Is there any action in the world that more represents personal freedom than getting in your car at an hour you have selected with the knowledge that you are about to drive away to a destination of your choice on roads you and only you have selected, you will stop to eat when and what you want, pee when the urge first occurs, nap if you feel like it, pick a motel based on your own requirements (wifi, next to a Starbucks, doesn’t have that cheap hotel smell) and drive at a speed you (and state laws) have determined? My definition of unalloyed freedom.
I like to travel with others on occasion, maybe a son or grandchild or possibly another family member, or a friend with whom I am very comfortable. Generally, however I prefer to travel alone and observe the world through my own eyes and ears and history.
When flying or training or bussing very many of the conditions of the journey are determined by others. The solo road trip is the only instance (besides hiking) where the traveler is mostly in charge.
Up early, throw last things in the car. Might need that sweater or want to read that book. Two vente skim lattes and a berry cake please. Odometer on 61451.
VIVA LA ROAD TRIP!
Late August 2010. Americans are angry or disappointed, the weather is hot, half the world’s children are hungry, work seems too much like work—must be time to drive the back-highways to Minnesota and contemplate all of that in the peace and quiet of my trusty Mazda, against a background of rolling rangeland, flat-out prairie, woods, farms, ranches, small towns and Dairy Queens. During the trip I stayed in Longmont, Colorado; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Roseau, Minnesota; Grand Rapids, Minnesota and overnight, on the way home, in Emporia, Kansas. I spent most of that time on the road visiting with myself—a mixed blessing, and the time at my various destinations with friends, cousins and brother and sister-in-law (Democrats all—although one has some Republican in her background—which we don’t talk about). We ate and talked and visited other relatives and looked at art and George Clooney. I drove 3,666 miles.
August 20th: I left Albuquerque with a case of the ‘blues,’ nothing serious, just that melancholic veil that occasionally falls between you and life. The blues can be caused by a myriad of things large or small and everyone has their own solution to drive them away. I once walked a couple of month funk away on Oceanside Beach in southern California. This time I would drive to a new state of mind on country roads. However, since the first day was all I-25 all of the time, including rush hour through Denver, I had a chance to wallow in this piteous condition for an extra day before driving the cure.
Actually it turned out to be impossible to maintain a bad mood while spending the evening and night with my favorite young friends in their gracious Longmont apartment. They represent the best of the generation that will soon be running things—worldly, well-traveled, smart, concerned with people, not so much with money, idealistic but comfortable with both humor and cynicism. They took me for my first visit to Boulder, home of all that is pleasant and politically-correct. I was a little suspicious—Boulder is touted as the only salvageable island in a sea of dreary suburbs metastasizing up the sides of the front range—almost too good to be true. It turns out to be a real place of real people. Pleasant rather than elegant. More comfortable than chic. We went to a Boulder International Fringe Festival dance event that was not at all ‘fringe’, and then we ate imaginatively concocted crab, corn and goat cheese pizza at a cozy corner table on a sidewalk full of attractive people under a warm summer moon enjoying comradely conversation. Auspicious beginning for any trip.
August 21st: Nice breakfast, perfect morning temperature and clear morning skies—what if my bad mood’s already gone before backroads therapy kicks in? I head north on I-25 to Fort Collins and then began my happiness quest on 14 East. It worked. Open land, two-lane highway, thinking, problem-solving without consciously doing so, resolutions emerge. Write every day. Go to the gym every day. Never eat too much butter or drink too much wine. Understand that now that the car is paid for it will demand repairs. 80 miles, three gallons of gas—I am already better and it is so much cheaper than that other kind of therapy. Nice.
14 East runs straight east from Fort Collins to Sterling. Land gently rolling and maybe greener than usual for this time of year. Corn fields which will provide much of my viewing pleasure all of the way to the Canadian border, horses and black angus cattle everywhere everywhere—but since there are few more gorgeous sights than multi-colored herds of slick horses and fat black cattle I never tire of the view. Country flattens out as the road skirts the Pawnee National Grasslands. There is an entire alternate almost invisible world all around us—that is the Native American past and present. So many place names acknowledging its existence, so little recognition of its strength and diversity. When I drive through the southwest or Midwest I sense the presence of this world so vividly—like mirages just over there on the horizon—or there—or there.
Mid-morning I reach Sterling, Colorado, then take I-76 to Ogallala, Nebraska where it’s back to country roads—Highway 61 to be exact. Best road of this whole 3,666 miles. From Ogallala around the end of a large lake on the North Platte river 35 miles to Arthur, 33 miles to Hyannis, 67 miles to Merriman and then 19 miles to Martin, South Dakota, around a bend and up Highway 73, 46 miles to I-90. I love this road. Fairly narrow two-lane, those dusty villages (where you still fill up your car and then go inside to pay—remember that?), seeing almost no signs, passing about 10 ranches and meeting 20 or so cars all the way.
Rolling rangeland, herds of horses—shaped and colored and named so beautifully. Black beauties and copper-red sorrels and strawberry roans, reddish-brown bays and golden palominos with their black manes and tails, and those silvery dapple grays—pointillist visions in horseflesh. When I was a kid I drove my mother crazy begging for “Western Horsemen” magazines whenever they came out, expensive magazines that I only occasionally got! Those were the days when I walked up and down the lane to our house dreaming endlessly of the ranch in the west on which I would one day live. Downtown Albuquerque is my grown-up version of that dream. But I digress.
The cattle I see are most clustered around the windmill-fed water tanks and now there are more Herefords than Angus. Stocky red with white heads instead of the shiny jet-black. I know the names of many breeds from growing up on a farm where my mom, the farmer in the family, knew and studied these things. Our small Minnesota herd had neither of these common western types which are raised for beef. We had milk cows including Chickadee, the pretty black and white Holstein; Rosie, “the friendly cow all red and white…,” probably a Shorthorn; Shorty, a big fat fawn Guernsey. My mom was as strong and determined a woman as I’ve ever known but she also had a very large sentimental side which included her love for pretty much all living creatures (except spiders and mean people) and poems about them. In honor of mom then:
The friendly cow all red and white,
I love with all my heart:
She gives me cream with all her might,
To eat with apple-tart.
She wanders lowing here and there,
And yet she cannot stray,
All in the pleasant open air,
The pleasant light of day;
And blown by all the winds that pass
And wet with all the showers,
She walks among the meadow grass
And eats the meadow flowers.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Chapter I of my summer vacation ends as I cross through through the Badlands on Highway 73 and catch I-90 into Sioux Falls where my cousin waits up with milk and doughnuts.