- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 8, 2006

CROSS COUNTRY: FIFTEEN YEARS AND NINETY THOUSAND 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, $24.95, 388 pages, illus.

I was sprawled on the hood of a red Chevy Cavalier in Death Valley National Park when I got my first real look at the Milky Way. Billions of stars ran in a swath across the California sky, with no nearby lights from civilization to dim their radiance. I was 24 years old and on a road trip with a college friend, not long after I had read “On the Road,” Jack Kerouac’s iconic tale of the travels of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty.

“Behind us lay the whole of America and everything Dean and I had previously known about life, and life on the road,” Kerouac wrote. “We had finally found the magic land at the end of the road and we never dreamed the extent of the magic.”

Magic was what my friend and I were after when we embarked on our ambitious journey: San Francisco to Portland to Seattle to Las Vegas to Los Angeles to San Francisco. Bleary-eyed from driving through the Nevada desert, I remember reveling in the surreal magnificence of the Las Vegas Strip at twilight.

These memories resurfaced as I read “Cross Country,” Robert Sullivan’s engaging account of his road trip from Oregon to New York with his wife and two children. In the years since my Western excursion, the allure of the open road has waned. I have seen Middle America, but at 10,000 feet from an airplane. Mr. Sullivan is an inspiration: He’s covered 90,000 miles on nearly 30 coast-to-coast trips.When I make such a journey, this book will be my guide.

Mr. Sullivan is a contributing editor to Vogue and the author of four previous books, most notably “Rats.” He spent a year poking around New York City alleys to observe his subjects (he even donned night goggles). He has been favorably compared to Joseph Mitchell, the New Yorker writer known for his profiles of eccentric characters.

In “Cross Country,” Mr. Sullivan argues that traveling on the interstate does not bypass the real America, the America of back roads and mom and pop stores and apple pie. “It seems to me that the real America is the farthest thing from people’s minds when they are stopping for some fast food on I-5 in between Los Angeles and San Diego, much less driving from the East Coast to the West,” he writes. “But there it is, the real America, right there.”

What’s more, he argues that the interstate is not just part of the real America, but something more: “When I am on the road, I see the America that is a continual expedition, the never-ending race to the last frontier, rural or suburban or exurban. In other words, America is the road.”

All this before the author has traveled two miles in his rented Chevy Impala. He and his family are returning home to Brooklyn from his wife’s cousin’s wedding near Portland. Mr. Sullivan refuses to drive on anything but the interstate, but he delights in taking narrative side roads and roundabouts.

His most frequent meanderings concern Lewis and Clark. Indeed, the author even leaves the interstate once, to retrace the explorers’ route over the Bitterroot Range of the Rocky Mountains. It was there that Lewis and Clark got lost during their expedition and nearly died.

As Mr. Sullivan drives towards the Lolo Hot Springs Resort, where Indians once piled stones to create a makeshift bathtub for the two explorers (who found the water too hot to handle), he recounts how Lewis fell into a deep depression after the expedition and either committed suicide or was murdered, possibly by James Wilkerson, an American military commander who was a Spanish spy.

We also read about Evel Knievel and his attempt to jump his so-called Skycycle over the Snake River Canyon in Idaho. (Evel failed, but the author once did catch a glimpse of the stunt legend in an Italian restaurant in Butte.) We learn about See America First, an early 20th-century movement that claimed Americans vacationed in Europe so much they were becoming “effete.”

Mr. Sullivan also chronicles the invention of the automobile and the first gas pump, and the creation of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Naturally, Kerouac and the Beats get their turn.

At times, you can’t help but wonder if Mr. Sullivan has memorized large sections of his public library. He sees a map published by Super 8 motels that plots the chain’s locations and launches into a lecture about why it reminds him “of those drawn by Charles Preuss, the Civil War-era mapmaker.”

Mr. Sullivan’s digressions never fail to entertain or edify, in part because he keeps them short and stylish. A subhead appears on almost every page to signal the start of a new tangent or a return to his main narrative. He also includes mementos of the journey throughout the book: pages from the journal he kept; a sketch of a Montana golf course situated on a former toxic waste site where he played nine holes; his 13-year-old son’s drawing of the Bitterroot Mountains.

The author’s family shows admirable patience and spirit on the six-day adventure. His son obediently reads sections from Lewis and Clark’s journals. His daughter overcomes her fear of entering the hot springs, where Lewis and Clark once were naked (“Gross,” she says).

Mr. Sullivan’s wife, meanwhile, is no slouch: She has driven in every state in the continental United States except Alaska. When they moved from the East to the West Coast 15 years ago (one of many cross-country moves), Mr. Sullivan drove a rental truck while she followed in a car with their son, then just six months old. Somehow, she kept the child fed and entertained.

As the end of the trip looms, Mr. Sullivan explains how America’s growing obsession with the automobile led to the need for an improved system of roads. In 1956, President Eisenhower signed a bill to authorize the creation of our interstate highway system. Architecture critic Lewis Mumford blasted the plan, calling it “ill-conceived and preposterously unbalanced.”

Today, the interstate system is still not complete. The final price tag will likely be $115 billion dollars. “The cost of the interstate does not include the cost to communities that were destroyed, the small businesses that were closed, the old parks and neighborhoods that were ruined,” Mr. Sullivan writes.

Nevertheless, the allure of the interstate remains seductive. As the author crosses the Hudson River and marks the symbolic end of his journey, he channels Walt Whitman’s sense of wonder:

“It’s amazing to think of the country when you are done with the interstates and suspended over a mile-wide river. It’s amazing to think of the first trips in canoes and by foot through the old mountains behind us … It’s amazing to picture the first cars and the first roads and to picture the first raceways and speedways and parkways and highways and eventually the first interstates. It’s amazing to imagine how different the country is due to the development of its roads, it’s amazing to picture America seeing America, and in doing so, seeing it change the face of itself.”


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