February 07, 2004

Oh, The Places We'll Go

WE MUST ADMIT that our post about the states to which we have traveled, a post which was first intended to be nothing more than a "one-off" or space-filling device, has sparked a serious case of wanderlust in our soul. After all, one can see from the map that our experience is by no means complete; and even in the states in which we have managed to spend time, our travels have sometimes been limited.

For instance, let's look at the state of Oregon. We hated Oregon. Indeed, we can assure you that our trip there some years back caused us to develop a visceral and open dislike for the place. So much so, in fact, that Oregon immediately earned a spot on our "weird" list of states; and we pledged never to return unless there was some dire emergency forcing us to go there.

We had flown in on business to Eugene -- yes, Eugene -- and arrived on a particularly cold and rainy weekend, in which the temperature never rose above 45 degrees and the sun never deigned to show its face until the morning of our departure. After checking in at our particularly uninspiring motel -- the type of place which only minimally meets the guidelines set forth by its franchiser -- we were able to wander around this miserable city for a while, and see what it had to offer.

Gad. At first glance, we don't think we've ever seen such an odd third-tier city in our life.

On one hand, you had the University of Oregon and the population it attracted, the hippies and professors and bohemian students, which supported what to us seemed an amazing number of coffee shops and health food stores and establishments selling narcotics paraphenalia. On the other hand, you had the rest of Eugene. There was a loggers' convention in town that weekend, and the rest of the city seemed full of tired and grim people, which the immutable forces of economics were slowly grinding down into poverty and despair.

Now, obviously, this picture of Oregon was merely a snapshot of one place at one particular time, and clearly not a full picture of one place in particular. But it was sufficiently off-kilter to raise serious questions in our mind about it. And as the annoyances of the weekend grew -- the constant rain, the aggravating idealism, the horrible green-and-yellow color scheme everywhere and the fact we couldn't pump our own gasoline -- made us dislike the place even more. By the end of the weekend, we were convinced Eugene was a small outpost on the edge of The Twilight Zone; and we were glad to return to Southern California, which in comparison seemed sane and normal.

However, we have mellowed over the years, and we realize that our initial impression of Oregon may have been a bit unfair. After all, we never did get to Portland or to the eastern scrub country; and there was no denying the country around Eugene was awfully beautiful. So unless Oregon does something that really puts us in a bad mood, we are more than willing to give it a second chance.

We would like this second chance to come in the form of a really bitchin' road trip.

This, we think, is how America ought to be experienced, and we only wish that we had the time to see all that we wanted to see. For we have never traveled to the Great Plains; never traversed the Deep South; never experienced the Pacific Northwest. But one cannot do these things when one can only take one week in vacation at a time.

So we must wait until we can get a few weeks' vacation -- 2006 or 2008 seems the earliest bet in this regard -- and then have at it. We can already imagine it: that wonderful first leg, from New Hampshire to Chicago, and then the trip would really begin along the plains -- from Minnesota all the way to Seattle. That would take one week. Then, we'd head south from there -- to Southern California, and east to Utah, along the 15 and the 70. Then, once deep into Utah, we'd take the old US 666 route down to Gallup, N.M., where we'd pick up the 40 and high-tail it east. There's another week, by our reckoning.

Now we'll get back to Gallup in a moment, but let's continue on for a second. We would take the 40 east, but instead of doing as usual and picking up I-44 to head home, we'd continue on, swinging south at Little Rock and heading for Louisiana. Then, it would be across the Deep South in a wide arc, heading to Columbia, S.C., and then heading north back home to New Hampshire. Upon our return we would have lobstah to celebrate.

By our reckoning, this whole trip should take about a month's time -- and we think we can eventually get that month's time if we are judicious about our vacation use. We would have to go sparingly with time off this year and next, but gee! wouldn't it be worth it to have an entire month to see the country!

We admit that this might seem an odd sort of "dream vacation." But for us, you see, it represents kind of a rite-of-passage. For our parents (Mr and Mrs Kepple) once had an entire month of vacation time when they were young, and they traveled around the country just as we hope to do. They had the fortune to live through what we can only imagine -- and this is where Gallup, N.M. comes into play.

