Our great American road trip

A local writer and his family crisscross America on a once-in-a-lifetime summer vacation

The Abramsky family spent hours walking in the other-worldly landscape of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. From left to right are 2-year-old Leo in a backpack, Sasha, Julie and 5-year-old daughter Sofia.

The Abramsky family spent hours walking in the other-worldly landscape of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. From left to right are 2-year-old Leo in a backpack, Sasha, Julie and 5-year-old daughter Sofia.

Photo By Abramsky Family

Sasha Abramsky is a regular contributor to SN&R and recent author of Breadline USA: The Hidden Scandal of American Hunger and How to Fix It.

The cab pulled up to the house and disgorged myself, my wife,our two kids and a seemingly endless parade of bags, car seats and kiddie-transport backpacks. It was one month and one day since we’d left our Midtown home in a borrowed red Prius and set out on a cross-country-and-back summer adventure. Driving east. Taking the rails west again. Now, after a final 30-hour train ride, we’d made it home.

It was good to be back in Sacramento.

In the intervening 31 days, the four of us—my wife, Julie; our 5-year-old daughter, Sofia; our 2-year-old son, Leo; and me—had driven close to 4,000 miles in a car we were transporting east for a friend. We’d zigzagged east, spent 10 days in the Big Apple, three in Washington, D.C., and then jogged back west on Amtrak, with overnight trips to Chicago and Denver.

We’d spent a few days hiking in the Rocky Mountain National Park, surrounded by 2.5-mile-high mountains, their tops draped with glaciers and rushing, ice-cold rivers cascading down from the heights. From Denver, we’d made it over the double hump of the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada, the majestic ranges separated by hundreds of miles of fierce high desert, then—finally—back to Sacramento.

“You’re seeing more of America in a month than many people see in a lifetime,” I told my kids. They were scathingly unimpressed.

It didn’t matter. I was impressed; by the vastness, the improbableness of the country, by the fact that in the most infrastructure-heavy country on Earth, you can still lose yourself in a landscape of absolutely epic proportions. You can still enter places where minutes and hours and days cease to matter.

Soaring mountains and glittering chambers

The Utah desert is replete with scenes like this—canyons and “desert in all its devastating emptiness.”

Photo By Abramsky Family

Gradually, the chronology of our trip started to fade, the experiences meshing into something that transcended time and place. It became something impressionistic.

We joined the crowds to snap pictures of the White House, the Capitol, the Washington Monument. We roamed the great museums of Chicago, New York and D.C., and 40 years to the week after Apollo 11’s voyage to the moon, we toured the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. We saw the Spirit of St. Louis, the Wright brothers’ first plane, lunar-landing modules and decommissioned nuclear rockets. We saw Chinese acrobats performing lakefront at Navy Pier and gazed at rooms filled with Monets in the Art Institute in Chicago, and hiked miles through the Utah desert and along mountain pathways in Colorado. We went on shopping sprees in New York and visited old Danish windmills in Iowa.

Near the beginning of the trip, we toured Great Basin National Park’s caves in remote southeast Nevada; caves discovered more than a century ago under soaring mountains covered in bristlecone pines, the oldest living things on Earth—5,000 years old, as old as the Egyptian pyramids. Great Basin, hundreds of miles southeast of Reno, so far off the beaten path that hardly anyone visits it, making it, according to locals, the second-least visited national park in America, after one in Alaska. If you make the schlep, it’s well worth it: glittering chambers of stalagmites and stalactites hidden beneath the earth. “Stagglemites,” Sofia called them excitedly. Stagglemite rooms that look like the gaping mouths of some prehistoric sea monster.

Leo, too young to walk, journeyed on my back, his stubby legs sticking out of a purple fluorescent backpack. As we walked through Arches National Park, in Utah, the fierce desert sun pounding down on us, a huge floppy hat repeatedly falling off his head, I taught him to speed me up by tugging my hair on my left side, and to slow me down by pulling on my right side. “Giddy up, horsey!” he shouted, happily. “Go faster!” I tried, but it’s not easy carrying 27 pounds of toddler and a backpack along rocky wilderness paths under a 90-degree sun.

The kids discovered soft, tan-brown sand dunes, nestled into a far corner of the park and spent an hour repeatedly burying my feet in the cool, smooth, untainted sand. After walking through the desert, the sand on the soles of my feet felt like a high-quality massage.

A day later we spent hours walking in the other-worldly landscape of Canyonlands National Park, a seemingly endless number of canyons crisscrossing each other, some dominated by great mesas, others by spires whittled out of the surrounding rock over the millennia. It’s a combination of the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon national parks, but absent the vast crowds of tourists, the rim-top stores and the huge hotels. It’s the desert in all its devastating emptiness.

