabia mirage, and I half-expect Omar Sharif's camel to come trotting out of the shimmering band of not-sky, not-earth.
Beyond the camel is dreary Interstate 10 to Los Angeles, the only road through the numbing Sonoran Desert. Playing with the cruise control and the seat's lumbar-support air pump for five hours is the best to be hoped for. And for the first time, the Corvette's top goes up not because it's too cold but too hot.
California! No need for a sign, I know it by the Botts Dots--the lumpy little tire-whapping ceramic buttons that a one-time section head of California's Division of Highways, Dr. Elbert Botts, invented to serve as the state's highway lane dividers. (I once had a friend who could turn the simplest California drive into torture by proving how skillfully he could keep his lefthand tires on the Botts Dots line with an endless series of BLAPadapadapadap-BLAPadapadpadaps.)
"You'll love Palm Springs," said another friend, who plays golf. I hate Palm Springs. I do not play golf, and the charming desert- resort town I'd naively expected turns out to be a mega-mall posing as a city. "Are you looking for a gay resort?" asks the young jogger I'd hoped could direct me to a Palm Springs inn I'd chosen from a B&B guide. "Because they're all in that part of town." After a moment of shock and an awkward, "Uh, no," I can marvel at the refreshing openness of a query presented as forthrightly as he might have asked whether I was looking for French food or Mexican, "because they're all in that part of town." Hey dude, this is California.
THIRTY YEARS AGO, I last rode a roller-coaster: the creaky old Cyclone, the scream-soaked pile of lumber and tracks that made Coney Island famous. Today I ride another. Since this has been a journey of eclectic destinations and personal choices, the Corvette ends up nowhere so simple as downtown Los Angeles or with one tire in the Pacific but 45 minutes north of the city, at the Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park. Magic Mountain has the Psyclone, a Cyclone clone that is a near-exact replica of Coney Island's long-closed terror ride.
The Psyclone is closed, too. Computer trouble--a problem Coney Island never suffered. "We're still learning this one," says Magic Mountain's chief of operations, Fred Svendsen. "It opened only a month ago. Because it was built during a very damp period, it's going through tremendous dimensional changes as the wood dries out." (Oh, good.) "The track gauge is changing all the time, and we're still learning what the section speeds should be. There can be big differences in speeds between a slow day and a fast day: 63, 65 mph on a day when it's hot and dry, as much as 10 mph less on a day when the track gauge tightens up. On the steel coasters, moisture is what makes 'em go faster, I think because the wheels hydroplane when the track gets wet."
The Viper is a steel coaster, one of the new generation of pseudo- aerobatic thrill rides, and I am condemned to ride it in lieu of the Psyclone. "You're lucky, actually," says a Magic Mountain employee. "This is the longest looping roller coaster in the world."
"Put this gentleman in the front seat," he says to the Viper's operator as I'm led around the hour-long line of waiting customers, all teenagers, many of them tough-looking Chicanos. Not a one protests this droigt du seigneur. They probably assume a middle-aged, white- haired male wearing glasses and cowboy boots can only be a government inspector or an officer of the roller-coaster police.
Ninety seconds later, I climb off the Viper grinning foolishly. Maybe I'm grinning because I didn't have to wait in line 40 times longer than the ride takes, but I'm also grinning with a combination of relief and surprise: it was fun, and more amusing than terrifying. An 18-story plummet, three loops, an Immelmann, a barrel roll and a couple of other thundering maneuvers forgotten in the rush....It's over, almost as quickly as the words can be read.
So is the Corvette's journey, though that has taken 4,318 miles, 14 states, and 100 hours and 57 minutes of traveling (including roadside stops). The fantasy trip, the Big Cross-Country, has become reality, something that only an American can accomplish so routinely. Not once in 14 days have I encountered anyone who has expressed anything but envy and delight at the thought of a footloose two weeks on cross-country backroads. At its worst, the trip has been why-am-I- doing-this boredom--driving on roads that are too long, too dull; eating in restaurants you'd never otherwise choose; and staying in places you're happy to leave. At its best, it has been the discovery that much of the country is in better shape physically, emotionally, even economically than the doomsayers would have us think. It's a land of enormous beauty in unexpected places--Tennessee, for one; Mississippi; the remote southwest corner of Colorado--and it's a land of people so welcoming and open that an Easterner's natural defenses are breached by the first "Y'all come back" and overrun by every "Thanks for stoppin' by." If I've learned anything, it's that I want to do it again. Slower.
From my small stock of road music for the Corvette's splendid CD player, I choose the Traveling Wilburys and hear them sing the perfect end to my trip:
"Well it's all right, ridin' around in the breeze.
"Well it's all right, if you can live the life that you please.
"Well it's all right, even if the sun don't shine.
"Well it's all right, we're goin' to the end of the line."
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