Joe Queenan's all-American road trip
Joe Queenan thought he knew his homeland - pizza parlours, skyscrapers, music TV. But that was before he learnt to drive - aged 51 - and made the great coast-to-coast voyage of dreams. Thousands of miles, countless faceless motel rooms and a run-in with the highway patrol later, he'd found the America that the world once loved: a land of geriatric motorcycle gangs, ice-cream shops called Custard's Last Stand, and UFO museums that no decent alien would be seen dead in...
Wednesday 29 November 2006
The car had been right on my tail for the past six miles. I was meandering along a desolate strip of Kentucky highway between Cadiz and Paducah; it was getting towards 10pm; there was no one else on the road. I kept checking in my mirror to see who was bird-dogging me, be it cop or yokel, but the blinding headlights made it impossible to tell. It was the first time I had ever driven in Cain-tuck-ee; my licence plates declared that I was from north of the Mason-Dixon line; the whole thing was eerie and creepy, like the opening scene from Mississippi Burning, when the Klan starts tailgating three civil rights workers they plan to murder.
You can't just pull over at the next convenient exit in that part of Kentucky, because highway exits are 13 miles apart. So I had to keep motoring straight ahead with the jackass right on my tail. Finally, I saw a sign for an exit. I made a right. He made a right. I made a left. He made a left. Now I was in a left-hand-turn-only lane, which would take me right back on to the highway, back to Cadiz. If I made a right turn, and the car behind me had a state trooper inside, he could ticket me for making an illegal turn. But if I turned left, I'd be back on a lonely strip of highway, 13 miles from the next town, with a mysterious stranger right on my tail.
I didn't want to get a ticket, so I made the left. Sure enough, the vehicle's flashing lights came on. I dug out my licence and registration. The state trooper took his time getting out of his car, theatrical-style, acting as if he had just pulled over Bonnie and Clyde, before appearing at my window. I produced the relevant documentation, reminding myself to be docile and polite, because we were out in the middle of Dixie, there was no one else around, I was from the North and he was not. Also, he had a gun.
"Is there a problem, officer?" I finally queried.
"We got a report of a suspicious driving pattern matching this vehicle," he replied, playing the rural state trooper role to the hilt.
I stayed cool. A suspicious driving pattern, was it? Now, that was a new one. But I maintained my sang-froid. I said that I'd been driving three miles below the speed limit in the right-hand lane ever since I'd left North Carolina. I sure as hell knew where I was.
He kind of chewed on that. Then, when he'd established that I wasn't a drunk, a drug addict, a gun-runner or a terrorist, he returned my licence and registration and told me there was a nice, inexpensive Best Western motel at Exit 11 in Paducah, in case I was thinking of turning in for the night. It looked like our colloquy was at an end. Then he turned and asked why, if I was headed north, I'd made that double- left back on to the highway in a southward direction.
"Because there was somebody tailgating me for six miles on a deserted road at night in Kentucky," I replied. "And it made me kind of jumpy."
He took that in without cracking a smile. Then he sent me on my way. Did he graciously allow me to back up off the ramp and turn around and continue on to Paducah, 13 miles away? He did not. Instead, he followed me all the way back to Cadiz, adding 26 miles to my trip. When I finally arrived at the motel, there was a red leather Bible on the front desk and a sullen Christian behind it. When I looked out my window at the gas station directly across the road, there was a state trooper's car parked there. There was a state trooper's car there pretty much all night. It was spooky. It was weird. I didn't relax until I crossed the Illinois state line the following morning and mercifully reentered the North.
"Thank God I'm back in a free state!" I whispered to myself.
All this happened one night last spring when I was driving from New York to California, taking the roundabout route through the heart of Dixie. It was an unnerving experience, demeaning and infuriating. But once I'd cleared the Illinois state line and thought back on it, I had to admit that Ma Nuit Chez Paducah had not been a complete waste. For the truth is, if you drive 4,700 miles across the United States wending your way through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky and you don't get pulled over by a state trooper for some imaginary road infraction on a deserted stretch of highway late at night, you really haven't gotten your money's worth.
