Celebrating America on the road

During the past month, I have had the great pleasure of driving from Los Angeles to upstate New York, with various stops and starts in-between. This gives me an opportunity to celebrate the 240th birthday of the land I love by providing a few snapshots of the amazing array of natural beauty and demographic diversity that I enjoyed while driving across America. Feel free to put on Copland's Appalachian Spring and Third Symphony while you read.

I'll start my travelogue in the Northridge neighborhood of Los Angeles, where I was attending the American Liszt Society's annual festival at Cal State Northridge. Northridge is in the northwest past of LA, in the San Fernando Valley north of Santa Monica and north-northeast of Malibu. My impression of this part of LA was twofold: "my, what expensive cars you all have," and "why would you park such expensive cars on the street??" I am an unashamed country mouse. My most lasting memory comes from driving through the canyons to Malibu and back. What an absolutely stunning sequence of views! I did make the requisite walk to the beach, and stepped on a tar ball for my trouble, but the canyon vistas were the highlight of this part of the trip.

From LA I drove up I-5 and CA-99 through the San Joaquin Valley to Fresno, where I played a recital and enjoyed the generous hospitality of my Liszt Society colleague John Hord. A ridiculous proportion of the world's (yes, the world's) fruits, nuts, and vegetables come from this valley, and you can see enormous plots of almonds, clementines, grapes, tomatoes, and just about anything else imaginable along every mile of this drive. I was hoping to see the Sierra Nevadas, but they're a bit farther from the road than I had expected, and the hazy sky only allowed me to see a general outline of the mountains. Alas, two days in Fresno was not enough to see Yosemite and the sequoias - that's a trip we hope to make "down the road" soon.

From Fresno I went back down CA-99 to Bakersfield, then east on CA-58 and through a small mountain pass into the Mojave Desert. At the start of the desert I drove past Edwards AFB, onetime landing site of the Space Shuttle. At Barstow I joined I-40 at its western terminus (there is a neat sign saying something to the effect of "Wilmington, NC - 2,555 miles) and headed out across the main part of the desert. I was interested to see that this desert is by no means flat, but features plenty of hills and mountains (although no buttes or mesas...more on that later). I was also very glad that our car had recently been retro-fitted with a transmission oil cooler...

Once I entered Arizona things got a bit greener, especially once I approached Flagstaff, with the majestic Humphreys Peak visible from dozens of miles in each direction. The evergreen trees provided a natural context for the "elk crossing" signs I saw several times. Unfortunately the Grand Canyon is a bit far off I-40 for a side trip, so that's another thing to add to future plans. One unfortunate feature of modern travel popped up once I neared the Navajo nation and the Painted Desert - the first of all too many tourist traps and kitsch-mongers known as "Navajo/Indian Trading Posts." They recur at regular intervals (along with the casinos) until you get to Oklahoma City...

New Mexico is roughly divided in half by I-25, which intersects I-40 at Albuquerque. West of I-25 things remain a bit "desert-y," while east of I-25 I saw more ranches and grasslands (or areas that used to be grasslands). My particular route took me off the interstate through Clovis to my home in Plainview, TX via US-84 and US-70, along which you can see - you guessed it - ranches, grasslands, and cotton/dairy farms. One thing that remained constant from California back to west Texas is the sky: the unending, joyous blue sky which reminds you of the sheer size of the land you are transiting.

Our next step of the journey was from west Texas to east Texas. In case you've not heard yet, Texas is a country unto itself. It's about ten hours across at our latitude, and nearly thirteen hours across at its widest point (I-10 from El Paso to Beaumont, east of Houston). You go from desert/ranchland through prairie to bayou country in the course of this trip. We always enjoy the smell of the pine trees in east Texas, and our kids love playing in the red dirt... In the middle of all this, I attended another conference, this time the annual Convention of the Texas Music Teachers Association in Dallas. I did have an excellent steak and a memorable Mexican dinner downtown, but that's a rabbit trail for another time.

Louisiana is the only state that starts with "L." Besides that, it is very swampy and has lots of casinos. Also, you can find the home (or at least the gift shop) of Duck Dynasty near Monroe, which I like to amuse people by describing as a documentary on folks who might as well be distant cousins on my mother's side... I neglected to mention that this part of the trip is on I-20, which for the last hour or two of east Texas begins to surround you with pine trees, transitioning into an amazing variety of deciduous trees, ferns, and other undergrowth as you travel through northern Louisiana.

