Once you get past Hayward, California, into the open country and look back at the Bay, the pamphlet says, Now it is that one realizes how the Continent is opening up before him. Or, the Continent opening up in the reverse direction. The country was, depending on your point of view, settled (occupied) and developed (ruined) going east to west. Many road trips also go east to west: sojourners leave the congested Atlantic coast to explore the west, the unpeopled expanses and natural spires replacing the manmade ones. I was doing the opposite. I was driving through emptiness and working my way to the most crowded place in the country, an island that used to be called Mannahatta.
The pamphlet was written by Charles Shanks about the first coast to coast road trip, taken in 1903 by Dr.
Horatio Nelson Jackson and mechanic Sewell Crocker in a Winton automobile. I tracked down the promotional publication, titled “From Ocean to Ocean in a Winton,” at a library in Wisconsin. They mailed me a copy, which begins, The honor of being the first to cross the American continent in an automobile, is well worth the ambition and the best effort of any man.
I hope it is worth my effort. I left my two part-time teaching jobs on uncertain terms, took a summer teaching job in San Francisco just to subsidize following their route, going cross country alone, camping most of the time.
I love maps, not Google maps but the unwieldy paper maps your dad unfolded over the steering wheel. Looking at the map of the route Jackson and Crocker took from San Francisco to New York, I thought yes, avoid the highways, take the byways for a meandrous cross-section of the country: start with some California action, head up into northwestern verdancy, swing a right into the wide-open west, cruise across the mighty Midwest as it flattens into familiar comfort (I live in Chicago), then finish up on the frenetic east coast.
The fact that we can zoom over vast portions of this country seems like a miracle that I easily forget. At a gas station by the interstate, I could pump refined gasoline into the 14-gallon tank of my 2012 Toyota Yaris. Millions of years ago, decaying plant and animal matter coalesced into a wondrous goop containing the solar energy the organic matter had absorbed. This so-called black gold simmered under the earth’s surface until geologic pressure forced it to the surface in various places around the globe. Fourteen gallons of the processed stuff could propel my two-thousand-pound-plus car over 400 miles. Several thousand gallons of energy were below me, stored under the stained pavement in large tanks. All the other gas pumps were in use, people filling their thirsty SUVs and cars. The highway droned with an endless procession of cars zipping by. All of us burning gasoline, all of our cars exhaling carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Unidentified squawks in the night are somehow comforting. I stayed at a working ranch, run by a plump sunburned lady and her partner, which also doubled as a summer camp, Cowgirl Up, for wayward girls. The bunkhouse with six beds and two couches was all mine. Motivational posters covered on the wall, plus a warning sign about the kicking dangers of the horse, mule, and donkey.
She chatted with me briefly and drove off in her golf cart with her cat riding on top. After dark it was all stars overheard. I drank some local pinot grigio I bought at a gas station as animals provided ambient sounds throughout the night: horses banging around in their stalls, cricket static. I awoke to a crowing rooster instead of the usual iPhone alarm at seven. A black alpaca strutted by, eyeing me warily as I ate my bagel outside the bunkhouse. Chickens pecked about as I showered and watched the ranch awaken over the outdoor wicker shower stall, hoping it wasn’t see-through.
Beyond Chico, the road was so straight and flat for miles that it shimmered into a heat-kneading nothingness. Mountains rippled up in the distance. At Burney I turned onto 299W, rising out of the valley to 4,000 feet elevation. The road wound through pine trees, terrain similar to northern Arizona. This is intense driving, hugging the road, clenching the wheel, seeing a warning sign for cattle ahead. In the pamphlet Chuck described the drive through here thusly: For in moments of danger one forgets all else save the guidance of the machine.
All the areas I’d passed through in rural California basically looked the same. Houses set behind trees, roof-mounted cable dishes, rusted vehicles, hollowed out trailers—only the natural scenery in the background is different. The mountains and golden weather tell you this is California but I’ve passed through dozens of the same towns in other quadrants of the country: scattered cattle, abandoned cars, houses roofed in rusted tin.
I hit Alturas at sunset, backdropped against the fading fuchsia-dusted desert light. I turned right on the curving two-lane road toward what looked like a commercial district. A small deer crossed spritely into my path. I swerved to the left, doing about 35 mph, the deer froze as is their wont when faced with large strange human contraptions, then ran in the same direction as I’d swerved. I hit it with a loud thump, a jolting blow, palpably different than the blunt collision with another car. The deer lurched, staggered back, stuttering for a few steps before falling and sliding across the pavement on its side. It stood up, wobbly at first, and I could see none of its limbs appeared broken, then it ran off the road into the trees.
With the morning daylight I looked at the front of my car to see if there was any damage from last night’s doe-denting. There was some deer hair matted on the front, bristled in the grill.
