Taking the Great American Roadtrip | Travel | Smithsonian
Fleeing the clogged freeways of Los Angeles, Paul Theroux set forth into an America both lonelier and lovelier than the one he expected to find. (Todd Bigelow / Aurora / IPN)

Taking the Great American Roadtrip

In the spirit of Kerouac and Steinbeck, the celebrated travel writer fulfills a childhood fantasy: to drive across his native land

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The mixed blessing of America is that anyone with a car can go anywhere. The visible expression of our freedom is that we are a country without roadblocks. And a driver's license is our identity. My dream, from way back—from high school, when I first heard the name Kerouac—was of driving across the United States. The cross-country trip is the supreme example of the journey as the destination.

Travel is mostly about dreams—dreaming of landscapes or cities, imagining yourself in them, murmuring the bewitching place names, and then finding a way to make the dream come true. The dream can also be one that involves hardship, slogging through a forest, paddling down a river, confronting suspicious people, living in a hostile place, testing your adaptability, hoping for some sort of revelation. All my traveling life, 40 years of peregrinating Africa, Asia, South America and Oceania, I have thought constantly of home—and especially of the America I had never seen. "I discovered I did not know my own country," Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley, explaining why he hit the road at age 58.

My idea was not to linger anywhere, but to keep on the move, as though to create in my mind one long panning shot, from Los Angeles to Cape Cod; to get up each morning and set off after breakfast, going as far as I wished, and then find a place to sleep. Generations of drivers have obviously felt the same way, since the country has become a set of natural divisions, from Los Angeles, say, to Las Vegas, Las Vegas to Sedona, Sedona to Santa Fe—but I am getting ahead of myself.

Speeding east in late spring rain from the Pacific waves lapping at the edge of Los Angeles Airport, disentangling myself from Los Angeles, struggling from freeway to freeway, I was reminded that much of my life has been spent this way—escaping from cities. I wanted to see the glimmering spaces in the distances that lay between big cities, the road that unrolled before me. Los Angeles was a complex set of on-ramps and merging freeways, like a gigantic game of snakes and ladders that propelled me though the bungaloid body of the city to deliver me to Rancho Cucamonga. Beyond the thinner scattering of houses was the sight of bare hills, a distinct canyon and a glimpse of desert as I cruised into Barstow, California. Then I was happy.

I was reminded that first day and every day after that we are a restless nation, rattling from road to road; a nation that had largely abandoned long-distance trains because they did not go to enough places. It is in our nature as Americans to want to drive everywhere, even into the wilderness. The nature writer Edward Abbey decried in Desert Solitaire the fact that access roads were planned for Arches National Monument in Utah when he was a ranger there. Around Barstow, I was thinking of Abbey, who once exclaimed to a friend that the most glorious vision he'd beheld in his life was "the sight of a billboard burning against the sky."

What made Barstow's billboards a peculiar blight was the contrast with everything that lay around them—the landscape that was so stark and dramatic as a brooding expanse of withered shrubs and fat cactuses, the stony roads that seemed to lead nowhere, the bleak and beautiful backdrop that seemed as though no one had laid a hand on it, with lively colorations at a distance and up close so dry, like a valley of bones looking as though they could not support life. I had seen deserts in Patagonia and Turkmenistan, northern Kenya and Xinjiang in western China; but I had never seen anything like this. The revelation of the Mojave Desert was (peering past the billboards) not just its illusion of emptiness but its assertive power of exclusion, the low bald hills and far-off mountains looking toasted and forbidding under the darkening sky.

That sky slipped lower, scattered rain that quickly evaporated on the road, and then gouts of marble-size hailstones swept over the road ahead, like a plague of mothballs. And in that whitening deluge I could make out the Ten Commandments, set out by the roadside in the manner of Burma-Shave signs, You Shall Not Murder... You Shall Not Commit Adultery, like a word to the wise, until the state line into Nevada, and just beyond, the little town of Primm, overshadowed by its big bulking casinos.

I turned off the super-slab to travel the slower parallel road away from the speeding cars. This route took me past Henderson, and its empty malls, and soon up ahead the lights and the tall hotels.

I had never seen Las Vegas before. I was driving down the Strip, which was like the midway of the largest imaginable carnival—a free-for-all, with masks and bingeing. Passing me were slow-moving trucks, pulling mobile billboards that advertised girls for hire and restaurants, magicians, singers, shows. The hotels and casinos were shaped like Oriental palaces, with turrets and waterfalls, and familiarly, the Eiffel Tower, the Great Sphinx guarding a glassy pyramid, the Arc de Triomphe that had the texture of stale cake.

The city of fun houses dazzled me for a day, until my eyes became habituated to the scene, and then I was depressed. Yet Las Vegas is in its way as American as a lobster pot, a lighthouse, a field of corn, a red barn; but it is more. Unlike those iconic images, Las Vegas represents the fulfillment of childish fantasies—easy money, entertainment, sex, risk, elbowroom, self-indulgence. As a city without limits, it can go on spreading into the desert that surrounds it, reinventing itself as long as the water holds out.

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