The End of Traveling the American Road

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.

Traveling the American Road – Venice Beach: End of the Road

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.

A Grand Tour of the American West

I could see the end of my road trip, on the other side of the deserts of the American Southwest, the sun-parched stretch of near nothingness that conceals some of the country’s greatest natural wonders. So after leaving Spaceport America in New Mexico, I prepared for a ironman push to the West Coast, my ultimate destination Los Angeles. Along the way, I’d stop at the Four Corners and the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas and probably some dusty, God-forsaken gas station in the middle of a field of rock and scrub and little else. It was going to be a long drive but, weirdly, I was excited.

Traveling the American Road – Road Trip Destiny Made Manifest

I found the Four Corners, the intersection of Arizona and Colorado and New Mexico and Utah, down a short dusty road on Navajo land just outside Teec Nos Pos, Arizona. It is, inarguably, one of the most touristy places I’d seen on the entire trip: There’s next to nothing here but for some trinket stands and a photo op, standing or sitting a paved circular monument to geographic coincidence, the only place in the country where visitors can touch four states at once.

Which isn’t to say people weren’t enjoying it. A group of Italians were riding on each others’ shoulders, getting unique angles for their pictures. A couple was visiting with her parents, each standing in a different state. Young kids were by turns bashful and brash, forced into photos their parents will one day look back on fondly only to be disappointed when the then-teenagers deny any recollection of the time the family went to the Four Corners.

As I walked back to the car, another group of Italians was having a loud conversation when one woman’s cell phone rang. “Pronto?” she asked as she answered, taking a call from the homeland as she photographed her friends standing on the spot we all came to see.

At the Grand Canyon, I worried that I’d find more of the same, a promise of greatness tempered by an ultimately disappointing monument. How wrong I was: Seeing the striated canyon formed by the Colorado river was a multi-layered pleasure, unfolding as I took in the views from the South Rim, stopping at turnouts along the road to take panoramas while standing on the roof of my SUV. One woman asked me to snap a photo for her, as long as I was up there.

The canyon changed not just in space but in time too, as I watched the sunset turn the rocks deeper and deeper hues of orange. As the shadows lengthened, the gorges in the distance turned purple and blue and finally black. Cameras lined the canyon rim, but I was happy to simply enjoy the sunset, trying to mentally catalog all the colors rather than capture them with my SLR. After nine weeks on the road, furiously photographing my trip, it was a luxury to simply enjoy the view.

In the morning, after the haze had burned off, I struck camp and set out for Las Vegas, the final waypoint before the end of my journey. But I was more interested in a nearby sight than any neon magic on The Strip: The Hoover Dam, a man-made wonder from an era of economic uncertainty financed by massive public spending. The art deco masterpiece is less than an hour from the biggest casinos in Las Vegas, but it’s also a four-hour haul through the Arizona desert.

There’s little to see until you speed across the Mike O’Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, when the canyon walls fall away and reveal the concrete monolith. Though walking across the top of the dam is quite pleasant, I prefer the view from the bridge, opened in October 2010 as a traffic bypass. A pedestrian-friendly walkway along its north edge provides a fantastic platform for photography–and contemplation of what extraordinary taxpayer spending and sacrifice can accomplish.

Dirt-Road Driving To Explore Spaceport America

In the wilderness of New Mexico, set in the dry, scrubby desert under a crystalline pale blue sky, is a construction site with a bombastic and cartoonish name, incomplete but already a monument to the hubris of interstellar exploration or maybe to tax-payer financed public-private partnerships of indeterminate future success.

Spaceport America, a beautiful collection of Googie-inspired hangars and control centers at the foot of the San Andres Mountains, will soon be the fully operational home of Virgin Galactic, the Richard Branson-backed tourism concern that plans to shoot rich people into sub-orbital space for $200,000 a ride.

The Spaceport could be the next Cape Canaveral, drawing tourists and geeks to see the future of manned (and unmanned) American space exploration. It could be a massive government boondoggle, a wasted $209 million investment that never pays back the people of New Mexico who financed its construction. Or it could be something entirely different. So I drove north out of Las Cruces to see it for myself.

Traveling the American Road – Spaceport America

My guide for the trip, David Wilson, a spokesman for the Spaceport, met me early in the morning in Las Cruces, before the sun started pummeling southern New Mexico with heat. In the cool air, refueling our SUVs before the trek into the desert, he filled me in on the back story of the Spaceport.

With open airspace and rocket scientists aplenty–White Sands Missile Range is just 30 minutes from Las Cruces–the Spaceport is seen by boosters as a job-creation engine in a state badly in need of high-paying, high-tech jobs. As a launch facility, the Spaceport has already hosted 13 rocket launches, even as construction continues on the main terminal, where Virgin Galactic will run its consumer-friendly show.

David and I drive north, turning off the interstate onto an improved dirt road toward Upham, New Mexico, a whistle stop ghost town that’s still on maps, despite having been abandoned by its few residents. We ford mud holes, drive through ranches, steer around cattle and eventually roll up to a guard shack that looks like something out of X-Files. There are a few high clouds in the sky and the heat is already building as our names are ticked off a very imposing clipboard.

Visitor badges in hand, we drive down to the apron, in awe of the main Foster + Partners terminal, in glass and hand-formed steel, cut to mimic the landscape, its pre-weathered finish looking like Richard Serra sculpture turned architectural element. David walks me through the site, where visitors can watch Virgin astronauts prepping for missions, where launch commanders will monitor spaceflights, where offices of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority will soon be located, where the fuel dump sits, isolated safely off in the distance, nowhere near the multi-million dollar 10,000-foot runway that could service the Space Shuttle, if it still flew.

