Six days across a continent — it seems almost shameful, as at the same time it seems a grand adventure. In our speed we have reduced the world; and had we flown, it would have been mere hours. Yet to drive across the continent, spending most of each day on the interstate, offers a perspective on the land itself which is something akin to the view of the earth from space. It is not nearly so large as we think; and yet it is larger.
Six days across a continent presents its geology in a manner like that of a flipbook: static things like mountains rise and fall, and subtle changes in the landscape, seen rapidly, reveal a place in ways which would be overlooked if one were standing in that locale. Driving east, you know by the time you reach eastern Ohio, perhaps around Ashtabula, that you have left one place and are entering another. Ohio may not fit everyone's definition of Midwest, but the landscape is a Midwestern landscape — until you reach Ashtabula. (I have a fondness for Ashtabula, where once, passing through, we bought pizza from the side of the road, when the local Domino's was trying to push some business. That pizza tasted much better than it was, and Ashtabula is a lovely, leafy little town, sleeping on the shore of Lake Erie.)
It is a shame, perhaps, to cross by car, to be required to pay such attention to the asphalt ahead of you, while there is such beauty about you. Perhaps by train would be better, but best of all if one could recline in a pod of sorts, with the full panorama of the landscape enveloping the senses, and sleep and dream seamlessly with the scenery as it passes. Instead we stop at hotels, and spend the early morning ignoring half a dozen other groggy-eyed strangers while eating stale bagels and watching network news, which is the same, unfortunately, throughout the country. Camping would be better. This time, however, we were on a schedule, with two cats along for the ride. A cross-country camping trip is on my list of things to do.
Six days it took to return across a continent to the place where I grew up, and from where I had left six years before. I had left on the belief that I was pursuing a PhD; only to find later that I was on a quest of self-discovery, and America would be the wilderness I required for this process.
It is striking to drive the continent east to west, especially when the far end of your road is the place most familiar. We began in Connecticut, and from Hartford to Fargo, we were bathed in humid green landscapes, farmland and woodland and never a town too far off. We stayed a day in Minneapolis with her folks, and it felt, in retrospect, the last bit of solid population, or solid civilization, until we reached Missoula. After Minnesota there are the plains, which feel more isolated and forlorn than any desert landscape. We spent one night in Dickinson, North Dakota, where oil workers barbecued and drank on the sidewalk that flanked the hotel, and the young African man who checked us in at night also took our order at the fast food place across the street in the morning. In Dickinson we both felt further from home than either of us ever had, I think. I cannot imagine how the African felt. I believe I felt closer to home in Britain than I did in North Dakota.
From North Dakota there is Montana to reckon with, where a sign at a rest stop proudly proclaims that the distance from one end of the state to the other is about the same as from New York City to Chicago. In spite of that it feels far less tedious, given its pretty, sunken river valleys, and the continual progress toward a more arid climate. You measure the change in rest stops: now it is sticky and hot, a typical Midwestern summer, then a few hours down the road, somewhat less so, and a few more hours on, only a dry breeze meets your face with the hot sun as you step from your vehicle.
We climbed through the Rockies and stopped for the night in Missoula, finding a pizza-and-beer place just up the road, with booths as large as a queen-size mattress, and the orange glow of dusk above the profiles of the dark mountains out the windows.
The next day we arrived at our destination. We travelled through narrow, forested ravines, and the vast, barren desert of the valley of the Columbia, where there is mostly heat, dark, volcanic rocks, and drab, tough scrub. Then up the mountains, and as I descended them on the other side, this green, temperate coastal strip of land I had long considered home, running from British Columbia to Northern California, never seemed so small and fragile. Just a thin little strip of green, on the edge of the continent, and all the arid and lonely places between it and the cheery farmland and staid Main Streets of the upper Midwest.