Running on Empty

By Mooallem, Jon | Mother Jones, September/October 2006 | Go to article overview

Running on Empty


Mooallem, Jon, Mother Jones


BOOKS Running on Empty Looking for America in the wild red yonder Cross Country: Fifteen Years and 90,000 Miles on the Roads and Interstates of America With Lewis and Clark, a Lot of Bad Motels, a Moving Van, Emily Post, Jack Kerouac, My Wife, My Mother-in-Law, Two Kids, and Enough Coffee to Kill an Elephant By Robert Sullivan. Bloomsbury. 389 pages. $24.95.

America abhors a vacuum. After doubling its size with the Louisiana Purchase, the country looked across the Mississippi at its new, other half and, having just finished hewing a gentlemanly republic from the eastern forests, went to work again. Lewis and Clark slogged to Oregon and back, eating dog meat and sketching maps. Settlers came lumbering over the plains and out of the Nevada desert with their livestock bleeding from the mouth. Wagon trains were lowered over the Sierras with ropes and winches. Railroads were laid. Things deemed in the way-bison, Native Americans-were decimated. "The land," as Robert Frost once described it, "vaguely realizing westward, but still unstoried, artless, unenhanced," was being storied and enhanced by the simple act of our crossing it.

Then came the cars. In 1903, a Vermont doctor won a $50 bet by traversing the United States in an automobile-notwithstanding that there were barely 200 miles of roads suitable for such a machine. Six years later, a 23-year-old woman drove west as a publicity stunt to sell more cars. But by the end of World War I, cars were virtually selling themselves. America loved driving and needed somewhere to do it. So we spent much of the first half of the 20th century like Lilliputians cinching Gulliver, taking possession of our landscape by strapping it down with crisscrossing highways. By the 1930s, the Office of Public Roads, looking to Hitler's autobahn for inspiration, was paving 12,000 miles a year. This enterprise culminated with the postwar federal interstate system, which, as President Eisenhower boasted, used enough concrete to lay six sidewalks to the moon. With this Manifest Destiny business just about finished, Eisenhower was, it seems, already looking desirously skyward toward the next frontier. But the rest of us-earthbound, roadbound-could only keep racing between the coasts like flies trapped in a long hallway. Since then, the everyman's moon shot has been the cross-country drive.

Driving cross-country may be the only thing Americans do in which the journey is so explicitly more important than the destination. The road trip still offers a kind of pioneering adventure, particularly for those of us who live huddled against the coasts, as though in fear of the broad emptiness behind us-the spaces on the map we imagine to be emblazoned with ogres and dragons, the red states. We may know it as "flyover country," but we are suddenly determined to drive smack into the heart of it. Like all rites, the cross-country road trip is not only a trial to endure but also an illumination, a way of knowing. In spite of our suspicion, we sense that out there is another America, and perhaps a more perfect one-"an America," writes Robert Sullivan in his freewheeling new book, "that appears in magazines alongside recipes; it's the America where presidential candidates are televised."

Sullivan, the author of four other books, including a fine appreciation of vermin, Rats, has gassed up and streaked across the map more than two dozen times, often with his wife and kids in tow. Cross Country chronicles a family road trip last summer in a rented Chevy Impala but ends up, guided by the author's rampant curiosity, as a gratifying miscellany of portraits, micro-histories, and minutiae-from the bicycle salesman who founded the Indy 500 to the evolution of coffee cup sip-tops. "In the roads of America," Sullivan writes, "is the history of America." His is "an American style of contemplating history" in which you not only "stand where before stood someone else" but also goad your children to read passages from Lewis and Clark's journals aloud. …

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