A Sociological Autobiography: 45 – Across America, Westwards

By | May 18, 2015

It was during our mid-term break that Annette and I had planned to drive our hired Buick to the Grand Canyon. We both taught our Emory classes in the morning of 6 March, 1998, filled up with bagels and by 2pm were leaving Atlanta and heading west on the I20. In driving rain we by-passed Birmingham en route to Memphis. We took a short break at Tupelo in Mississippi – Elvis’ birthplace – to refuel on crispy bacon at a local Shoneys, reaching the outskirts of Memphis around 9pm. Motels are cheap and a night at a Day’s Inn set us back less than $40. We had driven 400 miles easily enough

Elvis’ place, Gracelands, comprises a shrine in a vast estate. The house itself was okay, excepting a remarkably hairy ‘jungle room’. Local boy made good, it all shrieked. The souvenirs were pure tat. It was from here that I sent my first postcard to Ron, having hit on the idea of allowing him to track via a series of missives our progress to the Grand Canyon and back. As we left Gracelands and Memphis behind the rain recommenced. Arkansas disappeared into a wet mist formed by continuing rain on the one hand and the interstate’s incapacity to absorb it on the other. Entering Oklahoma, we decided to at least reach Oklahoma City before seeking respite. Entering the City on the multiple lanes of the I40 in drenched darkness was hit-and-miss. Nor could we find a motel. We were well on the road to Amarillo before discovering another Day’s Inn. On the way to eat we visited nearby Sallislaw, a Cherokee Reservation. This was the poignant endpoint of the Cherokee’s ‘Trail of Tears’: they had been rounded up and evicted from their natural homelands by settlers in the 1830s. It was a long day: I had driven 560 miles, notwithstanding our long visit to the ghost of Elvis

When we awoke the landscape was covered in snow and it was bitterly cold. The traffic was light and Amarillo apparently cut off, although we ploughed on at a steady 65-70mph. Skirting Amarillo, we grew accustomed to Texan, flat and Siberian-like sameness prior to entering New Mexico. We stopped for coffee at Tucumcari, where I managed to lock the keys in the car. Inevitably it was a Sunday. A local blacksmith came to our rescue for a generous $40

Underway once more we turned off the I285 to head for Santa Fe, our target for the day. It was on the long approach to Santa Fe that I made my second faux pas. The gas needle had been indicating empty for a while when we pulled into an out-of-the-way restaurant to ask the whereabouts of the nearest gas station. ‘Just down the road’, I was told, but apparently invisible from it (indeed, literally behind a hedge). Another lucky escape: what if I had not stopped to ask? A Best Western this time, plus an excellent Mexican meal. On this, only our third day on the road, we had crossed two time zones, gained two hours, and I had clocked up a further 490 miles.

Santa Fe was endearing. We found a café for croissants and coffee and visited the Loretto Chapel (check out its elegant staircase if you ever get the chance). The San Miguel Mission was close by, as were the Pueblo houses, allegedly the oldest houses in the USA. The environs of Santa Fe were in fact occupied by the Pueblo Indians from 600 AD to 1400. The Spanish arrived in 1609-10 and made it a base. Am I right in thinking that Kit Carson also once hung around these parts?

Quitting Santa Fe with some reluctance we were not tempted to stop by what we saw of Albuquque, so left New Mexico for Arizona. How did indigenous tribes, the ‘plains indians’, subsist in such hot, flat, brown, barren and forbidding territory? Eventually we reached Flagstaff, 80 miles south of the Grand Canyon. We had achieved our objective just three days, though 1840 miles, out of Atlanta.

Ron had received numerous postcards; and by this time our daughters had taken him a map and he was avidly following our progress

A coyote slinked across the road as we drove towards the South Rim of the Canyon. The sheer scale of this split in the Earth is breathtaking. It took the Colorado River 10 million years to carve it out. After lunch at El Tover, we roamed the perimeters, ending up at Mohave Point for the sunset, tired and chilled, feet in snow. There were more coyote and deer as we returned to Flagstaff. Fatigue was setting in: I had driven 250 miles on my day off. My fault: by this stage I was clinging to the steering wheel. Moreover we had decided to carry on driving westwards

It is feature of driving distances in the USA that landscapes come and go. We grew attached to Arizona, flanked roadside by giant cacti 15-20 feet high. Always, there was a new mountain range on the horizon. Arizona yielded to California, and the cacti to vivid-coloured flowers and palm trees. Los Angeles loomed. Beverley Hills and Hollywood slipped by innocently enough. Then we joined the Santa Monica Highway. I explained to Ron that it was ‘replete, even nauseous, with traffic’, principally late-afternoon commuters. The setting sun warmed a what purported to be a dangerous urban locale, already abandoned by pedestrians by early evening. I pointed the car at the Santa Monica Pier, where we hoped to catch a first glimpse of the Pacific. We stopped briefly at a Starbucks. The Pacific was a distant shadow. The bit between our teeth we decided to head for San Diego, 100 miles on. In truth, we had some concerns at getting back to Emory in time to pick up our teaching schedules

We got snarled up in the LA traffic, sitting in a queue for 90 minutes as our needle once more approached empty. History repeated itself (as non-historians say): we struck lucky in the nick of time. Cranes on multiple building sites were illuminated by powerful spotlights, as if on fire. Long Beach, however, was denied us, slipping by in blackness. We reached San Diego at 12.30am, 690 miles from Flagstaff, found another motel, and slipped into our own blackness.



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