I did not start driving until I was 51. I have no idea why. Several years ago, Gentleman's Quarterly paid me $10,000 to write a story about learning to drive. It took me two years to complete the assignment, and only after repeated threats. In the course of researching the story I was sure I would finally learn why I'd never mastered a skill that everyone else possessed. But I never did. Some people are just plum lazy.
People who do not start driving until they are 51 immediately become the drivers they would have been had they been behind the wheel since the age of 16. Like most men, I am an aggressive driver. I drive fast, though not in Kentucky. I love to use my horn. I scream at people who cut me off, and I overtake the vermin who capriciously overtake me. And as soon as I got my licence, I started thinking about embarking on that most mythical of journeys and driving all the way across the United States.
The transcontinental voyage is a trek that all red-blooded Americans dream of making. Driving from coast to coast provides a psychic link with Lewis and Clarke, the pioneers in their prairie schooners, Jack Kerouac, the beloved tune "Route 66". Any American who tells you that he has not dreamt of driving across America is a liar or a commie. It's like being a Muslim who doesn't care one way or the other whether he ever gets to Mecca.
People devise all kinds of itineraries for traversing the United States. Some are determined to visit every state capital or president's tomb. Others want to visit every baseball park, an insanely stupid idea because the only stadiums worth visiting are Wrigley Field in Chicago, Fenway Park in Boston, and maybe Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, not because the stadium's any great shakes to look at it but because of its mythology (to Yankee fans, the worst human beings since the Huns, it's the Taj Mahal; to everyone else, it's Gestapo headquarters). A famous American pundit once wrote a bestseller describing baseball stadiums as "green cathedrals". This is an example of America at its most fatuous.
My initial itinerary was determined by weather considerations. Because northerners of my age group still view the South as a mysterious backwoods filled with gun-toting rustics who will sodomise us if given half a chance, there is a reluctance to drive through the Deep South alone. But I was determined to make the trip by myself, if only to be alone with my thoughts, which neither my wife nor my kids wanted to be with anyway.
Unfortunately, the day before I was set to leave, 25 inches of snow fell on Nebraska, so that meant a trek across the heartland of America was out. Instead, I headed south to Gettysburg, where the Confederates lost all hope of winning the civil war, then down to Washington, DC, in whose environs the civil war's first battle was fought, and then straight south through Virginia, where most of the civil war was fought and all the great generals were born. This leg of the trip culminated in South Carolina, which provided the intellectual fervour and philosophical lunacy behind the Confederacy's secession, and Georgia, which General Sherman burned to the ground in the late stages of the war.
Just as you cannot visit Berlin without constantly being reminded of Hitler, you cannot visit the South without constantly being reminded of what is referred to below the Mason-Dixon Line as "the Lost Cause". The North has no real psychological connection with 19th-century American history because people in the North only care about real estate and tax evasion. But, from the time you leave New York until the time you arrive in Colorado, you are constantly reminded of how recently the civil war was fought and how important a part it continues to play in American political life. The South has never forgotten the war it lost; the North does not even think about the war it won, having won several other wars since then. The one thing the North and the South do have in common is their common refusal to admit that race relations in 2006, just like race relations in 1861, is the single greatest moral issue confronting the nation.
You can skip a lot of the War of Northern Aggression fetishism if you motor straight through Virginia and the Carolinas along the Blue Ridge Parkway. One of the great things about driving across America is the chance to verify which myths are true and which are false. Yes, the Blue Ridge Mountains are blue. No, the heartbreaking song "Shenandoah" has nothing to do with Virginia's enchanting Shenandoah Valley; it eulogises the Shenandoah river in Missouri. No, the Wide Missouri is not especially wide. Yes, there is a gigantic replica of the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee. No, the Grand Ole Opry is not a populist temple to be revered; it is an antiseptic plastic theme park that ought to be paved over. Yes, there is a monument dedicated to The Eagles in Winslow, Arizona, simply because the lads happened to once mention the town in their MOR hit "Take It Easy". Yes, there is even a girl, my lord, in a flatbed Ford slowing down to take a look at me. However, the girl is a mannequin. And so on and so forth.
