On the road (never) again

Cross-country trips have lost their romance and spirit of adventure.

The summer driving trip – the pack the kids in the car and set out for the West or the East or possibly the Grand Canyon trip – is once again in jeopardy.

It's been endangered before, especially during the first energy crises in 1973 and 1979, when people spent good portions of their vacation lined up at the gas station. But this time, the death of the car-bound family vacation feels real to me. (It feels real to some tourist destinations, such as Aspen, Colo., where tourism officials are offering free parking, free bicycle rentals, and a voucher for $50 worth of free gas.) Thus, as a 17-year veteran of epic car trips, I'm officially hanging up my cross-country driving hat and looking back, like an obituary writer, on the cross-country summer vacation.

Though it is difficult to discern it through the clutter of portable DVD players and GPS devices that today accompanies the typical long- or even short-distance driver, the cross-country trip was born about the time the idea of America was born, mostly in the mind of Thomas Jefferson, who sponsored several failed crossings before Lewis and Clark finally made it all the way to the Pacific.

For Jefferson, the idea was this: He who mapped it and described it in journals would own it. Next came the stagecoach, described by Mark Twain in his travel adventure "Roughing It" this way: "How we suffered, suffered, suffered! We sat absorbed and motionless through four long hours. Hunger asserted itself, but there was nothing to eat. "

As soon as the railroad laid tracks across America, railroad owners employed public relations teams to plant articles about the restorative powers of the scenic viewpoints along the line. Montana was the new Switzerland and Santa Fe, N.M., the new Orient. "See America First" went the campaign line, hand in hand with the revolution in landscape painting that saw God in the American landscape; Manifest Destiny in the view from the dining car.

The automobile arrived as an antidote to the urban, factory-fueled culture that produced it; drive a car and you restored your soul, your city-weakened spirit. Touring the countryside, the first cars were towed out of mud by farmers; in the 1920s, cars camped anywhere, to the further ire of farmers; then car camps on the edge of town became car parks, then mo-tels, then motels. Roads were mostly for farmers to get vegetables to market; parkways were for tourists.

Problematically, people began to go everywhere and do everything with cars. We got more and faster roads, roads that quickly seemed too few and too slow.

By 1956, when construction began on the first interstates, these autobahn-inspired roads offered the promise of access to a cross-country system of cloverleafs and limited-access expressways. It meant freedom from traffic. It meant going anywhere at any time.

The problem is, the cross-country trip became the everyday trip. Motels began to look like homes, or vice versa. It also created a new kind of settlement – a big-box store, fast-food chain, Gas & Go, chain motel – that is the perfect oasis of amenities for the interstate cross-country traveler. Except that its existence eats away at what the trip-taker has gone to see, which is the United States.

Meanwhile, state roads have begun to resemble interstates, leading us to malls – each filled with the kind of places I used to see only way out near the highway. When my wife and I began driving cross-country together in 1989, we visited towns because they were different from ours: Oh, to eat huckleberries for breakfast in that old drugstore in Butte, Mont., again!

Now these towns feature roadside food stands writ large, as in really large, as in Costco giant-mayo-container large. The ability to go on the cross-country trip has resulted in there being a lot less country to cross.

What's a cross-country driver to do?

I have recently informed my family that we will not be making the cross-country drive ever again. To prove that I mean it, I sold our car. We live in a city, so we can do it, no problem. I have to say, I feel like a radical, which I am not.

In the 1970s, when people were worried that the interstates would change driving from a sport into a government-regulated hassle, the Cannonball Run was an act of protest, a seat-beltless road race from coast to coast. Today, I think that a good way to capture some of the Cannonball spirit is to walk, or bike, or even just rent a car once in a while.

We'll take a train across the country, or fly to Grandma's out in Oregon, which is at last cheaper than driving. But we're going to mainly spend time closer to base – vacation-wise and for life in general. After all these years of seeing America, I feel as if I have to spend some time seeing what's left of what I call home.

Robert Sullivan is the author of "Cross Country." ©2007 Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

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