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By Car Is the Only Way to See the Real U.S.A.

September 01, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

It is 7 o'clock on a delicious summer morning, and I sit alongside an exuberant mountain stream in the Colorado Rockies, marveling at the wonders this country has to offer. I have a thermos of coffee and a sweet roll picked up at an Aspen bakery, and I am at peace. I am seeing the United States for the two-dozenth--maybe more, I don't know--time the only real way it can be seen: by automobile.

I am on my way back to my 50th high school reunion in Indiana, and I'm leaving early enough to wander the countryside to explore a few new places, but most of all to rediscover old ones.

The awesome Virgin River Canyon in northern Arizona that tells me I'm finally leaving the gambling casinos ("97.7% slots; two-deck 21") of Nevada behind and heading into the real world:

The town park in Cedar City, Utah, where I unfold my deck chair and read the morning paper with a cup of cardboard coffee and watch the town come alive. The roadside rest out of Beaver, Utah--the first one with trees--where I can take a nap under the watchful eye of the ocher canyon formations that surround me. Johnson's Truck Stop out of Palisade, Colo., where the hash browns are succulent. These and so many more. Old friends all. I haven't seen them for two years, but they seem unchanged, stable reference points in a volatile universe.

A fair number of people say to me when I take off on these journeys, "You must be out of your mind to even think about driving across Kansas in 100-degree heat in August." I only wish they might have been with me at dusk last evening, driving an almost deserted Utah highway, watching the sun set resplendently behind me, and listening to Brahms and Dvorak--only romantics; no Mozart or Bach--on my tape deck. On second thought, I'm glad they weren't with me.

There's nothing quite so demanding to the psyche as driving alone across the deserts of Nevada, the canyon land of Utah or the plains of Kansas. You can't avoid yourself. There are no ball games on the radio to divert your head; just a steady diet of--to me, unlistenable--country music. The countryside is frequently majestic, but you feel rather than see it. So there's no alternative to turning thought processes loose--something we can pretty much avoid in the press of our everyday work life.

I have to condition myself to thinking--warm up the same way I do on a tennis court. Contemplative skills can get rusty when they aren't used; they have to be unpacked and oiled and stretched. I also have to learn all over again to let my thinking roam where it will instead of holding it under the tight, well-ordered discipline normal to me. And I have to let go of the need to think Great Thoughts in this idyllic setting. Most of my thoughts are little thoughts. Some are painful. They dart and zoom like the wasp who now explores me, but the process is exhilarating.

The cascading water helps that process. There's something wonderfully life-giving about a mountain stream. Its course is always steadily and cheerfully forward. It bends and twists and shapes itself to the contours of its bed without guilt. When it hits an obstacle, it pounds away at it relentlessly for a while, then shrugs, backs off, goes around it and picks up its pace again on the other side. And that pace is always so full of zest--the way life can and should be tasted. Maybe this is giddy, but that's what mountain streams do to me.

I find it also healthy and energizing to touch briefly the lives of people far from home base, to do a kind of sampler of the enormous range of Americans out there. This society is in such deep trouble that it has become easy to sink into despair. But I always come back from these trips full of hope that somehow we'll muddle through. The people I meet give that to me.

Yesterday, the woman proprietor of a small variety store in Cedar City chased me halfway across an adjacent parking lot to tell me I had overpaid her a dollar and to give it back to me. A few minutes ago in a campground parking area, a young boy of perhaps 7 or 8 clad in a Denver Bronco T-shirt stood solemnly watching a middle-aged man unpack hiking gear from his trunk. The child couldn't make out the license plate and asked the man where he was from. The man told him "Minnesota" and asked if he knew where that was. The child shook his head, so the man tried again, explaining it was where the football team played in the big dome. "Oh," said the child, beaming, "you mean the Vikings"--and a dialogue was established.

These vignettes are played out everywhere I stop, and it has awakened a truth in me. I'm headed back to my roots in Indiana, but sitting beside this mountain stream, I realize that all these places are my roots, too. This whole country. I commend it to you. By car.

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