Charleston, where the first shots of the civil war were fired, is not to be missed: it's New Orleans without the astronomical murder rate. The same is true of Savannah, a town so old and genteel it actually evokes the Revolutionary War and not the civil war. Once I reached Nashville, I was sorely tempted to head due south-west and revisit Memphis, one of the few mid-sized American cities that is actually fun (Graceland, paddlewheelers, Beale Street, Sun Studios). When Elvis Presley returned from his military service in Germany in the late Fifties, he was asked what he most missed about Memphis. "Everything," he replied.
But tornadoes were ripping through Tennessee and adjacent Arkansas during my trip, carrying off houses and taking numerous lives, and Arkansas and the Dust Bowl are no picnic in the best of times, so I decided to swing north towards St Louis.
St Louis, a city that once aspired to greatness, has long since forsaken those aspirations, but still retains a vestigial grandeur, evident to those of us who genuinely love cities. Best known as the home of the Budweiser Brewing Company, which concocts the swill that passes for lager on these shores, the city sits on the Mississippi river, and is notable for a handful of imperial 19th-century buildings erected by proud burghers determined to show that civilisation had indeed arrived west of the Big Muddy.
The St Louis Art Museum, whose entrance is fronted by a gigantic statue of an equestrian French saint (Louis XI), is home to the world's largest collection of paintings by Max Beckmann, the peerless German artist who taught at Washington University a generation ago. Unlike museums in New York, Paris, London and even Boston, the St Louis Museum is one of these jewels that provides all the more pleasure not only because its charms are somewhat unexpected, but because it is not teeming with the phalanxes of snarky Eurotrash and preening hipsters that have robbed the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim of the sleepy charm they once possessed.
While visiting St Louis, I attended a concert at venerable Powell Auditorium. The St Louis Symphony is a solid second-tier orchestra, headed by the gifted David Robertson, who will one day leave St Louis and take the helm at one of the world's great orchestras. People in St Louis seem to realise this, and are enjoying his provincial hejira as long as they can. While chatting about Robertson's career prospects with the woman sitting next to me I realised that I'd dropped my glasses. Before I knew it, all sorts of smartly dressed women in adjacent rows were scouring the floor for my misplaced property. One even got down on her knees. Triumphantly, a well-dressed woman in her early forties handed them over.
"This would never happen in New York or Philadelphia," I gasped.
"Well, sir, you are in the Midwest."
Though many songs have been written about its being terribly up to date, going about as far as it can go, and about the desperate need of the songwriter to avail himself of the women available there, Kansas City is not an interesting city, so I spent only one night there.
The next morning I drove south-west toward Wichita and then Dodge City, primarily because these cow-towns have magical names that conjure up memories of Gunsmoke and Red River. Along the way I kept passing dodgy tourist attractions. American towns will do just about anything to draw attention to themselves, though these efforts rarely pay off. Springfield, Mo, boasts the largest indoor sporting goods store in the United States. A small town in Kansas purports to have the largest man-made well. Robert E Lee or Jefferson Davis slept in every town from southern Pennsylvania to the Gulf of Mexico. There is an Edgar Allen Poe museum in Baltimore, Philadelphia, the Bronx and a town in upstate New York; the author of "The Raven" apparently died, dead drunk, everywhere. Meteor beds and dinosaur tracks abound throughout the Midwest, and towns usually have some sort of museum that even they know is not worth visiting. Indeed, it is a sad commentary on our times that all sorts of places that are the actual sites of Commanche raids or abolitionist massacres are less well-known than that postage-stamp town in Arizona that was once mentioned in a song by The Eagles.
There is something delightful about the lengths local merchants will go to drum up business. While drifting south toward Wichita, I drove into a vest-pocket burgh that boasted a restaurant offering "Chicago Style Ice Cream". There is no such thing as Chicago Style Ice Cream, it's like calling something West Virginia Style Ratatouille or Stroud Style Pinot Noir. But there is something endearing and sweet about this determination of merchants marooned in the hinterland to gussy up their establishments by devising a geographically improbable link with a city that actually is classy and exciting. The eatery, by the way, had already gone out of business.
