California Trip, Part I
Logistical reality says you can't drive across the USA in 96 hours unless you see little except the Interstate. Actually, we did it in 93 hours, and I suspect we saw, in outline, some American reality that many other eyes have missed.
Take our motel the first night. We started off with each night's stay booked and held to that for three nights. The first night we spent in one of those older motels glued together by a loose marketing confederation. They're usually owned by Indians or Pakistanis, tend to be reasonably priced, modest in amenities but neat, and also tend to be a bit shaky on the concept of Internet reservations. I suggest this phenomenon, which has quietly gathered momentum over the past ten years or so, is a very traditional story of making it in America. Apparently not everyone thinks so, if one is to judge by the number of motels I saw that advertised themselves as "American owned." Know-Nothingism is very much alive.
I never did get the patio breakfast in Albuquerque (more on that later), nor did I nosh at Shoney's. If you're trying to toss a spoonful of sanity into a cross-country road trip, choose other company than your wife. Choose it, at least, if your wife has the maternal bit in her teeth and is determined to spare her (adult) daughter a long exposure to a rental car (and ourselves a day's rent on same). We ate bagels, peanut butter and juice-box OJ for breakfast, following the 0445 wakeup my wife decreed, underway. Lunch was at truck stops as a rule.
It was during a long-ago road trip that I first became aware of a slice of "real America" that has eluded many blue highway elitists: the subculture of interstate truckers and truck stops. It really is a subculture. Independent haulers especially live in their rigs, getting food, sleep and showers at the stops. Legend decrees it a male-only environment, as legend once said of sea captains. The reality is that long-haul trucking is often a spousal undertaking, as seafaring actually was. If I had been on the road a month later I bet I'd have seen entire families. I have enough of that elitism to be sorry that independent truck stops have largely been swept away by franchised chains. The chains do bring a certain quality control that the old truck stops lacked (the romance of the old-time truck stops was somewhat sullied by their dubious hygiene).
Chain or no chain, you'd have to be very sleepy indeed if you couldn't distinguish between the Pilot truck stop in Erie, PA, and the Flying A stop in (I think) Mclean, TX.
It also struck me that uniformity of consumer culture is one of the few things that gives us a common identity. Perhaps we should be more attentive to that, which is hardly new. The dominance of national brands has been around over a century, with local entrepreneurs adding regional accents to whatever brand they are touting. The scale is larger but the habit is the same.
These thoughts, and the geological question of where the grasslands begin, occupied most of my conscious thought until we reached the Mississippi. John McPhee's Founding Fish, on tape, filled in the intellectual chinks.
I grew up on the Merrimack River, and was mildly surprised when I discovered it included in someone's list of great rivers of America. That ingrained inferiority complex stayed with me until we crossed the Mississippi at St. Louis, where I was amazed to discover a river not a whole lot wider than the Merrimack.
Enough for the first round, then. We'll see what else recovered memory can dredge up.