Looking for America
For their 30th anniversary, a Chico couple sets off to visit 30 states in 30 days—and find the nation’s soul along the way
Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together
I’ve got some real estate here in my bag
So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner pies
And walked off to look for America
—Paul Simon, “America”
Our plan was modest at first, a little road trip to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. Maybe head up to Boise to visit relatives, then drop down through Colorado and New Mexico. Back along Route 66, then up the east side of the Sierra. A week? Ten days?
Then Betsy (known to some as Liz) upped the ante: “How ’bout 30 days? For 30 years. We can drive across the country.”
A bluff? I saw her 30 years and raised her: “And 30 states.”
“We’re going to Graceland,” I sang. “Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee.”
We packed light, planning to stay mostly in motels, although we threw light camping gear into our Outback just in case. We also brought along a small plastic bag of ashes—my mother had died 10 months before, and she always loved family road trips in our old station wagons. We’d take her back to her favorite places, as well as to places she still had wanted to see.
Later, we would joke that we both hoped we’d be returning together in the same car—30 days is a long time to spend with anyone.
We left Chico one morning in late June and spent the first night in Wells, Nev., and early the next morning got coffee to go at Bella’s Café. We didn’t realize the significance of the “I Got Off in Wells” T-shirts that they were selling until we stepped outside and noticed the “other” Bella’s, next door behind a Cyclone fence: “Bella’s Hacienda Ranch and Brothel.”
That night we stayed in a lodge outside Grand Teton National Park, where as a child I had camped with my parents. I had elk sliders as we sat at the bar chatting with the young couple who ran the place—from South Carolina, he loved hillbilly hand-fishing.
In the morning, we sprinkled some ashes along the shore of Jenny Lake, the Tetons reflected across its surface. Then we headed up into Yellowstone, where we spotted a lone white wolf slinking in and out of the firs along the far bank of the Yellowstone River. Small herds of bison, among the 15,000 left in North America—50 million having been killed in the 19th century by settlers, railroaders and the U.S. Army—grazed in distant meadows.
In the afternoon we drove across snowfields and granite ridges far above the timberline, crossing into Montana near 10,947-foot Beartooth Pass, then dropped down into Red Cloud and found a room at the Bavarian-style Yodler Motel ski lodge, whose marquee advertised “Groovy and Corporate-Free since 1968.”
The next few days would take us from the prairie lands of the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument in western Montana, into the Black Hills of South Dakota—Deadwood and Mt. Rushmore—and then on to southern Minnesota and into Wisconsin. We drove through seemingly endless rolling fields of corn and soybeans, punctuated by bright red barns right out of central casting.
One evening in a motel room in Mitchell, South Dakota, I asked my Facebook “friends,” “Who would be a good fifth bust for Mount Rushmore?” Among the answers: Ronald Reagan, Bob Dylan, Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bob Hope, Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey. I was thinking maybe Johnny Cash or Frederick Douglass.
On a narrow country road outside Blair, Wis., we drove by the abandoned two-story farmhouse where Betsy’s dad had lived as a child in the 1920s, its weathered siding warped, the long front porch sloping into the overgrown yard. Then we spent an afternoon on the farm with her cousins and for lunch had sausages made from last year’s county fair entries.
In Milwaukee, we had brats and craft beer at a Brewers game, then drove through brutally impoverished neighborhoods to the downtown area, vital, upscale, and largely white, where we’d been told we’d find great music and delicious ethnic food at the city’s Summerfest.
We spent about 10 minutes watching groups of drunk, flirting teenagers, then tossed most of our “Scotch eggs” (hardboiled eggs encased in sausage) into a trash can and headed uptown on foot in search of The Office, a bar that Esquire magazine’s annual list of best bars in America had described as a “businessmen’s dive.”
“This reminds me of Duffy’s,” Betsy said, as we sat down at the bar, only one other couple in the whole place. When we told Bob the bartender we’d driven 2,000 miles to get there, he offered to buy the first round, then apologized when Betsy ordered chardonnay. “I’m sorry, we don’t serve wine.” She had a vodka tonic.
For 12 years I taught Introduction to American Studies at Chico State. One of the required texts was Jacob Needleman’s American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders. In the book Needleman claims that the soul of America lies in the country’s contradictions—the individual and the group; states’ rights and central government; city and country; the very rich and the very poor.
