In which Katie touches down in Missoula and reflects on 7,300 miles of an unfamiliar America.
In 1960, John Steinbeck drove a 10,000-mile loop around the United States in a truck camper named Rocinante with his pet poodle named Charley. What exactly he was looking for, no one really knows. The title of the resulting novel was “Travels with Charley: In Search of America.” This could lead the reader to believe that he was digging around for some tangible essence of the country he called home. Maybe he felt such a trip would enhance his final years as a writer of American stories.
Maybe he just got bored and needed a change of scenery.
But modern road trippers could argue that Steinbeck’s purposelessness was a detriment. They could critique his lack of agenda, his choice of companionship, his vehicle outfit. They could say he was looking for something that couldn’t be found from behind the steering wheel of a GMC.
Today, it seems like road trippers only try to find the “essence of America” in national parks or heavily-populated urban areas. Pinterest tells us to gravitate toward glassy mountain lakes, colorful murals splashed across brick-walled alleys, giant redwood trees, aesthetically pleasing coffee shops, desert landscapes at sunset, quirky food trucks parked at farmer’s markets. The originality of the American road trip has been watered down to a collection of stock photos and souvenir decals for water bottles, laptops or Thule covers. I should know…I love those decals.
Last week, I woke up on Padre Island National Seashore on the Texas Gulf Coast. I drove to a working vineyard 20 miles outside of San Angelo, and then to a small Airbnb in a quiet neighborhood in Amarillo. From Amarillo I drove to Denver, then to Gillette, Wyoming, then to the Montana-North Dakota border. I ended the trip by driving clear across Montana on Sunday.
This route was chock full of influencer-worthy opportunities.
But in Amarillo, I went for a morning run past a hospital, a mall and some clustered apartment buildings. I never left my driver’s seat during the two hours in northeastern New Mexico. I spent a cumulative 15 hours in Denver. I was asleep on my friend’s couch for most of them. I spent a morning in Old Town Fort Collins, but I blew right past Rocky Mountain National Park. When I tore through Cheyenne, my eyes didn’t leave the road ahead of me.
I barely took a single photo after leaving Padre Island.
When I planned the trip originally, I thought I would take more time to explore during my return. I thought I would be bored after three weeks of following the same flock of birds through a largely monotonous part of the country. I assumed I would have pent up energy for the occasional hike or scenic detour when cutting across these famous road trip states. Surely, the essence of America was waiting for me somewhere in a big Texas city or in the Rocky Mountains.
Instead, I plowed right past these places. I was exhausted from what had already been an adventure-filled trip. I was busting at the seams with stories and memories. I didn’t feel remotely deprived of America’s essence. In fact, I just wanted to be back in my own bed again, because I felt like I had completely overloaded my senses.
Truthfully, I found more of America in the four weeks between Bismarck and Corpus Christi than I did in my 23 years spent in Connecticut, Boston and Missoula. I found an America that is completely disregarded by the road trip porn of our modern time. This America took such good care of me. It took me in, kept me safe, wished me well and pushed me onward.
In the Dakotas, I found the America that drives with a hand cemented atop the steering wheel so it can lift a greeting finger at every passing car. In southern Nebraska, I found the America that welcomes cold wayward strangers into its home. It let me do laundry and asked me how I took my eggs. In Great Bend, Kansas, America was the woman working at the empty coffee shop on Halloween. She had 14 grandkids, and she reminded me to take the time to enjoy my adventure and my life.
In Guthrie, Oklahoma, America was the BBQ joint on Election Day. It was mixed in with the brisket and coleslaw and the guys who offered to buy me a beer at 1:00 in the afternoon. I considered, but politely declined. On the shores of the Gulf, America was the two fishermen camping next to me. They told me stories of their young girls back home while they sipped beer and lit their tiki torches in the dark. I know proud fathers of daughters when I see them, and I knew I could safely sleep outside with them right there.
All along the way, America was the masked convenience store clerks with warm, smiling eyes. It was the kids working the checkout aisles at grocery stores who innocently exclaimed they had never seen me around town before. It was the far-reaching population of whooping crane enthusiasts. We would line up along the edge of some National Wildlife Refuge swampy marsh, oohing and aahing through binoculars at big white birds as the sun crept up behind us.
America reared its ugly head too. Messages of anger and exclusivity disguised themselves as creative campaign signs, mostly homemade and positioned next to interstates. Swaths of plastic refuse rode high tide onto the otherwise pristine beaches of Texas. Crowded feedlots stunk to high heaven and sprayed putrid dust into the air. A breadcrumb trail of near-abandoned small towns led to sprawling metropolises of chain restaurants, super-sized department stores and concentrated housing developments, proof of mass relocation when oil and hope went bust.
And I could feel my heart tear every time I drove by a small town newsroom that had joined the ranks of boarded up main street buildings.
But for every vacant storefront, there were at least two or three cafes, bars, boutiques, hardware stores, law offices, banks and hair salons buzzing with the daily goings-on of normal life. For every small town of ghosts and scrap, there were five more towns that were far from dead. And from my point of view as a transitory observer, a migrating human, a fly on the wall of society, I had the pleasure of watching small town America live and breath. My senses got to feast on the beating heart of this vast nation. If I sat down with John Steinbeck, I would feel confident in saying that I found a fair bit of America.
This is an America that goes largely unnoticed, untraveled and unexplored by my generation. This was a tour of the un-toured. This wasn’t the standard trek from Sioux Falls to Lincoln to Wichita to Oklahoma City. In fact, the one time I found myself directionally challenged was when I tried to get through Oklahoma City rush hour traffic unscathed. It didn’t work, and I decided I would avoid heavily-populated areas at all costs for the rest of the trip.
But if I boil down these 30 days and 7,300 miles into a coherent conclusion, it goes something like this. There are way more Americans living in America than many Americans realize. We are not a nation of “west” and “east” with a flat expanse of no man’s land in the middle. The “middle” is home to strong communities of hard workers, proud people who find extreme beauty in the simplicity of a pigmented sunrise and a pounding rainstorm. The “middle” knows who their neighbors are. The “middle” doesn’t feel fear when a stranger knocks on their door. The “middle” leaves the keys in the ignition while they run inside to grab a coffee and an inky Sunday issue, which seems to run stories about everywhere but the “middle.”
Political tribalism, biased media outlets and our Twitter-stunted attention spans are only going to continue driving a wedge between us and those who live differently from us. If we want a better understanding of what our nation must do to correct itself, to right a deep history of wrongs, we certainly aren’t going to grow or learn anything from Fox or CNN or above the fold of any national daily, where conflict turns a profit. If we want to fix America, first we must find America. And we have to stop looking in places that are familiar to us.