6:31 PM – 14 – cross-country

There’s a strange feeling in the air at 4:15 in the morning during a New Jersey summer. We are going on a cross-country driving trip. As we sit around the table eating English muffins with grape jelly, we can tell that something is different. We are going to walk out the door, get into the idling car, and not come back for five weeks. It is a beautiful day-to-be, bound to get noisy, hot and stifling, but we are escaping ahead of it into a new world.

We get into the car, determined to get past D.C. before the morning rush hour started. We pass Philadelphia at around 5:30, with the dawn lighting up a thousand hushed steel mills, glinting red and yellow and burnished orange in the quiet. We have begun our day earlier than anyone else — we have gotten a head start on the world.

We drive till dusk, through Maryland and Virginia to a place in the Appalachians called Wytheville, where we stop at a Best Western. Then on through Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas — which never ends — to El Paso, where we pay 15 cents to cross over the border into Ciudad Juarez.

Juarez is a fancy shell on a rotting heap of garbage. The main drag is well maintained, with tiled sidewalks and modern convenience stores. A huge market contains stalls where vendors hawk cheap trinkets to tourists. We walk a block to the west, off the beaten path, and stand on a street corner in a different city. Groups of men eye us, glaring because we are rich and ignorant, and we can just walk over the bridge and go back to our normal lives. A man sits on the curb across the street, smoking. We feel uncomfortable. We turn around and walk back to the main road, back over the bridge, back to our hotel, where we shower off the dust and climb in the car the next day and drive off.

In New Mexico, you can see rainstorms sweeping across the landscape a hundred miles away. Clouds have shadows, sharply defined on the ground. At White Sands National Monument, there is a thunderstorm in the distance. It approaches as we clamber across the sand dunes, racing it back to our car. On to Carlsbad Caverns, and Tucson, the Painted Desert, Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce. We are rushing across the country, tired but determined to see it all.

Somewhere in Arizona, there is a natural waterslide. It is part of a stream, rushing swiftly from point A to point B. We spend several hours here, are bruised and banged-up by the rocks, but it is not to be missed.

Grand Teton is more impressive than Yellowstone as we head north. In Sturgis, South Dakota, we encounter a motorcycle rally, and the casinos of nearby Deadwood City are packed with burly men in leather and long hair, wearing Hell’s Angels jackets. My parents are surprisingly sanguine about this, and we tour the city along with my aunt, who has joined us for the ride.

Back to the East, then, and by the time we get home we are tired, crawl into bed and are ready not to travel for a while.

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