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An Incredible Cross-Country Journey

My buddy Rene was driving out to Pittsburgh, where a job awaited her. She invited me along for the ride. Hells' Bells! I'm 23 and I've been wanting to see this country of ours up close for years, but I could never work it out. Being a college student and freelance writer (read "bum"), I had plenty of time, but no money. But my graduation was approaching, and the day after I turned down Rene's fabulous offer was the day my sweet postman delivered the congratulatory check from Granny. Ka-ching! So with little more than a toothbrush, a fresh tattoo and a lock of my lover's hair, I set out to see America (26 states in just under three weeks, to be precise) up close. We didn't have much of a plan, we just wanted to see what was out there. We knew we had to visit the Algonquin Hotel in New York City, where some of the trendiest, wittiest writers of the 1920s and '30s lived and lunched, and pay homage to Dorothy Parker, the most famous member of the fabled Algonquin Round Table. We're going to eat eggs, just like the Round Tablers did, because eggs were the cheapest thing on the menu. Aside from wanting a little life experience, this was almost necessary, the post-graduation "Freedom Ride." But I think I was really on the road because I wanted to see if there was anything wonderful out there that can't be found at home. I've never been that crazy about my current home of Sacramento since I moved there from the Bay Area six years ago, and maybe I needed a little reassurance about how, and where, I was living my life. Was I missing out? Mostly I was nervous about New York, afraid I'd fall in love with all the action and never come home to this half-assed burg. My first twinge of doubt hit maybe 20 minutes out of town. Hey, I was going to be gone three whole weeks! Suddenly it seemed like an awfully long time and an awfully long way to go.May 29 Sacramento, California We left town at 4 this clammy morning, chugging along I-80 east to the strains of George Thorogood. His rollicking blues standards are great for driving, which is kind of funny when you realize that most of them are about drinking.Crescent Valley, Nevada We're a couple miles short of the city already out of gas--my absolute worst traveling nightmare. It was easy to do, though. We saw the tank getting low and we miscalculated the distance to the next town. Rene's not used to how much the trailer on the back of the car speeds up gas consumption. She is a little dot on the horizon, walking into town while I guard the car and our earthly possessions. So here I am in this stunning peace and silence, surrounded on all sides by flat, green desert covered with sagebrush. I'm starting to have Mad Max type visions of all the terrible things that can happen to me out here, all alone. Pretty soon, this leathery man named Curly stops with his wife, found me, found Rene and gave us gas from his own can. "Naw," he said, when we tried to give him money. "Maybe you can help me sometime." Rene snips some fresh sage and it's drying on the dash. Next we head for the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah. What an amazingly desolate place. On either side of the highway is a shallow bank and then a shallow pool of salty water that goes on forever. I can almost taste the salt, feel the grit on my tongue. We're 80 miles out of Salt Lake City now. I think we're in some bizarre time warp, or I'm going crazy. For the last three hours, I swear, all the signs have been placing us between 110 and 120 miles away. May 30 Salt Lake City, Utah; Evanston, Wyoming We roll into Salt Lake City pretty late, and I am shocked to see that downtown SLC looks a lot like the downtown of San Francisco or Sacramento or what-have-you. I'm beginning to suspect that most big cities are like most other big cities, with cool bookstores, funky coffeehouses and a smattering of beautiful old architecture mingling with shiny new buildings. There'll be the requisite grime, noise, crime and poverty. I'll call my theorem MBC, for Most Big Cities. We'll see if it holds. We spend the night in Rene's friends' apartment and are up with the sun, not even stopping for breakfast till we're well into Wyoming. More, probably, than anyplace else, Wyoming embodies the classic image of the American West. Rugged and rowdy and brown and dusty as a rodeo show, except this is no show. This is it. Wyoming is very low-key and unpretentious. It's kind of there. I spot an open arena with a hand-painted sign touting the upcoming "cowboy days" carnival, which seems odd. This whole place is cowboy days.May 31 Abilene, Kansas Whoa, Toto! I don't think we're in California anymore! Ol' Frank Baum knew what he was doing when he set The Wizard of Oz here. The place is really surreal. Huge billboards on the side of the highway urge us to see the five-legged cow, or the world's largest prairie dog. Barnum lives! But the oddest thing to us is the local news. Corn reports, wheat reports, hog futures, births, deaths, who was hospitalized, which teenagers were busted for drinking beer ... it's Les Nessman's dream! We really lost it over a feature called pet patrol. They announce the lost and found pets on the radio! Boy, the world on the Great Plains feels awfully small. We