With little but the wind, the sound of my tires on the asphalt, and an occasional tumbleweed for company, I drove on empty highways across America’s high deserts, mountain ranges, forests, plains and valleys, experiencing a freedom and openness that may be unique to the smaller roads of the American West while the spring snow is still melting.
I took a vaguely S-shaped route across the country, trying as much as possible to use two-lane State Roads and U.S. Highways – roads the travel writer William Least Heat-Moon called Blue Highways because that was their color in old atlases. Roads on which you can still find small towns with a local diner, a clean motel room, and a warm greeting.
I have been fascinated with driving adventures for a long time, perhaps since reading On the Road when I was a teenager, before I could even drive but ached for a license and the freedom to find myself somewhere out there. I’ve been lucky to take some memorable road trips since then: learning to drive manual on a highway crowded with donkey carts near Marrakech, Morocco; driving across the States for the first time when I moved to San Francisco after college; a two-week adventure through the cacti and deserted beach towns of the Baja Peninsula on a break between jobs one January; a harrowing drive from Kabul to Kunduz over the 12,723 foot Salang Pass while shooting The Observer; a week-long jaunt down the empty roads of southern Cambodia; a sweaty three day bus journey through Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya; and countless daytrips up and down the California Coast, the Pacific Northwest, and Scotland.
As I logged the miles on this trip (5,343 miles), guzzled the gas (250.3 gallons for an average of 21.3 miles per gallon) and swiped my card to refill ($937.24 at an average cost of $3.74 per gallon), I often wondered how many more years a trip like this would be possible, or at least socially acceptable. Would the time come when the prospect of driving across the country was even more environmentally irresponsible and financially indulgent than it is now – like going on a hunting safari or setting off on a six-month honeymoon with a dozen steamer trunks? Would my children be able to make a trip like this? So, while I regretted the environmental impact of this journey and dreaded the arrival of my credit card bill, I consoled myself that this might be my last chance to take a winding, aimless American drive.
Departing San Francisco on a cloudy March morning I started east over the snow covered Sierra Nevadas, stopping for two legendary days of snowboarding with the Baldwin twins in Lake Tahoe; dropping across the dramatic cloud swept high desert of Nevada and into the shadowy canyons of Southern Utah; my packed car struggling up and over a 10,666-foot pass in the Rockies; descending to the sunny plains around Boulder to visit my lovely sister; drifting down New Mexico’s fir-clad hillsides and brush-covered desert; crossing into Texas near the border; discovering the Rio Grande running shallow, a drug-war in Mexico menacing on the other side, Border Patrol and check-points across West Texas, a hipster commune in Marfa and a star-filled sky in Big Bend; East Texas, driving hard; dipping through the Louisiana bayou, a night of hamburgers and jazz on Frenchmen Street, hot feet on the fine white sand of the Gulf Coast; winding through deep woods and muddy rivers of Alabama, across an infamous bridge in Selma; eating boiled peanuts and crayfish with new friends in north Georgia; camping in the sand dunes on Carolina’s outer-banks; a crab feast on the Chesapeake; more cars on the roads, more people in the towns; and a last blue highway over the Bear Mountain bridge, the sun setting over the Hudson and a wide continent of rivers, forests, mountains and deserts that felt no less vast to me now that I had crossed it.
My old friend and new housemate, Michael and I were reflecting the other night about different types of meditation – from the ascetic to the indulgent – and I realized that driving these empty, scenic roads had become an indulgent form of meditation for me, as I quieted my mind on the empty road: the view ever-changing, memories of the past fading in the rear view mirror, and the mystery of what lies beyond the next bend urging me onward.