I could have driven coast-to-coast (and more) if I wanted to rack up 3500 miles on my odometer last month, but I took a little east-central oval-ish ride instead, tooling along back roads and some major U.S. interstates over the course of three weeks. Everyone – family, friends, strangers – thought I was nuts to load my 14-year-old pup into the car and set off (essentially) alone on an elongated loop through twelve states and the District of Columbia.
Traveling north out of Houston, the roads offer sights of both natural beauty and man-made mess. The pine trees look and smell delicious, much more so than the scruffy BBQ joints, and occasional glimpses of small, pretty lakes are a nice counterbalance to the scrap yard scenes that litter the outskirts of many a small town along the main route up through East Texas. The roads are mostly local access, so while screaming along at the posted speed limit of 75 mph, you have to be keenly aware that those same small towns and their hapless drivers may suddenly appear, and be ready to slam on the brakes at every at-grade crossing for the first five hours.
Entering Arkansas, it’s a bit of a relief to get on an interstate for a few hours and, unlike many larger highways, I-30 heading northeast toward Hot Springs and Little Rock has some very attractive scenery – more of those towering pines and azure lakes, with the junk hidden away beyond the exits. I make an impromptu 30-minute stop to say hello to my son in Little Rock and then power on through Memphis, feeling good, bouncing in my seat, waving my dance hands, and writing my novel in my head. Damn, I love driving.
A few hours later, my mood has crashed; it’s gotten dark, I’ve stopped singing, the dog is restless, and I’m counting the miles to the exit for the small town in Tennessee where I’ve booked a room. Twelve hours in, and I’m whipped, so I have little energy to make a change or a fuss when I check into a dirty room up three flights of steps that are sticky with badly disguised vomit stains. This is a stairway I have to navigate four times to get the dog, her stuff, my stuff, and the cooler into the room. Who loves road trips now?
I do; I still do! It’s a cool, dewy morning as I leave Jackson, Tennessee the next day, and my spirits have trampolined right back up. I’ve blown through Nashville before my coffee buzz wears off, and just as it does, I have some relaxing horse country to meander through for a while in Kentucky. Once in Ohio, I feel I’m in the home stretch for the day and after a brief roller coaster ride on the trestle bridges of West Virginia’s skinny northern panhandle and the harrowingly thin gauntlet of I-70 soon afterward, I’m home in western Pennsylvania, my stopping point for a while.
Because 1500 miles is mere child’s play, I throw in a round trip to DC for good measure a few days after arriving in the Laurel Highlands of PA. I find Washington quite charming now that I no longer reside there, and I poke around Logan Circle and my old haunts for a day before returning to the mountains. I never tire of the route down or back through rural Maryland, and my heart leaps like it’s the first time I’ve seen the multicolored patchwork of farms that spread out below the plateaus I’ve traversed for decades.
I finally settle in at our house in the mountains, helping my parents with household tasks, walking in the woods, taking in several art exhibits in Pittsburgh, and sleeping with the windows thrown open every night, something impossible to do in Houston almost any time of year. One night, my mother calls down “The neighbor kids are having a bonfire – come see – it’s huge!” My father and I are talking, and we take our sweet time getting up to take a look. I immediately know it is no bonfire; in fact, I am sure the house next door is engulfed in an inferno. I see a structure burning inside the flames, flames that are suddenly twice as high as the house. We call 911 and await the fire engines from whatever VFD might respond way out here in the country. It’s a good 45 minutes and several small explosions later that the hose trucks finally arrive, and we learn that a camper has burned down to its frame, torching two other vehicles and consuming nearby trees in its fiery frenzy.
I eventually leave the mountains and peaceful farms of western Pennsylvania for the mind numbing drive west to Chicago. There are no two turnpikes more deathly boring than those in Ohio and Indiana, and this is the only stretch of my thousands of miles that I would happily give up. I engage in painful nostalgia for several days in Illinois, even daring to drive past my house of 20+ years, but I also get a lot of things done that need doing. It’s a bittersweet stay, but I leave feeling okay that this is no longer my home. I have foolishly and poorly planned my driving days and end up viewing an 85% eclipse in a Walgreen’s parking lot instead of being in the zone of totality in southern Illinois, which I will drive very near the next day. (I’m usually a planner extraordinaire: I am clearly slipping.)
The next day is a driving delight once I’ve passed St. Louis, itself one of those perennially stirring city visions as you first spy its famous arch from a bridge over the Mississippi. Southern Missouri brings the Ozarks and a winding highway carved into rough layers of limestone. There are other karst features to ogle, like springs and caves, but I can’t get enough of the stone cliffs that jut out of the heavy tree growth. I am in no hurry today, even knowing I have a long way to go to get into Northwest Arkansas. The old dog is a trooper, snoozing away in the back seat miles and weeks into our journey, as I dawdle down the highway.
I’m filled with energy as I pull into Bentonville, Arkansas, nine hours later, so I decide to feed the dog and ditch her in the hotel to try to get into the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art before they close so I can view the Dale Chihuly outdoor sculptures at dusk.
The art in the woods is indescribable; how do you adequately explain glass balloons that peek out of tree limbs or a stand of purple light sabers in a clearing? Art ensconced in nature is my newest obsession, and I got two doses on this trip, the first in Pittsburgh’s Frick Museum greenhouse. Bentonville itself is picture perfect, probably because the Walton family helps keep it that way (I think cynically), and once again, I’m falling for Arkansas against all odds.
The final day’s drive is a revelation – new ground for me, with the middle patch a rough and remote route. I mosey through university-town Fayetteville for an hour or so, scoop up my son from a business meeting, and then hug the western border of Arkansas as we head due south, later hopping the state line into Oklahoma and entering an unexpected world. We’re on some kind of old logging road that alternately climbs and then barrels downhill at irregular intervals, making my ears continually pop and my stomach lurch as we round each new bend and see jewel-toned valleys beyond precipitous drop-offs. If I’m lucky, I can squeak by the huge trucks piled with felled tree trunks; if not, I chug behind them on the uphills until they thunder ahead of me just over the crests. I see my first Cherokee Nation license plate, and I do not see a gas station or any services for many miles. It is a dramatic and wild expanse, the narrow road a gash in dark, forbidding hills, a segment where I am glad for some human company today.
But soon we’re back in north Texas and we eventually reconnect with the crazy rifle-range of a road that leads us back into Houston. Tonight, the traffic headed south is quite thin; it is the night before Harvey is due in town, and I celebrate these last hours of driving freedom before the deluge.
Next week we are off on another road trip, this one of the European variety (sans dog) … be back soon!