FOOT DOWN AND FANCY FREEWAY

THE WORLD IN MOTION: AMERICA BY CAR; Delivering a car to LA from New York, Sasha Abramsky covered 3,000 miles in 10 days. Westward through plains and cities, mountains and desert, he chased the American dream
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The Independent Culture
IT'S MONDAY night, the sun is setting over canyon country, and I'm driving at 90mph through Utah's astonishing red rock scenery. I don't usually drive this fast, but the sun is going down in the vast cold blueness of the western sky and I have to reach Bryce Canyon before the light disappears. I've never before seen this cascading forest of orange stone pillars - and it's only 100 miles out of my way, so why not?

For nearly a week now, I've been driving this red VW cabriolet, covering about 500 miles a day. I have to get the car to Los Angeles by Friday. Last Wednesday, nearly 3,000 miles of highway, toll roads and freeways ago, I left New York. A company called Autodriveaway, which has offices in 33 of the 50 states that make up the US, had matched my requirement of getting to LA with an East Coast car-owner's need to get her VW out to the West Coast.

What you do is go into the office and fill in a registration form. If you are over 21, have a valid driver's licence and a slightly flexible schedule, Autodriveaway will get you within reasonable distance of where you want to end up. I went into the office, filled in the forms, and waited. A few days later they called. They had a car that had to be in LA in two weeks. I went in, put down my $300 deposit and packed my bags.

On the agreed morning, the day after my birthday, me and my hangover hit the road.

Interstate 80 heading west. I put the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction on at full volume. The music blared. I felt good.

America has a century-long love affair with the automobile. It spends 20 times more on road-building than on railway subsidies. Since President Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act in 1956, the federal government has pumped around $29bn a year into the country's road network. Once you get out west, to new cities such as Los Angeles whose planners assumed the dominance of the auto, cars cease to be simply functional; they become jumped-up, lowered-down, large-tyred, glittering pieces of modern art. They become carefully sculpted, personalised extensions of the owner's being.

I crossed the George Washington Bridge, the vast iron structure connecting northern Man-hattan to New Jersey, put my foot down and headed through New Jersey and into Pennsyl-vania, winding west into the setting sun, into Appalachia. The first fuel stop was five hours later, in a tiny hamlet called Loganton, high up in the lush green, early spring hills. I had a hamburger and coffee and my car had six gallons of regular unleaded, about $1.21 a gallon. The guy behind the counter in the six-seater diner looked about 12 years old. His friend was sitting on my side of the counter, perhaps 14, a wispy moustache brooding on his upper lip, a cigarette dangling down towards his fries.

The kids talked with a guttural mean mountain twang. They compared their fighting exploits - who had ''passed out'' more people. The young waiter told a story about how he and some friends had passed out his cousin, knocked him cold. The smoker nodded appreciatively. I slurped my watery coffee and quickly headed back to the car, out of Appalachia and into Amish land.

Just across the Ohio border, nearly 500 miles from my New York apartment, I stopped at a motel. The small of my back was aching, the calves of my legs felt like they were ready to explode, my mind was numb from 10 hours of concentrating on the unwinding concrete road. My fingers were beginning to cramp from gripping the wheel. I still had over 2,500 miles to go.

America is a country still being made; its history unwinds westward with the road I was on. Driving across America, chasing to catch up with history until history is subsumed into the here and now, is chasing the ultimate fulfilment, the Dream. Before Kerouac immortalised the open road, two generations of searchers took to the highway. Oakies headed west out of their bowl of dust in the 1930s, all their worldly possessions roped on to grunting jalopies. And before the car, the railways rushed across the land, connecting mountains and deserts, prairies and cities. And before the train, wagons and carts, pulled by horses and weary immigrant farmers, headed west into the unknown.

If you look at the different parts of America in a random order, they make no sense. Intellectual Manhattan has nothing in common with sun-crazed, body-building Los Angeles; the frenzy of Chicago is a galaxy away from the endless mist-shrouded prairies of Iowa and Kansas; the impossibly large fertile Rocky Mountains don't seem part of the same universe as the arid red canyons and craters that scream across the south west. And the southern Bible-belt has about as much in common with San Francisco and northern California as Attila the Hun with Mahatma Gandhi.

