by Shani O. Hilton
Reading my friend Ann Friedman's posts last week on migration reminded me of the magic of slow domestic travel. I've lived in two states (three if you count D.C., which no one does), and seen 33 states—most of them multiple times—during several cross-country car trips from California to various points on the Eastern seaboard and Canada. And forgive me if this sounds corny, but at no other time am I more aware of how much I love this country than while driving through it. The romance is undeniable. (Aside: this may be why I was more than a little heartbroken when I read that Steinbeck's Travels With Charley was probably fictionalized.) While driving isn't always practical or doable—and I've done the cross-country flight a couple dozen times, too—it's really the only way to see the country. And when Ann wrote about going West, it made me think of the last time I left the West.
As I said, I've left the West a bunch of times, usually to return. Fall of 2006 was when I left for good.
For those who are curious, here's how to do it: Head north with your father from Sacramento on I-80 and wind through the mountains, struggling uphill with a new and unfamiliar manual transmission car that's loaded down with all of your boxes and books. Pause in Lake Tahoe (mostly to crack jokes about Bonanza
) before pushing through to Reno for the night because your dad wants to make good time. Stop for tacos in Salt Lake City—a town with wide avenues that are almost empty on the middle of a Tuesday—before getting back on the road. Spend as much time as possible drinking in the Wyoming sky and listen to Johnny Cash
with your feet on the dash. Sleep in a tiny motel in Cheyenne that's off the beaten path and consider yourself to be adventurous. Gas up and caffeinate in a place where men wear real cowboy boots and you feel a little self-conscious because you and your dad are the only black people in the convenience store; feel relieved when the kid who rings you up is pleasant. Get to Nebraska and breathe in the plains, but secretly wish you were going back toward Wyoming. Console yourself with Eva Cassidy
Get to Iowa, think "huh," and offer to drive for a while since you don't know much about it and would rather see it than nap. Head south toward Peoria, IL and hear your dad wish there was enough time to see Chicago. Settle for a couple of hours at the Barnes & Noble in Normal, then take a stroll on the campus of one of his alma maters, Illinois State University. Pick a fight because you are both tired and because you are so over
years and years visiting college campuses while on road trips even though this is the first such stop on this trip. Wait 15 minutes and then apologize. By the time you get to Indianapolis it will seem like you are driving through the same suburbs you have seen everywhere your whole life. Listen to The Stylistics
. Decide that Ohio (sorry Buckeyes) is just more Indiana (sorry Hoosiers).
You will start to feel excited when you hit the hills of Pennsylvania, and like you can breathe better. Maybe it's because driving up feels like driving toward something, or maybe because of all of your family road trips, the best ones happened way above sea level (except for Death Valley, but that is the exception). Get lost for the first time, in a tiny town on a river, briefly. Once you find your way out, and New Jersey is in reach, it's time to put on Erykah
to get you to your destination. It will be raining a bit—the only rain you've seen over the last 4.5 days—and that will be fitting because you're going to cry a little when you drop your dad off at the airport. Drive to your new home while listening to Joni Mitchell
and thinking about Wyoming.
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is a national correspondent for The Atlantic
, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle
, Between the World and Me,
and We Were Eight Years in Power