Legendary American travel writer Paul Theroux took a roadtrip through his own country and wrote about it beautifully in this month's Smithsonian magazine. Discovering America by car is not exactly virgin territory journalistically speaking — see Steinbeck, Kerouac — but Theroux still manages to refresh our understanding of this beautiful place.
My favorite sentence is, "Listening to music while driving through a lovely landscape is one of life's great mood enhancers" and my favorite paragraph is his last:
A trip abroad, any trip, ends like a movie—the curtain drops and then you're home, shut off. But this was different from any trip I'd ever taken. In the 3,380 miles I'd driven, in all that wonder, there wasn't a moment when I felt I didn't belong; not a day when I didn't rejoice in the knowledge that I was part of this beauty; not a moment of alienation or danger, no roadblocks, no sign of officialdom, never a second of feeling I was somewhere distant—but always the reassurance that I was home, where I belonged, in the most beautiful country I'd ever seen.
That's high praise coming from a man who's spent 40 years traversing the globe. And of course, I agree.
My 2007 roadtrip — Colorado to Boston to San Francisco — taught me that the American west's beauty continues to be underrated by almost everyone, but especially east coast city dwellers and foreigners who've never heard of Utah (the most beautiful state in the union). That driving can be a flow-inducing activity. That assembling the MP3 playlist for a long drive is half the fun. That every male ought to pee off the side of a deserted highway in the middle of nowhere, and every American ought to dine at a trucker's cafe in Nebraska and order the house pie with a side of milk.
Here is a touching video of school children singing "Pictures of You" by The Cure. Here's a surprisingly poignant video of ordinary moments.
7 comments on “The Great American Roadtrip”
I took my daughter to the train station the other day for a trip she was taking to visit a friend for a few days in another state and I complimented her on her back pack which was a very interesting, large, old fashioned style that you do not see too often. She said it was her “possibility bag”. Upon inquiry she explained that when she goes camping, in addition to packing what she knows she will need, she also packs for possibilities (e.g., rain, thirst, sun, hunger, darkness, getting lost, bugs) so now, whatever the environment, she tries to pack for what could possibly happen.
I replied that I try to do the exact same thing in my head – be ready for possibility – and I spend a lot of time packing my brain with the things I may need when I go out – flexibility, some humor, curiosity – all the stuff I can think of that might be needed at any given moment. Sometimes I am well provisioned, other times (too many) I totally left the bag at home.
Imagine what it’s like to see a door in front of you that you never saw before. You have no idea what is on the other side of the door but you and a group of people you do not know are standing there and all agree “lets open it, walk through and see what happens”. So you open the door. You are now all on the other side standing there together, tentative, taking small steps, exploring a new place, meeting new people who have also walked through their doors and all the time working hard and talking about it – how are we doing, how can we do this better, what does it mean?
And there you all are; exploring, and sweating, and worrying, and working and maybe even freaking out but always (above all) caring. And then it’s time to go back. But amazingly the door you walked through does not close behind you when you leave. It’s still open, maybe not as wide open as when you were there but still there remains this new place inside you that is also newly opened. And maybe when you first go back home it takes a few days to get used to being back on the other side of the door again. Or maybe you spend a few days wandering around, keeping the door open and running into other people on the same road and you talk to them and recognize in each other this thing that has happened: that you packed your bag of possibilities, walked through a door you knew nothing about and explored with a group of young people (everyone is young (no matter how old they are) when they go through the door).
The insight gained from the trip and what it meant to be part of a team? – That there are doors everywhere – could be across the globe, could be in your living room. Go through the door and you will always come back the better for it.
Warmly – Rough Fractals.
Good Evening Ben,
Now I can access it, and I love it!
Our whole North American continent is beautiful…from the Canadian Rockies to the prairies of the US to Mexico’s beaches… I’ve traveled all three countries extensively and there are no words to describe the experience…our continent is so rich in natural beauty, history, culture that I don’t understand why more people don’t take advantage of this and take more vacations locally
Thanks for that – I drove 3,000 miles during a summer in college alone along the coasts of US (Colorado > LA > San Diego > Texas >along the southern coast > Florida > up to NY along the eastern coast > back to Colorado).
To this day, it’s one of the most amazing things I’ve done – and I never regretted it.
I also felt very connected to home while I was thousands of miles away. Driving vs flying is almost like taking the stairs vs the elevator.
When the distance is internalized it seems to bring a sense of awareness and closeness to the land.
I love the stairs vs. elevator image…
I’m surprised how little people explore even their home state. I’ve been living in Illinois for 6 years and have come to really appreciate the beauty of the flat farmland and prairie along the route to St. Louis (which I travel a lot with my wife to visit her family). Yet, twice this year I have seen completely different aspects of the state from the craggy cliffs I climbed in southern Illinois with my brothers in law to the rolling farmland dotted with red barns in northern Illinois. (Imagine the wonder of driving through fields of mint: awesome). All this and I have yet to visit some of the more famous natural beauty spots in the state.
Post the playlist!