It seems to me….
“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” ~ Martin Buber.
While travel might be “broadening”, whatever that means, it certainly is NOT inexpensive. My wife, Barb, & I recently returned home following an extended 4781-mile (not including air miles) drive on a fifteen-state cross-country road trip. First, a general description of our trip and then some observations and remarks.
We flew out of Redding, CA, on Thursday, 22 September 2016, to San Francisco, then onto the Washington, DC, area to visit my youngest son, Christopher, and his wife, Nancy, in nearby Ashburn, VA. We spent most of the first week seeing some of the tourist locations we’d missed on a previous 1985 trip: the Udvar-Hasey Space Museum, Library of Congress, National Archives, Supreme Court, and the C&O Canal along the Potomac River. Ashburn is within driving range to all of Nancy’s east-coast based extended family – we greatly enjoyed meeting everyone once again for the first time since Christopher and Nancy’s 2014 marriage in California.
Visits with my only remaining cousin, Jimmy Berish, and Nancy’s sister, Maya Isaac, took us just outside of Philadelphia. Then, it was into Philadelphia to see Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the Franklin Institute (which I found fascinating as a child), and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania where I had hoped to learn something about the paternal branch of my family who lived in Philadelphia since the Revolutionary War. It was a disappointing afternoon: with over one million historical artifacts not yet cataloged, finding anything useful in a short amount of time was almost impossible.
Next, we drove down to Absecon, NJ, to visit a childhood friend, Eileen (Mathis) Guenther, the friendly and informative folks at the Absecon Historical Society, and my parent’s gravesite. Then into Atlantic City, fully aware of its degeneration from my childhood days but now seeing first hand just how much of what once made “Atlantic City” is completely gone. The greatest entertainment venue imaginable – The Steel Pier – had been totally destroyed (carny rides? REALLY?). Distracting constantly flashing monitors and obnoxious blaring loud speakers line the boardwalk. The beautiful soft white sandy beach now concealed behind berms obscuring the ocean view. This city, once called “America’s Vacationland”, now more closely resembles the worst sections of Detroit or other cities experiencing severe economic difficulties. High-rise monoliths now stand empty vigilance against rising sea levels in testimony to failed expectations that legalized gambling would achieve community revitalization.
Back to Ashburn for a tour of the Red Cross national disaster operations center in Fairfax, VA, (including a very nice visit with the ever hospitable and knowledgeable Ed Finley) and the Shenandoah National Park (along with a short walk on the Appalachian Trail).
Background: Following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Barb & I had been asked to drive a Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicle (to join a convoy of ERVs to New York City) but received the call on such short notice there was no way to close up the house for a month, do laundry, stop mail, etc., and meet the departure time. We had to decline the opportunity. Both of us were disappointed. Even though I had previously driven both the northern and central routes across the U.S. (initially in my twenties), Barb had never driven entirely across the country. Now, mapping out our southern driving route, we were very much looking forward to this venture.
After leaving Ashburn and a drive through the Shenandoah Valley, we got down to New Orleans: Bourbon Street, Café du Monde, paddlewheel cruise on the Mississippi, Jean Lafitte National Historical Park…. Cajun meals: jambalaya, gumbo, red beans and sausage…. The only thing on my to-do list that did not work out was the Preservation Hall Jazz Band – we just missed one show and would have had to wait until quite late for the next one.
On to San Antonio where we saw the Alamo, walked the River Walk (to the dam/locks), and visited Barbara Pensock, the wife of another one of my cousins who died two years ago. The Alamo might be San Antonio’s best known attraction but it is the River Walk that is truly exceptional. I had hoped to also see Lackland AFB where I had preflight training in the late 1950s but tours are only given at 10:00am on Tuesdays and it did not fit into our schedule.
I had previously spent about a week in both New Orleans and San Antonio when attending computer conferences back in the early/mid 1980s. San Antonio seemed about the same as back then. New Orleans, on the other hand, is both the same and very different. While Bourbon street is exactly as it was (I doubt if any walls have been painted or street potholes repaired); there now is a new River Walk along the Mississippi that is very well done.
Our only other actual stop following San Antonio prior to finally arriving back home on 15 October 2016 was in Bakersfield, CA, to have dinner with our granddaughter, Emily Flint, who is a sophomore at CSU–Bakersfield and her grandmother, Barbara Kleier. When we began the trip, I wasn’t sure we would actually complete the drive but – we did – eventually reaching that point in San Antonio where we felt it was time to head for home. The entire trip had been fantastic but … enough. It always is great to get away but also equally great to get back home.
Our weather was unbelievable. There was a slight mist while in Atlantic City but it wasn’t enough to discourage us from walking the length of the boardwalk. Otherwise, we enjoyed warm sunny days everywhere we went. Our first REAL rain began when we saw the Redding city limits sign on our way back into town. Somehow it seemed an appropriate end to a great trip.
The end of September/beginning of October was a great time for an extended road trip. Not only was the weather perfect, we avoided all the tourist crowds. Other than at Café du Monde, there never were any waiting lines to enter locations even on the National Mall. We even immediately walked into the practically empty National Archives where on our previous visit there would have been a one-hour entry delay.
Compared to car rental, travel by air is a relative bargain. For a moderate-size vehicle, Hertz charged over four times for the return cross-country drive as it cost two of us to fly from the West to East Coast on United Air Lines. And that does not include vehicle gas or road tolls. Everyone complains about the discomforts of air travel but our flight was generally difficulty free. I have experienced two-hour security/check-in delays in the past but the entire process on this flight was fast and efficient.
