The open road

In a few short days, we will jump in our Toyota Tacoma with our dog Shadow and drive about 3,000 miles through 13 states to move from Gainesville, Florida, to West Sacramento, California. The trip will take us about six days. We’ll be traveling through Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California.

It’s been a long time since I’ve taken an epic road trip, but I’m excited about the journey. There is no better way to get a sense of America than to drive almost all the way from one coast to another.

I lived abroad twice as a child and teenager, and that exposure to different cultures made me realize early on that my tastes and preferences differ from those of many Americans. I hate shopping malls. I speak French fluently. I prefer cheese, wine and chocolate croissants to hamburgers and fries. I’m puzzled by the enthusiasm for American football. I’ve often thought my personality was more suited for 1920s Paris than modern-day America.

But the one thing that never fails to bring me back to the roots of my American-ness is my love of a good road trip.

On a road trip, can drive for hours and still be in the same state. You pass rest areas and fruit stands. You pass by arbitrary state lines and notice subtle changes in the landscape and the people. You pass by fields and forests and foothills and mountain ranges and then pass by all of them again. You collect state license plates. You listen to music. You listen to stories. You talk, you become silent. You say hello to people in diners and on Main Street. You stay in good hotels and not-so-good hotels. You pass through blistering heat and epic thunderstorms. And still the road continues.

Since childhood, I’ve been a fan of the open road. My parents took me on road trips from infancy. There were car-camping forays from Illinois where they attended graduate school to the Dakotas and back, rolling down the road in a 1966 Dodge Dart with a giant yellow canvas tent in the trunk. A few years later, when my sister Clea as born, we drove the Dodge Dart from Urbana, Illinois to Pullman, Washington, where they had their jobs as professors. Pullman is pretty much in the middle of nowhere — for years, we drove 70 miles to nearby Spokane to buy back-to-school clothes. We continued our road trips throughout my childhood, driving from Pullman to San Diego to visit grandparents and in the other direction to Yellowstone National Park for family vacations. We drove to Kitt Peak Observatory in Arizona. We drove to Zion and Bryce and the Grand Canyon.

I continued to take road trips as an adult to get from one place to another. But it has been many years since I’ve taken a trip like this, back before cell phones and the internet when all we had to listen to was the radio.

In the age of GPS, I still favor the large road atlas or map that I can spread across my lap and stare at the vast expanse of land we will cover. I can take my finger and trace different routes, stopping my nail above a “point of interest” that catches my eye. Then technology can step in to assist with a quick Google search to see if that point is interesting enough to warrant taking that road.

We haven’t yet decided on our final route. It will depend upon weather and timing and the location of fires in the West. But one thing is certain: The ribbon of highway has invited us to fly along its gray path, and we will soon join ourselves to it and start a new adventure.

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