Ask a European what they think of when you mention America, and many of them will say simply, “it’s big”. Well, that’s a masterpiece of understatement, as I’m about to find out on my circumnavigation of our country, which will take my son and I from Orlando to Maine, then across the Great Lakes, along the Canadian border, and on to Seattle, where we’ll hang a left and head down the California coast, east into the 4 corners states, down into the Republic of Texas, and finally across the South back to O-Town on a 10,000 mile journey of a lifetime.
A sane person would look at our impossible schedule and ask simply, “why?”, and it’s a legitimate question, since I’m not exactly known for my mental sobriety, let alone my detailed planning and execution. Here it is in a nutshell: I want to bond with my son, reconnect with my relatives, and, most of all, see some corners of this country I haven’t seen before and find out if things are as bad as I think they are in the real country, the part that isn’t reported on by the imbeciles on TV. So I hope you’ll join me and enjoy my daily report, in which I promise I will provide you with nothing concrete except a regular guy’s humorous report on the state of the nation and adventures experienced along our way, as seen through the eyes of an over the hill fifty something, perhaps in need of a life, but possessed with a keen sense of what our country used to be as a good seat of the pants reference point and an infinite ability to laugh at himself. Oh, and as I have travelled extensively elsewhere in the world, I think maybe I can provide a sense of perspective. I make no pretense that we’ll cover the country scientifically or logically. The main thing is that we have FUN and experience life in these United States.
Of course, every road trip deserves a Great Ride. After all, Thelma and Louise had their T Bird and Bonnie and Clyde had their V-8 Ford Coupe. I knew the car had to be American, it had to be fun, and it had to be fast. It had to have a proud pedigree and it had to look great even sitting still. So I bought a Kona Blue convertible Mustang for my son as a graduation present, and oh my god is it gorgeous! What car represents the American spirit better than the original pony car, after all? What car gives you more sex appeal for the dollar? What car is an American original, a steel icon? What car is less practical as a means of hauling all of our luggage and camping gear across the country?
Yes, I said camping gear! What could be more fun than pitching a tent in a bed of fire ants in a South Carolina trailer park after a long day of touring Charleston’s finest restaurants, after all? But I can’t complain, because this trip, which involves 37 states, hundreds of miles of scenic drives, and dozens of hotel, guided tour, and restaurant reservations, has been entirely planned by my son, who has everything mapped out right down to where we will eat breakfast. What could go wrong?
Day one: Tuesday, August 9, 2011
We start our trip in Orlando, Florida. Since my son, Jonathan, grew up there and I have spent more time in the Magic Kingdom than Walt Disney, we are going to head straight north up I-95 into hopefully cooler climes than the Sunscorched State. He is excited by the trip and is ready to explore the open road in his new car. He points the car toward the state line and plays “Ramblin’ Man” at my request. The Allman Brothers knew a thing or two about road trips, not to mention cocaine and prison.
The first thing I notice is that, if the recession is affecting people’s vehicle purchase decisions, it isn’t evident on I 95, which is full of leviathan SUVs designed to scale boulder strewn creek beds with the greatest of ease, all in air conditioned 8MPG comfort. But since we pay less than just about any country on earth for our gas, why not? And so you see huge pickup trucks capable of hauling a small house transporting a single occupant across the state, and I am reminded of a friend who told me he’d bought a 7,000 pound Excursion simply so he could be the biggest and baddest guy on the road. In retrospect, I have to admire his honesty, and the reality is that, in the America I see, the road is full of new cars, and such a varied cornucopia of brands that exists nowhere else on earth, because in no other country are the barriers to competitive entry so low. Mercedes, Toyota, Honda, Kia, Jaguar, Volvo, Ferrari…virtually every auto brand is represented, and there are even a few domestic products left out there competing as well, and they’re all cruising down the highway on probably the best roads in the world, where even rural tertiary tractor trails are smoothly paved ribbons of asphalt. The car culture is alive and well in America, and people do LOVE their rides, which are personal statements of status as much as they are transportation.
And the signs. they’re everywhere, promoting everything, from cheap gas to cheaper Deep South trinkets (made in China) to Genuine Thai Massage competing for scarce space in the vehicle right of way where a farm pasture used to be. I’ve got to say that every billboard is an eyesore to me, and I wonder how many people are really driving down the highway when they suddenly decide impulsively that they need to have a naked woman serve them a day old breakfast croissant, but at the same time I guess they wouldn’t advertise for the best chrome mud flaps if people didn’t buy them.
I spend the night with my cousins in Jacksonville, a port city criss-crossed with cable-stayed bridges spanning the mighty St. John’s River, which uniquely flows north into the Atlantic Ocean. The city looks prosperous enough to me as I blow through it at 80MPH, but I may have missed a few things during my high speed run. I can just say that, as a former resident of that city, I am glad that they got rid of the World’s Only Interstate Toll Bridge, which was the cause of the World’s Biggest Interstate Traffic Jam, and that it’s nice to know it doesn’t smell like a flatulent dog anymore now that the wood pulp factory is closed.
I’d say my cousin is a typical American suburbanite in a lot of ways, though his life has been sheltered from the worst effects of the recession by a steady stream of government retirement checks and a medical insurance plan that would make a Congressman envious. In other words, he is retired military, and he and his wife strongly believe that the country’s economic demise can be reversed through political means, and that means getting rid of Obama, who they view with lower regard than pond scum, which at least has the virtue of providing a habitat for slimy reptiles, which themselves are of better character than the average Democrat, at least in their opinion.
They can provide me with reams of data showing that Obama’s spending patterns are about as responsible as a Marine in a Filipino whore house, which I object to on the grounds that the Jarhead is getting good value for his money, but all we get are $400 Air Force hammers, sleeping air traffic controllers, and bilingual traffic signs.
We talk mostly about family, though, and I envy their lifestyle to some degree, which seems to involve a whole lot of exotic vacations and constant travel, but that is unfortunately fit in between lots of doctor visits. We tour the large ranch style brick home, which they contracted out themselves, and I have to chuckle at how people existed in Florida before the age of electric hurricane shutters, air conditioning, cheap gas, and government support. Not very well, I’d expect. Scratch only a little beneath the surface veneer of the wide sandy beaches and St. Augustine grass, and it’s as inhospitable a climate and geography as you’re likely to find on God’s green earth, filled with poisonous reptiles and New Yorkers, but then I repeat myself.
The home is filled with military memorabilia, and my cousin Frank is justifiably proud of his service, which is a family tradition. Southerners, as everyone knows, make exceptionally good soldiers, and my family is full of them. It’s too bad that valor is wasted on vain enterprises based on the whims of mere politicians, who never seem to have any skin in the game. Put them on the front line, and we’ll have far fewer wars. I read somewhere that not a single Congressman has a son or daughter in harms’ way overseas. That’s a damned shame and a disgrace.