Dodge City, Kansas, is the frontier town where Wyatt Earp became famous. Earp and his brothers were only slightly less crooked than the varmints and claim-jumpers they gunned down, and Doc Holliday was an even poorer excuse for a human being, and by the sounds of it, not much of a dentist. (The term "cowboy" originally referred to a specific Cowboy gang of thugs led by one Bill Brosius; they could easily be identified by the red sashes they wore around their legs. The generic term "sodbusters", by contrast, refers to any ole busters of the sod.) Whatever their failings, the Earps were highly effective self-promoters, and have become such a fixture of American mythology that no one in his right mind would dream of crossing the great state of Kansas without stopping in at Dodge City. It would be like visiting Ulan Bator without inquiring about Genghis Khan's lost tomb.
The legendary site of Boot Hill, final resting place for bushwhackers, horse thieves and ornery cusses, Dodge City is one of those refreshingly unsuccessful tourist destinations that never quite got things right. Unlike Gettysburg or Valley Forge or Bull Run or Mount Rushmore, it is not crawling with tourists, at least not while I was there. It's the trap that tourism forgot; seemingly it is only busy in the summer, when kids are out of school, even though the Earps shot people any time of year. On the whole it is somewhat dowdy and nondescript; its principal attractions are a hokey statue of Wyatt Earp himself, which sits not far from Boot Hill, and the Boot Hill Museum.
Boot Hill isn't much of a hill and doesn't seem to be the repository of many boots, and the museum was shuttered the day I visited. One reason that Dodge City is more celebrated as a name than as a tourist destination is because the legendary Gunfight at the OK Corral did not take place there, but in Tombstone, Arizona, several hundred miles to the south. I had sort of let this slip my mind when I first added this out-of-the-way town to my itinerary. The truth is, the only reason I went there was so I could phone my son and say, "I'd love to talk some more, but I gotta get out of Dodge".
Every morning when I glanced at the map and realised that even though I'd already driven 2,200 miles, I was not halfway through my trip, I realised that America is, well, large.
It is impossible to exaggerate the effect of all this real estate on the American psyche. Americans visiting Western Europe feel comforted by the fact that they are never more than 30 miles from a cathedral town, a university, civilisation. This is wonderful. It certainly makes a nice change from South Dakota. Conversely, it means that no one living in civilised Europe can ever get out into the wide open spaces, because Western Europe hasn't had any wide open spaces since the Etruscans left town. This is one reason Europeans left for the New World.
The most remarkable day of my entire trip started in Canon City, Colorado, a small town that sits at the very edge of the Rockies. Canon City is the living, breathing symbol of everything that has gone wrong with small-town America in the past quarter-century. The centre of the town, mostly deserted at night, is the venerable retail district. It looks just swell. But the entrance to Canon City is blighted by Wal-Marts and supermarkets and cheesy fast-food joints and gas stations, and this is where all the action is. Atop the foothills of the Rockies, developers have already planted hideous McMansions, symbols of, well, American hideousness. The contrast between the trash that rings Canon City and the Rockies themselves drives home the point that when humans have ceased to exist and all the Wal-Marts and Chi-Chis have turned to dust, the rest of the continent can go back to being pristine and majestic and unspoiled, the way it was six million years ago. It's a tough nut to swallow, but when mankind is gone, mankind will not be missed.
The Rockies were exactly what I'd expected them to be - spectacular - but I was kind of blindsided by the gator farm I stumbled upon on a plateau out in the middle of nowhere. The farm, operated by canny rustics, was a low-rent affair crawling with African crocodiles and Everglades alligators. The crew also had a few emus on hand. For $50, I was offered a chance to take a crash course in gator-rassling. I declined, leery of the Gator Guy's pedagogic expertise, and not entirely sure I was still on Planet Earth.
After I bid adieu, I visited the strange, anomalous sand dunes that abut the Rockies in southern Colorado, then motored down to Taos. Here I stopped in a coffee bar planted inside a hotel lobby and noticed a sign advertising an exhibition of DH Lawrence's pornographic paintings. The exhibition would set me back three bucks. The attractive woman who doubled as a clerk at the hotel led me into a sort of conference room, pocketed my three singles and then, with a kind of girlish solemnity, drew back a curtain to reveal nine truly obscene, truly hideous paintings.
"They were banned in England," she told me me, noting that Lawrence died in Taos. "What do you think?"
I gave them a good once-over.
"Good thing he didn't have to paint for a living."
