Artvoice: Buffalo's #1 Newsweekly
Home Blogs Web Features Calendar Listings Artvoice TV Real Estate Classifieds Contact
Previous story: 2011 Summer Guide
Next story: The Sounds of Summer

Drive, I Said: Stories From my Life on the Road

A cross-country veteran's six-part guide to traversing the continent by car

Author’s note: What follows is the first of several articles on long-distance driving, mainly coast-to-coast, a trip I’ve taken about 30 times (that is, each way) over the past 40 years. It is mainly a summary of adventures, misadventures, and tips on how to go, where to go, how both to plan and to improvise, and how to avoid trouble along the way. And it is also a manifesto on why you might want to spend all that money to get there slower when the plane does it faster and cheaper.

Part 1: Wheel of Misfortune

It is the hour when all the Ps are out on patrol: prostitutes, pimps, prowlers, pickpockets, ponces, posers, and perps, as well as police in their big cruisers. I envision the whole backstreet caravan like a lineup of blazing sevens on a slot machine. Yet for the moment I find it creepy to be here alone on this side street, just two blocks from the gaudy neon of a casino and so conspicuous against the dark buildings that the passing police cruisers slow down to eyeball me to see if I might be a perp to be hauled in or a pimp to be rousted. I do feel creepy out here and I know what they are saying in the cruisers.

Cop 1: “Not a perp, not a pimp, and he’s got that slump of defeat to the shoulders. Maybe he’s a professor, but what the hell’s he doing out there this time of night?”

Cop 2: “Same as the cowboy a half hour ago. Looking for his car.”

It is about midnight, and I’ve left the Silver Legacy Casino in downtown Reno, Nevada. (Warning: This car brakes for casinos.) The next step is to get west quickly and truck on up to Truckee, California by 12:30 and bed down there, so that I can wake up in the Sierras in the morning. Nothing could be finer that a high sierra diner in the morning. Yes, Truckee is just a stone’s throw from the Donner Summit, where a famous settler party enjoyed its last supper, but they didn’t have Route 80 or Flying J truck stops back then.

I recall that I had parked my car just two and a half blocks away from the casino’s front door. I had left it near a chain link fence, walked back a half block, turned right, and then walked two blocks straight to the front door of the Silver Legacy. It was a seven-minute walk; who could forget how to get back? Only as I exit the Silver Legacy (elegant casino, by the way) I see that there are two ways to go. I can angle right up West Fourth Street or left up North Sierra Street. Either would have given me the same view of the casino’s front door coming down the street. Hey, no sweat. You try one, then, if the car isn’t there, you try the other. So first, up North Sierra Street two blocks, then left turn, and the car should be there. It is a silver Acura RSX-S, sporty-looking and distinctive, and I’ve got my key clicker in hand, ready make the lights give me that welcome back wink as I approach. Two blocks up, left turn, no chain link fence, no car. Ah well, wrong move. My legs are killing me, and that isn’t all, but I can’t just sit down on the curb and take a breather. That’s a shortcut to the drunk tank and a serious interruption of my trip.

I go back to the casino entrance and try the same route up West Fourth Street: two blocks from the door, left turn, and then I’ll be good to go. I’m a few blocks off US Highway 80 and it is just a half hour from the smoke-infested aisles of the Silver Legacy to the star-infested sky of the Sierra ridge. Up West Fourth two blocks, turn left and, holy ravioli, no car. Nothing silver and sleek answers the call of my key transponder. Am I lost? Was it three blocks? Three blocks and right? I’ve been spinning empty lines all night. Not even one lousy wild cherry.

I head back urgently to the casino and duck inside to use the bathroom and make some adjustments. Here is the other part of the story. I have had to pee every two hours on the trip, and there is always blood in it. I have regularly recurring kidney stones, and just days before leaving on the trip my doctor had inserted a stent in one of my ureters to widen the canal and help the stones pass. My right ureter, the passageway from the kidney to the bladder, had something called a “Steinstrasse,” a stone street, and stones of all sizes were gridlocked along the canal waiting for their moment to pass. The stent was supposed to turn Steinstrasse into the Autobahn and open up extra lanes to traffic, and indeed I could actually feel them pass every now and then and hit the urinals along Route 80 with a clink. (I have a jar of my stones at home; they look like moon rocks.) But to make the stent easy to find and remove, the doctor attached a string that dangled loosely in my bladder, and the whole nasty contraption is a major irritant during 3,000 cross-country miles. You see your own blood in the water and you feel like fainting. I’m not supposed to eat rhubarb, which is heavy in oxalates.

