It is not easy to feel great about America right now. But there is an antidote.
My wife Riva and I spent nine weeks this summer on a cross-country trek in our trusty 2005 Toyota Camry with three hubcaps. “We’re from Brooklyn,” said Riva when I wanted to replace the missing hubcap before we ventured out. “I like the look. It says, ‘Don’t mess with me.’”
It’s 47 years since I first drove cross-country, camping with my buddy Howard. I had just graduated high school; Howard had finished his first year at Wharton. This 2017 trip was Riva’s first sea-to-shining-sea by car.
As now, 1970 was a politically fraught time in the U.S. The Vietnam War was raging, and it was on that trip that I learned my draft lottery number (206; no need to go to Canada). In the course of the 2017 trip, my Medicare card got activated, and we mostly steered clear of the news and talk radio.
Howard and I had a canvas tent that he recently threw out. Riva and I stayed mostly in cheap motels and Airbnb’s with good shower heads, comfortable mattresses, mini-fridges and complimentary breakfasts — sometimes quite extensive breakfasts, as at Miriam’s b&b in Whitefish, Montana and at the Piccadilly Motel in Radium Hot Springs, BC (yes, we went to Canada this time).
Howard and I visited mostly national parks along the southern route and ate a great deal of canned Chef Boyardee cheese ravioli, heated in the can on our camp stove. Riva and I primarily visited national and state parks and forests in the Pacific Northwest and Canada, shopping for provisions at farm stands, Safeways and IGAs. Typical dinner from our cooler: triple-washed arugula, pulled chicken, and orzo or Greek salad all mixed together.
How to feel great about America?
- Pay heed to Mary, the ranger in Olympic National Park who, upon learning we wanted to take a late afternoon drive up to Hurricane Ridge, warned that we’d be “driving into a cloud with zero visibility, 40 mph winds, and heavy rains. I wouldn’t go myself.” Instead, Mary suggested a scenic 30-minute drive to Crescent Lake, where we might have drinks on the veranda or dinner at the lodge. We shared an artichoke and soup, and downed a local IPA and a Washington State chardonnay on an enclosed porch overlooking a lake that mirrored the mountains and the clouded sunset. Said Riva, “I could live out my days right here.” Next day, after thanking her for sending us to Crescent Lake, Mary gave us the thumbs-up for the magnificent hike on Hurricane Ridge.
- Hear Woody Guthrie’s words come to life as you visit the National and State Redwood Forests in northern California. Drive or hike through the Avenue of the Giants and the Valley of the Giants at dusk, when the 300-foot tall trees jump out at you at every curve. Stay at the Curly Redwood Inn in Crescent City, CA, where the entire meticulously maintained 1950s motel is built from and decorated with the lumber produced by a single redwood tree.
- Circle the Colorado National Monument, 20 minutes west of Grand Junction, Colorado, in the northwest corner of the state. Following the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive yields a stunning landscape of red rock cliffs and sandstone monoliths that rose out of the earth as much as 1.5 billion years ago. One of my favorites, with little tufts of green sprouting from the rocks, resembles Kermit the Frog (look carefully in the lower left corner of the left photo).
- Celebrate a 16-year-old Mennonite girl in Fairfield, Montana (pop. 724) whose parents hosted us in their Airbnb and who passionately told her big city guests, “Town may only be two blocks long, but it has everything you could ever need.” Her 24-year-old brother had sacrificed his room for our benefit when our plans changed at the last minute — we got “The Elk Room,” complete with three sets of antlers, elk light switch plate, elk sheets, and elk lamp.
- Turn into every scenic viewpoint or bypass. They are there for good reason. In 12,124 miles, we took most of them — and regretted only those we didn’t see soon enough to slow down. Sometimes we made U-turns to get back to them, as we did after passing a drive-through Lady Bug Bikini Espresso shed in Tacoma and a lavender farm in Sequim, WA (pronounced Skwim).
- Shop local, especially when in season. “Those strawberries? My parents picked them two hours ago,” said the young man running the Esparto, CA farm stand proudly. “The peaches were yesterday afternoon.” We ate the peaches in the parking lot, our chins still dripping as we went back for more. He works the farm nine months a year, then travels the globe the other three months.
- Listen to the woman in that same parking lot who, overhearing about our trip, volunteered that “the best butcher you’ll ever find is five miles down this road.” That’s a challenge to this son of a butcher, I explain, especially given that we weren’t cooking on the road. “They make the best roast beef sandwiches,” she promised. They did. And then, taking another scenic detour, we happened upon the Featherbed Railroad Bed & Breakfast in Lake County, California, which she’d also recommended. Nine cabooses, each on a small track-bed and each with its own period furnishings.
- Bring a dedicated camera with good optical zoom as well as your Smartphone to document the bears, elk, big horn sheep, mountain goats, moose (if you’re lucky), birds, bison, and buffalo.
And use Google or Siri or Alexa to discover how to distinguish crows from ravens, complete with samples of the different sounds they make. Couldn’t do that in 1970!
Each day brought new delights. Just as we might start thinking, “Gee, that was so incredible, nothing is going top it, let’s just start home,” we’d take another detour, hike, or drive and discover another breath-taking waterfall in Yosemite completely unlike any of the others we’d seen. Or be among the first to reach the just-cleared-of-snow Logan Pass in Glacier National Park in July. Or witness from just steps away the little-visited White Cap Geyser in Yellowstone which shoots 30-feet into the air promptly every half hour on the quarter hour and is but a few miles from finicky Old Faithful. Or find ourselves laying on a tarp on an open field in Yosemite at 10 p.m., staring at the night sky as a ranger recounts how his mother climbed El Capitan with him, at 18 months old, on her back, starting the process of instilling in him a passion for nature and country.
You don’t have to spend nine weeks or travel across the country for this antidote to work. The genesis of this trip was a series of family and work events that happened to take us NY>Chicago>Las Vegas>LA, in that order, over the course of three weeks.
There were stops along that route, too, visiting Ohio’s Cuyahoga National Park near Youngstown, OH where Riva grew up; getting a quick tour of St. Louis from plein air artist and muralist Allen Kriegshauser and his wife Patti (top row above right is one of Allen’s murals for a classroom at the Museum of Transportation in Kirkwood, MO), stopping for great BBQ at Q39 in Kansas City after visiting the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and so on. Being in LA positioned us to visit the USS Midway and get a fascinating over-in-an-instant five hour private tour of the aircraft carrier by Riva’s cousin/doctor/Midway docent Bob Berns. And then it was Yosemite and north.
What we ultimately learned, as Riva put it upon our return, “We need more green in our lives.” And that can be whatever local park, forest or trail is available, for however long we/you have.
That’s America the beautiful. And that’s easy to feel great about.
Text and photos © 2017 Ira Mayer.