Between New York and Los Angeles, I encountered almost no one with attitude, no one with a chip on his shoulder, not even those coffeehouse baristas who are intergalactically renowned for their snarky hostility to middle-aged, middle-class people who don't have to make a living explaining the difference between shade-grown coffee and coffee grown by fascists. There were only a few exceptions, though of them one was in Taos. A 15-year-old white boy sporting earrings, girly tattoos, a reversed baseball cap and inner-city-style baggy jeans jostled me in downtown Taos.
Taos, for the record, is a twee, faux-Olde Coloniale town where you buy overpriced Navajo pottery first and ask questions later. There is not an authentic ghetto within 800 miles of this High Plains Malibu; the youthful "wigger" (white boys who play at being black, sort of like Eminem) was the most pathetic human being I met on my entire trip. But he was still young enough to grow into an even more pathetic adult.
Such unpleasantness was rare. And much as I enjoyed the Mile High crocodiles and the lurid DH Lawrence oil paintings, as I motored west I found myself less and less attracted to man-made marvels and increasingly seduced by the natural splendour engulfing me. Santa Fe is gorgeous and Flagstaff is cute and Sedona is every bit as verdant as I had been led to believe. But it's the highway that's the real attraction; there is something reassuring and uplifting about the vast, open spaces in the south-west. When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Big Easy, the benighted plutocrat George Bush was slow to realise that New Orleans, like New York or Chicago or San Francisco, has a special place in the heart of all Americans; it is a city so beloved that even people who have never been there feel like they already have. The desert wonderland crisscrossed by Route 66 is the same; even if you do not get there until you are 55, you feel that it has been ticking inside your breast all your life. It was always out there if you needed it.
Cruising along Route 66 constantly reminds the traveller of the skewed concept of space that exists in the wide open spaces. Back east, signs read, "Food and Gas: 2 miles". Out west, signs read, "Injun Joe's Jewelry Shop, Subterranean Cavern and Dinosaur Farm, 137 miles". People say, "New York, New York: Sounds so nice they had to name it twice". True. But they only had to name Abilene and Salinas and Cheyenne once. The landscape is dotted with towns whose names are so evocative, so steeped in legend that if you try hard enough you can almost forget how nondescript they are once you get there. I can particularly recall drinking a cup of rancid coffee in a deserted diner in Gallup, New Mexico, gazing out the window at a freight train the length of the Amazon and thinking, "Gallup, New Mexico. Hear that lonesome whistle blow! Now, you're talking!"
Anyone at all familiar with the United States knows that Americans are spectacularly friendly people, an image that is completely distorted by motion pictures and television and magazines like Vanity Fair. Americans are very nice and very fat, but there are a few ground rules that must be observed during a trip across their country. Do not drive in the South at night with out-of-state plates. Do not read the local newspapers, with their phony human interest stories about the wisdom of the common man and their twaddle about the character-building element in high school sports. And you don't want to have the radio on when you drive across the heartland of America, because the only thing you'll hear is some fatso pill-popper insisting that things are going really well in Iraq, if only the liberal media would stop lying about it, and of course, lots of stuff about Jesus.
Born-again Christians have always repelled me, not only because they are so flamboyantly corny compared with Jews, Roman Catholics, Buddhists and basilisk worshippers, but because for folks who act as if they on a first-name basis with the Good Shepherd, they seem mighty confused about his message. In Washington, DC, I watched as a generic slob in a gargantuan SUV backed into my rental car and scratched the fender. He didn't know I was watching him. Seeking to avoid a direct confrontation, but determined to bust his porky chops, I pulled out my pen and paper and ostentatiously wrote down his licence number.
"I didn't scratch your car," he said.
"Yes, you did," I replied.
"It was the guy before me."
"There was no guy before you," I shot back. "Besides, I saw you."
