Drivin' cross country

by Ernest Hebert | 5/11/93 10:00pm

Several students of mine have talked about driving across the country, but have been put off by fears for their safety or budgetary constraints.

Do it, I say. Car travel is the best way to see America. If you follow a few simple rules, you'll find cross-country driving to be safe, comfortable, educational, fun and cheap.

Travel with a friend, split the expenses and the driving chore. If you're traveling alone, bring along a tape-recorder and your Macintosh computer. While you drive, talk to yourself in the tape-recorder. At night, type out your notes on the Mac. I've plotted four novels in this manner.

Stay in cheap motels or state parks. Except for the East coast, a motel room can be had for $20 to $30 a night. Look for adversity lodging, what my wife calls "the Brown Grout Motel."

Don't stay at chain motels, which tend to be expensive. The exceptions are Motel Six and Day's Inn. Always stop at motels that advertise a price. The ones in the area that don't show a price will cost more.

State parks are free or very low in cost. They're also in scenic places and safe. You don't even need a tent if you don't mind sleeping your car. Most state parks have electrical outlets (for the Mac), and many have showers. But don't worry about cleanliness. A traveler who is not a little stinky isn't having a good time.

Break your nocturnal habits, and get an early start in the morning. See the dawn. Morning is the nicest time just about anywhere.

The purpose of cross-country travel is to intoxicate the eye, so don't drive at night. Never speed. The tension of driving fast replaces the relaxation of seeing.

It's possible to eat well for $10 a day, or even less if you buy your food in supermarkets. Snack from store-bought food during the day; eat in the motel room or at the state park picnic table in the evening.

Allow yourself one restaurant meal a day: breakfast. Drive two to four hours in the morning and build up an appetite.

Eat a high-fat, high-cholesterol meal of eggs, ham, grits, home fries, toast, biscuits and gravy. Eat, eat, eat -- but never at fast-food restaurants, which are the same everywhere. Note where the pickup trucks are parked. That's the place.

It used to be that the best local restaurant was in the central business district. These days it's often at the cusp of the exit ramp of an interstate highway. By all means seek it out, but resist the impulse to get on the interstate. You don't want to make time, you want to make the time last. Stay on two-lane roads, and see, see, see.

Big cities are confusing and expensive; skirt them unless you know your way around. It cost as much to park a car in mid-town Manhattan as to park yourself at a motel in, say, Las Cruces, New Mexico, which, thanks to the nearby Organ Mountains, has a more spectacular skyline than New York.

Shun college towns, unless you can weasel a place to stay for a night. College environments are all more or less the same, what you on vacation are trying to get away from. If you were visiting the Upper Valley, you would bypass Hanover in favor of White River Junction, Vermont.

Besides being the telephone toll-switching center for Northern New England, White River has an interesting railroad history and some sites worth taking in -- ProCam, a terrific camera shop; the Del Roma, a genuine workingman's bar; the Coolidge Hotel, which houses fantastic mural paintings by Peter Gish, a Dartmouth graduate and the son of silent film star Lillian Gish; the Polka Dot, a classic diner; the Upper Valley Co-op, a genuine counter-culture enclave; WRJ Books, the best adult book store north of Boston. Hanover has none of these attractions.

Crime reports in the media are frequent, but actual crimes in society are statistically rare. America is safe.The people are friendly, helpful and honest.

It's remarkably easy to meet good people in this country. You just pull into a small town, find a retail business establishment that looks like it's been around for fifty years, go in and confess that you're a traveler interested in the town. The clerk will talk your ear off. You may even get invited home for a meal.

Ignore tourist sites but do seek out quirky places that have meaning just for you. As a literary man, I've visited the D.H. Lawrence Shrine in Taos, New Mexico, the boyhood home of Mark Twain in Hannibal, Missouri, and less celebrated literary sites such as Terre Haute, Indiana, birthplace of Theodore Dreiser.

I drove the trail followed by the Joad Family in John Steinbeck's great American novel, the Grapes of Wrath, where I learned that Steinbeck made a mistake. Sallisaw, Oklahoma, where the story begins is in the green part of Oklahoma, near Arkansas, and was never in the dust bowl that Steinbeck writes about so movingly.

Read some car-travel literature. The most famous of such books, On the Road by Jack Kerouac, is an exciting novel about young people but over-rated as a road book. The characters are so self-centered, they rarely notice anybody but themselves, any world but their own.

The idea behind travel is get outside yourself. I recommend Travels with Charley by Steinbeck and Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon. But my favorite is Out West by Dayton Duncan, in which the author retraces the steps of Lewis and Clark.

My travels have led me to make some judgments and generalizations.

For example, hill folk from New England to the Rockies to the Sierra are reticent and sometimes mean spirited, but deep; residents of wide open spaces, such as in the Mid West, tend to be open and friendly, but kind of shallow; shore dwellers from East to Gulf to West coasts are confident and snobbish. Proximity to an ocean makes them think they're hot stuff.

Are these observations, gathered from between the guard rails, true? I don't know. I don't take them seriously.

They're part of a greater whole, a mental gallery of images, impressions, facts, fancies: memories I'm storing up to entertain myself in my old age.

When you're just passing through, you don't have to be right or responsible; the mission is to have a good time, gather in as much as you can and get out of town before you can do any harm.

Ernest Hebert is on the creative writing staff in the English department.