We left New Jersey on a glorious, sun-drenched morning. My mother cried and my father did one of those awkward hand-shakes that never did quite become a hug — the kind men do when they want to say something, but can’t bring themselves to or can’t find the words. For my part, I kept my usual stiff upper lip. I rarely show emotion at appropriate times; it usually ends up manifesting at completely inappropriate times, when I’m in a room by myself, listening to a Springsteen song over and over or watching an old episode of Seventh Heaven with a particularly poignant ending.
The start of a road trip is always exhilarating — there is a sense of wonder, a weight lifted. I imagine the explorers of old, their sails filled, setting off across an ocean of impossibility with only the stars to guide them, only the unknown knowable. Our situation, of course is a little less dramatic. Armed with a sturdy Rand-McNally Road Atlas and two GPS equipped smart phones, it is doubtful we will ever venture into the truly unknown. Still, the sense of wonder is still there, the sense of something new lying out of sight, just around the bend.
We traveled from my parents house, through the streets of my youth, to Interstate 78, a straight shot into PA, past the rolling fields that make NJ the Garden State, peaceful and bucolic and far away from the butt of so many jokes; dotted with cows and the occasional horse, small silos, and orchards, the road rose to meet us as we headed towards Pennsylvania and the graceful, rounded shoulders of the Appalachian Mountains. After crossing the Delaware, we were diverted by a detour onto Old-Route 22, one of the first “highways” in the US, through postcard-perfect small town America, with weathered pharmacies and corner stores and movies theaters that still suggested soda-fountains and Sunday matinees and an unsustainable innocence. The stores still had names, names of the people who had made these towns their home for generations, and who still, I imagined, in dwindling numbers, lined main street on Fourth of July to wave tiny American flags as the Greatest Generation rolled past in wheelchairs, pushed by VFW brethren. Towns like these are unbelievably evocative, and almost mythological in their hold on the American psyche. They are the incarnation, the idealization, the thing that is yearned for and irrevocably lost. I think, concurrently, how nice it would be to live here and how could anybody live here? I wish we had stopped, for a sandwich, for a coke, for something, but I felt like I was looking at a picture, something I could not step into.
We were jolted back to “reality” as Old 22 funneled us back onto 78. 78 is mostly straight and fast and ruthlessly efficient, the epitome of modernity, congested with cars and trucks, a main artery of the Northeast Corridor. It has pleasant enough vistas, but you always get the sense that they are ancillary, and 78 is first and foremost pure business. At Harrisburg we diverted onto 81, another modern interstate that would take us through Maryland, West Virginia, along Virginia’s Appalachian spine, and into Tennessee.
We made it about four hours into the trip, into Maryland, when we stopped at a Chik-Fil-A for lunch — a spicy chicken sandwich and a lemonade. Anyone who knows us knows that we don’t eat a lot of fast food; however, they also know that we’re not snobs and not “above it.” For us, it’s mostly an issue of health and quality. Chik-Fil-A, however, is iconic, and since my ethos is to learn about America and Americans, I felt I had to try it. Besides, my stomach was eating itself.
Chik-Fil-A was crowded: very crowded. It was filled with families, and the parking lot with SUVs, and it is probably stereotypically what most people from the coasts (read, Big cities) would imagine the rest of the country to be. It was located in a series of malls that you had to drive to get to, and was nondescript. But honestly, the sandwich tasted good, and the people were nice, and there is a lot to be said for that. Yes, it breaks my heart when I see overweight children who eat far too much fast food, but that doesn’t make me hate them the way some people spew genuine venom towards the denizens of suburban America. To me, it speaks more to a lifestyle that has grown too soft and easy; a lifestyle that has been marketed to us and embraced vigorously by our people as the spoils of success. Obviously, this is a pretty heavy chicken sandwich.
After lunch, we headed back onto 81 and through some glorious, pastoral, countryside. When you get out of the NYC area, where everything is compressed into gleaming, vertical diamonds, packed into a postage stamps of land, the world opens up, like a magazine centerfold or a panoramic picture. Everything seems wider, greener, more open. And I realize how little I know about America every time I drive through it. I also realize how cavalier many of my assumptions about it are and have been. Yes, people in the country drive pick-up trucks and may not always have the most forward-thinking politics, but they also work really hard, are by and large honest, and grow the food, mine the coal, and do many things we take for granted. When I drive through small towns punctuated by small-white church steeples and small roadside joints and adult video stores I realize that this black and white idea of America is very, very naive, and I, a tourist in my own country, am as well.
Road trips, for me, are always about reconciliation, of ideas, of myself, and this one is no different. There are plenty of impressions yet to come, but, as I write this from Nashville, I realize that I have yet to understand what these ink-blots of Americana look like. But I’m going to keep looking, and sharing them with you, because they don’t belong to me, but belong to all of us, together…