It was a dumb idea, yet so simple there was a certain inevitability about it.
When my son Alex was 18, we were so inspired by "Road Fever," Tim Cahill's book on his record-setting drive from South America's Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic, that we sought some similarly impressive challenge. We devised a road trip through all the 48 contiguous states, charting and plotting and mapping an 8,000-mile counterclockwise course. We would aim high. We would go for a record.
Then reality crept in. The more we contemplated the map, the more we realized this wouldn't be fun; this would be insane. The maps went back in the drawer.
Five years went by and then five more. Alex grew up, got married and moved from our Hawaii home to the mainland. He was in Wisconsin, and the dream was on the back burner.
It simmered there, quietly. Maybe its ridiculousness kept it alive, but I still wanted to do it. And--to my satisfaction and surprise--so did Alex. He suggested coming with me--at least part of the way. Out came the map. This time, though, we decided it would be just--just!--a road trip, no record attempt. We'd get out on the open highway, step on the gas and see America first, if very, very quickly. When Jordan Kramer, an old friend from San Francisco, agreed to tag along for another leg, it was no longer a question. It was time to get this show on the road.
"The road is life," Jack Kerouac wrote. That may be an overstatement for others but not for me. I love the road. Always have. Never mind that I moved to Hawaii, where a road trip resembles a dog chasing its tail.
It's intoxicating to charge the horizon wearing a car like a comfortable suit of clothes. Some deride being sealed in a highway-bound projectile, but to me it brings the near-hypnotic hum of the tires, the splendid sense of isolation, removal from the mundane and routine, insulation from responsibility and time for reflection, not to mention an excuse to eat bad food.
Let the good times roll, I said, and they did. Mostly. For our long-anticipated American odyssey, I rented a big four-door Chrysler with unlimited mileage. Now that we weren't trying to break records, we decided to take periodic breaks. This was a road trip, not an endurance contest, so I planned to average 600 miles a day, sleep in a bed every night and take some two- and three-day rests. The route was simple, resembling a smaller version of the U.S. profile.
Jordan would join me first. We decided to fly into Las Vegas last September and start from there. There was no better metaphor for America than this anomaly in the desert, no better foil than a town so sincerely and meticulously phony (in the best sense of that word), so outwardly unlike the rest of America, yet nonetheless an avatar of the American tourist dream.
The night before departure, Jordan and I toasted our journey over a steak and frites dinner at that uniquely American institution, Paris Las Vegas. I realized that by the time I finished the trip and was back home, I would have seen every state but Alaska. I would be a 49er.
At 6 the next morning we were off. Steppenwolf's "Born To Be Wild" blared from the car speakers, as it would every day of our trip:
Get your motor runnin'
Head out on the highway
Lookin' for adventure
And whatever comes our way.
Within three minutes, we were lost.
Crestfallen, we regained our bearings and headed south through the Mojave Desert for California and our first state line. U.S. 95 plunged 100 miles to overheated Needles and the Colorado River. Interstate 40 beckoned, but we preferred the time warp of Arizona's old Route 66, passing through Kingman, longtime home of cowboy actor Andy Devine, countless trailers and the lonely high desert. Survivalist country.
Desert gradually dissolved into grasslands and the Coconino National Forest of Arizona, but the wide-open spaces ran out when we ran up against a two-mile traffic jam approaching Grand Canyon National Park. Still, it was an easy first day--376 miles--because I wanted to break Jordan in gently.
The scenery on day 2 was spectacular. There were plenty of treasures hidden in the Southwest's big empty, but we rarely succumbed to temptation, jetting through Navajo and Hopi reservations, save for a stop at the Kayenta Burger King, unassuming home to a World War II code talkers exhibit. U.S. 160 provided a dazzling but ultimately depressing light show, with miles of broken beer and liquor bottles glistening like diamonds in the morning sun.
Utah's Monument Valley, locus of all my favorite John Ford westerns, was calling, but we settled for a stop at nearby Goulding's Trading Post, which straddles the Utah-Arizona line, before heading to Colorado.