The director of the visitor center seemed surprised to actually see a visitor there. Her name was Elicia. She was shy but professional, caught a bit off-balance as she quickly showed me around the one room of the visitor’s center. She handed me pamphlets on geothermal energy as an incentive to invest in Lakeview, Oregon. And said something about bighorn sheep. She said people were always hitting these sheep around town since there was so many of them. I told her I hit a deer the night before. She told me her mother once hit an owl—it stuck in the windshield and her mother drove home with it and then extracted the deceased bird from the windshield and put it in the freezer. Her mom preserved the feathers for something arts and crafty. Poor shy Elicia visits her mother only to find an owl in the freezer. She went on to tell me that her mother kept two refrigerators: one for regular food and one for wildlife. She seemed embarrassed about telling me that in the way that people suddenly divulge personal tidbits when trying to make conversation.
I drove around Abert Lake in Oregon with its ragged chalky shoreline. The water had receded, leaving whitish lines marking its former capacity. Rocks had tumbled down the scrubby flat-topped mountainsides ringing the lake. This was a great drive, curves slowly opening up, following what had been the higher shoreline. Focus is maintained, hands curled on the wheel, feeling the vehicle respond. The lake bed was mostly dried out, but cattle grazed on what tufts of grass survived. Another run where the driving is actually exciting so the mind doesn’t wander. I forgot all else save the guidance of the machine.
The campground lady in Farewell Bend, Oregon, came by in her golf cart in the morning. She pulled right up in the middle of my campsite as I was dismantling my tent. She had short white hair and a rich tan. She turned off the golf-cart and asked if I enjoyed the tent-curling wind last night with a dry chuckle. I said I did not. She said she liked it because it cooled her camper down, but the strong wind activated or retracted the awning—I couldn’t understand her gruff enunciation. She sat there for a few seconds squinting at me curiously—as usual, I was the only single male at the campground—then abruptly carted off.
I asked the lady at the Snake River Canyon park entrance about the Evel Knievel monument I’d read about near here. Knievel had tried to jump Snake River unsuccessfully in 1974 on the same day Gerald Ford pardoned Dick Nixon. He (Knievel, not Ford or Nixon) rode an X-2 Skycycle for the jump. The parachute suffered premature ejection and the Skycycle was blown back and landed near the water on the end it had launched from. Evel walked away, injuries minor. She said the site was basically a pile of rocks and it’s on private property anyway.
I took the back roads to Twin Falls. Sometimes along the road you see things that make no sense but as you pass it seems to fit perfectly into the passing scene, to need no explanation, something that is part of the landscape meant for only you to see. To wit, at a four-way stop sign in rural Idaho, a man in a Pink Floyd shirt stood eating from a large bag of potato chips.
From the Golden West Café in Arco, Idaho, you can see the main street, the only street, split by the road, desolate. While the natural scenery changes, the human landscape remains the same: crumpled mobile homes, abandoned rusty cars, some facing toward the desert, their owners vanished. Where are they? Why were these cars abandoned? Boarded-up houses, abandoned salons, defunct laundromats. Commercial residue from the 1950s-60s, the expansive heyday. The golden west, true west. Middle-class families traveling through the mighty west, baby boomers raised in new cars to explore this continent opening up before them.
At the Anderson, Idaho, campground, twenty bucks gets you a tent site, but an extra Jackson (or soon to be Tubman) gets you a night in a musty covered wagon that sticks out like a giant bleached Twinkie among modern RVs and tents. A lady at the campground registration office/convenience store checked me in.
“You by yourself?”
“We just had a girl check in by herself, too. Tent camping. She’s real cute.” She winked at me.
“Well, maybe I should be camping with her instead.”
Maybe I would talk to her, this other lone camper, later. What adventuresome lass could resist a night in a faux covered wagon with a complete stranger fresh and sweaty from the Idaho back roads? “Hey, the lady at the front desk said you were alone? She said you were real cute and she was right. [lecherous stare] You want to camp together? Come on up to my covered wagon. It’ll be fine. No, we can zip the sides. Come on, hey, where’re you going?”
The lonely wagon, musty and sequestered behind the bathrooms, had a small wooden ramp that pulled down to the grass. Inside was a vinyl mattress perched on a chipped piece of plywood precariously balanced in between wooden slats. Either end of the wagon had zippable entrances, although the bottom foot of space was open-air. I had to choose between a breeze and privacy in the muggy August evening. I opted for the breeze, unzipping the back “door,” but shifted to privacy when I sat on the edge of the dirty mattress, drinking beer and watching Sons of Anarchy on my laptop through the campground’s Wi-Fi.
