The Great American Road TripPosted: Jul 18, 2005 11:43:07 PM
America is big. Really, really big. No, bigger than that. It's BIG. This report is about our foray into various expressions of America's bigness, through the medium of the great American road trip. From Robert M. Pirsig to Jack Kerouac, travelling across the country is a fascinating, arduous, and most of all big tradition. America is full of wide roads and almost absurd jungles of on-ramps, off-ramps, overpasses, underpasses, tunnels, bridges, turn-offs, and traffic jams. Our trip was a very long one: we drove a total of 1727 miles (2780 kilometres) across three states and over one time-line. If we had been driving in a straight line instead of a loop we would have travelled more than half the distance from San Francisco to New York (that is, from the west coast to the east coast), and we were driving for a total of about 28 hours over three days. We were driving in search of bigness, and what we found was quite simply the biggest thing I have ever seen.
But first, the trip. Most of our travel was through the Mojave Desert. The first sign of this creepy terrain was huge swathes of burnt scrubland - remnant of the frequent bushfires that plague the region. Frequent? We saw three on our three day journey. This is not surprising, given that the temperatures topped 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius). Thank god for in-car air conditioning! The heat made the air unnaturally clear, and when you crested a mountain ridge it was not unusual to be able to see a hundred miles away or more. The mountains are old, old, old: compared to New Zealand's young peaks these ones were jagged and ... dusty, I guess you could call them. Very beautiful in the way that your grandmother's hands are beautiful.
The desert is really defined by wind. The first time I saw a tumbleweed drift across the road I wanted to let out an Old-West whoop. We also ran into, past, and through a series of spiffy dust devils: they look just like miniature tornadoes, hundreds of metres high but without the violent push of air that you get with the real thing. In some places the wind is actually useful - we passed through several wind-farms, and while the windmills were smaller than the ones scattered around Palmerston North there were a whole lot more of them. There's life in the desert too: the cacti were in bloom, and parts of the Mojave were covered in Joshua trees. The Joshua tree is truly weird - gnarled and alien, they grow extremely slowly (about 10cm per year) and only ever grow in this particular desert. They are beautiful in a completely different way to the redwoods of California. And there was rain. Driving the car through the Mojave, we were constantly bludgeoned by various flying insects who managed to paste themselves onto our windshield and bumper. At times the volume was so high that it was like rain, live desert rain.
We arrived at our destination, and I was led through a scrubby forest path by Siobhan, eyes down awaiting what was going to be a very big surprise. We got to the edge, and I slowly looked up. And then down. And then ... further down. And it was big. Insanely big. Astoundingly, mind-beggaringly, gibbering-at-the-majesty-of-the-natural-worldly big. It was, quite simply, the biggest thing I have ever seen in my life. I've seen pictures, lots of them, but this is one of the very few sights that you really need to witness with your own eyes to appreciate. You can say "it's a mile down to the bottom and eighteen to the other side", but that doesn't mean anything until you're actually standing on the cliff looking a mile down. You can say "looking at the bottom you're seeing rock that is literally 2000 million years old", but numbers, even big ones, cannot sufficiently express the age of the place. For something like this, you just need to see it. So, imperfect representation though it may be, here it is. The Grand Canyon of the United States.
This report has been archived - for new reports go here.