After crossing the Mississippi River at Vicksburg and entering, well, Mississippi, we started to see more Midwestern farmland, although this far south there are still plenty of trees to go around. You can see some really striking plantation-style houses from the interstate between Vicksburg and Jackson. We finished up this leg of the trip by turning north on I-65 at Birmingham and arriving at Huntsville.

My biggest surprise of the trip came during a small excursion from Huntsville to Columbus, GA to play at the International Double Reed Society conference with my friend, bassoonist Jeffrey McCray. Northeastern Alabama completely amazed me. Its array of lakes and hills reminded me of both the Ozarks in southern Missouri and the foothills of the Catskills in New York. Guntersville, AL is a gem of a town southeast of Huntsville which looks to have all the amenities of a resort town in the Catskills (minus skiing, I suppose). I thoroughly enjoyed both legs of the trip to and from Columbus, and yes, I did drive by Talladega Superspeedway. It is very large.

From Huntsville we headed northeast toward Chattanooga, and enjoyed phenomenal scenery all along US-72 and I-24. This is really a neat corner of the country that I'd never even considered as a scenic destination before...eyes opened. Rolling hills, streams, lakes, dams...imagine the camping possibilities. From Chattanooga we took I-75 to Knoxville, then joined my old friend I-40 again going east toward the Smoky Mountains. At Jefferson City we joined the southwestern end of I-81 and turned toward Virginia.

If you have never had the pleasure of driving along the Appalachians, it's a bucket list item. I would certainly prefer to do this stretch (as I would in cross-country driving in general) without using the freeways, but traveling with a three-month-old and two other kids under 7 means getting there as fast as possible. I hope the Blue Ridge Parkway is in my future. Still, it's a stunning drive, with endless green on either side (in the summer, of course!), with a pinnacle of beauty in the Shenandoah Valley around Harrisonburg.

At Front Royal we turned east toward Washington on I-66, and stopped in Springfield, VA for the night. The sheer size and congestion of the DC area never fails to amaze me. The final stage of our journey started by skipping the Beltway and taking US-15 through Leesburg, VA and Frederick, MD to Harrisburg, PA. The stretch between Haymarket and Leesburg was especially beautiful, with horse farms and vineyards fitting the rolling landscape perfectly.

At Harrisburg we picked up I-81 again and enjoyed several amazing rises and falls through the lines of mountains in eastern Pennsylvania. At some points when you read the top of a grade you can see an entire valley stretching out for many miles below you, rather like a view you'd get on an airplane approaching to land. At Binghamton, NY we turned northeast to I-88, with the help of a very creative shortcut up and down a few hills provided by Google, and entered the rolling fuzzy foothills of the Catskills, where we will spend the next month enjoying a summer retreat among family. There will be another few day trips while we're here, including the Adirondacks and the Catskills, before we head back.

Fastest drivers: Alabama. Worst traffic: Harrisburg, PA. Places I want to see more of: Central CA, Grand Canyon, Smoky Mountains. Pleasant surprises: Albuquerque, NM and Huntsville, AL. Albuquerque is a remarkable center of scenery that hits you almost out of nowhere. I'd like to have a chance to explore it more. Huntsville is shockingly upscale (although I suppose I should have anticipated that with the number of government contractors in the area). Wasn't expecting the adjacent Porsche and BMW dealers. It also has really excellent views, particularly east of town, and we enjoyed our time with a very welcoming Greek Orthodox congregation there. Places I have no desire to ever live: Washington and LA. Too many people, too expensive, too much pressure. You can feel it even on the roads.

Thanks for sticking with this unusually long post - it's really a roundabout way of saying that this country never ceases to amaze me. This trip encompassed thirteen states and something around 4,000 miles of driving (including the outer leg from Texas to LA). I've enjoyed Pikes Peak, Mount Rainier, Yellowstone, the endless wheat fields of Kansas, the majestic North Woods of Minnesota, and watched boats of all sizes on the Inland Waterway in Florida. I've now been in every state in the lower 48 except Nevada, Utah, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. We have every kind of scenery imaginable, across an enormous stretch of land, all united by a common belief in freedom. I'm thankful for the freedom to travel from sea to sea, to work wherever I can, to say what I feel needs to be said, and to worship without fear. I am so proud to be an American.