Saturday, February 27, 2016

For every American, an epic road trip is a citizenship requirement

The amazing Vermilion Cliffs of Arizona. At 70 mph from the highway. Shot with an iPhone.
The quintessential American experience is the epic road trip. It's as simple as the fact that we are Americans. So we go places and do things, often on an epic scale. I would suggest that you are un-American if you don't. The epic road trip is in our blood. Our collective American DNA is that we are a nation of explorers. The New World. Jamestown. John Smith. The Mayflower. Lewis & Clark. The Oregon Trail. Apollo 11. (Going to the moon constitutes a most epic road trip. It would be hard to top that one.)

The epic road trip is a distinctly American rite of passage. It is a continuation of the historical narrative that establishes us as a people of varying backgrounds but who singularly refuse to be hemmed in by lines on a map, or distance, or barriers -- be they mountains, valleys, oceans, rivers, deserts or thin air, including the really, really thin air and rather expansive and even foreboding distances of outer space.

We all are descended from people who arrived here from somewhere else. Our ancestors were explorers and fortune hunters. They were the restless, the visionaries, the determined and the undaunted. If they determined a better life was to be found elsewhere, whether it was across an ocean, or a continent, or simply somewhere else, why they packed up and went.

I like to pack up and went. I always have, from the time I was a little shaver and summers and Christmas vacation were typically reserved for road trips. In the grand scheme of things, my roots are traced back to people of European stock who at some point packed up and went on a road trip -- ocean trip? -- to America. I have no desire as they did to leave the homeland. Rather, I long to see the homeland. As much of it as I can.

What triggered all this musing about the great American experience of the epic road trip is a song. I happened upon it the other day and a memory flooded back in my mind of one of the many epic road trips I have had the privilege of taking. The song is by U2, titled "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." It was released in 1987, the year I graduated from Bend High School.

The summer following my graduation, my good friend, Chris Hamilton, asked if I'd take a little road trip with him. Chris was a talented bicyclist and my memory is that he was going to compete in a bike race in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. I think it was late June, maybe early July, when we road tripped in epic fashion. Chris, our mutual friend Dean Dilday, another bicyclist who was a couple or few years younger than us, and I set out from Bend, Ore., to  drive 570 miles or so to Mammoth Lakes. I believe we were driving Chris' Toyota pickup that had a canopy on it. Now mind you, this is approaching 30 years ago so I may be fuzzy on a few things. But not everything.

We listened to a lot of U2 on that trip. The Joshua Tree, which I still consider the quintessential U2 album, was released that year and by the time the summer rolled around I had the songs memorized. Those songs are indelibly impressed in my mind. As is the road trip.

One thing I'll never forget is stepping out the door for my first run in Mammoth Lakes. At the time I was a couple of months away from heading to the University of Portland on a track scholarship. In Bend, I trained at an altitude approaching 4,000 feet, where the thin air deprived my lungs of oxygen but helped give me a competitive advantage when I raced at lower altitudes. I was fast and fit. Or so I thought.

I was wholly unprepared for what I was to encounter in Mammoth Lakes. Sitting near 8,000 feet of elevation where the air is so thin that simply getting out of bed gets you winded, when I was on that inaugural run I sincerely believed my lungs had somehow caught fire. Surely I was self-combusting, which meant death by oxygen-deprivation was imminent. Yet I somehow cheated death that day, probably because I slowed way down. But the epicness of any American road trip is directly proportional to how close you came to some sort of permanent and premature demise. The fact that I nearly died of oxygen deprivation on a mountain in California that sits not all that far from Death Valley counts for max points in the epic road trip scoring chart.

Yet there are two things from that road trip that I am forever grateful to have experienced. A premature death due to oxygen deprivation not being one of them. They both occurred on the trip home. We left Mammoth Lakes after the racing and bolted for Bend. Somewhere along the way, whether it was still in northeastern California or southeastern Oregon I can't recall, we stopped at a turnout or rest area amid the sagebrush and occasional juniper tree of the American West's Great Basin. It's a place that I like to say is a chlorophyll-free zone, emptied of most anything of a green, leafy nature and populated by the muted tones of plants and trees that have mastered the art of surviving in forbidding climates where water is often merely a mirage.

Exhausted, we bedded down for the night in the cool, open air. Above us, unfolding across the unfettered horizon, was the Milky Way in all of its astounding glory. The stars at home in their extraterrestrial glory spilled across the inky sky, lighting it up. I have never forgotten the glory of it all.

The second thing I have not forgotten occurred the next day. As we made a beeline for home across the emptied out landscape, we made a spur of the moment decision. The "spur of the moment decision" is an absolute requirement of any epic road trip. An epic road trip that lacks the suspended judgment and inadvisability of a "spur of the moment decision" is simply a road trip. It's just going from Point A to Point B. There's nothing too epic about that.

We stopped at Fort Rock, an extraordinary natural feature that juts 200 feet above the barren, foreboding Oregon High Desert. It's like a mirage, an ancient fort with rocky palisades stretching high above landscape. It was well out of our way, but well worth the stop. We killed an afternoon there, three teenage boys who, for at least this one time, were wise beyond their years. We climbed over the rocky walls -- Dean pretty much won the climbing competition as he shinnied up the walls -- and gawked at the views. It is a place very few have seen and experienced, which makes it all the better. On the epic road trip point scale, we scored a big, fat cha-ching. Link: Fort Rock

As the memories of my epic summer of 1987 road trip flooded back to me, spurred by the chords and lyrics of that iconic U2 anthem, I thought how fitting it all remains. I haven't found everything. I haven't seen everything. I'm not done making epic road trips. I'm an American after all.

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