As summer disappears, and fall descends, my legs are still brown…but only from the knees up. That’s what happens when you spend 21 days driving in shorts, with the roof down in a convertible in brutal heat.
But my strangely tanned legs are not the only souvenir I brought home from a trip that took me from Capitol Hill to Wyoming, then up to Maine and back. My memory bank is loaded with sights, sounds, thoughts, conversations, experiences, observations that can only be found beyond the beltway.
Before I ventured off, I had told myself I would be happy (in a bid to save some dough) to stay in scrubby motels. But the mom & pops all seem to have disappeared except for those that are too run-down even for me, and the ones in New England that can be more expensive than a hotel. The one I’ll never forget was in Bonne Terre, Missouri. The owner said I should look at the room before taking it. “You don’t like it, you’re not getting your money back.” So off I go to a room, but I can’t inspect it because the lights don’t work. When I return and tell him that, he says: “When you pay, I’ll turn the electricity on.”
My chats with strangers produced some memorable political lines. Like the two elderly, beautifully groomed, patrician women I met at a lunch counter in Paris, Kentucky. I asked them if they’d watched the Democratic debate the night before. They looked at me in bewilderment. “No, absolutely not,” one replied. “Why would we?” she added, turning to her friend, who explained: “Democrats, they’re all liars.” But the president lies quite a bit, I pointed out. That was met with a stony silence. I persisted. Were they not concerned about how Trump’s rhetoric could be influencing their grandchildren into similar use of language? “How children behave is up to their parents. It’s got nothing to do with the president,” one retorted, as the other nodded vigorously.
A similar reaction came from a middle-aged guy I sat next to in a Missouri bar. A retired Marine, he told me in no uncertain terms that all Democrats were “evil.” End of conversation, apart from a one-word response when I asked (naively, on purpose) if the state had same-sex marriage. “Never.”
Then there was the soybean farmer in Nebraska who has fallen out with Trump. “I can’t believe I was so stupid to vote for Trump,” he told me. “He sounded so good but he’s a fraud, a liar and nogoodsonofabitch. Just hope the Democrats come through.” Throughout the red states, I met many who carefully looked around to check they could not be overheard before confiding, “He’s not getting my vote again.”
And it was at a gas station in southern Ohio where a guy spotting my car license plate, let me know he hated everybody. “You with the Feds?” he asked. When I told him no, I was a journalist, he snorted: “Just as bad.” Then there was the owner of an Irish bar in New Hampshire who asked me how I could stand living in DC. “It’s nothing but politics. You folks there don’t do anything but watch, listen, and read about politics, all the time.” He gave me an incredulous look when, in a bid to lighten the conversation, I told him I loved watching “Say Yes to the Dress.”
It was in Indiana (where I found out you will not be served in a bar without an ID no matter that you’re clearly claiming Medicare) at a gas station where I was asked by a well-meaning young man: “You got a gun in that car?” No prizes for guessing what my answer was. It elicited a very serious response: “Not good. You watch out now. I never let my wife drive without a gun.”
And I was amazed, particularly in the Midwest, how smoking is allowed in so many bars and restaurants. Also I couldn’t get over how many bikers don’t wear helmets. And at every place I stopped I bought a local paper. I was impressed at how informative they were. The same with some of the very localized radio stations, where they let you know who’s died and who’s back home on leave after deployment to Afghanistan. And on those lines, the Sons of the American Legion (SAL) are doing a wonderful job of lining main streets in small towns with Home Town Heroes banners, adorned with photos of local men and women who have died or served in wars since World War I.
I saw many hamlets, small towns with blighted main streets, collapsing factories, and a general shanty-town appearance. We all know they exist, but to see the reality of them is depressing and shocking.
Then there were the roadside billboards and signs still ingrained in my mind. There was the one that told me. “Remember Abortion is Still Legal in West Virginia.” But not too far down the road there was, alongside a photo of a fetus: “Take My Hand, Not My Life”. And I just loved the notice outside a Kentucky church “It’s Hot, come Inside. We’re PrayerConditioned.” Though I was a bit taken aback by the upper New York state sign that ordered: “Drive With Equanimity.” Almost lost my composure and ended up in the ditch when I saw that one. But I totally approved of the sign on I-95 (not far from home and the only time I used a major highway) that warned “95 Is the Route, Not the Speed Limit.”
Frankly throughout my journey, although I’m fond of putting the pedal to the metal, I was surprised at the way the majority of drivers, especially truckers, happily zoom along well above the limit. But I understood the thrill as I sped down Route 30, a two-lane highway crossing Nebraska. It runs parallel to the cross-country railroad. I loved racing alongside the mile-long freight trains, giving the conductor a wave and getting a long toot on the whistle in return.
Much as I enjoyed my trip, when I returned I felt so happy to be home. Despite all the wonderful ever-changing scenery–from the majesty of the Wyoming mountains to the gentle rolling hills of Vermont; the rocky charm of the Maine coast to the wheat waving plains of Nebraska, not to mention the breathtaking beauty of West Virgina –and the delight of stunning, historic architecture in so much of small-town America, along with the interesting and fascinating people I met on the way, my heart leapt when I pulled into my final parking spot in Eastern Market. Of all the places I spent time in, I wouldn’t swop any of them for Capitol Hill – the village within (no matter what craziness goes on) the world’s most important city!