Where the fuck’s the spaceport? I passed through Green River, where there was supposed to be a landing strip for alien craft. I found it online when I was researching my route, cursor-dragging my way across Wyoming on Google Maps when the text within a grayed-out airport area snagged my attention: Green River/County Intergalactic Spaceport. The county commission had renamed their tiny airfield that in 1994. I was passing within a few miles of it anyway, so I wanted to see for myself. My GPS accepted the address and led me along a two-lane road under the hot Sunday sun. She kept saying we were approaching our destination but there were no turnoffs. Right where she said to turn there was nothing but a thin wire fence separating the road from scrubby hills that dipped down into small canyons. I saw the faint outline of a dirt road going down that way but it seemed too treacherous for my car to handle. Somewhere near here was Elk Mountain, which in the pamphlet Chuck described thusly: Old hunters assert that this famous old “Landmark of the Rockies” is hollow, and that they sometimes hear wolves howling inside of it; but some of these grizzled nimrods are troubled with strange daydreams.
Little America is both a town and a business. Little America is population 68, mostly the workers at this sprawling rest stop/gift shop/hotel/gas station. Little America finds refuge on the road here. Little America was started in the 1950s by Earl Holding. Little America has four locations in Wyoming, Utah and Arizona. Little America likes selling souvenirs, bear head magnets, Native American jewelry, witty coffee mugs (Wyoming: It’s boxy but good). Little America stands in long lines to buy these wares and overpriced fried food. Little America lines up to buy gasoline by the gallon with lumbering RVs easing under the fuel canopies to take their place. Little America parks in vast asphalt lots to lug their luggage into their hotel rooms. Little America checks you in at a cheaper rate for Sunday nights. Little America has a bar near the lobby where men sip weak beer and talk about preseason football. Little America says the pool is open until 10 p.m., but Little America chains the pool shut at 9, denying you a warm late-night swim. Little America watches you shuffle back to your room in your sandals, fresh white towel around your neck, as you get glimpses of families in their lamp-lit rooms. Little America looks at you askance, wondering why you’re a lone traveler, not a trucker. Little America finds you back in your room, a reality show babbling in the background. Little America drifts you to sleep among the other grizzled nimrods untroubled by sweet dreams.
I had a good view of Anita Lake in Iowa at this quiet, clean campground until a senior couple parked their camper about four spots down from me. The woman constantly narrated everything they were doing, bugging her old man with questions: do you want something to eat? Do you need your sweater? Do you have the flashlight? He grumbled terse replies. They finally went to bed after dark. I stoked a raging fire and listened to music. At one point their camper door opened and I heard her ask, is he still shining the flashlight at us? I assumed she was talking about me. (I hadn’t been shining my flashlight toward them, but later I did, randomly, intermittently.)
I saw Abe Lincoln in a chair, but I wasn’t sure if he was real or not. I kept looking—he wasn’t moving. I got closer and finally it moved. It was a Lincoln impersonator. I was looking at a scrapbook of a mayor assassinated in the 1980s, when Abe Lincoln started edging toward me. What do you say to a dead president? Do I talk to the reenactor or the man? I couldn’t decide so I moved away.
I was at the LaPorte County, Indiana, museum to see a replica 1903 Winton. I told an old man reading the placard I was following the same route this car took in 1903. In the same car, he asked. No. After that, he didn’t seem too interested.
In the basement of the museum there was an exhibit on a regionally infamous lady killer, Belle Gunness. A Norwegian émigré, “Hell’s Belle” lured single men to her farm and killed them. Her house eventually burned down and they found dead kids and a headless woman in the ashes but it remains unclear if it was her. The gruesome pictures and a crude, disturbing paper mache dummy of her clashed with the otherwise dusty 1950s golden days vibe of the place.
I returned to the Elkhart private campground. Another man in the bathhouse with one of those wheeled walkers peered over his shower door, watching everyone come in. He talked to another man in there, naked and shaving, comparing Ohio to Arizona. Yep, Indiana’s a lot closer to Ohio, so that drive is better. Yessir chuckle chuckle.
Tolls all the way across New York State. Palisades Parkway into NYC. Across the George Washington Bridge for $14 then along the river for surprisingly easy parking on Riverside Drive on the upper west side. A long subway ride to Coney Island. I walked to the end of the pier, past a kid hitting a crab with a pair of tongs, to the Atlantic, to the end of my trip.
The continent had closed behind me.
At the Coney Island museum, I had one more thing to see. It wasn’t directly related to the original trip other than it also happened in 1903. Thomas Edison electrocuted an elephant named Topsy to prove the superiority of direct current (DC) electricity over Westinghouse’s alternating current (AC). The museum depicted the event in a mutograph, a thick circle of cards you flip quickly to create the illusion of a moving picture. I put in a penny and watched as men connected cables to Topsy and jolted him into a shuddering, collapsing death.
You flip through the panels toward the inevitable end, to watch the thing die, a once magnificent beast crashing to the ground.
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Doug Rapp’s writing has appeared in publications throughout the Midwest. A Kentucky native, he teaches ESL and tutors writing in Chicago.