But heading west, winding through the vast land, the country starts to make sense. The road is the movie reel along which the plot unfolds.

Interstate 80 goes all the way to San Francis-co. I didn't stay on it quite that far. But, that Thursday, I clung to it through the endless corn fields of Ohio, through the endless corn fields of Indiana. I stopped for gas, and men in baseball caps and moustaches snarled out the price.

Just as rush-hour was approaching its climax, I reached Chicago. It is an overwhelming sight. Out of the flatness of the mid-western prairies, a Dickensian scene of smoky factories, railway tracks, chimney stacks haloed by blueish-orange flames and slums rushes out at you. This is the powerhouse at the centre of the continent, a land of industrial mayhem, a megalopolis of noise. Last century goods trundled into Chicago by train and were sent off to all corners of the country. It is still America's second city.

Old brick houses stretched forever, the grand skyline of the downtown area glistened in the setting sun. The radio stations began blaring out cool Chicago jazz and to the west aeroplanes screamed into the sky above O'Hare airport. I had to take photographs, while staying in my lane. I steered with my knees and wished I had a month to while away. I didn't, so I drove on, out into the suburban sprawl. I left the city behind, and once more was on the prairie.

By midnight I was in Madison, Wisconsin, 1,000 miles from home, relaxing with a friend over a half-litre of Paulanter Weiss, a uniquely strong brew. We were in the Essen Haus, a German beer hall, where a DJ mixed the polkas and the tall, blond customers drank beer out of two-litre glasses shaped like boots and danced the hokey cokey while they shook it all about.

We drank and talked, my road-aches faded. And then I fell into the kind of sleep I had every day of the trip. I dreamt of the freeway. I woke up tired. My muscles hurt. I had what was becoming my customary enormous fried breakfast and six cups of coffee, and then we walked around the city. Madison is a beautiful, manageable, very trendy student town. It is built next to a lake and, once upon a time in the Sixties, was a hotbed of radicalism. Now, according to my friend, it is a hotbed of rest.

I packed the car again and headed back into the prairies. I spent the day winding through Iowa, catching up with Interstate 80 somewhere west of Dubuque. Iowa is spectacularly boring. It is also appallingly large. The Danish immigrant farmers who came here drove their carts as far as the carts would go and then stopped. They stopped out of exhaustion, and those of their descendants who remained only did so because they lacked the energy to go on westward. There is nothing to do in rural Iowa but watch the corn grow and drink beer.

That night I stopped in a town called Brook-lyn. There was one bar open on the town's main drag. The overalled, grizzled patrons of The Front Street Tap let up a roar as I opened the door. I sauntered up to the bar, with its scale models of pioneer wagons, as casually as I could, wedged myself between a beehived lady and a man with black teeth, and ordered a Pepsi. Two buffalo heads adorned the walls. I kept waiting to be casually beaten up. But no one did anything other than stare. I retreated back to my car and drove into a truck stop to sleep, curled up and freezing cold in my coat, hat, trousers, gloves and sleeping bag.

The corn continued long into the following day, until the western reaches of Nebraska where the rolling prairie gave way to flat plains, woods, lakes and enormous cattle ranches. The sky was suddenly lower and clearer, the air crisper. Without warning I was in the Wild West. I was heading for the town of North Platte, through its outlying wilderness of motels, gas stations and fast-food lots. Like half the small towns in America, North Platte advertises its one claim to fame for miles. Huge roadside billboards lured me towards Buffalo Bill's rodeo ranch. To get there I drove down Rodeo Road and sped along Buffalo Bill Drive. Buffalo Bill, however, must have headed south for the winter, for the ranch was closed. I turned around, went back past the motels and food joints and hit the Interstate again.