One of the most powerful parts of the book is the chapter on Frederick Douglass, which includes most of his famous July 5, 1852, speech, “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro,” in which Douglass, speaking to a white audience, said, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
Needleman also discusses what he says is one of the most profound symbols of the American character, when Douglass stood up to his brutal slaver, Edward Covey, and in a violent fight took back control of his own soul—Needleman likens the struggle to the colonists standing up to the crown.
The final assignment each semester, then, asked the students, in small groups, to make cases for where they thought the “soul of America” could be found.
The projects were fascinating and wide-ranging. The soul of America, various students claimed, could be found in muscle cars, in Jackie Robinson, at the Continental Divide, taco trucks, the Civil War, NASCAR, in the Suffragette Movement, a Fourth of July barbecue, the KKK (some took a rather cynical view…), at Ellis Island, in a Friday-night high-school football game, the Emancipation Proclamation.
On the morning of the Fourth of July, passing through several small Midwestern towns, main streets lined with American flags and families in lawn chairs awaiting parades, we were surprised to tune to an NPR interview with Needleman himself, and were both struck by something he said: Most Americans are very aware of their rights but very few understand the responsibilities that go with them. “Remember,” he said, “from good thought must come action.”
Outside Green Bay we stopped at a little roadside market (“Stop here! Local Wine and Cheese Moccasins!”) and checked out the moccasins, made in the Dominican Republic. In the corner was an Aaron Rodgers shrine, with green No. 12 jerseys, pennants, bobbleheads, posters, cheesehead “hats,” and “You’re in Mr. Rodgers’ Neighborhood” T-shirts.
That night, we sat on the lawn in front of our hotel in touristy Mackinaw City and sipped Wisconsin wine from plastic cups as we watched a stunning fireworks display over Lake Michigan. We were planning to take the ferry over to Mackinac Island—one of my mother’s favorite places—the next morning and then cross the border into Canada. We woke to a heavy downpour, though, and a note in the tour book about needing passports to get into Canada as of 2009 (oops…).
Instead we walked down to the lake, sprinkled some ashes across the water and headed south through the poplars and white pines of central Michigan. “Philadelphia?” Betsy said, reading the map as I drove.
Outside Cleveland, exhausted at the end of a long day, we turned off the Ohio Turnpike in Elyria and checked into a motel, then headed out for dinner—but kept getting turned back by cop-car roadblocks. Even the off-ramp was blocked off. Back at the motel, the clerk—who had stepped out into the parking lot to watch the action—pointed to the turnpike and said, “Obama’s coming through.” We waved as the motorcade went by 50 feet away.
At Kent State, we stood silently for several minutes at each of the spots where the four students—Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Bill Schroeder, and Sandy Scheuer—were killed on May 4, 1970, when the Ohio National Guard fired 67 rounds in 13 seconds into a crowd protesting the Vietnam War. In the spring, the memorial is surrounded by a field of 58,175 blooming daffodils—one for each American killed in the war.
Later, the afternoon sun casting long shadows across the green hills of eastern Pennsylvania, we wound along a narrow road toward the spot where United Flight 93 slammed into a sloping hillside, the ground completely swallowing the plane. Neither of us spoke.
We parked and walked over to a series of displays with the crews’ and passengers’ photographs and short bios, then followed the marble wall out toward the crash site. A docent, who lived “just over that hill there,” described hearing the crash and seeing the fireball, then pointed, moving his arm in a wide arc, as he indicated the flight path.
On the way back to the car, we stopped at a kiosk with a bulletin board and table with index cards and pens—the board covered with notes, mostly thanking those who had attempted to take back control of the plane.
We pulled into Philadelphia on the afternoon of July 7, navigating the narrow, 200-year-old streets to our downtown hotel, then walked over to the City Tavern Restaurant—built in 1773, reconstructed in 1948—the unofficial meeting place of the first Continental Congress. The menu includes venison, rabbit, and West Indies pepperpot soup.
I had two pints of ale, one made from Jefferson’s recipe, one from Washington’s. Perfect for my constitution.
The next day, in line to view the Liberty Bell, we passed tables with protesters handing out literature condemning the Chinese government’s persecution of Falun Gong followers. After the obligatory photo op beside the bell, we headed back onto the street, surprised to hear bells and shouting ringing out across Independence Square.
We followed the noise and the crowd to the steps of the State House, where an actor in breeches, powdered wig, and tri-corner hat was recreating—as is done just once a year—the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence, July 8, 1776. Hip, hip, huzzah.