That night, Sofia and I took a starlit boat tour up the Colorado River, my daughter watching in awe as the guides shone powerful lights onto patterns in the red-rock cliffs, pointing out natural etchings that looked like crocodiles, E.T.’s face, Charlie Brown and a host of other images. “Use your imagination,” the guide told us as we boarded the boat. Looking up into the starry desert sky, it didn’t take a huge amount of imagination to sense infinity, or, at the very least, the quantum smallness of each of us here on Earth.

The fierce desert sun pounded down on the tourists the day the Abramsky’s hiked through Arches National Park.

Photo By Abramsky Family

Then, seamlessly, we’d left the deserts and mountains behind us, the West leaving itself behind, changing into something different. Storm clouds. Thunderclaps. We found ourselves in the prairie states, visiting living-history pioneer villages in Nebraska, stopping in on 19th-century woodshops and one-room schools, and buying candies ostensibly cooked to the requirements of Pioneer-era recipes, but which left our tongues colored bright red with most non-19th-century additives. That same day, we stopped in at the Buffalo Bill Museum & Grave, taking in Wild West arcana, and watching a mechanical recreation of the original Buffalo Bill show, involving 12,000 miniature horses, people, buffalo and other items handcrafted over two decades by the show’s founder.

On the banks of the Mississippi River, in a cloudy, gray Davenport, Iowa, we ate dinner in a restaurant infested with a plague of giant shad flies. They came off the water three or four times a year, our waitress informed us matter-of-factly. While they hung around the shore, they literally covered riverfront buildings in a revolting insect coat, a menacing layer of scaly fauna, wings beating against the outside of the windows. Waiting, waiting to find their way inside.

The flies made an impression for the rest of the trip. Sofia, who styles herself a young scientist, kept asking to see magnified photos of the flies and their intricate, geometrically patterned wings. She collected a “nature bag,” consisting of semiprecious stones bought in Western stores, plaster-cast dinosaur claws, trilobites and other goodies.

Nancy Drew and the Go-Go’s

A couple months before we set out on our adventure, my attorney friend Jerry, hearing of our plans, had semiseriously accused us of abusive tendencies—we would, after all, be making Sofia and Leo sit in one vehicle or another for hours, sometimes scores of hours, at a stretch. “Don’t worry,” I’d responded optimistically. “Our kids are good at sleeping in cars. We’ll do most of the driving after dinner, when they can snooze in the back. And then we’ll sightsee during the days.”

That was our plan. Roughly follow Interstate 80 east, diverting in a southeastern semicircle from Reno onto Highway 50, the fabled Loneliest Road in America, going to great Utah parks, meandering northeast again through the Rockies and then reconnecting with the 80 out of Denver. We would drive hard to Chicago; spend a few days in the Windy City; drop the car off in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in time for the Fourth of July; celebrate the holiday and watch the Wimbledon tennis finals with some friends there; and then rent a car for the last long hop to Manhattan. There, we’d palm the kids off with Julie’s sisters and parents (to their partially sincere protests), work and play hard in the city Julie grew up in and where I lived for a decade, and then meander back with the kids on trains.

And, to a startlingly large extent, that’s how it panned out.

When we drove during the daylight hours, Sofia, a precocious reader, sat in her car seat, plowing through Nancy Drews, a kids’ biography of the Wild West heroine Annie Oakley and other thankfully long chapter books. Leo, unable to read, ordered us to plug the iPod in and sing to his favorite tunes: Go-Go’s, Beatles, Dylan. Periodically, he had tantrums and demanded the front-seat passenger turn around and read him books. Occasionally, one of the kids leaned over and slugged the other one just to get a rise out of us. Once, an overtired Sofia grabbed a metal water bottle and cracked Leo on the nose. But, more often than not, the kids were surprisingly quiescent when it came to the long journeys. And, true to form, after dinner, the kids slept while we set our course ever eastward.

The great American road trip wouldn’t have been complete without the Abramsky family spending a few days in Washington, D.C. Here, Sasha poses with daughter Sofia in front of the White House.

Photo By Abramsky Family

Every river we crossed, for Leo, was the Mississippi. Every canyon we passed was, for Sofia, either entirely uninteresting—“That’s interesting,” Julie taught her to say sarcastically when one or other of us tried to rouse her from her books to look at a miracle of nature—or simply irrelevant, a nuisance to be swatted away. It bugged me—until I remembered how, when I was a kid, I’d react with profound statements of boredom when my dad would drag me into one architectural masterpiece of a French cathedral after another, demanding I express enthusiasm in buildings that smelled musty and were built by dead people.

When she was in a better mood, though, Sofia let her imagination run rampant, populating it with an endless array of faces and animals etched by time into the cliffs. Or, more plausibly, vast families of dinosaurs, fossilized for all eternity in the many geological layers surrounding us.

