I’ve been living in Europe for the past five years, and to mark my return back to my native country of the United States, for the past several weeks I’ve been undertaking an epic road trip across the country.
When I told some of my European friends about my plans, they became starry eyed. An American road trip – one of the quintessential voyages that is very unique to this country. Just before I left my old home, the Netherlands, I also drove across that country. It took me three hours. It puts my friends’ wonder in perspective. Imagine a road voyage that can be counted not in hours or days, but weeks.
Some other people I’ve encountered in Europe have very strange ideas about what the United States is like. Some of these ideas are tenuously founded in reality, while others are quite strange. One of the strangest was that one friend told me she never wanted to visit the United States because it was “too crowded”, envisioning a Manhattan that spread from coast to coast. (If this was true, the population of the United States would be 250 billion. Even if it had the population density of the Netherlands, the population would be almost 5 billion instead of a mere 300 million.)
In reality, the United States is remarkably diverse. There are crowded city streets, packed with taxis, and there are desolate deserts, sparse enough where you can still see the Milky Way arc overhead at night. The landscape – as well as the people – is incredibly varied. So, for all of my friends back in Europe, I take you on my virtual voyage, from coast to coast, across my own country.
We start our voyage in Boston. Jet lagged and exhausted, we drag our luggage up several flights of wooden steps to an apartment that reminds me a lot of Europe – a small kitchen, views over many similar apartments arrayed around tree-lined streets or community gardens.
We don’t stay long though. We head west immediately, deep into the forests of western Massachusetts. We see families of wild turkeys cross the road. We enjoy a dinner outside on the porch with plenty of vegetables, grown in a garden that stretches around the house. For dessert, we enjoy ice tea (brewed in the sunshine) and brownies. Most of the food we eat, if not grown in the garden, is purchased from farms locally – from maple syrup to eggplants. In fact, we head to a blueberry farm, which employs locals to process the freshly picked blueberries. We leave with no less than 20 pounds – enough to last the year.
It takes us most of the next day to cross the state of New York. We see even more trellised bridges, crossing river after river, and rolling green forested hills. Most of the time, we pass no major cities, just towns and villages strung together along country roads. Many have Native American names – Susquehanna, Seneca, Taughannock. I sleep through Pennsylvania, but wake up in time to see Lake Erie, stretching like an ocean into the distance. Then a string of major cities – Cleveland, Columbus, and finally Dayton, as we make our way across Ohio. We stay with friends in a house in the suburbs, after being greeted by their over enthusiastic dog, which then proceeds to follow me around, tail happily wagging, for the rest of my visit.
On the way out of Indianapolis, even the minor highways are packed with construction. In Indiana, winter is long, and the opportunities to repair the roads from countless ice and thaw cycles are limited. Traffic is so bad that we decide to take a detour on small country roads, bordered on either side by cornfields. We follow a homemade sign that says “Gas” above a large arrow. Eventually, we pass a small village, where some industrious people saw the opportunity to make some money by selling gas to people that were in danger of running out of gas while waiting for traffic to clear through the construction zone. A large homemade sign advertises gas and cold beer, and in their front lawn, they have an inflatable pool set up, surrounded by several lawn chairs, where several motorists and truckers have joined them to enjoy the evening with their newfound friends, drink beer and swim in the pool. One woman waves at us as we pass.
Heading west again, we pass innumerable cornfields. On the radio, a man gives the current prices for bushels of corn and soybeans, followed by the DOW Jones. Soon we pass into Missouri. Corn fields grow less plentiful, and are replaced by rolling green hills. On either side of the road, red barns, hay bales, and windmills, both the modern type (in the hundreds) and the tall old wooden types, abound.
Then we travel through Kansas. We pass through Kansas City, then spend the night in Topeka. The next day we drive through amazingly flat land, and for the entire day, we do not pass a major city. What is the population of Kansas, I wonder? Oil drills start to appear in the fields, alongside the corn. A billboard has a picture of Jesus, with the caption “Jesus, I Trust in You”. Eventually the speed limit jumps up to 75 miles and hour, and we can finally take on the lone road a bit faster.