"I didn't scratch your car," he insisted. "Anyway, I can't even see a scratch." Then he and his swamp-trash Jezebel waddled off, though he did look back over his shoulder once or twice, probably expecting me to scratch his car. In fact, I was in a forgiving mood that afternoon and ready to let him get off scot-free when I happened to notice a decal on his front fender reading "The Legend of the Christian Fish". Uh-oh: a hardcore, Darwin-bashing born-again. That tore it. So I wrote him a nasty note which I stuck under his windshield:
Dear Mr Scumbag:
The next time you decide to back into somebody's car, don't lie about. If you truly accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, you know that Jesus wouldn't back up into somebody's car and then pretend he hadn't. Neither would St Paul or Mary Magdalene. Jesus is not a liar, and he can probably park better than you. I am reporting you to my insurance company as well as to God because you are a bad driver, a bad Christian, and a bad American.
Then, for good measure, I took out my key and scratched his car.
When I returned from my trip I adopted an almost evangelical determination to exhort everyone I knew to do exactly the same thing. Now that I have accomplished it, I honestly believe that you cannot appreciate the United States without traversing it by car, and that anyone who has the opportunity to drive from New York to California and does not capitalise on this opportunity has wasted his or her life and should never have been born.
Every once in a while, someone will talk about the one that got away. I felt something like this after driving across America. The experience was like discovering on your deathbed that you are deeply in love with someone everybody else already knew you were deeply in love with back in grade school. Motoring down Route 66, with Joan Jett cranked up really loud, one feels like the prince who has come into possession of his kingdom. Just as rubes want to make at least one trip to New York City just to see if The Big Apple is as fabulous as they say it is, urbanites like me want to see if the Grand Canyon is as deep as reported, if you really can sit on top of Old Smoky, if there really is a Petrified Forest, if there really is a replica of the Eiffel Tower in Nevada. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus and there is a replica of the Eiffel Tower in Vegas. As I once wrote in Forbes, Las Vegas is the sort of place only Americans could have invented, an artificial Gommorah proving that just because something is stupid doesn't mean it's not a good idea.
Standing on Santa Monica pier, one of my three favourite places in America, at the very end of my trip, I reflected on some of the most memorable moments from my adventure. The German-American café selling wiener schnitzel and sacher torte in the middle of the Arizona desert. The gator boys up in the Rockies. The white stretch limo 20 miles outside Dodge, which I thought was an hallucination out of Bunuel, but which turned out to be delivering ploughboys to their high-school prom in the town the Earps made famous. The heavy weirdness down the road from Paducah. The plump Navajo jewelry designer sitting on the rim of the Grand Canyon who, when I asked her if she enjoyed living in the Rockies all year round, replied, "Actually, I kind of like Miami."
On 12 September, 2001, the day after the World Trade Centre got blown up, my 17-year-old daughter and I took the train into Manhattan and spent the entire day visiting our favourite places. The Apollo. Harlem Meer. The Conservatory Gardens. Central Park. The Met. Ray's Pizza. St Patrick's Cathedral. The Frick. Rockefeller Center. Times Square. Lincoln Centre. Macy's. The Empire State Building. Greenwich Village. It was our way of paying homage to our wounded city.
I now believe that a trip across America serves an identical purpose. Whatever objective entices us at first - the Grand Canyon, Custer Battlefield, the Alamo, Hollywood Boulevard - the odyssey's real objective is not merely to see it all, but to pay tribute to it all. A trip across America puts one back in contact with the mythical America that the rest of the world knows and loves, not the dark, cruel America devised by Donald Rumsfeld and MTV.
It's the America of motel rooms shaped like teepees, aeroplane landing strips in the back yards of trailer camps, all-night truck stops the size of Buenos Aires. It's the America of geriatric motorcycle gangs, roller-coasters on top of skyscrapers, UFO museums in wheatfields no decent alien would be seen dead in. It's the America of ice-cream emporiums called Custard's Last Stand, miniature golf courses that stretch from here to the Arctic Circle, all-night diners staffed by surly waitresses who smell of nicotine, last cracked a smile during the Truman administration, and pronounce à la mode "allah-modey". It's the relaxed, convivial, come-as-you-are America that politicians and lobbyists and oil company executives and talk-show hosts and serial killers and hipsters and magazine editors can neither understand nor annihilate, no matter what combination of contempt, cynicism, cupidity and condescension they resort to.
It's the America that is written in the human heart, a place that neither Dick Cheney nor Madonna nor Jerry Springer nor Sacha Baron Cohen has ever been. But maybe you had to be there to appreciate it.
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