Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Mad Dash Home

I must say, Idaho didn't quite live up to its hype. You may be wondering "What hype? Dancing potatoes?" I know, I know. For some reason I built up Idaho in my mind as a picturesque state, and perhaps it is in the north. In the south, however, driving along 86 and 84, it felt like a bit of letdown. However, this route did help us avoid Utah, which I've crossed at least three times already.

Unfortunately, Idaho couldn't help us with Nevada. We spent the night in Jackson Hole, and then pushed on through Nevada. Our original plan was to stop at Elko. But we were making good time and Ron was starting to think about getting home early so he could prepare for his Sunday flight to Washington, D.C. So we stopped at an underwhelming Mexican restaurant for dinner, then put Benny in his pajamas for some night driving.

We drove another 60 miles through a blinding, sinking sun on the horizon to Battle Mountain, where their one hotel was full. So we pushed on another 60 miles to Winnemucca, It was 10 p.m. and every hotel was full there, too. Well, not every hotel -- the Winners Hotel was only $50 a night and was never full, the helpful Holiday Inn desk clerk said. Did not sound good, so we reserved a hotel room in Sparks, just east of Reno. It was another 2 1/2-hour drive, and Ron groaned when I told him the news. We had to get more windshield wiper fluid, though, since we'd drained the minivan's supply washing away the battalions of squashed bugs during this drive. Ron entered a Chevron just minutes before it closed and we had a diverting 15 minutes trying to open the minivan's hood while Chevron's employees celebrated the end of their shift in the parking lot.

We woke up the next day groggy but determined to arrive in San Francisco that day. Benny was disappointed he couldn't see Lake Tahoe from I-80. Tahoe seems to be the vacation destination for the Bay Area. "Every week one of my friends goes to Tahoe," Benny said. "Sometimes three of them have gone. I think they meet up with each other." Certainly Ron's and my coworkers love to trade tips about Tahoe cabins and skiing. "The North Rim's the place to be," one likes to say wisely. Of course, Ron and I are so contrary that Benny will be lucky to see Tahoe before he's 18.

We emerged from the Sierra Nevadas and cross California's central valley, then enter the Bay Area. I found myself surprisingly excited to return to San Francisco. We found a parking spot for our Honda Fit across the street from our apartment and the parked the filthy, bug-splattered minivan in our garage space. Benny cheerfully toted bundles and small pieces of furniture up the stairs so we were settled at home in no time.

My last task that night was to check the trip odometer: 2,891.6 miles over 11 states in one week.

There's something satisfying about crossing a continent from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean. We watched the whole panorama unfold: the waters of Lake Michigan, the congestion of Chicago, then through relatively flat Wisconsin and Minnesota to enter South Dakota's prairie. Then cross the Missouri River into the West, with mountains and monuments and the Rockies drawing ever closer. Then through the hills of Montana and Idaho down into the Nevada desert. A quick hop over the Sierra Nevada mountains, through the Central Valley and we find ourselves on the Bay Bridge, one minute after the toll goes from $5 to $6, but who's complaining.

I don't know what else to take away from it except this is the source of Americans' helpless obsession with automobiles and the lure of the open road. In Europe you want to throw a few stacks of cash in a carpet bag like Phineas Fogg and board the Orient Express to Paris-Munich-Vienna-Istanbul or the Trans-Mongolian Railroad to Moscow-Ulan Bator-Beijing. In America you want to point your car toward the setting sun and drive until you're too tired to see. Some writers say the last hundred years will be seen as an amazing anomaly, when ordinary people could just pile into a car and go anywhere, limited only by their money for gas. They say that era is coming to an end, and it is true such habits greatly harm the Earth. Twenty years from now, will Benny be able to rent a big minivan with unlimited mileage, fill it with his family and odd pieces of furniture and drive across the country? Has this trip passed on the precept that cars equal freedom to another generation?

Now I'm back in San Francisco, and tomorrow I'll take a bus to Benny's summer camp and then a train to work like the good tree-hugging liberal I am, but when I'm looking out the windows of the N-Judah, I'll probably imagine I'm driving through Yellowstone's Gallatin mountain range.

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