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

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)
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"It's no fun to be single here if you're an Egyptian," he said. "But I'm married to a girl from Paris"—15 miles away—"and this is a good place to raise a family."

Passing the brick houses and quiet streets of Lexington, I continued through green hills, bumped along a corner of Ohio, and arrived in Charleston, West Virginia—a state capital that is more like a small town, with a population of around 50,000. I was in time for lunch at a Mexican restaurant. I merely happened upon it, as I found other good places on the road. Often, I asked a passerby— "Where's a great place to eat?" and I always got a helpful referral.

Ten days into my road trip I began wondering if I were perhaps pushing it a little too hard. But wasn't the whole point to keep going down the proud highway? The thrill is in the moving, gaining ground, watching the landscape change, stopping on impulse.

Then I met Steve the biker, out on I-79 at a rest stop, somewhere between Burnsville and Buckhannon, and he made me feel as though I had been dawdling. I had swung by for gas. Steve had stopped to adjust the strap on his motorcycle helmet. He had a new bike and was traveling from Omaha, Nebraska, to Alexandria, Virginia—in two days. He'd left St. Louis earlier that morning and had already traveled almost 600 miles—and was aiming to be home tonight, about 300 miles to go.

"I don't get it," I said.

"This is the newest Kawasaki," Steve said. "I can do 110 in first gear and I still have five more gears." He smiled a little. "I did 165 yesterday."

"And you don't get pulled over for speeding?"

"I'm a small profile," he said. "I'm under the radar."

Instead of following him up the Interstate, I turned east on mellow-looking Route 50 and meandered through Grafton, Fellowsville, Mount Storm and Capon Bridge—heading in the general direction of Gettysburg. I count the drive through West Virginia as distinctly memorable—there was hardly a town or village on the way I would not have been content to live in; not a hill I did not wish to climb, or a hollow that did not invite me to laze under a tree. At one point, bowling along the open road, the Supertramp song "Take the Long Way Home" came on the radio. Listening to music while driving through a lovely landscape is one of life's great mood enhancers. And hearing the line, "But there are times that you feel you're part of the scenery," I was in Heaven.

The rain in Gettysburg the next day provided a somber atmosphere for driving from battlefield to battlefield, from the carnage with the opening shots at McPherson's Ridge on the first of July, 1863, to the Battle of Little Round Top on the second day, to the futility of Pickett's Charge on the third and last day. I had dreamed for years of spending time in Gettysburg, a place of heroism, eloquent words and deeds. For a small fee, I had hired a friendly historian-guide from the visitors center, and he drove my car—the car that had brought me across America from Los Angeles. My two days in and around Gettysburg were perhaps the most vivid of the trip for the depth of history and the reminder that, as a nation, we are warriors as well as peacemakers.


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