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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No one can satirize Las Vegas; it satirizes itself much more effectively, thriving on self-mockery.

"I was so drunk last night I puked all over myself," a man said to me at breakfast, sounding delighted. "Like I was really drunk. It was great. I didn't know where I was. I just fell down. I don't even know how I got back to my room!"

A manic eagerness penetrated the place, like forced laughter; the object was to have a good time, no matter the cost. I loitered, I nosed in the casinos, I saw the "Love." This show, Beatles songs brought to life on bungee cords and trapezes and high wires, was appropriate to Las Vegas, which is, for good and ill, a circus, but an interactive one, where the visitors are also participants—part-time clowns, floozies, risk-takers. But on a visit to the Liberace Museum on East Tropicana, lured by the lovely hills, I kept going, to Boulder Highway, heading southeast down the open road.

On Route 93, through the mountainous desert, along the Art Deco lip of Hoover Dam, I passed 50 motorcyclists flying American flags crossing the dam and saluting as they did so, another glory of the road.

Less than 100 miles farther, I swung off the road at Kingman, Arizona, which is a crossroads, the Interstate meeting old Route 66. This little town and truck stop was also associated with Timothy McVeigh, the unspeakable Oklahoma City bomber, who used Kingman as a base—he worked here, plotted here and holed up in a local trailer park. Knowing this history gave this road junction in the desert place a sinister aura of anonymity.

This country runs as efficiently as it does because of trucks. They are everywhere. They can go where there are no trains: they penetrate to the smallest towns. And truckers—tough, resolute, willing—constitute one of the great traveling fraternities in America. They know every road.

Did I say "fraternity"? It is also a sorority. The truckers fueling in Kingman that day were mostly women, co-drivers with their husbands. Elaine and Casey were gassing up and grumbling about fuel prices. "I'd make more money baby-sitting," said Elaine, who was headed for New England.

"What do you think should happen?"

Casey, a short, stout woman of 50 or so, said, "I'll tell you. All the trucks stopping altogether—every truck in America—for about four days. That's going to put up the prices of shipping, but it'll make the point."

Twenty miles out of Kingman I obeyed the Watch for Elk sign and turned south off the Interstate on slower, narrower Route 93 toward Wikieup, through butter-colored hills and deep green ravines, and after some miles to an even narrower road that led northeast toward Prescott National Forest. The land was thick with fat, wind-sculpted junipers in my long climb up Mingus Mountain on a switchback road to the 7,000-foot ridge, as far from the stereotype of desert Arizona as one is likely to find.


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