You should know that we have been lucky enough to experience cross-country journeys twice in our lives -- once, going West when we moved to Los Angeles, and once returning East, when we left Los Angeles. It was this second trip, which we made along with Dad, where we really had a great deal of fun.

Indeed, it is from him and from this trip that we learned some hard-and-fast rules about road-tripping. Some of these lessons were explicit, others implicit, but we learned them just the same. So, without further ado, here they are:


One. Never eat at a fast-food restaurant while on the road.

We can assure you that in the week we spent traveling from the Pacific to the Atlantic, that we did not eat one fast-food meal. No. We ate actual sit-down meals along every stop of our journey, no matter what the time and place.

Now, the beauty of this system was not merely that fast-food is generally crap and one shouldn't eat it. And we do think that if the fast-food in question is particularly noteworthy (e.g. "In-N-Out Burger"), one can make an exception to this rule. But it must be really good fast food. Because it would be a damnfool thing to do were one to miss out on all the glories of regional cuisine; the spicy food of the Southwest and the diners along the Plains; good Southern cooking and so on. And there's something refreshing about going into some old-fashioned diner, sitting down at a booth or the counter, and ordering good food. It takes your mind off things, lets you relax for an hour or so.

But there was something just amazing and wonderful and lovely about getting up so very early out there in the New Mexico desert and going to breakfast, and waking up over a good cup of coffee and a fiery omelette. Instead of rushing about, you could talk and laugh and relax and really look forward to your day. And that's one hell of a thing.

Two. Even if your day entirely involves driving, always have a goal at the end of it, or even in the middle of it.

There is no reason why one should have to miss one's favorite television show or rush by some famed landmark when one is road-tripping. Indeed, it will make the drive -- especially if it is a tedious stretch -- go much quicker.

Three. There is no need to be a spendthrift whilst on a road-trip; indeed, part of the fun to it is getting all that you can out of it, while spending as little as possible.

We learned that on our cross-country journey, there was no need to stay at extravagant or even middling hotels; indeed, the Best Western motel guide was very much our friend and loyal companion. (It still is today). Why we stayed at Best Western motels the whole trip became clear as time went on: they were clean, they had a shower, a bed, and a television, and they were surprisingly inexpensive much of the time. That's a hard combination to beat. Save your money for the fun stuff, like a side trip to New York or something.

Four. Plan accordingly. You always want to make sure that you have a place to spend the night, enough gas in the car to make it through Arizona, and enough time to get where you want to go. We can assure you that Dad planned out our trip meticulously and we had no problems along the way. Of course, this does not mean we would plan the big trip TOO far out in advance; God knows the car might give up the ghost in Tulsa or something. But we would give it at least four days' to a week's lead time.

Five. Never set one's eyeglasses down in a spot where your traveling companion can sit on them and break them, causing one much grief and consternation and a furious search for a repair shop in the phone book. Not that it was our fault anyway.

We would add a lesson Six, which we did not learn from our father but which we consider smart anyway. Namely, when driving cross-country, don't pick up any hitch-hikers wearing shabby suits. Even if they are going your way.

Now, we must say that we have given some thought to the logistics of our trip other than merely the time quotient. We do realize that since the trip would put a good 8,000 miles on our car, it would do for us to have a relatively new automobile. We further realize that the trip would require a significant amount of ready cash, just in case the car gave up the ghost in Tulsa. We figure five thousand would be about right, although it could conceivably run even more than that.

Finally, though, there is the question of whether we go with a traveling companion. Our initial assessment is to say No; as one must take into account the question of cabin fever. After all, a man certainly does not want to break up with his girl because of an argument they had in Dubuque; and a man certainly does not want to have a long friendship tested because of a quarrel over who gets to drive through the Petrified Forest.

But on the other hand, we know full well that things could get awfully lonely on those long drives to nowhere, and so we might just chance it. For it is difficult to have a good conversation when one's only companions at breakfast are a cup of coffee and the New Mexico sun.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at February 7, 2004 09:15 PM | TrackBack