“On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair …” It was 2 o’clock in the morning and we sang to keep ourselves awake throughout the night. We had embarked on the drive across Death Valley at midnight, when temperatures dipped to the low 90s. There was no air conditioning in my Chevy Vega, and the hot wind made it hard to listen to the radio or converse. A sign in Barstow, Calif., warned: “last gas for 200 miles.”
In 1977, gas was 34 cents a gallon and even though my car burned two quarts of oil for every fill-up, it was still pretty cheap to drive across the country. I started out in Buffalo with my college roommate, a guitar and 300 bucks in my wallet.
A Rand McNally Road Atlas was our only guide in the pre-GPS era. We had no specified route, just a list of friends and relatives to stay with, and a deadline date of five weeks to get from New York to California and back. Once across Death Valley, we’d dip our toes in the Pacific Ocean before turning back eastward.
West of the Mississippi, AM radio was filled with Grand Ole Opry tunes and fire-and-brimstone preaching. We provided our own music much of the time.
Driving along Woody Guthrie’s “ribbon of highway,” lyrics popped into my head unbidden. Songs I learned from vinyl LPs and played on the guitar came to life as we passed through places like Colby, Kan., where John Denver had “an uncle name of Matthew.” In a small, dusty town I insisted we stop so I could say that I was “standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona.” Crossing the Colorado plains, seeing snow-covered peaks in the distance, inspired a chorus of “Rocky Mountain High.” We drove through Los Angeles singing “Ventura Highway.”
Every era in my life has had its accompanying soundtrack. That summer, I favored songs of the open road, unrequited love and yearning. It was the era of folk rock and the singer songwriter; of earnestness devoid of irony.
That fall I would start my senior year in college, and I was trying to figure out who I was and what I would do with my life. Music loomed large in my ruminations. “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.” Paul Simon seemed to narrate my thoughts as I drove off “to look for America.”
The seasonal structure I had grown up with was coming to an end: school years punctuated by summers spent outdoors. I knew this was probably my last chance for an extended road trip. Adulthood would commence in a year’s time.
After more than 30 years, I still balk at summers that are structured and, at times, I want to throw off the mantle of adulthood.
But most of my youthful questions have been answered: love requited, yearnings fulfilled, marriage attained, mortgage paid off and mortality in sight. These days, I’m more likely to say, “hey, it’s good to be back home again” after a trip.
My working life will come to an end at some point. Though retirement is years away, I can see it on the distant horizon. When that day comes, I’ll be ready to hit the road with my spouse, GPS on the cellphone and a wallet full of credit cards. I’ll have all the songs on the iPod as we fly down the highway, singing.