find a really charming motel--cheap, too--and check out the joint next door for dinner. It's the kind of place that's probably been around since the '50s, and it doesn't look like the menu has seen any changes. Before I left, I had no idea how much being a vegetarian would influence my trip, but by lunch in Nevada, I'd caught on. So I ordered what already felt like the millionth grilled cheese sandwich of the trip and tried to strike up a conversation with our waitress, a pretty girl who looked like her soul was tired. "I've never been to Abilene," I said. "What do people do for fun here?" She kind of snorted. "We go somewhere else."June 1 Kansas City, Missouri The Midwest is stunningly green and beautiful. And the people here really seem to have a different attitude toward life. They're nicer and slower. I go into a tiny gas station looking for a map that showed the whole U.S. The guy doesn't have one, and I am grouchy. As I spin on my heel and stalk out, I hear him say, "excuse me," in a non-accusatory tone that lets me know my behavior, which wouldn't have earned a second thought in Sacramento, is inappropriate. I had been rude. It really hit me that this urban girl is in uncharted territory, and the sensitivity meter needs to be upped a notch. I'm beginning to realize that America is really composed of 50 separate nations, each with different languages and climates and morals and social codes. The things that are different and the things that stay the same are always surprising. You live for 23 years and you know that every town isn't your town and everyone doesn't live like you, but there's a difference between knowing it and seeing it. Every time we hit a new town, we try to stop and mingle, even briefly. I'm sure the locals see me as the stereotypical wacky vegetarian from California.June 2 Ohio; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Except for the major metropolises, Ohio is a green state dotted with teensy Rockwellian towns that are made up of clusters of beautiful houses with big front porches. And no fences. We wander into a local grocery for a couple sodas, or, in Midwest-speak, pops. "You don't have fences!" Rene exclaims. "What the hell would you want a fence for?" the guy behind the counter asks. Rene and I decide we love Ohio. Its residents are probably the country's nicest. Pittsburgh turns out to be a tiny little San Francisco, a classic MBC with lovely old buildings and architecture and an amazing ethnic diversity, but it's hot and wet rather than cold and wet. At least in the summer. And I finally find something I can't find back home: real bagels. They're crispy and chewy, totally unlike those doughy things in California. But all things being equal, a decent sourdough is not to be found on the East Coast.June 9 Philadelphia When you come to Philadelphia, you come home. Everyone here treats you like a lost sister or brother or daughter or son. We wander into a local deli, seeking a real Philly cheesesteak, minus the steak, of course. "What?" said the woman taking our order. "Two cheesesteaks, please, with everything but the meat. We're from California." It was too much for the woman to take. She had to get the owner, a jovial middle-aged guy named Ray. "Cheesesteaks with no steak?" Ray asked. "Get outta here. What the hell are you gonna have on it?" "Everything," we repeat, "but the meat." Ray fixes us each a foot-long thing loaded with sharp provolone, sauteed mushrooms, hot peppers, bell peppers, oregano and more. They're amazing. While teasing us about the left coast, Ray has us sample his peppers and cheeses, making sure we like everything. It could have been Mom or Dad cooking for us. Philly is the most emotionally evocative place I've been so far. The people are so wonderful, but that's only part of it. In most of the other towns we've seen, I've had this nagging feeling that just out of the corner of my eye, just down that block, maybe, I was missing something ugly and terrible. Remember, seeing is different from just knowing, and I finally see it when we got lost in Philly. We drive through a horrible neighborhood, full of formerly elegant brownstones, now covered in gang tags, with windows boarded up or missing. And just as I'm about to say, "What a shame they don't fix these up so people can live here," I realize that these were not flophouses for derelict crackheads. These are places where families and children are living. The worst, roach-infested shoebox I've lived in is a luxury estate compared to this. Philly is striking for a lot of reasons. We stood in the room where the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were signed. We saw George Washington's chair. We touched the Liberty Bell, which is marble-smooth from millions of tourists doing the same. I leave Philly with all circuits overloaded, just trying to sort it out.June 10-11 New York City Here's a shock. New York turns out to be, for the most part, just another MBC. Actually, it is the MBC prototype. The sheer volume of people make New York the way it is: busy and exciting and fast. To cope with the fact that there are simply too many people packed into too small a place, New Yorkers live in denial, walking into each other and through each other because it's easier to pretend the crowd just isn't there. And it's easy to