After passing into Colorado, it’s much of the same. It’s so flat! But after several hours of driving, massive mountains appear on the horizon, creating a sudden barrier between the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. We loop up towards Denver, and stay the evening with some friends, eating a dinner mostly consisting of vegetables from their garden and sausages of every conceivable type – from chicken to turkey to beef to pork, flavored with mozzarella or jalapeños. Around us, the mountains cast long shadows as the sun begins to go down.
The next day, we have lunch at a Thai restaurant, complete with prayer wheels decorating the front. Then we head south, stopping at Colorado Springs. We go hiking at the base of the Rockies, where giant red sandstone has uplifted, causing strange, otherworldly forms. We stop and talk to a woman who tells us she had just seen a mountain lion on the trail. Her husband occasionally joins us, shirtless and covered with tattoos, in between running through the bush to play with his two dogs. Together, they tell us the stories of all of the wild animals they have seen from their home in Western Colorado.
Curving back west again, we re-enter the mountains, the southern Rockies, covered in pine forests. In the distance, rain falls, which we see as dark grey streaks stretching down from the sky, connecting the clouds with the land. Lightening dances ahead of us in a storm that spans 180 degrees of our view.
Near the border of Arizona, the density of Native American reservations increases sharply. Many of them are tourist traps, but some are authentic, selling Indian fry bread, turquoise jewelry, and pottery. We pass a hotel made entirely of tee-pees, something that would be better placed in the Great Plains. The sky above us is huge – it seems like from here, the world is mostly sky.
Then the elevation drops again, and we descend into the desert – the hottest place in the United States. We enter the Mojave desert, and the only plants we see are straggly cactus and thin brown grasses, still in the summer heat. Our car thermometer says it’s 40 degrees C (104F), but it’s late in the day and we’re lucky – I know the temperature sometimes gets up to 54C (130F) in this part of the country. The highway is a testament to that fact – it has been so hot here recently that the pavement buckled. Unfortunately I don’t notice that until it was too late – as I drove over the buckle at full speed, momentarily causing the car to sail through the air.
The road skirts two massive deserts – the Mojave to the north, and just slightly farther away, Death Valley. Just after passing into California, we stop in a town called “Needles” – the last stop before the great expanse, almost 150 miles long, of barren desert before the next town. Gas is almost twice as expensive here than in other places – but it’s money well worth it. One doesn’t want to run out of gas in a place like this. As we pass through the expanse, the sun goes down, and it is like we are embedded in the sunset – surrounded by a sky burning with pink and orange. Mountains in the distance seem to float above the plains below, suspended on clouds of dust.
The next day we continue through the desert, and soon, Joshua trees appear on both sides of the road, like magical spirits of the desert. Their contorted shapes are as unique as snowflakes, something I’m sure they have never seen.
Leaving the plains, we rise into a mountain pass. The mountains are covered with nothing but golden grass, which looks as fine as fur. Descending on the other side of the mountains, the landscape grows greener and the temperature becomes cool. Roadside stands sell cherries, strawberries, or 8 avocados for a dollar. On the radio, the country music stations have all been replaced by Spanish music of all types, and soon, they are more numerous than the English stations – Spanish ballads, mariachi, pop, and marches. We near the coast, this time the Pacific, and as we travel north, farms are slowly replaced by Best Buys, Targets, and apartment complexes. Multi-storied bridges cross over the highway.
We head up the peninsula bringing us into the heart of the bay area. In San Francisco, we pass through Chinatown, where red lamps sway in the cool breeze coming off the bay. Farther north, Chinatown smoothly transitions into Little Italy, where sidewalk cafes sell a wide assortment of tasty items – pasta, cannoli, and gelato. The streets grow increasingly hilly, and soon, the bay appears in the distance. We pass through the fisherman’s wharf and walk down the pier, stopping to get a plate of pasta and clams.
Just a bit farther west, we walk across the sand to the Pacific ocean, which seems to stretch endlessly into the distance. Giant waves crash onto the shore, and adults and children alike run shrieking from the larger waves. We look up, and a pod of dolphins swim past. Everyone seems to notice, and for a moment, all activity stops as everyone on the beach stands together, wordlessly sharing the moment, transfixed by the sight.
Article and images © Elizabeth Fernandez, 2015