36 hours on the road in America

23:46, Jul 03 2012

I have recently completed a 15-hour car trip from Grass Valley, California, to Ennis, Montana. For reasons I will soon divulge, it took 36 hours.

When friends of mine have returned from South American travels, their tales of marathon bus journeys always seemed neat. Travelling can be a grind. Not every journey is replete with cultural riches and winning geography. But that a good proportion of their stories were from these very trips is testament to the idea that some of the magic of travelling is in the journey itself.

That said... there are some gruesomely ordinary parts of America. Sure it's big, but there's a reason gigantic swaths of it are written off as the flyover states.

There was both magic and menace in the monotony of the trip we just took

*****

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The alarm rang on Sunday at 4.30am, jolting me out of my fifth hour of blissful sleep and toward the backseat of LP's brother's car. We were away by 5am. An hour and a bit later we were in Nevada. The landscape dissipated into desert. The forest fell away, and the horizon became limitless. The sun was low in the sky and the undulating hills were peppered with shadow. Beirut was playing in the car and I had coffee in hand. There was a romance to the moment.  

But driving through Nevada the desert becomes your new normal. There's a lot of nothing: it's all scorched earth and the occasional testament to the conquering drive of capitalism.

Desert... Desert... Desert... WALMART!! Desert... Desert...

We stopped for breakfast at Winnemucca at 8.30am. It is the sort of town only found in the American desert. You look around and think, why do people live here? How did they get here? The four of us (myself, LP and her brother and father) all ate Sausage Egg McMuffins. It occurred to me that maybe overexposure is McDonald's issue. Eating tasteless, greasy breakfast food in a McDonald's in the desert next to a petrol station that doubles as a casino, surrounded by six types of moustache, leathery desert families, Stetson clad truckers and the morbidly obese, was oddly perfect.

About 11am the desert heat kicked in and the car became less relaxing. Elko came and went. Like all Nevada towns it's an irrigated patch in the desert: a small burst of houses, casinos and fast-food joints.  

Our next stop was Flying J in Wells, described to me by LP as the Chevron of the desert. It sells electronics, fishing rods, bad T-shirts, snacks, chicken, pizza and toys. Truckers can stop in for a shower. I had a craving for a newspaper, but it could not be arranged.

I accidentally cut too closely past two grizzled men browsing for beef-jerky and was swiftly cussed out. "Watch it," one snarled. "Oh, I'm sorry," I responded. "Your f***in crazy," he muttered back at me.

The shop was packed half with locals who looked stuck out of time, and half with sweaty, disoriented tourists who looked as hough they just wanted to get a snack and leave, fast. I made out okay: a Diet Coke, a packet of Haribo Happy Colas and Chips Ahoy! kept me perky.  

On the Nevada-Idaho state line we came to Jackpot. Nevada goes out with a bang in Jackpot, a grimy and dated pocket of casinos. A 2010 Sharon Angle for Senate billboard leered over the town.

A few moments into Idaho, I was lulled to sleep by the lilt of Ira Glass. I woke up in Twin Falls, just in time for a Taco Bell stop. This was my fourth time through Idaho, and it was as unimpressive as I remembered. The countryside is as monotonous as the desert and only partly greener. People seem chirpier. There's more commerce and religion around. But the Nevada desert is full of mean people and bursts of garishness. It's somehow more fun.  

And then our tire shredded.

There was a moment when it was surreal to be standing in the middle of nowhere, Idaho, to the side of a ceaseless stream of vehicles. But then the reality set in. It was 4pm on Sunday. We had 400km to our destination, and we weren't going to get there on a spare.

So we were stuck in Pocatello, population 54,000.

For a moment it seemed a miracle run-in with a Walmart (who of course sell tyres!) might have us back on the road. But it was not to be.

Pocatello was yet another town on our trip set to a nondescript backdrop and strangled lifeless by corporate America. It was equal parts elderly, and tattooed youths bounding about in bad T-shirts wearing boredom on their sleeves. We found a temporary home in the finest three-star hotel Pocatello had to offer. The hotel was like something that was top of the line in 1992 and had been frozen in time: indoor swimming pool complete with choking aroma of chlorine, table-tennis tables, Shaq Attack pinball and the Cruis'n USA arcade game. 

We ate at a Perkins. It is a chain of restaurants that makes Denny's look good. We were not well fed but we kept ourselves amused.

By 9.30 the next morning, we'd found a new tyre. I made a Starbucks run, traipsing through Pocatello's central business district (a Walmart, a Costco, a smattering of fast-food outlets and several empty shop fronts) in what was already scorching 30-degree heat. The weather and the expansive flatness of the town felt oppressive. We got our tyre and moved on somewhere else to have it aligned. By midday we were out of town. By the time we were into Montana we were happy to be rid of Idaho. Montana came on like a treat: lush greens, everything framed by mountains, big blue sky.

A little bit before 5pm on Monday we pulled into Ennis. On the last leg of the trip we joked among ourselves about having spent time in the "real America". There's probably some truth there.

Anyway, it was over.

*****

I was reading a Batman comic at one point on the trip. Where this was, I forget now. It starts with Lieutenant Gordon catching the train into Gotham as Bruce Wayne flies in. It cuts between each of them bemoaning the way they're entering the city. To Gordon, an "airplane can fool you into thinking it's civilised" below, while to Wayne a train gets you close to the people. "I should see the enemy," he reflects.

Driving through Nevada, Idaho and Montana, you're moving through part of America that is three-and-a-half times as big as New Zealand, with only 5.3 million people. Much of it is inhospitable. Some of it is attractive but much of it really is not.

Making this trip, which I've just completed for the third time in my life, always makes me think: America is not San Francisco or New York. Countries are defined as much by the places that we want to go to as tourists, as by the places that we'd never think or probably dare to visit.

Instead of flying over and gushing at just how big America is, driving through these states gives me a taste of the weirdness that is out there and a feel for the national riddle.

(I realise this will go live on July 4 in New Zealand. But due to time differences July 4 hasn't happened yet here. Expect a full parade/rodeo/hot-dog eating/fireworks wrap up on Friday.)

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