I used to write a monthly column for The Gazette (Montréal) on "life in the United States" which meant I could write about anything. I was able to take a lot of road trips. This particular column appeared in 2000.
I’ve been looking over notebooks covering the last few years’ of driving across the US and Canada. Here’s what I learned along the road:
1. Macdonald’s has the most reliable coffee-to-go. It’s hot, it’s fresh, and it may not be world-class, but it’s better than 90% of the weak-kneed brew out there in the great North American caffeine desert.
2. I always thought sea air was supposed to make you hungry. So how come the farther I drive from either coast, the bigger the restaurant portions--and the citizens? I always figured that "Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head" was a sensible rule, but check out the massive "Grand Slam" breakfasts at a Denny’s next time you’re in, say, North Dakota. Two impressions that strike deep and linger long in a cross-country driver’s memory are a) the smaller the town, the friendlier the people, and b) the smaller the town, the larger the people. But size is not just a country-and-western thing: North Americans from L.A. County to Brossard are expanding. Compared to, say, the Italians, we as a people have become huge.
3. My favourite drive in the East is the North Shore of the St. Lawrence from Quebec City downriver to Tadoussac. Early October is the prime time. Stop for lunch at Baie St-Paul.
4. North Americans like everything BIG. The deeper I drive into the heart of the continent, the bigger everything is—the distances between towns, the sky, the Wal-Marts. I was in a Wal-Mart in Idaho so mega- that shoppers were cruising the aisles in golf carts.
5. Towns of a certain size, everywhere, are dying. This is happening from coast to coast, but it is most noticeable in the American South and on the Great Plains from Brandon, Manitoba all the way to the Texas Panhandle. Of course towns on the Great Plains have been dying forever. Most of them were shakily founded in the first place, by railways or real estate promoters. But the erosion over the last fifteen years is striking. The typical pattern for a medium-sized town in North America is an exhausted downtown retail section lined with obsolete early-twentieth-century brick and stone commercial blocks that are vacant, or occupied by thrift shops and other low-rent enterprise. Often there is a big-box store on the fringe of town, or a regional mall a half-hour drive down the interstate, but the town--as a community where citizens have to rub shoulders—no longer exists. A reliable indicator of a town reaching the terminal stage is when the downtown merchants’ association gets together and pays for fancy sidewalks and faux-period lighting. This is generally lipstick-on-a-corpse and almost never succeeds, though I can think of a few exceptions--like downtown Grand Junction, Colorado, a surprisingly hectic and cheerful place. I suspect that citizens everywhere are getting a little tired of the mall experience. Our primal instinct for community life is already leading to the reinvention of downtowns.
6. My favourite drive in the West: along Interstates 15 and 70 between Beaver and Green River, Utah. Classic high desert. Even in midsummer the air is cooler than you’d expect. Hunks of red rock; cottonwood trees clustered along the rivers; silver-green grass where the land has been irrigated. The optimal time for the drive is early evening in late June. Shut off the air conditioner and crank down the windows.
7. One strategy to survive long-distance drives, given those Grand Slam breakfasts, is exercise. A couple of years ago I started doing the gym thing on the road. From Marathon, Ontario to Winnemucca, Nevada I have discovered that most small towns have a fitness center--I don’t know why, because they’re almost always empty. But a workout a day keeps the white-line fever away.
8. Many truck-stops have dreadful food. A herd of eighteen wheelers surrounding a café in the middle of nowhere is a reliable indicator of a) reasonable prices for diesel fuel and b) easy parking. Just don’t count on getting a decent meal. Truckers care about parking, not food; you can’t lodge an eighteen-wheeler just anywhere. The best bet is where the locals hang, so look for local vehicles: farm trucks, delivery fans, police cars. Cops know their doughnuts.
9. My favourite café in the West: Jack’s, in East End, Saskatchewan. Fresh eggs, great sandwiches, and homemade salad dressing. In the East it’s The Bayview, in Stonington, Maine. Raspberry pie and lobster rolls.
10. If you’re a Québecois on a road trip, be prepared to translate, deconstruct, and explain the multiple meanings of "Je me souviens".
11. Music matters, out there in the great lone land land of poor FM reception. Three CD suggestions for a road trip: Townes Van Zandt, "The Highway Kind"; Lucinda Williams, "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road"; and Archie Shepp and Horace Parlan, "Goin’ Home".