MATTOLE VALLEY, Calif . — Almost four decades since the last time we did it, my wife and I have just driven across the United States, from Washington, D.C. to California. This was done entirely on Interstate highways, every mile of them divided and most four lanes. Last time, there were a few divided sections, most into and out of large cities, but the rest of the trip was made on four, three and mostly two-lane roads. For the long-term improvement we can thank President Eisenhower, who proposed the Interstate system back in the Fifties.
Interspersed along these ribbons of asphalt and concrete are oases. In the days of camel caravans, an oasis meant a grove of palm trees, water and grass for the camels. Today, the groves are of 20-foot steel columns topped by neon signs advertising McDonald’s, Denny’s, Best Western, Motel Six and the other watering spots below. There are no discernible differences in the oases from one state or region to another. It is America homogenized so far as food and fuel are concerned.
We did, however, come across some notable cultural milestones along the way:
• It snowed in Nashville the day we drove in from Knoxville. There they are even less prepared for snow than are Washingtonians. Dozens of cars had been abandoned on the freeway in the midst of a four-inch snowfall.
• Arkansas is not all dog-trot cabins and unsold Whitewater building lots. A long stretch west of Little Rock and east of Fort Smith goes through foothills between the low ranges of the Ouachita and Boston Mountains, amidst beautiful pine forests and blue lakes.
• If you are traveling cross-country with your horse, you will be pleased to know that the Happy Tracks Horse Motel is but 10 miles west of Amarillo, Texas.
• Ten miles east of Amarillo is Groom, Texas, home of a water tower tilting off kilter at an angle greater than that of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the home of the Largest Cross in the Western Hemisphere (aluminum and about 40 feet tall);
• In the motel dining room in Oklahoma City, half the men customers were wearing baseball hats. “Why are they wearing them?” my wife asked. Lacking an answer, I invented one, to wit: “They are worried there will be a severe and sudden thundershower which will cause the dining room ceiling to leak and they want to be protected.”
• The next night, in Albuquerque, we encountered the same phenomenon at dinner, with no better explanation than mine of the evening before.
• The young breakfast waitress in Albuquerque, upon being thanked for her service, said, “You’re welcome” instead of “No problem.” This a first for her generation.
• At the Continental Divide in New Mexico there is a trading post, bright and well-stocked. They have a very good selection of genuine Indian rugs at moderate prices. The rugs bear tags reading “Made in Mexico.”
One thing remains unchanged from our cross-country trip of long ago: the national dividing line between hash brown potatoes and grits at breakfast is the Oklahoma-Texas border.