For those of us reared on family car vacations, Jack Kerouac and every buddy road story from Lewis and Clark to Thelma and Louise, crossing the country is such an American ritual it's like pledging allegiance to the flag at 105kph. Get that average speed up to a mere 177kph and, thanks to the miracle of the Interstate, it's possible to race across the continent in one day and still have time to pick up a couple of Happy Meals at the drive-through.
The Interstate highway system turned 50 this month. Robert Sullivan, chronicler of swamps, whales and rodents (as the author of Meadowlands, A Whale Hunt and Rats), now applies his onion-peeling skills to the evolution of this multi-lane leveler of mountains, deserts, rivers and regionalism.
Sullivan, his wife and two children make a six-day odyssey on Interstates from Oregon to New York City in a Chevy Impala, the “four-door, full-size relative of a drag racer” and the vehicle of
choice for two generations of cops and cabbies.
“Never go on a cross-country trip with me,” Sullivan warns early in Cross Country, with 354 pages still to go, “for I can't stop rattling on about what I assume or even imagine to be the significance of things.” The Interstate route allows him to riff on milestones along America's road to becoming a Country of Roads.
The obvious start for Sullivan is Oregon's Columbia River Gorge, where Lewis and Clark washed up after 18 months in the wilderness, eager for dog meat as a relief from eating salmon.
But how much of a wilderness had it really been? Sullivan contemplates the preponderance of trappers, settlers, English place names and overseas goods along the route and puts matters into fresh perspective; the expedition wasn't really the first transcontinental voyage, it was merely “the first round-trip across the North American continent by a white guy associated with the federal government.”
Lewis shot himself in 1809 (though Sullivan also discusses the possibility that he was murdered), and Clark procrastinated another five years to edit their notes about the route few would ever travel again — most pioneers crossed the Continental Divide via the gentler slopes to the south. By the time the official expedition report was published, the real future of mass transcontinental travel had been etched through the Alleghenies with the first federally financed highway, leading from Maryland to West Virginia. Commissioned by Congress, it was covered with crushed stone to allow for easy passage by carriage. By 1823, it had extended 1,287km to St. Louis.
Overland wagon trails, the railroad and then cars led the migration farther west. The first transcontinental road was the brainchild of Carl Fisher, an automobile promoter fond of dropping bicycles and cars off tall buildings as publicity stunts, and eventual founder of the Indianapolis 500. In 1910 Fisher spearheaded a highly tenuous intertwining of farm lanes, city streets and newly constructed “seedling roads” — concrete strips less than a kilometer long — into the Lincoln Highway, linking New York City with San Francisco.
In 1915, seven years before publishing her book on etiquette, Emily Post took a travel assignment from Collier's, packing the family silver and a stiff upper lip for a drive across the country on the Lincoln Highway. Her car finally gave up in New Mexico, and she ended up taking the train the rest of the way. “It is your troubles on the road,” Post wrote, “that afterwards become your most treasured memories.”
Another traveler, Dwight D. Eisenhower, spent two months in 1919 driving a military convoy across the country; the shoddy roads left a lasting impression on him. After World War II he studied Hitler's autobahn and concluded that the American military should have one. In 1956 he signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which, the president recounted in his memoir, resulted in enough concrete to build “six sidewalks to the moon.” The new highways were originally meant to loop around cities that could be skirted should they be destroyed by atomic bombs. Instead, the loops started a suburban construction boom that continues to this day. Sullivan reports that Phoenix, a city that virtually rose out of the Interstate, currently gobbles up land at the rate of 1.2 acres per hour.
In the 1960s state toll roads entered into the system, extending the web to all corners of the country. Today almost 75,600km of Interstate highways — with attendant motels, fast-food courts and construction projects — have paved over the continent with such efficiency that one can move from sea to shining sea with speed, economy and almost zero interpersonal interaction.
Which is essentially how the Sullivans' drive goes. “I sense that this is another person who I have gotten to know the tiniest bit by walking down a hall he was in at a very early hour,” Sullivan notes, spotting a fellow motel guest at a Kum & Go station.
Herein is the book's great weakness: Very little happens during the journey. Making matters worse, Sullivan's trademark pointillist writing style, ideal for illustrating exotic activities like whale and rat hunting, becomes pedantic when applied to the more mundane task of highway cruising.
Between musings on history, the six-day drive stretches into 372 pages of mind-numbing logistics: a troublesome roof pack is installed, adjusted and readjusted ad nauseam; “enough coffee to drown an elephant” is described cup by cup; a quest for the next Holiday Inn Express seems to take longer than Lewis and Clark's crossing of the Bitterroot Mountains.
There are moments of brilliance along the way. But the verbose text, like the notes that pioneers deposited along old Western wagon trails, encourages the reader to take shortcuts. Too bad Sullivan or an editor didn't take them first.
By Robert Sullivan
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