When you get a certain way across the continent, you suddenly know you are in the West. I crossed into eastern Colorado, veering southwest on to Interstate 76. Now the terrain was truly wild, dunes of scorched brown grass. A fantastic storm lit up the sky, trucks roared past in the ever deeper darkness. I felt lonelier than ever before. Huge balls of dry grass blew across the road. The lights of other cars and the roadside reflectors began bouncing around crazily in the rain. I'd driven 16 hours and now the road was winning. I fell asleep for a fraction of a second and jolted back into frightened wakefulness. The rain got worse. I pulled off into a deserted restaurant lot and curled up in my car and dreamt the dreams of drivers.

Next stop Denver: the great gateway to the Rockies. I parked on Larrimer street - the skid row Neal Cassidy's drunken father inhabited in On The Road - and wandered through the vast shopping centre in the heart of the city. It was early Sunday morning and the West had not yet rubbed the sleep from its eyes. There was a blizzard, winter's last, defiant gesture. I walked around the monumental neo-gothic stone buildings that make up the ''historic district'' - historic being a relative term in a place that was only made a state in 1876 - made note of the tram tracks that run through the centre of the city, and got back in my car.

A few miles out of Denver, on Interstate 70, the road starts climbing. Within minutes you are 11,000ft up, overwhelming mountains soaring away from you on all sides. The snow increased. The road iced up. My windscreen wipers froze. My headlights grew icicles. The traffic skidded along at 20 miles an hour. In winter I-76 is the only route across the continental divide. It is the only way to break through the Rockies. As you drive, you can feel what those pioneers must have felt, as they strained westwards across the plains and into the never-ending peaks of the Rockies, searching for the mythical freedom of the American West.

The snow slowed down, the low clouds lifted and I realised I was only 50 miles from Aspen. If you have never been to Aspen, go before you die. It is perhaps the most beautiful hamlet on earth. The chalets nestle in a valley surrounded by ski-runs and pine forests. Maroon rocks jut out of the billowy whiteness and light the land up with colour. The pine trees are a silvery blue. This is Narnia. And there are no neon lights. There is one road in and one road out. The ski-season lasts over six months and the people who live there live to ski. It is a town of and for the beautiful people, and for once I could see the attractions of a life of mindless hedonism.

The next morning I headed off on an open, empty road through Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. I was in the canyon lands, a desert world of Martian crevices, enormous natural sculptures, searing colours and boulders dotted across the craggy wilderness. You can go 100 miles here and not pass a single dwelling. You could wander off into the canyons and someone might find your dehydrated corpse picked apart by vultures weeks or months later. This part of the continent will not be tamed. Its night skies have more stars than anywhere else on earth, its days offer up the harshest, most unrelentingly spectacular scenery in the world.

I wandered down into the labyrinth of Bryce Canyon as the sun set and I hurried out of it as the bitter winter cold set in. I slept in the Arizona desert and woke up surrounded by great stone hills. That day I had to make it to Las Vegas. When the country reached as far west as Nevada, some mad bastards decided what the nation needed was a casino. Today, you cross the state line, speeding along Inter-state 15, and are immediately bombarded with neon signs advertising every sin under the sun.

The route is lined with casinos filled with fruit machines, computer poker games, roulette tables, old guys and gals monotonously spinning the wheels and grabbing the coins that occasionally jangle out of the machines. It is a Moloch world of addicts and plastic. It is the most favoured fantasy spot in America.

I put the roof down on the convertible and pointed the car in the direction of Los Angeles. The desert sun blasted down, Pulp Fiction blared out of the car speakers and the end of the continent was approaching at 90 miles per hour.

Nearing Los Angeles, more lanes mysteriously materialised. I turned on to Freeway 10 into the non-stop roar of glittering LA traffic. Now there were six lanes and as many cars as there used to be buffalo roaming the great plains: huge jeeps, personalised sports cars, sleek white limousines, enormous Fifties chrome-plated showpieces, Mercedes, Mus-tangs, Bugs, Chrysler, every car ever thought of.

I have arrived. I am on the edge of the continent. There is nowhere further to go. I sit at Gladstone's restaurant overlooking Malibu beach. I dip into an enormous fish platter and I sip on a half-pint margarita. My car and me, together we have journeyed through a country's making, and we have finally caught up with the present. Or is it now still further west, on the other side of the Pacific? !

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