Back in the Silver Legacy I do some reconnaissance. What did I do wrong? Is there another front door? Well, in fact the Silver Legacy has four front doors: the casino fills an entire city block and each corner of the building has an identical entranceway: a 30-foot high silvery art deco Gateway to Fortune that proclaims to all, “If this ain’t paradise, then what is?” And each stands at the intersection of two streets: West Fourth and North Sierra, West Fifth and North Sierra, West Fifth and US 395 Business, and West Fourth and US 395 Business. It is well after midnight now, and the balls of my feet feel like ground glass and my bladder feels like it is on the barbecue. And my head! I had a beer with dinner—a sumptuous California cioppino loaded with clams, shrimp, scallops, squid, and sleep-inducing tryptophan—and now need a place to lay my head. And there are six more streets to explore, two blocks up and half block left in search of the Acura. My inner theater of the absurd is doing its Samuel Beckett number: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” My bladder is warning, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” My conscience goes, like, “This was the route of the Donner Party, wasn’t it?” My random number generator has been spitting out garbage all night. My brain says, “Call a taxi.” Score one for brain.

“Where to?” asks the taxi driver?

“My car,” I tell him. “Keep circling the Silver Legacy in widening circles until we see it. It is up against a chain link fence by a construction site, between port-a-potties. Meanwhile I’ll keep hitting the emergency button on my door transponder until we see something blink.”

“Street name?” he asks.

“I never bothered to look. It seemed so easy to get to the casino; it should have been easy to get back. I’ve only had one beer; I’m not drunk. Do you see this often?”

“Some nights,” he says, “you guys are the mainstay of my business.”

Oh, and here is something else, a tip if you don’t know this: You can extend the range of your key clicker by as much as 50 feet if you hold it in your open mouth, as though your mouth were a signal amplifier. Don’t ask me. Just try it. So there we are, the taxi driver and I circling the Silver Legacy Casino through blaring traffic, in ever widening circles, looking for my car while I sit in the back seat, holding the clicker in my mouth, sending out an electronic car call.

Part 2: Get Your Kicks

In which the author examines the many routes the cross-country driver can take, parses the cost of driving in both human and automobile fuel, and extols the virtues of truck stops:

The most famous American song ever written about the long drive was recorded in 1946 by Nat King Cole. Written by Bobby Troup a decade earlier, “Route 66” went unrecorded until Cole made a hit of it. “If you ever plan to motor west, travel my way, take the highway that is best, get your kicks on route sixty-six.”

Route 66, from Chicago to LA, “more than two thousand miles all the way,” was the major automobile route to the California coast until the construction of the interstate highway system rendered it obsolete in the 1950s. The modern US Interstate 40 parallels Route 66 for much of the way, and you can still in places see the ghost town highway and diners, most of them decaying into the weeds that grow around them. “Now you go through Saint Looey, Joplin, Missouri, and Oklahoma City is mighty pretty. You see Amarillo, Gallup, New Mexico, Flagstaff, Arizona, don’t forget Winona, Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino.” It is a surprisingly memorable song for one that is mainly a list of cities along the way, and I make a point of singing it whenever I pass through Kingman, Barstow, and San Bernardino. Or getting emergency car repairs in Gallup, New Mexico…

Part 3: Nosce Te Ipsum

In which the author implores the reader to examine his or her own strengths and weaknesses, needs and desires, before setting off on the road:

Nosce te ipsum, know yourself, or thyself, as they used to say in the Renaissance. Sorry to get all classical and philosophical about it, but you should know at least some basics about yourself before you start. There is no point on starting out on a journey of some 6,000-plus miles and finding just 2,000 miles into it that it wasn’t what you have in mind. Do you think you won’t find yourself in, say, Limon, Colorado, or Columbia, Missouri, thinking, “I don’t want to be doing this any longer? Where’s the airport?”

Of course you will. The USA is humongous, and while the long-haul truckers in their 18-wheel Freightliners do it every day, they grab their sleep wherever they can in the backs of their cabs, and there is a whole archipelago of truck stops that exists just for them. Writers of travel articles don’t like to level about the strain of travelling, the sheer exhaustion factor. It makes them sound wimpish, or worse, like feckless air traffic controllers. But the long drive is an endurance test, and you have to know your limits and your tolerance for sleepiness and exhaustion. They are two different things…

Part 4. What to Carry with You

In which the author lists the gewgaws and gimcracks and comforts that have made his 30-odd trips cross-country in a car more pleasurable and, indeed, possible:

One of the beauties of driving, even a sports car, is that bags drive free, and there is no damned 50-pound limit. You can take what fits, and there is always room to return with more, even if you have to hold it on your lap. I do like to pick up stuff along the way and when things begin to rattle around, I buy a $20 sports bag from one of the truck stops I happen to frequent. Flying J has some nice ones, but so do Love’s, Pilot, and the Iowa 80 system. Only need, greed (gimme more), car capacity, and self-control place a limit on what you can carry. What do I consider the essentials? That is, what may not be obvious like clean clothes, fresh underwear, sunscreen, a toothbrush, and a credit card?…

To read Parts 2-4 in this series, check out AV Daily at, where they will be published over the course of the next week. Parts 5 & 6 will be filed by the author on the road to Las Vegas.

