Driving Down the Highway

I've always dreamed of jumping in my car and driving west, until North Carolina and the Atlantic were far behind and my headlights illuminated the Pacific. To see and experience America firsthand, or at least the strip malls near the interstate.

This summer I lived my dream.

It wasn't even my idea. The last time the thought had crossed my mind--with a few friends after high school graduation--I never even made it out of the driveway because of a dispute over whose car to drive.

This summer, it was my father who suggested leaving mom and sis behind and hitting the open road to California. I've never thought of his vacations as pinnacles of excitement. Whether the fulfillment of a lifelong goal like seeing the Grand Ole Opry and the house of Conway Twitty, or going to deserted beaches where the newsstand stocks six national newspapers, they have always seemed to me interminal and boring.

I won't deny there weren't flashes of those former vacations during the trip. At the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, we stayed for hours viewing dozens of seemingly identical metal statues of cowboys. I never knew the great rodeo cowboys of this century left quite so many saddles and lassos behind.


But for every failure there was a stunning success. The first was the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn. I had never heard of the museum, located at the site of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Apparently, neither have many other white people. Of the hundreds of visitors inside the museum, my father and I were the only Caucasians there.

In the few hours I spend viewing the exhibits, the films, and the interactive demonstrations I learned than in over a decade of formal schooling. I saw the actual bus in which Rosa Parks refused to move to the back. The intricate planning and forgotten incidents which made the historic events of the Civil Rights movement possible were all there.

Civil rights is portrayed today as a movement of great leaders, of public figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. But the National Civil Rights Museum correctly portrays it as a movement of the people. Of people both white and black picking up absolute strangers so that the buses could be boycotted without people losing their jobs. Of the guidelines which told college students arriving to sit-ins to appear in coat and tie and freshly shaven or not to appear at all.

As I reached the end of the museum, slowly snaking to the doorway where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, I fervently wished that everyone on all sides of current civil rights debates could come here and be reminded that there is much more to the history of civil rights than the simplistic interpretation each side presents.

Then I reached the gift shop, and thus reality. Instead of mugs and T-shirts celebrating the civil rights movement and its personalities as I had expected, there were dozens of Malcolm X shirts and little else. A man presented by the museum to be a negligible and destructive participant in the civil rights movement was what the customer wanted. The museum seemed for naught.

While we worried about how the Midwest floods would affect our transcontinental journey, it never occurred to us to worry about another big news story of the summer that could have been much more hazardous. We felt lucky when we crossed the Mississippi river, yet blithely ignored the danger in Farmington, New Mexico.

Farmington is the only major town in northwest New Mexico. Things seemed strangely quiet, especially since there were beautiful Indian ruins nearby. The day after I left I was reading a local newspaper and was suddenly reminded that we had just spent two days in the very town where more than a dozen people had been killed by a mysterious virus. We decided not to mention this incident to my mom.

I never saw the local spin on this issue in the national press. While scientists were talking of hantaviruses carried in rat feces, a local columnist swore that the victims shared a common thread: the feds had sprayed a small marijuana patch near Farmington with herbicides but delayed chopping it down and burning it until the next day. When the Feds came back they found the crop harvested for presumably local consumption.

After Farmington, there was almost nothing but sagebrush and cactus on the road until the Grand Canyon. After driving through land owned by the Navajo Indians for ten hours, I am now firmly convinced that they were ripped off a century ago. They own millions of acres of perhaps the most beautiful land in America. The most beautiful and the most worthless.

A few genuine treasures did stand out. One is Canyon de Chelly, which I found much more striking than the Grand Canyon. While obviously not nearly as big, it is much more accessible and much steeper. There is none of the overcrowding, pollution, and commercialism which cheapens its big brother. The Navajo Indians also have laxer safety standards than the National Park Service so the truly stupid/daring can have a great time peering over the edge.

I was disillusioned by the Grand Canyon. From the cover charge at the front gate to the horse droppings which covered the trails it was obvious that customer satisfaction was not a priority. Being forced off a trail into a ravine by an employee of the federal government intentionally blocking the trail with his mule made me proud to be an American.

And finally reaching the Pacific Ocean was an anticlimax. By that point I was just plain tired of sleeping in cheap motels and eating at McDonald's. The waves were bigger, the beach was whiter, and the weather was nicer--but it wasn't worth the trip. Memphis, Farmington, Amarillo, Little Rock, and dozens of other places I only remember by my credit card bill were what made the trip worthwhile.

But I still took the airplane home.