Highways and writers have been inextricably linked since the Henry Ford rolled the first Tin Lizzie out of Detroit. The open road is a powerful muse. Jack Kerouac had his On the Road. William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways. John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America.
Long-distance driving on near-empty highways that meander through back-road America is to take a trip to a New Jerusalem. Such trips are like walking a labyrinth. Where one ends up isn’t as important as following curvy paths. In so doing I am gifted with subtle changes within from being surrounded by the fresh, all set against nature at its best. These drives have inspired new writing projects and provided new ideas to troublesome situations. If there’s anything tilted or contorted in us, rolling past the unfamiliar somehow makes everything right. Thinking clears as we see ourselves and life in more healthy, life-giving ways.
Whether by nature or nurture, long-distance driving is one of my pleasures. One of the best lessons I received as a child was a simple one: follow the dotted lines, those scenic byways marked on maps with black dots.
“Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” by Paul McCartney played on the AM radio during the summer of ’71. It was my first real road trip. On a hot August day in a U-Haul without air conditioning, Dad and I made a long drive from Michigan City, Ind., to Little Rock, Ark., to deliver a load of books to my uncle. Our route clung to two-lane highways for much of the trip. That was back when there were still miles to go to complete the nation’s interstate highway system.
Forty years later, I remember the feel of air on my face from open windows and the truck’s movement. We made only one or two stops for gas, at the same time picking up my dad’s road-trip fuel: root beer and a candy bar. I recall low-lying farms with tiny shacks that are memorable for big air conditioners in their windows, a juxtaposition that intrigued me as a kid.
During the earliest years of my career there were ample opportunities to drive country roads all throughout the United States. Sometimes I’d hit an official scenic byway; yet, most of what I discovered was just as beautiful in its own way. Delmarva corn fields. Kentucky tobacco country. Mississippi Delta cotton plantations. Texas peanut farms. California Central Valley almond orchards. One Saturday morning in October, I left Calgary for a drive through the Canadian Rockies and arrived in Banff a different, better person. On a chilly day in November I traveled through Yakima, Wash., wine country and ended the day on a potato picker very dirty and very happy from the breathtaking beauty of expansive scenery along the dotted lines.
This week I had a chance to travel along a few miles of dot-lined highways in Colorado and northern New Mexico. At one point I had to decide between the fastest route, still lovely in its own right, or a honest-to-goodness dotted highway. I chose a deserted stretch of Colorado road from wherefore-art-thou Romeo to San Luis. Blanca, Hamilton, and Little Bear Peaks were in the background, while Fairy Hills, Brownie Hills, and Music Mesa lined the road with their special magic. It was an hour of gorgeous scenery that induced deep peace. Once again, that life-long lesson graced the day. Follow the dotted lines.