It feels small, this place in the desert where grand dreams are soon meant to thrive. It’s certainly more intimate than Kennedy Space Center, where many spectators–myself included–consider themselves lucky to be 10 miles from the launch pad. But can it, and its silly name, really inspire us the way JFK and Alan Shepard and the Saturn V and the Space Shuttle did?

NASA administrator Charles Bolden says his agency is committed “to continuing human spaceflight and taking the necessary–and difficult–steps to ensure America’s leadership in human spaceflight for years to come.” But Spaceport America, almost complete and planning its first manned Virgin Galactic spaceflight, asks us if the private sector can do it better. They just need a $209 million investment from New Mexico to get off the ground.

Getting Weird Where Time Stands Still: Marfa, Texas

“I’ve been here about a year and a half,” says my tour guide, a young yoga instructor who also works at this art museum on the grounds of a former army base in Marfa, Texas. “It feels longer.”

Marfa is like that. Pulled from obscurity by the Chinati Foundation, an art museum started by contemporary sculptor Donald Judd, it’s now a tiny raft of a town in the sea of the high desert of West Texas, an island of civilization where you can buy feed for your livestock around the block from a gourmet grilled cheese shop.

This October will be the 25th anniversary of the creation of Chinati. With the occasion comes some perspective on what’s changed and what remains the same here in Marfa, where time seems to move more slowly than the puffy cotton clouds dotting the deep blue canvas of the giant Texas sky.

Traveling the American Road – Marfa, Texas

Marfa continues to boom. El Cosmico is the second hotel from the owner of Thunderbird, if you can really call it a hotel. It’s more a hippie RV park, with refurbed trailers for rent, yurts and teepees and, when those sell out, space for tents. There’s a hammock grove, in the shade, where architects play euchre, weighing down the cards with wooden pieces from a chess set. (Chess is too cerebral, I think, for people hanging out in hammock groves.) The showers and toilets are open to the air.

Miniature Rooster is a new restaurant along the main drag of Highway 90, with fantastic curry, steak and chicken and waffles. Run by two business partners who met at The Inn at Little Washington–another awesome kitchen in the middle of nowhere–Uday Huja moved to Marfa from Las Vegas to open with his friend Rocky Barnette, a native of Asheville who’d already staked a claim in West Texas.

Anagrammatically named coffee shop Frama is next to the only laundromat in town, Tumbleweed, a small operation just around the corner from Padre’s, a dark bar set in a former feed store with an outstanding game selection, everything from air hockey to Pac Man, and an old-time juke box with rock and funk hits for the times when live acts aren’t in the house.

But it’s not all hip spots here: Marfa Burritos is a small kitchen where Border Patrol agents, plumbers and travel writers sit around tables protected by clear plastic tablecloths to devour tortillas filled with beans, steak and hot sauce for $4 a pop.

On a Friday night, “everyone” is out, hitting bars like Padres and Planet Marfa, catching bands, playing pool and ladder golf. A 24-hour play festival is on, too, with teams working through the night to conceive, write, rehearse and execute seven-minute productions. They’ll hit the stage on Saturday night, after I’ve already left for points west.

In the morning, I see the weekend thespians out by the rail tracks, practicing lines under the farmer’s market canopy, just a short walk from the grain elevator, the Paisano Hotel and the silver water tower, looking like stage dressing from a backlot parked here to lend the authentic feel of a West Texas whistle stop. The tower, stamped with MARFA in black, is the tallest building in town.

A Short Break From The Road In Oklahoma City

Seeing the recovery underway in Joplin, Missouri was an end point to a chapter of my trip. I’d done the Great Lakes, the East Coast, the South and, now, the Midwest. As I drove out of Missouri, the great expanse of the West loomed, a monstrous stretch of America to cover in the less than two weeks that remained in my trip.

I wasn’t looking forward to it. After eight weeks in the car, on the road, sleeping on floors, in tents, in anonymous hotel rooms and cozy bed and breakfasts, I could feel the end of the trip creeping closer, my end goal of Los Angeles in sight, if more than 2,000 miles away by the sinuous route I’d plotted. But first, I’d spend the night in Oklahoma City.

Traveling the American Road – Oklahoma City Baseball

After passing through Tulsa, with a quick stop for lunch at the Dilly Deli and coffee at DoubleShot, it was on to Oklahoma City. Like Atlanta, it’s a place much changed since the ’90s, when Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people with a truck bomb at the Murrah Federal Building. A beautiful and contemplative memorial to the dead now marks the site, its reflecting pool shimmering in the scorching August heat.

In the sixteen years since the attack, the downtown neighborhood of Bricktown has developed into the city’s preeminent nightlife and entertainment district. Anchoring it, at least for someone fascinated by baseball as a cultural touchstone, is RedHawks Field at Bricktown, the home of the Houston Astro’s AAA affiliate club. I was determined to see a game despite the triple-digit heat and bought a $15 ticket that would park me right behind the home team’s on-deck circle. I was in the second row.

I didn’t know it at the time, but it would turn out to be the last ballgame of the trip. There was too much road to cover, too much to see in Texas and New Mexico and the vast spaces of the American Southwest. It was a bittersweet game, this last minor league battle, a sign that my trip would soon be over, even if I had thousands of miles yet to go.