There were, of course, glitches. In eastern Colorado, the only town we could find within 50 miles was a prison town named Sterling; and, having reported on prisons for years, I was unwilling to spend even one vacation night in such environs. We drove on, a dry thunderstorm crackling around us, anxiously trying to tease out signs of upcoming tornadoes in the blackness, finally reaching Ogallala, Nebraska, well after midnight, the road markings dancing ominously in front of my exhausted eyes.

In Chicago, after a massive Fourth of July eve fireworks display on the lakefront, Julie’s wallet was pickpocketed out of her purse as we walked back to our hotel in the chic Streeterville neighborhood. Later, as we both frantically phoned credit-card companies and banks, trying to beat the odds and find real, live customer-service reps at 10 p.m. on a holiday weekend, the kids, feeding off of the negative energy we were oozing from our every pore, seized Julie’s point-and-shoot camera and took it in turns to smack each other over the heads, hard enough to shatter the LCD screen. Their skulls, miraculously, were undamaged.

Then, a day’s drive out of New York, while cruising the Ohio turnpike, we found out we couldn’t stay with my wife’s family in their Chinatown apartment. It’s an unpleasant experience realizing you’re captain of a car full of people and luggage heading into the most expensive city in the country with no accommodations lined up.

Fortune was, however, smiling on us, and instead of us ending up homeless or hotel-broke in the Big Apple, I phoned my friends, who I knew were en route to California, and, generous to a fault, they offered up their plush Greenwich Village apartment. We spent the next 10 days coming home to a living-room view straight north to the soaring Empire State Building.

Up and down and over and out

As the trip progressed, the kids bonded spectacularly, creating a unit extraordinary in its tightness, and also in its volatility. Sofia developed fierce needs to always share a bed with her younger brother, to hug him obsessively, to convince him to copy her every action. When one of her lower teeth got wobbly and eventually fell out, she entertained us with minute-by-minute accounts of its evolving status. Leo, determined not to be outshone, started talking full throttle, his words not terribly clearly articulated, but the determination with which they were uttered more than made up for lack of clarity. “Let me see your tooth!” he shouted in glee when the last strand holding tooth to gum broke and it popped out into Sofia’s hand. “Let me see!”

The Chicago skyline, and curious visitors, are all reflected in the mirrorlike surface of this sculpture in Millennium Park.

Photo By Abramsky Family

They developed their own language, started copying each other, goading each other, even sharing inside jokes about their parents. “You’re poo-poo pants! You’re stupid! You’re stinky breath!” Yet at the same time, they also got increasingly assertive of their own individual rights, and we had to learn to deal with explosive tantrums when one or another teased or mocked or hit the other one. “Leo won’t let me eat the bagel!” Sofia would yelp plaintively if he grabbed her breakfast food. “Sofia says I’m a baby! I’m not a baby. I’m bigger!” Leo would howl when Sofia mocked him.

Their language, collaboratively, got ruder and ruder. “Sofia’s asleep,” I said at one point, looking back at what I thought was a napping 5-year-old in the back seat of our car. “No, I’m not, you idiot!” Sofia yelled before drifting off into a deep slumber. Leo thought it was hilarious. At one point, driving into Canyonlands, an exhausted Sofia yelled at Julie, “You’re an idiot, a savage, a monster, a beast and a brute!” Or something like that. Simultaneously, Julie and I began singing the Sinatra lyrics, “I’ve been up and down and over and out.” The cadences were identical.

Later, waiting in line to check into the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago’s Loop district after spending 18 hours on an overnight train from D.C., Leo began joyously screaming over and over again, “Fuck off! Fuck off!” I pretended I couldn’t understand what he was saying. Poor Leo, the unwanted waif in Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. Everyone else in line seemed to be studiously pretending to do the same thing.

At one point, as the bad-energy level crescendoed after too many hours in the car, after Sofia’s spectacular capacity for reading chapter books for vast eons on end and Leo’s gamut of iPod music choices had run out, I had an idea: Since we were obsessively monitoring the Prius’s fuel-efficiency gauges, why not see if there was a negative correlation between the volume of the tantrum and the magic car’s miles-per-gallon rate? Would my blood pressure go up high enough that I’d start jamming my foot on the accelerator, revving the engine unenvironmentally, breaking suddenly and so on? For an hour, as Sofia’s wailing intensified, we monitored the little green fuel charts, looking for troughs in the mileage. Alas, no scientific breakthrough: There was no correlation. I couldn’t, in good faith, berate my overamped, oversugared, sitting-for-too-long daughter for causing environmental collapse.

