As Oggi and I sped through the cactus-spiked wilderness of southeast Arizona, I reflected that more than a quarter-century had passed since my first cross-country road trip. And from behind the wheel on Interstate 10, it was surprising how little had changed visually from the summer of 1988 — when my parents took my sister and me on a three-week odyssey from Phoenix to Connecticut.
To traverse America by car is to understand, in a visceral way, the vastness of our land. In the time it takes to speed through three European countries, you can spend all day in the Southwestern desert, with only subtle variations on a landscape of mesas and canyons to mark your progress.
Exits whizz by in a homogenized blur of chains: Mobil, McDonald’s, Target. But if you drive long enough and pay attention, you glean a new appreciation of America’s regionalism — and I’m not just talking about how you can’t find In-and-Out Burger in Rhode Island, or Dunkin’ Donuts in Los Angeles (funny how “America Runs On Dunkin,” is its slogan, yet it’s still far more common in Europe than west of the Mississippi).
In New England, white-clapboard churches, town greens and place names like Falmouth and Manchester-by-the-Sea remind us of settlers from the old England. The first Waffle House you pass along I-95 driving south roughly coincides with the Mason-Dixon line.
Brooklyn-style bagels and delis dot the manicured pink strip malls along Florida’s East Coast, providing a taste of home for Jewish snowbirds — but just a few hours across Alligator Alley, you’re in the Bible Belt, land of mega-churches and pickup trucks. From Texas westward, taquerías are as ubiquitous as pizza joints on Long Island. Michigan has cherry festivals; quirky California has place names like Needles and Mecca.
That regionalism is also detectable on the radio, if — like me — you eschew plug-in devices in favor of the serendipity of whatever’s on air. The soundtrack of America is as diverse as the country itself, but listen closely and you hear more NPR on the coasts, Mexican polka in Arizona, Bible programs throughout the South, salsa in Miami and foreign-language programming that reflects local demographics everywhere — Greek hour, Creole hour, Russian-language news.
I ran into fellow Members of the Tribe nearly everywhere I went: in a New Mexico post office, over enchiladas in Palm Springs, at the next table in a café somewhere near the Gulf of Mexico. It can be inspiring to see how Jews maintain and cherish community, often centered around a historic temple built by pioneer ancestors, in places where non-Christians are a tiny minority.
A Spanish-speaking friend in California asked me how to say “agua carbonada” in English, and I told him: “In New York, it’s seltzer. But in California, you have to say sparkling water, and in Texas it’s soda water.” When I used “schlep” in a sentence, my Dallas-raised cousin looked at me funny.
It took my husband Oggi and me a little over a week to schlep our Toyota from Los Angeles to Boston, where we picked up our daughter; when we arrived, the trip odometer read 3,500 miles. Most road trippers figure on a maximum of about 500 miles a day — about eight hours of highway driving. Throw in fuel stops, lunch and chocolate breaks, and those 500 miles take about 10 hours.
We traveled at a far slower place, taking advantage of the freedom of driving to detour according to whim. If I saw a sign for a historic district or a local farmer’s market, I stopped to check it out. I lingered to chat with baristas in New Orleans, browsed for fiery-hot chilies in New Mexico — and since the forecast was clear, we changed our northward route at the last minute to travel I-81 over the spine of the Appalachians.
The seeming monotony of those hours behind the wheel foment contemplation in a way that is rare in modern life. After all, other than sleeping, how many activities do we engage in for six hours straight? It is amazing how in their aggregate, those miles along prosaic landscapes — the endless green blur of forests, the asphalt and exit signs and 7-Elevens — can transcend the mundane, giving rise to insights about the land and its people.
“I think I finally understand why some people own guns,” observed Oggi one morning in Arizona, as we awoke to the eerie creak of a motel door in a desolate prairie town. And when I puzzled over the high cost of lodging in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere — Fort Stockton, Texas, the midpoint and sole motel on a four-hour stretch of empty highway — the desk clerk clued me in. “This is the oil industry,” she explained. “There’s a lot of work here, and there’s not much else anywhere around.”
I am always sorry to leave behind the dramatic peaks and exotic flora of the Western landscape, and it was hard to put on jackets again as we drove into the chilly North. But when I finally located NPR on the radio and ordered a seltzer without having to explain myself, I felt happy to be back at home — at least for awhile.