find your own niche there. You may have been the only freak in your hometown, but there will be a couple dozen weirdos just like you in New York. Overall, New York is pretty normal. I am at once disappointed and relieved. I won't be ditching everything to move here just yet. We do the tourist thing at Ellis Island. Both branches of my family came through here. I wonder if any of them did this crazy trip across the country, just to see what's there? The next day, I finally make the pilgrimage to the Algonquin and have my eggs. I'm pretty sure they didn't cost $20 when Dorothy Parker ate them. I'm trying really hard not to be just slightly disappointed. We persuade the concierge to show us the room 1106, where Mrs. Parker lived. There are framed letters from her on the wall, but otherwise very little acknowledgment of the place's awesome literary history.June 12 Washington, D.C. I leave Rene to her new turf in Pennsylvania and start the next leg of the trip, the solo train ride back west, at 5 a.m. This is wild. I'll be on the train five days. I'm kind of looking forward to the freedom. D.C. is an incredibly dramatic, overwhelming place. The architecture is terribly big and white, clearly designed to make us feel small. But at the same time, it reminds us that we are a part of something very big and sometimes great. It worked on me, but I suspect that the politicos don't get that message, Rather, I'm guessing they project the stature of the building onto themselves. I was not moved by the various monuments. But my breath was honestly taken when I caught sight of the Capitol, first peeking over the treetops, then visible in all its sprawling, ivory glory. One final thing: The rudest people in this country, and I am by now qualified to say this, are here in D.C. They ignore traffic signals, they don't smile, they're snotty and impatient, and they give bad directions.June 13 New Orleans, Louisiana I was warned by a local that, "Everything they say about New Orleans is true. Good and bad." You hear Bourbon Street before you can smell it, and you smell it before you can see it. The sound is live jazz and blues floating through the twilight. The smell is vomit and stale beer that's had plenty of time to ripen on a hot sidewalk in the humid Louisiana summer. Every other place on the block is a restaurant or a bar, the classiness of which is completely random. A low-down, topless mudwrestling bar that encourages audience participation can be next to a swanky jazz joint with a $15 cover. There might be a karaoke place or a porn shop next door to that. And you can't swing your Mardi Gras beads without hitting a souvenir shop. The kinds of people on Bourbon Street are just as varied as the kinds of places. Social lines seem to blur. After Philly, my eyes are more open to the ugly reality of MBC, and I am ready for it. I find it just a few yards off Bourbon Street, where I meet a drunken homeless man. He sits down next to me and dozes while I wait for my bus. After about 15 minutes, a young guy comes along and begins to sing "Jesus Loves Me." It's absolutely beautiful, but I have no money for him. I'm about to explain this when my homeless friend stirs and mutters, "Shut the fuck up!" "No! I am not going to let you take my manhood," the singer says. He's ready to pummel a sleepy drunk at least three decades his senior. "Come on," I say. "You were just singing about Jesus!" Realizing that this is bad for business, he drops his fists and starts to sweetly sing again. I can't look at him. Finally, the bus comes and takes me back to my youth hostel.June 14 Texas Texas air is as hot as Louisiana air, but bone-dry instead of sticky and damp. Houston was not another MBC. It's so amazingly shiny and new; none of the buildings appear to be more than 30 years old. For that, it stands out. The romance of the trip is fading. I'm tired and homesick, and I'm consciously reminding myself to soak all this in and experience the trip. That "happiness is the journey" crap is wearing thin. I'm trying to see and do too much. After all, how many times am I going to do this? But now, I just want to be home. Time on the train passes in a blur of card games and long, deep conversations with strangers. The gorgeous Technicolor sunrises and sunsets take the sting out of five nights slept in a chair, five days without a shower.June 17 Home Again The train pulls in to Sacramento at 1:30 a.m., 70 minutes behind schedule. I am ecstatic to see the boyfriend, yet all I can do is give him the same boring hug and kiss that he got when I left. For the next few days, I dodge the few friends who know I'm back and lay low, decompressing. The trip was honestly wonderful, and that does not contradict the happiness I feel now that it's over. I'm left with a false sense of my own worldliness, and I'm really weary of telling my stories over and over and over. Having seen so much of the country in such a short time, I can tell you, honest to God, there is no place like home. I've seen enough to know--now--that I'm in the right place for me, for now. And since I, like so many others, always loved to slag our fair River City for its unsophisticated, San Francisco-wannabe ways, this comes as a relief and a shock. One country down. How many to go?

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