In the morning we headed across the Walt Whitman Memorial Bridge and down the New Jersey shore to Cape May and caught the ferry, dolphins racing alongside, over to Delaware, then drove across the tip of Maryland and into Virginia.
We followed a series of back roads and miles-long bridges just yards above endless tidal marshes to Chincoteague Island, the area home to a large herd of wild ponies, according to legend descendants of horses that swam ashore after a Spanish galleon sank in a storm in 1750. For dinner we had local flounder overlooking the harbor.
We rose early and drove down the eastern Virginia peninsula, over the 20-mile bridge across the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, then headed for the Outer Banks, a 200-mile long strip of narrow barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina. We found a room in a hotel on the beach in Nag’s Head, had shrimp and grits and blackened crab cakes in Kill Devil Hills as a storm rolled in, and in the morning braved torrential rains to visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial, where you can walk the paths, down sand dunes and across grassy fields, of their first four flights.
Mostly deserted—and reachable only by ferry or private plane or boat—Ocracoke Island is 12 miles long by a quarter-mile wide, a small fishing village (year-round population 950) on its southwestern shore, where tourists ride around in golf carts and locals drive pickups with fishing-pole racks mounted to their front bumpers. In the early 18th century, the Ocracoke harbor was a favorite hangout of Blackbeard, who was killed offshore in 1718 in a swordfight, his head hung from the bowsprit of the HMS Pearl.
At the Jolly Roger Pub and Marina, we met Crazy Keith, a leathered sailor, his 36-foot sailboat, aboard which he spent most of the year alone exploring the eastern seaboard, anchored in the harbor.
The morning we left, our huge ferry passed a small boat a couple of hundred yards to our portside, its sails furled, outboard throttle barely open. I waved back to the captain waving from the cockpit before realizing, as the boat slipped into our wake, that it was Crazy Keith.
Two hours later we drove off the ferry onto Cedar Island and followed a narrow marsh-side road through tiny backwater towns, Spanish moss hanging from trees, fresh shrimp for sale out of the backs of roadside pick-up trucks. In Cape Carteret, we passed a pet-grooming shop called Doggie Styles. Then we crossed over into South Carolina and through a series of beach towns full of high-rise hotels, miniature golf courses, Hooters diners—and a bar advertising “free martinis for girls in bikinis.”
Pulling into downtown Charleston that afternoon, we were struck once again by the chasm between the haves and have-nots, in this case separated by little more than one street, one side blighted and boarded up and African American, the other side upscale hotels and gigantic stone mansions belonging to white families of Old South means and money.
On our way to visit friends in Atlanta, we were startled by a sign west of Augusta: “Laurel and Hardy Museum next exit.” We turned off the highway and headed 10 miles south along the narrow empty country road through the pines, finally pulling into Harlem, Ga. (pop. 2,000), the birthplace of Oliver Hardy, where a little brick museum is packed floor to ceiling with costumes from films, scripts, dolls and knickknacks sent from fans all over the world. We sat in folding chairs, laughing at the short 1932 film County Hospital.
That evening our friends took us to a Crosby, Stills and Nash concert in Alpharetta, outside Atlanta, and the next day out into the countryside, where multimillion-dollar mansions crest sprawling hillside horse ranches and farmers sell produce—watermelon, peaches, tomatoes—on tree-shaded roadside tables.
We stopped near a circle of some 20 shacks right out of a Dorothea Lange photo, cold-water sinks on crumbling porches, screen doors hanging from broken hinges—the Holbrook “campground,” where the same Methodist and Southern Baptist families have been coming for 175 years for their annual revival.
We walked over to the large tent and joined the congregation, the preacher talking about having found Jesus after a losing season as a high-school football coach, and then imploring anyone who hadn’t found Him to come on down to get healed.
The following evening, in Asheville, where Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. has just begun work on its second brewery, we listened to the Stillwater Hoboes—in plaid pants and suspenders, with banjo, guitars, Irish bouzouki, and fiddle—busking on the sidewalk in front of Woolworth’s.
Later, we bought them drinks on the outdoor patio across the street and learned that they were English majors from the University of Dallas in town to play music for the summer. An hour out of Asheville the next morning, we realized that we should have scattered some ashes there, too, knowing that my mother would have loved the joke.
We’d hoped to see Charlie Daniels and the Oak Ridge Boys at the Grand Ole Opry, but the show was sold out, and I wasn’t interested in Death Cab for Cutie at the Ryman Auditorium. (The Ryman, the “mother church of country music,” was home to the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974, when it moved out by the interstate). So, after checking into our hotel we walked down to Honky Tonk Row. Kitty Wells had died the day before, and every band in every honky tonk we visited—we made it to only five or six—was playing tributes.
