“Do you have any rooms available tonight?” my dad inquired as I stood by his side.
It was the summer of 1976 and my father proclaimed that there was no better time than the bicentennial year to crisscross the country on a coast-to-coast journey; squeezing in the sites, logging hundreds of miles before sunset, and then finding refuge at another tidy Best Western motel at the end of a long day.
I was 12 and my sister was nine. Bruce Jenner was still Bruce and winning race after race at the Olympics. “Skyrockets in flight, afternoon delight” was blaring on the radio if you could find a clear channel in between the static. Eating was an adventure, as you learned to scout the local restaurants with a quick glance, and then pull into a parking spot in front of a mom-and-pop diner, with grizzled waitresses offering specials of chicken fried steak and root beer floats. Calling long distance was saved for special occasions, and instead we ran to mailboxes to send over the top post cards, like outdoorsmen posing with ridiculously large fish and moose, to update our mom and other family and friends back home in Southern California.
Fast forward 40 years later and I drove across America this summer with my son. The choice of our respective vehicles was no accident.
My dad purchased a new shiny silver Dodge Tradesman van and had it specially outfitted for the trip, powered by “a three on a tree” manual transmission, as automatics were invented for women he said. An avid sailor, he installed bright red carpet in the interior from stem to stern with nautical looking circular back windows. As an architect from the modernist school, aesthetics usually took precedent over safety and in surfing van style there was no need for the clutter of backseats. So my sister sat in the middle in a canvas foldable boat chair strapped down by our seat belts as he was rolling joint after joint as we rolled down the road. He was intent on justifying his decision not to have air conditioning installed, as it would ruin the clean lines of the black dashboard. As the heat of the Arizona desert began to bear down on us, his contention that the corner air vents in the front windows would provide sufficient and natural cooling began to wilt away. He finally broke down in Tucson and we swam in the pool for two days, as the van was retrofitted with AC.
He later became an early adopter of going mobile, and relished making those first novel calls on a big clunky car phone back until 1993 when he died of cancer at 55. He would be amazed that that same phone, now much smaller and with its thick curly cue long black chord cut, is now used as map, camera, newspaper, travel agent, and a wallet all wrapped into one.
He would be even more elated that his son and grandson made the same cross country trip without ever filling up on gas, in a sleek, speedy, smooth and virtually silent electric car, not only environmentally friendly, but with aesthetics he would have enthusiastically approved of, made in California no less, the fulfillment of some futuristic dream.
It began with my 15-year-old son, who used his bar mitzvah money to buy Tesla stock, and then convinced me to put money down to save our place on the waiting list for a Tesla X. After a two-year wait for delivery, yes we’re patient early adopters; I put my email on auto response and I took to the road, this time from East to West, a little over two weeks in both directions, in a car that resembled more of a space ship.
Initial reservations about the conspicuous nature of a Tesla, the extravagance including the price, quickly evaporated and were replaced by feelings that I can only describe as love and awe for what Elon Musk has created. Beige leather seats with the perfect blend of comfort and support built on stands of chrome that can instantly compete with the finest artistic furniture at MOMA. A front console entertainment and sound system that rivals the fanciest living rooms, not just every variety of music and video possible, but a menu of endless podcasts that sparked deep conversations from Freakonomics to Hidden Brain — until we turned it off to play our version of the old geography game of Ghost. And of course, the falcon doors, whose smart trajectory inspired onlookers, even truck drivers, to politely ask at rest stops if they could sit inside and take a selfie.
Like two sailors charting their course for safe harbors, the GPS helped us navigate to the next Supercharger station to recharge, there are now almost 700 across the country. You pull up to an Apple like simple and deceptively modest white row of small red and white docking stations, insert the chord delivering up to a powerful 120 KW directly to the battery, grab a bite and 40 minutes or so later you’re charged up. And, yes, it is free. At delivery, I asked the Tesla service rep what happens if I miss the station and run out of juice, and he asked me how many times in my life I’ve run out of gas. My answer was never, which quickly put that doubt to rest. The Supercharger stations pop up on your GPS and chart the amount of miles you need to arrive, notify you when you have enough juice to carry on to the destination, and will reroute you if you’re too aggressive, as it thankfully did when I was sent back to Vegas to refuel before crossing the Mojave dessert.
At the charging stations you meet fellow Tesla owners: with their own etiquette, interesting, interested, and similarly enchanted with their vehicles and if you choose to engage, a human resource full of traveling tips. If it’s a cult, so be it, then I’m proud to be a member. With airlines affordable these days, there are relatively fewer travelers driving across the country and while I’m also a fan of trains, I like to drive, so much so that I never turned on the self-driving mode.
The changes I saw in our country are immense and visible, like comparing my former pre-pubescent self to now a middle-aged man. On the one hand, more environmental awareness and protection of historic sites and fixed up downtowns, on the other, the beautiful and varied scenery is increasingly scared with the pockmarks of ubiquity with major highways and strip malls populated by chain stores, chain food, chain hotels, chain gas – a sea of Starbucks, Cracker Barrels and Holiday Inn Expresses – virtually every where you look.
So what hasn’t changed in America over my 40 years of wandering?
With my dad’s spirit guiding me, rather than making online reservations in advance (we did cheat to look at online ratings), I’d drive in and like a cowboy dismounting his horse, armed with my cell phone, and with my son providing back up, I’d stretch out and walk deliberately into the inn keeper and ask if they have any rooms.
When we completed a particularly long leg from Kingman, Arizona to Santa Rosa, New Mexico of almost 600 miles, we charged up our vehicle and then realized that every hotel in town was taken, a line of rejection along Route 66. Rather than getting back on the road, I found a charming low slung one story motel that advertised on a post WWII style kitsch sign: clean rooms and reasonable prices. The owner explained that his dad bought the hotel in 1962, and he bought it from him, and he proudly showed me the room and had me drive our car to just outside the door. The key was not a disposable plastic card, but a metal one with a plastic tag that could be mailed back to the owner.
Internet search was our own version of the book Blue Highways, off the beaten path roads to find what’s genuine, real, and the friendly people and gorgeous scenery, stunning geography and architecture that’s been preserved across this great land: from the woman owner of a refurbished bookstore in downtown Flagstaff, AZ, to the woman owner of a yoga studio in a fixed up industrial building in Kansas City, from meeting the chef and proprietor of a farm to table restaurant in Effingham, Ill with cuisine to rival the best restaurants in NYC, to munching on the best hamburgers in Wheeling, West Virginia.
A very cool way to see the country during what turned out to be the hottest summer on record. It also shows that technology need not be synonymous with homogeneity and ubiquity. Rather than seeing every state looking the same — other than area code, license plates and speed limits – my son and I were hurled back in time and thrust forward in a unique adventure of a lifetime.