“Can I ask why you’re doing that?” he asks.

“My mouth seems to be a broadcasting cavity,” I answer. “I don’t know why, but someone told me about it and it works.”

“You have metal fillings?” he asks.

“A mouthful of them.”

“They act as relays” he says. “The more silver you have, the more signal you get.”

“I’ll remember that,” I tell him, and just then a winking Acura about 50 feet ahead flashes its happy lights and honks its horn at us. I’m home—on the road your car is home—and the taxi driver gets a fat tip. After Wheel of Fortune had gobbled up $60 in record time, without so much as a single bonus spin, I have a final Jackson left—as in President Andrew—and I lay it on the cabbie. He’s given me my night’s only payoff.

This took place on something like my 26th or 27th cross-country drive, if you count each leg as a drive. Or was it the 30th? I don’t think it was much above that, but the point is that I drive from Buffalo to California and beyond, do it almost every summer now, and do it with enormous anticipation and pleasure. Driving is one of my avocations, and I take the car for a long-distance workout whenever there is time and opportunity. Over the past 40 years I’ve crossed country as often as I’ve flown, driven through every state in the contiguous 48. Every one. Maine, been there, done that. Florida, check. North Dakota—ah, come on. They are all connected by the vascular system of interstates that binds America together, and there is no east-west interstate I have not driven. I may have missed a few north-souths, but there is still time.

And to be clear, I don’t do this to reach my destination. That’s what planes are for. I sure don’t do it to save money; driving is way more expensive. And I don’t do it out of any Daytona Speedway fantasies. I do it for itself; there is no other reason. Some folks ski, others sky dive, some bicycle, scuba, climb mountains, or run marathons. Folks cook, bake, diet, eat yogurt, take yogurt enemas, clean their sinuses with neti pots, go vegan. Some folks eat seaweed. Some people write poetry. They write novels. They play pianos. Well, I drive, and driving is no more practical than hang gliding or writing poetry. We choose a thing we want to do and we do it, and I’ve been driving for so long that the act itself has outlived all the explanations. I will give reasons to you, and they will have to do with freedom, exploration, curiosity, self-reliance, fun, adventure, meditation, discovery, habit, the rhythms of solitude and companionship, testing yourself, hauling items around (baggage is a big part of driving), the rush of finding yourself entirely on your own in a strange place and under trying circumstances, etc. All of the above, and then some, but they are not the thing itself, Kant’s das Ding an Sich. They are the alibis we make up later to make our craziness sound reasonable. I drive because I drive. Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly.

I’m not saying there isn’t a trace of Kerouac in there somewhere. I got hooked on On the Road too. But finally, as a character says in a Philip Roth novel, “I do what I do because I do what I do.” Like it says in the Tao, if you can name it, that’s not it: the way, the Tao, the road, the interstate of your life. I have no name for what I do, but I’ll barrage you with reasons all the same.

For the rest of you, the question is “Should I?” My quick answer is “Probably not” if the need isn’t already augering its way through your brain like a deep sea tubeworm. Moreover, the kind of diving I do is not sociable behavior. I know Kerouac made it sound upbeat and spiritual, a car full of dharma bums looking for enlightenment, and Ginsberg’s poems always had a higher purpose rolling on through the Wichita vortex—“in chill earthly mist houseless brown farmland plains rolling heavenward in every direction…” Is that you? Try asking your wife, husband, boyfriend, girlfriend, partner, “Hey, honey, let’s go drive 8,000 miles. We’ll see Rock Island, Moline, Davenport. We’ll seek enlightenment. We’ll go to Mitchell, South Dakota and see the Corn Palace. We’ll see ‘Radio antennae high tension wires ranging from Junction City across the plains—highway cloverleaf sunk in a vast meadow lands curving past Abilene to Denver…’” (from Allen Ginsberg, “Wichita Vortex Sutra”).

Yeah, right! What I’m talking about involves a hard core of selfishness that few people can get away with. If you have to cajole, beg, or ask permission, you’re doomed. I’m not here to talk anyone else into the sybaritic joys of driving through North Platte, Nebraska at 3am or looking for his car with blood in his urine, beer on his breath, and an empty wallet from slot machines that took him for a mark the minute he walked in the door. But I can tell you some things you need to know if you do.

Mark Shechner is a professor at UB’s English Department. Read Parts 2-4 at Artvoice Daily.

blog comments powered by Disqus