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The (New) Great American Road Trip

In my anticipation to get out of town everything seems to take a little longer. A woman snags the last open pump at the gas station. An empty bucket of roofing tar in the middle of the road that probably fell off someone’s truck slows traffic. The red lights take a little bit longer. Everyone drives a little more poorly. I keep thinking some piece of bad luck is going to jump up and grab me if I’m not careful and I’ll never get out of this town.

But get out I do. It’s a hot clear day as I turn onto I-70 West, 95 degrees, just a few streaming clouds in a baby blue sky. One last red light – the longest of them all – and I’m on the highway. I watch the Kansas City skyline recede in my rear view mirror as I gun the engine to a roar and I begin my journey. I murmur an adios to my hometown. I don’t know when I’ll be back.

Years ago I took a similar trip as an adventurous 19-year-old with an equally adventurous Swiss girlfriend. Christina wanted to see the vast expanses of the western United States and I had a 1974 Karmann Ghia convertible that remarkably seemed up to the task. We spent three months driving the back roads of Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Utah and Colorado, camping as we went. Christina was both organized and stylish in a manner I can only describe as “Swiss” and every night our tent was a model of economy and comfort. I still have no idea how we packed all that stuff into my Ghia but we never wanted for anything and I still often think of the strange and beautiful sights we saw, all the more impressive seeing them through European eyes. It was romantic, thrilling and wonderful. It was a different time.

Perhaps the most notable difference was the lack of cell phones. Back then, the only people who had phones in their cars were the types who stopped to ask if you had Grey Poupon in the back of your Rolls and a portable phone was one of those suitcase jobs found at Army surplus stores. I distinctly remember camping at a site where the only phone, a payphone, was out of service. Calling mom and dad would have to wait until the next town. And if your car broke down you could wait for hours before the next person who could help you came along that dusty back road.

I’m wired now – I have my laptop that allows me to work from the road as long as I can find a signal, so I never really have to lose contact with relatives and friends unless I choose to go off the grid. I can work as I travel. I’m writing this from my friend Dirk’s house in Denver as he very kindly is letting me stay in the spare bedroom for a few days.

I have a small audio recorder to record interviews and notate my thoughts, though this requires listening to my own voice to transcribe them, something no one really enjoys.

I also have a digital camera, a far cry from the small camera that Christina and I had, and I won’t have to drop off 30 rolls of film at Walgreens when I get home. The camera shoots video as well so I can document interesting places and people I meet along the way.

Of course, the digital revolution has a downside – shortly after I arrived in Denver my camera’s brand new card crapped out on me, erasing the photos and video I took as I meandered across Kansas. Hopefully, the digital technicians I found here in Denver can retrieve them and I look forward to writing the one-star product review on Amazon.

Tent, sleeping bag, clothes, books, gold panning gear, fishing pole, a tool box full of toiletries, pictures of my mom and dad, all packed into a 97 Honda Accord that hopefully will handle the 5000 or so miles I intend to put on it. No beautiful Swiss girlfriend to keep me organized this time but nothing’s perfect.

I spent a night in Russell, Kansas, and had a nice early morning chat with my hotel neighbor, an amiable fellow named Steve who was also heading towards Colorado on an odyssey of his own. Fifty-ish, divorced, and looking for greener pastures, he too had decided to head west. And like any modern Kerouac he had outfitted his truck with cameras to record the journey – one mounted on the passenger door facing him and another over his shoulder to capture the open road.

He didn’t have a Swiss girlfriend either but we both had half the country in front of us and a means to share it with people.

And that’s pretty good.


Photo: Sheila Scarborough/Creative Commons/Flickr

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