“If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else.” — Yogi Berra
After a year of responsible isolation, echoey Zoom meetings, and hundreds of miles of walking around my block, I’m really looking forward to taking a road trip this summer. Before I had my own car I used to hitchhike to explore the country. When you hitchhike it’s nice to start off with a general idea of where you’re trying to go, but best not to have your heart set on a specific destination. For example a sign that says “East Coast” is good, but “Home to Mom” might be better and open up the road to more possible rides. When I got desperate enough, after standing in a snowstorm on a freeway ramp outside of Buffalo, New York, “Anywhere But Here!” helped to keep me from freezing to death.
The main reason I began hitchhiking was to see parts of the country I’d never been. At age 17 that was mostly everywhere, so I was fairly happy to accept almost any ride I could get. But as I grew older, with more responsibilities and limited amounts of vacation time, my travels had to be carefully thought out and planned. I was forced to buy my own car and take the Interstate to get where I needed to go as fast as I could. I’d guess that about 95 percent of long distance travelers stick exclusively to the Interstates, except when they need to get gas or a bad meal at a truck stop. There is nothing much to look at on the Interstate except for a blur of grass and carefully planted landscaping, and nothing much to do except see how fast you can manage to go before getting caught by a State Trooper or stuck behind a trucker going 58½ mph assing another trucker going 58¼ mph.
So it was amazing a few years back when the last kid headed off to college that I was able to once again hit the road with only a general idea of where I was headed. Better still, instead of having as my traveling companion the slightly overripe smelling hippie who happened to be stranded on the same freeway on-ramp, I was instead accompanied by my lovely wife and our own lovely credit card.
We began the road trip knowing only that we were heading “out west” to visit friends and family and not having any set time that we were expected to be somewhere, or any specific path that we knew we would take. This was a radical departure from the family trips that we had been taking for the previous 25 or so years, when every day had been carefully discussed and planned months ahead of time, each night’s motel booked in advance, each potential attraction researched and scheduled into the detailed itinerary. Even with all this precise planning for fun and education, and the required two hour lunch with Aunt Mildred when we passed through Sheboygan, something would always upset the apple-cart. For example, I’ll never forget the time we arrived for our carefully scheduled hour at the Grand Canyon and the kids simply refused to get out of the car. We were parked at a turnout literally 50 feet from the rim of one of the Seven Wonders of the World and they could not be persuaded, bribed, or frog marched to see it.
No, for this trip we stuck to two lane highways wherever possible, and stopped to explore whenever something caught our eye. We turned off our schedulers and calendars and once we got far enough out west even cell phones didn’t work in most places. It was good to remember how much of the country is out there with basically no one living in it. Places like Highway 50 through Nevada, “The Loneliest Road in America,” where you can drive for miles and miles with no sign of civilization other than the road itself, and where naturally the warning light came on my dashboard telling me one of my tires was going flat.
With so many fantastic places to randomly encounter we chose to take a completely different set of two-lane paths on the way back, except for one place that we had to revisit: The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas. At one time tallgrass prairie covered 170 million acres of North America, but within a single generation the vast majority was plowed under for the wheat fields and cornfields that now make up much of the American landscape. Today less than four percent of the original prairie remains, mostly centered around this preserve, which is literally central to our American story. Plus they’ve got a herd of buffalo!
Our trip was nearly cut short and we were almost forced to finish it in a marathon cross country drive on the dreaded Interstate when we realized that we had miscalculated when we were supposed to pick up our youngest son at the end of his first year of college. In our minds school was going to end in June, like his high school always did, but the poohbahs of the higher education world were anxious to send the kids home in early May and begin their summer cocktail sabbaticals. Fortunately, our oldest son bailed us out by going to retrieve Ravi and all his junk from the dorms. I’m sure on the road trip home they remembered all the great family vacations we took together, especially the time they got to see the Grand Canyon.