Can one glean truly accurate impressions from a road trip? The intrinsically expansive nature of a road trip deems it an invaluable opportunity to observe large swaths of the country. Yet, in terms of accruing real information, the road trip is a double-edged sword: you certainly see an awful lot, but simply passing through a place can be constricting. You have to be leery of sweeping generalizations.

This particular road trip began with a plane ride from New York City to Dallas, the acquisition of a rental car, and then the journey westward. 

road trip through the american west
Photo by Lily Prince.

I was driving through Dallas when I happened upon an execrable radio host castigating the Democrats as Communist, Fascist, and Socialist–all at the same time. The messy red state/blue state schema raised its head immediately. There would be something of a relief if this host was simply an example of a local nutjob. The host, though, as I came to discover later, was a nutjob of the nationally-syndicated variety. 

Examples of right-wing invective, on this journey through the west, were certainly visible. Towering signage in Arizona blinked out its bold message: ‘Pro-God Pro-Gun Pro-Life Anti-Hillary.’ Three years after Hillary Clinton’s defeat, it appeared she still served as a rallying cry, which makes a certain amount of sense. Why not go with the old tried-and-true?

In New Mexico we came across a couple in identical American flag T-shirts, the word ‘Victory’ prominently emblazoned across the front. A man and woman at a Utah rest stop were wearing identical T-shirts. These shirts identify them as traveling Christian bikers. Are identical T-shirts are trend in this part of the country?

We did find that there is an unspoiled space in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, the Adirondacks of New York. You can drive through Pennsylvania for hours and spot only a few other drivers. In the western states, the unbroken stretches of space are of an entirely different dimension. Everything is grander, larger. The sky is bigger, bolder–it seems to stretch on and on. Train transportation in the west is (at least compared to the east–alive and well and on an entirely bigger scale). The rails stretch out for miles and miles, the train cars an unending procession. The official, posted speed limits in many parts of this region are high: 75 and 80 in some cases. 

In Arizona, the Saguaro cacti seemed like living things–as did the redwoods of California–row after unending row, all of them standing guard over the landscape. Gun shops proliferate out west, as do pawn shops. Sometimes both fall under the same roof.

road trip through the american west
Artwork by Lily Prince.

The Native presence is Arizona and New Mexico is hugely apparent. Our car drove in and out of Indian lands and jurisdictions. From the vantage point of the road trip, the Native influence was mostly of a commercial variety: Navajo crafts, “authentic” Indian handiwork, trinkets. For a time, a Native station could  be heard on the car radio, consisting of continuous chanting and song, a hypnotic wailing that can sometimes bring to mind cantorial devotions or the call of the muezzin

Casinos–all on Indian land, I’m assuming–dotted the landscape. The idea of casino gambling being strictly confined to Nevada and then later to Atlantic City now seems quaintly innocent. 

Weed dispensaries are also in abundance as well are in abundance. “Weed” as a term always seemed affected and faux-groovy, but apparently it is now the accepted nomenclature. The illegality of marijuana was an oppressive lunacy that wrecked so many lives. It was wonderful for me to see marijuana’s illegality come to its long-overdue end, yet the endless weed outlets made me slightly uneasy. How was this different than the multiplicity of bars or liquor stores?

american west
Photo by Lily Prince.

New Mexico has one of the most-pleasing state flags. In most respects, it seemed like utter terra incognita–not just a foreign land, but a different planet. The vistas were made up of unusual geographic formations, crags, craters with hues of reds, yellows, and oranges. All of it looked otherworldly. 

New Mexico is austere, but not barren. Harsh, but not unkind. It was easy to see why the terrain spawned so many tales of UFOs and strange interplanetary excursions. 

Crossing into California from Arizona was surprisingly dramatic, the austere Grand Canyon State quickly shifting into the lush cornucopia that is California. I could not help but recall “The Grapes of Wrath.” No matter how many countless times you see Los Angeles depicted in film and television, no matter how much James Ellroy and Raymond Chandler you have read, nothing can properly prepare you for LA’s sprawl and its heft. 

The iconic Hollywood sign really and truly exists. As does the iconic Hollywood Boulevard and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. And the iconic Hollywood Walk of Fame. And the Valley, Mulholland Drive, Beverly Hills, Malibu. ‘Iconic,’ in LA, can’t really be overused. On the Walk of Fame, flowers bedecked Peter Fonda’s star, who had died the day before. The Walk of Fame is surprisingly inclusive. Kiss gets their very own star, as does Ann B. Davis, who played Alice in “The Brady Bunch.”

Hollywood Boulevard was the site of an ear-splitting Trump rally. High-decibel country music blared forth from a flatbed truck amid American flags. Country music, it should be said, is not automatically synonymous with supporting Donald J. Trump. In this particular instance, though, the country music was spiked to a booming level. The flatbed truck left its stationary position and began as loud progression up and down Hollywood Boulevard, the noise level so loud that dinnertime conversation was effectively drowned out.      

american west
Artwork by Lily Prince.

We observed amid the mountains of Malibu portions of the “M*A*S*H” exterior set. The show’s opening shot, from this vantage point, could be easily reconstructed. Once you see this terrain in real life, it can’t be unseen. Subsequent viewings of “M*A*S*H” will now be forever altered.

By coincidence, we were later lodged in Mill Valley, just outside San Francisco and the home of “M*A*S*H” surgeon BJ Hunnicutt. It is highly probable that during the 1960s that BJ would have plunged full-force into Berkeley activism. He will attend to those beaten and tear-gassed by the police and become a physician for the dispossessed. 

If a road trip provides impressions that are heavy on the literary and visual, but less grounded on informed observation, what concrete, unmediated conclusions can you draw?It is the gun shops and pawn shops that are visible to the naked eye. It is the hardscrabble nature of everyday life in the United States–the trailer parks, the poor neighborhoods, the shabby buildings–that are there for all to see. This is a poor country, armed to the teeth. Violent killings occur on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. Again, these are all very visible manifestations that don’t necessitate research or investigatory work. It’s here, center-stage.

The United States is immense beyond comprehension and a wonderland in every sense of the word. This wonderland, though, is also hell on earth. Maybe, we can change that. Maybe, good can triumph over bad.

Header photo by Lily Prince.

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Richard Klin
Richard Klin is the author of the novel Petroleum Transfer Engineer (Underground Voices, 2018) and two nonfiction books. His work--fiction and nonfiction--has been featured on PRI's Studio 360 and has appeared in the Atlantic, the Forward, the Brooklyn Rail, Akashic Books' "Thursdaze" series, Flyover Country Review, and many others.