Almost 10,000 Miles in Our 1990 Volvo: We Learned A Lot About Our Country

By Jean and Peter Richards

(This article was written in late 2009 after we returned from a trip across the USA in October and November.)

A 9,789 mile road trip across two Canadian provinces and through 28 states provided proof that being out of fashion is not only a consequence of our metier, but fundamental to our way of life.

Against the better judgment of some, we set off to see America this fall in a 19-year-old Volvo that barely strained over the high passes of the Rockies and turned 300,000 miles as we crossed the Mississippi on the way back East.

Safdie’s addition to National Gallery, Ottawa

It had been a long time since we traveled in North America and rarely had that been beyond the Mid-West. The stunning landscapes of the Plains, the Mountain States, the upper coast of the Pacific and the rosy-hued Southwest were a revelation. We marveled at the contours of the Badlands and toured snow-dusted Yellowstone with a character as colorful as his tales of Bill Cody and a lifetime with the park as his backyard.

The Rockies were every bit as majestic as hoped, Oregon Coast’s just as beautiful and more accessible than Maine’s, the Redwoods dwarfing, Yosemite haunting, the Hoover Dam dizzying and the canyons Bryce and Zion as grand as their more famous neighbor.

Not even the best photographs can convey the magnificence of America’s treasures. We simply gasped at sights over and over, but we also gasped at the decline in America. In town after town, we came upon empty storefronts, payday loan shops, closed factories, open tattoo parlors, dilapidated housing and downtrodden people. Obesity is evident everywhere, but we found a good meal hard to come by. Unsettling was the degree of paranoia we ran into whether it be the mother in a convenience store in Vermont concerned that her son might be kidnapped while she used the rest room, the guide who carries a gun on client request or the desk clerk overheard assuring yet another caller that a motel was secure. We were dismayed by the proliferation of memorials and not just along roadsides. Oklahoma City’s tragic Murrah bombing site has become its major tourist attraction. The memorial with its empty chairs and reflecting pool is by itself beautiful, but there is something very disturbing about its three storey museum, busloads of visiting children and a culture which dwells on its traumas.

Most telling was the absence of laughter, joy and optimism across American. Those we met in the Plains seemed most content. In other places, people readily told us of good paying jobs lost, forced moves and hopes dashed.

Bison in the Badlands

Late fall was a perfect time to make this trip up through Grafton Notch State Park in Maine, where names like Screw Auger Falls are as colorful as autumn leaves, and across to Ontario. We loved Moishe Safdie’s Gothic modern addition to the National Gallery, learned a little about Canadian painters, stumbled on a Lebanese bakery whose tray of baklava kept us going for days and spent an afternoon at the enlightening War Museum.

Next morning at breakfast over the border in Michigan, a Canadian thwarted in his return by the four–hour wait at the crossing expressed his irritation with some American views. “We Canadians don’t like it that Americans think the 9-11 terrorists came through Canada.” Nobody likes the longer delays.

Lunch was on our minds as we sped around Chicago and across Route 80, but who could resist a 16,500 square foot museum in Austin, Minnesota, celebrating the history of “Spam.”  It was a hoot and not nearly as corny as the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, where every year the facade of the local community center and tourist attraction gets refurbished in corn cobs, grasses and grains.

Buffalo Bill looms large in Cody, Wyoming, where five worthwhile museums coexist in the town’s new Historical Center. In two days we barely managed to take in the Plains Indian exhibits, the Firearms Museum and the Whitney Museum of Western Art where Bierstadts, Remingtons, Churches and Morans presaged views to come when we would stand at some of the same points they had painted at national parks.

Grandview, Grand Canyon

Interesting as they could be, we ultimately tired of regional museum recapitulations of Native American tribal history as we traveled west and south and found ultimate relief in Kansas City where the Nelson-Atkins may be to Mid-America what the Thyssen Bornemisza is to Madrid.

Good things to eat proved more elusive. Two of the the best meals were Basque and in Boise, Idaho. On Saturday, Bar Gernika dishes up a traditional tongue in piquante sauce and once a month Epi’s in nearby Meridian roasts its lamb shank. Each would meet with approval in the homeland.

