Roadtrip Report

The Google Map embedded above (if you’re reading this in a feed reader and don’t see the map, read this post here) shows the route we took from San Jose (where I returned my apartment keys) to Hyde Park. According to Google’s estimates, the route spans over 2700 miles, although with the little detours we took and circles we drove around in alien towns, my odometer tells me the trip was more like 2900 miles.

somewhere in Montana or South Dakota

Hwy 212 in Montana

I have 3 impressions of this journey that stand out in my mind. The first is: this is a big fucking country. Having only flown or taken the train before for such long journeys, where you’re practically teleported from one side of the country to the other, I’d never truly internalized the scale of this country. But on this trip, I had my foot on the gas pedal for every mile of the way (except for the 400+ miles that Nikki drove). Sure, it’s nothing compared to, say, hiking or riding on horseback for long distances, but I was awake and aware for every mile of it. And now, even with the aches in my knees subsiding, I know how big this country is: It’s fucking big.

Welcome to Montana!

Welcome to Montana!

The second lasting thought I had was of unity, or maybe at least uniformity, both in good and bad ways. Having grown up in Germany where you were never a day or two’s drive (at most) away from a foreign country with a foreign language, customs and architecture, I found myself speaking slowly to people at the market or motel after crossing state lines, half expecting them to respond in a foreign tongue. But in reality, no such thing happened. We’d cross from state to state, and people would still speak the same language, the menus would have the same food, and for the most part, everything would look the same. The same chain restaurants and motels, same strip malls, same customs, same people… Sure, in some places, old men in cowboy hats may have stared at Nikki and I just a split second longer than would be considered polite in San Francisco, but with the exception of people pumping gas for us in Oregon, our experiences weren’t markedly different anywhere compared to anywhere else. Of course, this was also a bit of a disappointment. I had hoped that we’d find the country less uniform, that Idaho would be distinctly Idahoan, Montana defiantly Montanan, South Dakota surprisingly South Dakotan, and Iowa inexplicably Iowan. The only consolation was the natural beauty, or what little glimpses of it we caught, which varied somewhat from state to state. In Montana, we drove through a blizzard, and saw grassy hills with crowns of pine trees. South Dakota had rolling grasslands as far as the eye can see, albeit fragmented by roads and fences. We saw large numbers of prairie dogs and antelope in Montana, a lone mountain goat and many quail in South Dakota. But even the landscape wasn’t strikingly different to what you would see in parts of California. Except, perhaps, there was just more of it.
somewhere in Idaho

somewhere in Idaho

Throughout the whole trip, I was also struck, and saddened, by how detached we are from the land as a society. Most of the people are in cities and towns, but even the large tracts of land and open space out there is owned, fenced in, often torn up or over-grazed. Even on public lands, people are constrained to roads and prescribed trails, restricted from roaming freely as people once did. There were usually no cars within sight on the smaller interstates we mostly drove on; most other drivers were on big major interstates, where their views are obstructed by semis, bill boards and buildings that inevitably line the big highways. So even when people drove through states like Montana or South Dakota, I got the feeling that what people actually saw was often severely limited. And forget even trying to see more by going on foot or horse back as our predecessors once did; you’d be arrested (or worse) for trespassing before getting far, assuming barbed wire fencing didn’t stop you first. As someone who loves to roam in the wilderness, I was saddened by this thought, and it reaffirmed my desire to buy a large tract of land where I can be free, one with the land, unobstructed by no man.

3 thoughts on “Roadtrip Report

  1. The homogeneity of the US is disturbing, but it’s the inevitable result of having an efficient infrastructure and people like you who want to use it. In American mythology, the Road Trip is supposed to expose you to a much greater diversity of people, but it seems to rarely deliver on that. Most people I’ve talked to who have done road trips speak highly of the physical geography and regretfully about the human geography.

    The myth of the Kerouackian road trip is a lot like the myth of the cowboy riding the open range. They are based on short-lived historical realities, that have become caricatures of what we see missing in our daily lives. In the case of cowboys, they really did drive cattle down the open range for a good 20 years (end of the Civil War until the fences went up in the 1880s). Similarly, I think that there was probably about a 20 year period, roughly between WWII and Vietnam, in which the American Road Trip really could deliver on its mythical promise. The country’s infrastructure was good but new, so lost of places had local character.

    To me, both the cowboy and the road trip represent promises of anarchic freedom. Our cultural preoccupation with these things is our attempt to cash in on those promises. All too often, it seems America comes up short. Sure, you can still become a cowboy, and you can still take a road trip. But these experiences tend to feel drab or out of place, like they are anachronistic relics from some Edenic age, and doing them now almost dishonors their rightful glory

    I’ve thought about why this is–specifically, why this yearning for adventure and freedom feels so damn trite. The best I can come up with is that the problem is material comfort. To the extent I have experienced that transcendent sense of adventure, it has usually been when some unexpected glitch forces me to stay somewhere and deal, and thereby come to know the place. This is typically happens more when I am broke or doing something illegal.

    In these circumstances, America does not look homogeneous at all. It turns out that despite the chains and national media outlets, peoples’ experiences are actually very different in different places, and you can get a glimpse of it if you have genuine occasion to doso.

    It seems your trip did not involve deviation from any social norms, and it basically went according to planned. You used the Interstate-and-Motel API as specified in the documentation, and it produced the expected results as per the spec. I do think you can get better performance and more features out of America than you describe, but it takes some undocumented system calls, and you have to tolerate the occasional bus error.

    Now back to writing PHP code…

  2. Pingback: Quick update from DC « Laptop and a Rifle

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