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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And another reward on this back road was the old mile-high mining town of Jerome, a restored settlement clinging to the mountainside. In the distance, past Verde Valley, were the almost-dusty pastels, the ochers and purples and pinks and oranges in the smooth cliffs of Sedona. These happy battlements and looming canyons invited me farther off the road, where I found a hotel spa and signed up for a massage.

That was another lesson of the open road: if you don't like what you see in Las Vegas, a day's drive will take you through a natural forest to a pastel paradiso. I would have stayed longer—but this was a road trip, I reminded myself: the journey was the destination.

On my way to Santa Fe, heading east from Flagstaff into New Mexico, the advertised feature of the desert was the crater of a meteorite on the way to Winslow. But really the desert itself was the feature, under a blue canopy of sky. Here and there a Land for Sale sign, with an arrow pointing into the heat-shimmering emptiness; and the sight in the far distance of a tiny dot of habitation, a small house-trailer sitting deep in the desert wilderness, the living symbol of American elbowroom.

Passing a billboard in the desert—"Entering Navajo Country"—I checked my map and saw that the whole of this northeastern quadrant of Arizona is the Navajo Nation Indian Reservation, the Painted Desert visible in the great striated walls of reddish cliff faces at the northerly horizon.

Travel usually implies seeing a place once and moving on; but this became a trip in which I made lists of places I'd return to —Prescott, and Sedona, and now Gallup, New Mexico, where I'd happily go mountain-biking or hiking in the high desert, or visiting the people who possessed the country before we claimed it as ours.

I stopped at the town of Thoreau just long enough to establish whether it was named for the author of Walden and was told that this was not the case—was not even pronounced the same, but sounded more like my own name said correctly (Ther-oo). By late afternoon I was rounding Albuquerque and arrived in Santa Fe in the clear light of early evening.

Santa Fe, mild in May at 7,000 feet, was a monochromatic town of tastefully manufactured adobe. I felt no compulsion to return to Santa Fe. I left the next day, driving through the unexpectedly green and rolling hills, to pick up Interstate 40, old Route 66 with a face-lift. Sixty miles on I used the offramp at Santa Rosa, to verify the unlikely fact that this was one of the more important scuba-diving destinations in the Southwest desert, and also for the pleasure of looking more closely at the small town, glittering in the desert sunlight, bisected by the Pecos River.

At a local diner, I met Manuel and Jorge, of Basque descent, men in their late 70s. They had spent their working lives raising sheep and cattle and were now retired, their children scattered throughout New Mexico. I asked what the town had been like when it was a stop on Route 66.

"Very busy," Manuel said. "And there was more rain then. But now we're in the End Times and everything is changing."

"I have the feeling that you read that in the Bible."


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