Emigres from Fujian, Taiwan and Guandong saved many an evening and demonstrated appreciation when asked to cook as if for themselves rather than their American clients.

Beef may be everywhere on the hoof in the West, but don’t ask that it be rare. Lawyers and health officials have scared cooks to the “well” end of done.

Calvin Trillin exaggerated only a tad when he wrote saucily that Arthur Bryant’s barbecue pit in Kansas City was “the single best restaurant in the world.” It’s still mighty good, but chain food from East to West is terrible. Where there were locally owned restaurants, “New American” and “creative” became red flags for us that all too often signaled cooks with more self-confidence than skill.

Inspiration Point, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

The poverty of menus in small towns and along the interstates was matched only by the paucity of antiques. We stopped at dozens of shops and hardly saw an antique across the land. America’s “antiques” west of the Mississippi are mostly, like its national park souvenirs, “Made in China.”

Incredibly reasonable and pleasant accommodations were easy to find, not least in Las Vegas. “There’s nothing phony about Vegas, it’s all phony,” Peter said. He found it amusing. I was horrified.

Equally shocking were gigantic white crosses rising or already looming over landscapes from the Texas Panhandle to Effingham, Illinois. One man’s beacon may be seen as another’s hostile proclamation.

Grand Staircase Escalante

That to which we can bear witness is the generosity of spirit and kindness of Americans be it the auto mechanics in Rapid City, South Dakota, who refused payment for fixing a glitch with the car, the enthusiastic volunteers who led us through Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unitarian Church in Madison, Wisconsin, or the owner of the bar in Boise who interrupted his afternoon reading to give us a tour of the Basque Block and share stories of its importance to shepherds’ descendants.  Then there was Merle Graffam, a pixie of a man in the Bureau of Land Management Visitor’s Center at the edge of the Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah. He set out one day in search of fossils in the ancient inland sea and found the toe of the undocumented plant eating dinosaur which now bears his name. A long conversation about continental shift and creatures of old enriched our appreciation for the spectacular landscapes of the Southwest. The National Park Rangers we met were to a person knowledgeable, helpful and unfailingly polite. They made us feel good about where some of our tax money goes.

Painted Desert

The blunt honesty of a Ranger at Gettysburg purified the experience for us.  “Don’t go to the new cyclorama,” he said. “It’s noisy. You won’t like it. Take the map and just see the battlefield.” We did. That the country we call home was united over the blood spilt in this simple spot, golden in the silence of fall, gave us pause.

For forty days, we savored the glorious landscapes of America, now we muse about it’s future and how the richest country in the world can once again fulfill its promise to more than just a few.

©  2009 Jean and Peter Richards

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About oldmainetravelers

The Old Maine Travelers are Peter and Jean Richards, who met more than a half century ago covering President John F. Kennedy on what would become his last trip to Boston.  They worked for many years as wire service and newspaper reporters and editors.  Peter did a nightly television show on WGBH, Boston, before he went into government in the administration of John V. Lindsay, mayor of New York City. After they moved to their brownstone in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, Jean did a spell on Madison Avenue in the real “Mad Men” days and later became public relations officer at Chase Manhattan Bank.  Since 1973 they have worked together first as owners and publishers of a group of award-winning newspapers in Dutchess County, N.Y., and then as antiques dealers.  Now they are old and live on the coast of Maine and in the Southwest of France when not traveling further afield. In the red barn by their house in Damariscotta, Maine, they tend an antique shop specializing in 18th and 19th century furniture, metalwork and accessories, buying objects they know about and like and selling them from May to October to delightful people of obvious discernment and taste. In France, they live in an old stone house in the shadows of the remaining towers of an unfinished 17th century church and above Roman drains in a town along a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella. They love it — for its authenticity and abundant boulangeries.  The rest of the time they travel the world together seeing the sights, seeking out museums, stumbling into interesting conversations, savoring local specialties and otherwise bumbling along in their own style. For years they have sent article-length postcards to family, friends, fellow travelers and some media. Many of these will now be posted here.
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