The jigsaw puzzle that is the American experience has thousands of pieces.
I was born and raised in Massachusetts. My slice of the American pie is made of clam chowder and cranberries and relics of the Revolution, colonial houses and rolling hills that light up like a sunset in autumn and cheering for the Red Sox even when we know it’s a lost cause.
But there are so many other sides to America: from cattle ranches and ten-gallon hats to apple pie and white picket fences, ours is a nation whose identity is shaped by its diversity. The only way to truly understand everything the United States has to offer is to see it yourself – and as of this summer, I hadn’t. “Thus I discovered that I did not know my own country,” wrote Steinbeck in his Travels with Charley, and following a similar realization, my family decided it was time for the ultimate American experience: a cross-country road trip.
Armed with as many books as I could carry – Kerouac, of course, and Steinbeck and McCarthy – and a ten-hour playlist, we set off as early as we could manage given our collective inability to wake up in the morning. With plenty of coffee and the sun at our back we left Massachusetts, following the path of so many before us as they blazed the trail westward.
The idea behind our road trip was not to linger in any particular place for an extended period of time. Instead, we would get a flavor for the entire country in a continuous pan from one region or major city to another, cycling through day-long drives and minimal sleep. The journey would be the destination: at the end of the trip we will have traveled roughly ten thousand miles (if all goes according to plan).
But this trip, for me at least, is more than just another vacation. This is my last summer as an adolescent and my last summer of high school – according to many, the last carefree summer I’ll enjoy until retirement. The week after I return to Boston I will be eighteen and an adult, ready to start the next chapter of my life in college and beyond. In many ways, this particular journey is a symbolic as well as a literal one: as I travel around the country I am also traveling into the future, each passing mile bringing me closer to the next stage of my life.
Adventure is at the heart of the American psyche. We as a nation have constantly striven to push boundaries, to explore the farthest frontier – the wanderlust and thirst for discovery that caused hundreds of thousands of pioneers to leave their familiar lives for the great unknown still runs through our veins today. Nowhere is this spirit more evident than on the open road, where the highway fades into the horizon and towns whiz by at breakneck speed. The highways themselves are the arteries of America, and travel is its lifeblood: we are a restless nation.
There is something intangibly exhilarating about speeding down a smoothly paved highway, sun glaring on the windshield, landscapes melting into towns and cities and back again as the hours sail by. The vast corporate complexes and factories south of New York City gave way to the rolling fields of rural Virginia dotted with herds of cattle; out of these rose the Appalachians in a lush green glow. The highway wound up through the mountains, nearly touching the sky: from its highest point in the Carolinas the view spanned miles in all directions. Summer storm clouds gathered in the late afternoon, thundershowers scattering across the countryside, rain falling in silvery feathers in the distance and lightning slashing through the sky.
Atlanta was our gateway to the South. The neutral accents of the Northeast to which we were accustomed changed into a friendly Georgian drawl; the people themselves were warmer, more welcoming, and far less rushed. Throughout the Southern states it was the same: we were greeted everywhere we went with enthusiastic “Hi, y’all!”s and genuine cordiality.
Our next major stop was New Orleans, a city that fascinated me even if I were unsure of what to expect. We arrived close to midnight and found most of the streets deserted, save for those in the French Quarter, which was even at eleven-thirty on a weeknight a mad circus of flashing lights, popcorn stands, and music pounding out of every doorway.
There was a kind of desperation in the air, an almost sinister craze for entertainment. They say New Orleans’ French Quarter is haunted, and whether or not the ghost stories are true, there is certainly something eerie about the facades: the beautiful yet crumbling buildings, their darkened top-floor windows peered with fathomless eyes at the passers-by below.
From the bayous of Louisiana we crossed into Texas and were greeted by a sign that proclaimed “El Paso: 857 miles”. Marshes solidified into dusty plains speckled with withered shrubs and the occasional tree; towns grew sparse and true cities sparser. The highway stretched to the horizon without a single curve; at sunset we were greeted by an endless flaming sky and cotton-candy clouds that stretched as far as the eye could see. We swung through Houston and north to Dallas and Fort Worth, where the saloon-lined streets host the motifs and the characters of a spaghetti Western.
The hours-long stretches of open road provided my family and me the opportunity to do what we had so often been unable to do in the past: talk. Between work and school and extracurricular activities, life had managed to siphon away any time we might have spent relaxing together (or relaxing, period). But when the terrain remains unchanged for hundreds of miles, the highway is clear, and there are no radio stations within range, interaction is the only option – and considering that I’ll be leaving my family for college in under a month, bonding can only be a good thing.
Almost imperceptibly, the hazy plains of Texas melted into the bone-dry desert of New Mexico. The monotonous landscape – mostly beige and olive green – exploded into color, afire with desert reds, golds, and pinks that lit up the faces of the surrounding cliffs and glowed against the cloudless blue of the sky. Now and then, signs pointed out into the emptiness, exits to nowhere; even more infrequently, single trailer homes appeared as dots in the wilderness, dozens of miles away from the nearest settlement.
The breathtaking palette of the desert was echoed in the architecture of Albuquerque, where low pueblo-style houses of pink adobe stood next to Spanish-style squares off of the historic Route 66. Oddly, the mythical highway was one of the biggest disappointments: for all the hype, it was really just a major road like any other.
It has been a week now since we set out from Massachusetts, and in a mere seven days the diversity of the United States has taken on a new meaning. From the variety of landscapes and natural resources to the rich mixture of cultural influences, our nation is one of incredible contrasts. I can’t wait to see more of what America has to offer as we head north into the Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest next week.
Christina Teodorescu ’16 will chronicle her ten thousand mile journey between high school and Harvard in the Independent this month. Look for parts two and three in upcoming weeks.