We ended up at Robert’s Western World, originally a Western-wear store (you can still buy cowboy boots), where we met a local construction worker who ordered a shot of moonshine for Betsy. “Welcome to Tennessee, darlin’,” he said, then added, “I can’t believe you can buy this stuff legally here and my cousins are still getting arrested for making it.”
In the morning, we sprinkled some ashes on the empty sidewalk of Honky Tonk Row, my mother having wanted to see Nashville before she died.
Graceland the next day was a disappointment: schlocky, 10 bucks to park alongside motor homes and tour buses, tickets for tours $32-$70. Instead, we headed down to Beale Street and had delicious dry-rubbed smoked ribs at Pig on Beale, then walked around the corner to the Gibson guitar factory, where kids sat on stools in the showroom test-driving Hummingbirds and Les Pauls.
By now it was Day 23. We’d driven 6,400 miles and seen 21 states, if some only briefly. We’d settled into a very comfortable rhythm and were loving every minute of the trip. At the same time, we were tired, and we missed Chico and our friends. So what if we didn’t make 30 days and 30 states. We’d made 30 years. We headed west across I-40, the old Route 66, instead of dipping down to Austin as planned.
In Oklahoma City, we walked by the reflecting pool where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building once stood and looked at the chairs representing those killed in the bombing on the morning of April 19, 1995. We took the elevator to the third floor of the three-story museum next door, where a docent ushered us into a small room, empty except for a tape recorder sitting on a desk.
It turned out that a water-rights meeting was being held across the street the day of the bombing and had been recorded. We listened, through speakers in the ceiling, to the clerk calling the meeting to order. Two minutes later, the explosion, and the room went black. When the lights came back on, they were trained on the wall, now covered with photos of all 168 victims. Nineteen were children.
The rest of the tour took us through the rescue—one woman’s life was saved when an off-duty doctor amputated her leg with a Swiss Army knife, although her two young children were both killed—and the aftermath.
In one room, the twisted axel from McVeigh’s rented Ryder truck sits behind glass, while several rooms are dedicated to the victims, with short notes about them by their photos. One man pointed to a photo and said to someone who looked to be his teenage son, “That’s your aunt. She would have been 47 today.”
In the late 1980s and early ’90s we’d spent long summers exploring every corner of New Mexico researching guidebooks that I wrote for Chico’s Moon Publications, so I was excited to see it again. But I was saddened by what the economy had done to the little towns, which even during better times struggled to hang on. Now, from Tucumcari to Gallup, streets were emptier, more storefronts boarded up. Ghosts of gas stations sat at intersections, paint-peeled and crumbling.
We pulled into Flagstaff, Ariz., on the 25th day and spent the afternoon with some friends who’d moved out from Oakland 20 years ago. Two days earlier they had received notice that their house wasn’t being foreclosed after all—Rick, a carpenter, having been unemployed for two years, had found work. We left around 5, heading through junipers and pines—and a pounding monsoon-season rainstorm—crossing the Colorado River into California and pulling into Needles shortly after 9. It was 108 degrees.
The next morning we flew over Tehachapi Pass then dropped down into the valley, cutting over to I-5 just north of Buck Owens Boulevard in Bakersfield. By mid-afternoon, Sacramento was in our rear-view mirror. We high-fived as we passed the Chico Welcomes You sign around 4.
The soul of America? Needleman’s contradictions? Slaveowners crafting a document proclaiming that all men are created equal. The Stillwater Hoboes joining together to make something bigger than the sum of their parts, and Crazy Keith, alone on his boat at sea. Turnpikes and dusty back roads. Old-money mansions and sharecropper shacks and honky tonks, even the schlock of Graceland.
Recently, we were talking about the Flight 93 Memorial with our good friend Francesca, who has lived in France, Senegal, the Philippines and Japan. The attempts to retake control of the plane, she said, seemed like a “very American thing.” Tomo, her Japanese friend, had agreed—at the time telling her he couldn’t imagine Japanese attempting such a thing.
From good thought comes action—perhaps the most heroic interpretation of what Needleman called the responsibilities that go along with our rights.
The night we got home we sat in Adirondack chairs on our front lawn in Chico drinking California wine. We toasted 8,463 miles, 26 days and 26 states. And 30 years. And agreed that, despite the occasional storm, it’s been a beautiful journey.