MIDDLE AMERICA – We were on the road 10 minutes early, moving down I-35W before dawn, before the first commuters even reach Black Dog Road.
I put the Gear Daddies’ “Dream Vacation in the Dells” into the CD player. This makes it official. This makes it a road trip.
The road trip has been one of the great literary vehicles in America, tapping the innate national desire to wake up one morning and just drive away. We were in the footsteps of Steinbeck, Kerouac, Least Heat-Moon and yes, Clark Griswold.
It was still dark, and as we pushed south, sunlight leaked over the horizon and a V of birds flew overhead. Ducks, I suppose, late to the game.
As we passed the occasional car on the lonely highway, I began to notice something. Nearly all the travelers were in their 60s or 70s. Their back seats were loaded with a studied mix of winter clothes and summer clothes, to be swapped out each day as it got warmer. Retirees. Snowbirds.
I was traveling with THAT crowd, the couples who have measured their driving days by checking the times of sunrise and sunset. If it’s 5:30 p.m., this must be Wichita. Where in the heck is the Motel 6? It’d better be by the freeway. Seniors, rising at 6 a.m. to pack the car and hit the highway. They set their cruise control to 4 miles per hour above the speed limit, 5 if they are feeling lucky.
You can tell the seasoned snowbirds because they’ve packed a small overnight bag to bring into the hotel. Three changes of underwear will get you to Tucson — what else do you need to know? You see some of them peel off the freeway when they spot a billboard with the magic words of “Loose slots” or “Free hot breakfast.”
Across Kansas and Oklahoma, I punched the radio dial. All six stations that came in clear were religious stations. Fire and brimstone and “Slower traffic keep right” are the sermons of the great middle.
In Wichita, a friendly gent from Toronto moved his truck so I could load the car. This is our job. Our wives are getting coffee and stuffing bananas in their purses from the breakfast buffet. Other hotel guests make their waffles and wait for sunrise. Mr. Toronto and I will get the drop on them and be clear to Oklahoma before they know what hit them.
“Have a safe drive,” Toronto says.
My wife, Ellen, and I drove through the midsection of America, marveling at its greatness, hospitality and beauty. But the political buzzword of the day, inequity, was also painfully obvious. In many places the economic recovery is a joke, and the nation’s midsection is distended and empty. There are certainly places in Minnesota that are financially strapped, but nothing compared with a drive through Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico.
For a day’s stretch, we avoided the interstates and took what William Least Heat-Moon called “Blue Highways.” More often than not, the small towns have caved in. Main streets are lined with abandoned buildings. A hardware store that apparently closed after Christmas still has painted in the window: “Happy birthday, Jesus.”
The Chinese buffets, long a staple example of small-town “diversity,” are nearly all shuttered. Yet on the main corner of one street, a “Chinese massage” parlor flashed an “Open” sign.
We drove through Tucumcari, N.M., looking for a cafe. Scores of houses sat with swaybacked roofs and rotting soffits. Paint peeled off the clapboard walls and weeds devoured small yards. You assume they are all abandoned, yet every so often there is a car sitting out front and a porch light on.
“What would keep someone here?” I said.
“Poverty,” Ellen said.
Her hunch was confirmed a few minutes later at a convenience store, where another customer complained to us about the uncommon cold spell.
She tapped a finger to her front teeth. “If I didn’t have to pay for these, I’d move back to Phoenix,” she said.
So there you have it. Some people have to choose between new teeth and a better place to live. Frankly, I’m not sure she made the right decision.
Just when we think that the town, like so many others, has relinquished the independent cafe for the gas station that sells Taco Bell items, we find a lone grill filled with lunch patrons. The hamburger and chili are delicious, and each costs $4.25.
Leaving Albuquerque, a cold fog bank had descended. Hoarfrost covered the purple sage. I recalled that the word hoar comes from Old English, and means “showing signs of old age” because it paints trees and bushes to look like white hair.
Warning signs come quickly through the fog: Falling rock! Icy bridge! Leaping elk!
The road ahead is both scary and beautiful. “It feels like we are driving in heaven,” Ellen said.
I recognize some of the cars and the people in them from 500 miles ago. The snowbirds know to follow the taillights of semitrucks ahead of them, and we follow them. The retirees wave as they pass. Someday, that wouldn’t be so bad, I think.
By 9 a.m., the fog had cleared and revealed spectacular mountain scenery. A half-day to go to reach California. I set the cruise control to 7 mph over the speed limit. The radio is playing oldies, and John Mellencamp’s “Little Pink Houses” comes on.
I hold up a fake microphone to Ellen. “Sing it!”
“No,” she said.
So I turned up the music instead.
Ain’t that America somethin’ to see.
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin