It takes a long time to drive 9698.8 miles, no matter how fast you’re going. This summer, it took me more than 246 hours behind the wheel to log the distance, for a pace of just under 40 miles per hour. At times, I crawled along much more slowly, inching my way through Chicago traffic jams or creeping back to Orlando in stop-and-go bottlenecks after the launch of STS-135. On the empty highways of West Texas, I drove much faster, doing 80 or 85 or 90 and watching for speed traps as if seeing them would absolve my moving violations. Once, I borrowed a car and drove more than 122 miles an hour.
But by a different measure, my trip across America was gruelingly slow: It took me 10 weeks to touch 30 states, stopping in small towns and big cities and backwaters and enclaves and barrier islands and riverside hamlets. I was moving so slowly I could barely intuit the subtle changes in the barbecue as I inched down the Eastern Seaboard and along the Gulf Coast, only to realize, suddenly, in Abilene, Texas, that I was eating brisket and not pork and my God every one of the pit masters whose handicraft I’ve sampled this summer has done this differently.
It’s often said that driving across America helps you realize we’re really all the same. That Americans share a common vision and a common culture, with regional specialties but an overarching dedication to the same grand ideas. That no matter our conflicts, deep down we all want the same thing and are willing to work toward the goal. That we all like baseball and open spaces and the right to self-determination.
Maybe that’s true, but my trip showed me that we’re all incredibly different. Moving at less than 40 miles per hour, I had the chance to suss out the stories of the dozens of places I spent the night. Not the whole story, of course, but a piece of it. An example: I found Boston in a frenzy for its beloved hockey team, victorious over a team from Vancouver whose fans proved this summer to be more stereotypically Bostonian in their athletic bloodlust than those who celebrated in newly crowned Title Town. The hometown pride would find an analog in Marfa, but from what I saw there, it’s unlikely a shirtless drunken fan would stumble alongside a victory parade if one were ever held in a gentlemanly Texas town of 2,000.
For every town where innovation and entrepreneurship seemed to lead the way forward out of recession, there was another, depressed place that may be broken beyond repair. More likely, the truth is somewhere in between, like it was in Mobile, where a working port, a bustling nightlife scene and huge tourism incomes were tempered by a mayoral press conference I stumbled upon, addressing the scourge of violent crime downtown with small broken windows-inspired fixes whose efficacy is yet to be seen.
Ten weeks is a long time to be away from home. As I moved across the map, I was moving through my own clock but also the nation’s. The baseball season was underway, providing a cultural touchstone no matter where I found myself. The Space Shuttle era came to an end. I left home on Memorial Day; by the time I returned, it was almost Labor Day. My summer was both interminable and ephemeral, a dream trip I began to forget as soon as I spent the first night back in my own bed.
It was a lost summer and a wonderful one.