It takes every kind of people

Throughout the trip we encountered fascinating people. There was the gourmet-cafe owner outside Great Basin National Park, who could plausibly lay claim to the selling the best food and finest coffee anywhere between Reno and wherever Highway 50 meandered to a close. Perched just west of the Utah boundary, he sold Polygamy Porter, along with T-shirts advertising the provocatively named beer across the chests. There was the octogenarian in Moab, Utah, who had spent more than half a century questing after dinosaur fossils and rare minerals buried in the red-rock cliffs of the Arches and Canyonlands area.

There was the family—the dad, a patent lawyer; the mother, a bio-chemist; with two young daughters—heading back to Denver from Chicago. They’d long ago decided the rails were more pleasant than flying and spent their summer vacations crisscrossing the country, seeing the old wooden hamlets and family farms of off-the-road America fly past the train windows. There was the quartet of Dutch travelers spending a month touring the country, garrulously talking away the dusk hours in the California Zephyr’s dining car. And, as we waited to board our final train back west, the Australian couple, originally from Liverpool, England, the wife of whom had gone to elementary school with Pete Best, the forgotten fifth Beatle.

When you drive or take trains from one side of the country to the other and back, you experience a lesson in scale. There are still places where you don’t see another human being for an hour or two at a time, spots where you can go hundreds of miles until you encounter the next gas station or sit on a train for hours as it goes through mountains and along white-water rapids without passing a single town. These are the holes in the matrix, huge areas where you could truly get lost, perform your own personal vanishing act, should you have the urge.

The train ride home was all scenery, “as raw, as large, as close any landscape” the Abramsky family had ever seen. There were rivers to follow “and always a new set of mountains.”

Photo By Abramsky Family

In Canyonlands, you walk along a desert rim, with huge pinnacles on one side soaring upward from a trough thousands of feet below, and on the other, a sweeping panorama of Grand Canyon-like vistas of mesas and red-rock swirls. Along the Rockies, soaring peaks, many lined with snow still in early July, march off into the distance, one arrow after another, shards puncturing the heavens.

Or take the low-key hidden crevices of America that you see by rails: misty morning farmlands speeding past the windows; clapboard working mens’ homes in Appalachian towns; shanties deep in the woods; their owners fishing for dinner in the sparkling Shenandoah River. Then, the strangely intimate immensities of the Rockies, the mountains and rushing rivers encroaching to the very edge of the railway tracks.

View it as a whole, unrolling on roads and rails in front of you, behind you, snaking off into the distance, and it’s a gargantuan exercise in organizational ingenuity. The idea of a nation-state taken to the nth degree. How can this be one country? How was it all welded together? What vast ambitions and hubris and imagination made this whole thing possible? What connects a humming-with-activity-at-2-in-the-morning bar in Greenwich Village with a Zuni jewelry vendor on a dusty roadside in the desert? What links the elderly photographer who gets up in the middle of the night to photograph moose against the backdrop of a rising sun in Rocky Mountain National Park with the perfectly coiffed legislative aide rushing down Pennsylvania Avenue?

Midnight train to Midtown

We left Denver on the California Zephyr early Saturday morning. As the day matured, the train snaked into the mountains, through alpine forests, up above rushing rivers. Families camping by the tracks stopped what they were doing to wave. Canoeists, testing their limits on the white water, somehow took a momentary pause from paddling to look up at the passing train. One on the shore even mooned his audience. It seemed so absurd, so utterly anomalous, that we just laughed.

Then, as we got into western Colorado and then eastern Utah, the mooning reached epidemic proportions. We’d pass groups of teenagers on the shore, and they’d all, on cue, bend down and show us their pale behinds. By nightfall, we must have passed a hundred mooners. One young guy even mooned us from the passenger window of a yellow VW bug. It was, apparently, a popular pastime in this far-removed corner of the country.

We moved west slowly, time and distance divided by the beats of a rhythm much older and gentler than the fast world we normally inhabit.

Sofia read books. Leo curled up on a seat in our roomette and went to sleep, drool seeping from out behind his pacifier and down his chin. Julie snoozed, too. I hung my newly purchased cowboy hat on a hook, sat down beneath it, opened my laptop and worked on this story. Whenever I looked up, there was the scenery, as raw, as large, as close as any landscape I had ever seen. Time stood still, or, rather, disappeared; I could have been on the train an hour or a day. An eagle flew by the window. A ramshackle trailer park faded into the past. A shimmering river sped toward us and then behind us. A few raindrops, then the sun again.

After a while, it was lunchtime. Then dinner. After another while, the sleeper-car attendant pulled down our beds and prepared our rooms for the night. After another while still, it was morning and time for a new set of mountains to unveil themselves.

And after yet one more while, leaving Truckee and the other Sierra Nevada towns behind, there was Sacramento. Hot. Flat. The starting point and now, at last, the finishing point in a magnificent, month-long circle.

And there was our home. Like we’d left it. Waiting to be reclaimed.