6 Unburned Pieces of The Mind
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Seeing the USA in My Chevrolet

"A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans,
safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that
after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us."
John Steinbeck

I could have flown out to attend my daughter's high school graduation, but instead I chose to make the 7120 mile round trip journey from Belfast, Maine to Arroyo Grande, California and back in my silver 2003 Chevy Cavalier. After spending almost an entire week on the west coast, I finally arrived back home the other day.

And what an adventure. With my cousin as my traveling companion and co-driver, we made the drive out to California in three days flat. Along the way, we managed to find a couple of stretches of Rt. 66 in Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona to drive on. But the real highlight of the trip out was Cadillac Ranch. We were just outside of Amarillo, Texas when my cousin spotted the buried-nose-first-in-the-ground vintage Cadillacs. It's a short walk through a grass field to the 10 cars speckled in layers of painted graffiti. Though what I found particularly curious was that all the cars were facing west. "Rust henge with cows for a backdrop," I suggested to my cousin. She laughed and said I spend too much time pondering over things that just should be appreciated for what they are. After taking pictures and bemusing over the display, we headed back to the car and continued on with our journey.

We finally arrived in Arroyo Grande the next afternoon, a day earlier than planned. After I dropped my cousin off at a friend's house, I checked into the Great Western Casa Grande Inn. I called my ex-wife to let her know I made it in okay, and was taken aback when she invited me over for a cup of coffee. We hadn't seen each other since we divorced almost 16 years ago. I wasn't exactly sure what to expect. Together, we had two children: my son, who lived with me while growing up; and my daughter, who has lived with her mother.

My ex-wife was very gracious during the entire event, especially when her parents came to attend the graduation. Not once was I made to feel excluded. Both of us were accepting of the fact that this was our daughter's time, and that we were not going to allow anything to interfere with that.

The day of graduation was made to order, an outdoor ceremony on the athletic field under a clear blue sky. Watching my daughter march up to the stage to receive her diploma caught me in a plethora of surprised emotions. The little girl I had helped welcome into the world was now crossing the threshold into adulthood. After the ceremony, my son, ex-wife and I caught up with her for picture taking, a moment that caused me to experience a brief wave of melancholy.

The next day my daughter and I drove over to Pismo Beach to have burgers and fries for lunch. After eating, she dropped me back off at the hotel. We said goodbye, knowing that it might be sometime before we see each other again. She’s off to college this fall, and hasn’t decided on anything firm for a major. “I want to spend the first year exploring possibilities,” she said.

Sunday morning, we began our drive back to Maine.

While cutting through Nevada, we encountered a bug infestation unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. About ten miles before Winnemucca, we were blitzed by several clouds of yellow, green flying insects about the size of a rice kernel. We stopped at a gas station there, and spent a good fifteen minutes trying to wash the windshield. Little did we know that it was about to become even worse.

For the next 100 miles or so we had to stop every three of four miles to clean the windshield. Sometimes we drove into a cloud that would result in an immediate pullover. After thirty miles the front of my car and my front license plate were no longer distinguishable. The truckers especially were having a hard go of it. As we traveled along, we saw many of them stopped on the side of the road with the hoods of their trucks up, busy with cleaning their windshields. And every store we stopped at for washer fluid or window cleaner had sold out. Although washer fluid with the wipers proved to be totally ineffective, and created a blinding smear of bug goo that made driving nearly impossible.

Luckily when we got into Elko, Nevada, we found a car wash that had warm water. When I finished washing the car, I noticed I had about a three-inch wide and eighth-inch thick outline of the front of the car on the cement floor. My cousin and I just stood there amazed that what we were looking at were the bugs that had been washed off from the front of the car. She looked at me. “Can anyone say, ‘X-files?’” she asked.

Nebraska proved to be a surprise. Instead of flat, barren land with nothing to look at, we instead found a state lush with green grass and rolling hills that made for an interesting contrast with the small farms, almost all of which were nestled in a grove of cottonwoods and oaks. As the sun set behind us, it became a huge orange ball that slowly sank below the horizon, and as it did so, it created a pastel sky of light blue, purple, and fiery red. Like Arizona, the Nebraska sky becomes alive at night. With a display of stars from horizon to horizon, my cousin and I were treated to several falling stars. The next night at a rest stop in Pennsylvania, we spent a considerable amount of time watching fireflies flit about the grass and trees. Compared to the last couple of nights where it was considerably frigid in Utah and Nebraska, we finally experienced what felt more like summer.

I was nineteen years old when I first drove across the country from Pittsfield, Massachusetts to Santa Maria, California. Compared to now I don’t think I had any real sense, nor was appreciative of how vast and diverse this country we live in and call home actually is. Instead of just simply driving or being a passenger, my cousin and I took it all in and became a part of the landscape that enveloped us as we journeyed across America. After seeing the Appalachians, the Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the deserts of Arizona and California, the majesty of the Sierra Nevadas, and the great rivers of the Colorado, Missouri and Mississippi, and the large cities of Boston, New York City, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Albuquerque, Los Angeles and many others that serve as our hubs of government, commerce and culture, it is truly amazing to think of the synergy involved that makes this country work. Whether lobstering off the coast of Maine, or planting corn in Nebraska, or raising cattle in Wyoming, or just going to work everyday with the thousands of jobs we commit to in the thousands of different places we live, each and everyone of us in spite of our heritage or race, political or cultural differences, contribute to making this country such an obliging and magnificent place that we call our home.

S.L. Cunningham
Published in The Republican Journal, 14 July 2005: B10.