The Slow Lane

Last year when starting this sabbatical I dove right into several gruntwork house projects and had a lot of time to think about what to do with a lot of time. It’s an issue I haven’t had to deal with in decades; like many folks I know, the last time had surplus time was back in college, before jobs and mortgages and all of the stuffs of life. After coming up with a list of things I planned to build in the woodshop, I remembered that a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I used to take roadtrips. I then realized that the last real roadtrip I took was the drive back to California from Illinois (via Canada) after my wedding in 2003, and then came jobs and houses and kids. And that my kids have never been on a real roadtrip.

In college I started taking roadtrips to get places I couldn’t afford to visit otherwise and as a straight substitute for air travel, those early trips were simply a means to get somewhere as quickly as possible. But after just a few of them I grew tired of the visual and cultural monotony of the interstates (especially the food) along the way. At some point I stumbled across a Charles Kuralt quote: “Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything.” Thus began my fascination with the 2-lane highway. From then on, my dog and I spent many hours logging many miles seeing parts of the continent out of reach and long forgotten by the masses mindlessly zooming past on Interstates. The slower pace of the 2-lane highways (55/60mph in most places, 25-35mph in and around the small towns along the way) forces you to take in the scenery and makes stopping or veering off the highway for a closer look much easier. Roadtrips felt once again like travel rather than mere conveyance.

I’ve since traversed the U.S. from coast to coast six times, from top to bottom thrice, across Canada twice, with a bunch of trips and detours around the interior—all of these trips for the most part on 2-lane highways. Among the most amazing / heartbreaking things you see on such trips are the parts of America that are slowly dying off because they are too far from interstates and Walmarts. Towns that were clearly once thriving but where you no longer see any resident younger than 65 years old. You see Native American reservations, roadside tourist traps (or attempts at such) and in this country, anyway, an seemingly infinite variety of landscapes. It’s hard to say how long many of these sights—both natural and cultural—will be around. I’m certain that many of the things I saw on these trips no longer exist.

My roadtrips have taken me through 47 of the 48 contiguous United States and nine of ten Canadian provinces (no Canadian territories…yet). As with my travel anywhere, I eschew itineraries (often designed to accommodate the greatest number of the shallow encounters with the exact same things everyone else has had a shallow encounter) and instead prefer getting lost, finding unexpected gems at my own pace rather than be slave to a schedule. My best roadtrips had a destination (usually) but no specified amount of time to get there, and on one trip I took almost four weeks to reach a destination at which I only spent 2 days. Ah, to have the time to have time again!

Wait…now I do.