Airlines still seem to think their planes have the seating capacity of a DC-3. Everyone queues to board through a single entrance even though planes now carry about as many passengers as can be seated in the average college football stadium. It takes almost as long to board as to fly to many destinations. While multiple boarding entrances would be advantageous, it would require costly redesigns to both aircraft and terminals so are unlikely.
When traveling, it becomes very apparent just how much of our nation’s infrastructure has been allowed to deteriorate in comparison to other countries. Many of our major airports and transit systems are comparable to those in third-world countries. Washington Dulles International Airport outside our nation’s capital can only be described as OLD still relying on so-called mobile lounges to transport some passengers between the main terminal and aircraft. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority seems relatively efficient (and in the process of expanding) but encountered delays and malfunctions every afternoon while we were there.
The East is green and forested; especially compared to the more desert-like West. Interstate highways, other than in large metropolitan areas, were tree-lined with thick luxuriant foliage leaving the impression of the nation being largely unpopulated; a very welcome respite from parched California nearing the end of its annual summer drought. We were a week or two too early so missed seeing very much fall color though some was starting to appear in Tennessee and northern Alabama. Most road sides and median strips were mowed and attractive. As median strips on most West Coast highways are rapidly disappearing being replace by unattractive concrete barriers, driving on most eastern highways was more enjoyable.
Regrettably, there were areas that were unpleasant to drive resulting primarily from high traffic volumes including much of the Philadelphia to Washington I-95 corridor. (Driving anywhere in Houston also should be avoided if possible.)
Other than in some of the larger cities (think Philadelphia), the entire area appeared relatively free of graffiti compared to most of the west coast. There also appeared to be fewer homeless and street-people along the East Coast.
Robber barons are alive and well. It seems as if East Coast toll roads are intended to make driving too expensive for the average person to use them. Personally, coming from the West Coast where toll roads are the exception (though, unfortunately, increasing), it is easy to resent having to pay to drive on highways along the eastern part of the country while drivers from those areas are able to use our roads without cost. Yes, some of the bridges, especially in the San Francisco area, also charge tolls which apparently someone forgot were supposed to be eliminated once bridge construction costs were recovered.
There currently are about 17 different mostly incompatible electronic toll collection systems in use throughout the U.S. (yes, other countries; e.g., Australia; suffer similar difficulty). E-ZPass, the most inclusive and widely used system, is an association of 38 toll agencies primarily available in 16 northeastern states. Fastrak, in contrast, is only used in California. It is difficult to rationalize such system incompatibility. Those states resorting to this manner of pilferage should at least agree to some form of system compatibility rather than requiring travelers to possess an assortment of such devices.
This is not a criticism of those who use part of the national infrastructure also having to pay for that use. But apposite changes; e.g., making highway user tax revenues sufficient to once again make the Highway Trust Fund self-supporting, removing large and medium hub airports from the federal airport grants program to allow them to support themselves via passenger fees, and making inland waterway systems fully user-funded while desirable; would be politically unacceptable. Everyone benefits from availability of such systems so partial general fund support is appropriate.
- Highway users pay several federal user taxes (mostly on gasoline and diesel fuel) that support the Highway Trust Fund from which grants are made for highway and transit programs.
- Air travelers pay a tax on airline tickets and aircraft operators pay fuel taxes with the proceeds of these and other user taxes feeding the Aviation Trust Fund which pays for airport grants and for the capital costs and some of the operating costs of the air traffic control system.
- Ships unloading cargo at U.S. seaports pay a harbor maintenance tax which streams into the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund from which funds are allocated for harbor dredging projects overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers.
- And users of U.S. inland waterways pay a diesel fuel tax for the Inland Waterways Trust Fund which pays for a portion of the cost of maintaining and improving waterways, locks, and dams.
That said, would entire self-support even be totally practical: NO! Fees disproportionately effect less wealthy users making it more difficult for them to remain competitive. Additionally, automotive fuel taxes are increasingly insufficient to cover highway maintenance and improvement costs (as was all-too-apparent on this type of trip) as vehicles becoming increasingly fuel efficient or owners switch to electric-powered vehicles. This will definitely become an growing problem in the future (and one for which I do not have any recommendation).
Every state has their share of irresponsible bad drivers but if I had to pick the worst state, it probably would be Texas. Too many drive too fast recklessly weaving in and out of traffic cutting in too sharply forcing you to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting them. Texas also has an insane system of turnaround lanes essentially making it impossible to get to your intended destination without at least a half dozen trips to the next loop a mile down the road to get back to where you need to be.
California probably has the best signage on their Interstates. Those in Virginia are relatively good but there are too many intersecting roads without consistent naming. Some states have extremely small type size on their signs that cannot possibly be read until it is too late to turn or signs that are entirely missing.
Regional accents always are intriguing – especially in the rural deep South. There was one instance where I haven’t any idea what a service station clerk actually said.
Interstate rest stops differ substantially from state to state. While most of those in Washington and Oregon are nice, the best are back east – many resemble small parks. My favorites were those in the median strips shared with both directions of traffic providing both gas and food. While local competitors might object, these are most convenient to travelers who are not forced off the Interstate to blindly search for a station or something to eat. We have frequently driven off the Interstate looking for a gas station not knowing where, or even if, one might be at that exit.
The worst rest stops were in the southwest with Texas being at the bottom of the list. Not only were the rest stops along Interstate 10 barely basic with little thought of landscaping, they were few and far between. Rest stops in California and several other states were conveniently located about every 25 – 30 miles but in Texas, they were 70 or even 100 miles apart. Granted, the southwest presents problems unique to that area; e.g., sparse population and basically desert vegetation; but it is obvious that only minimal investment has been put into traveler convenience.
There is a LOT else wrong with Texas in addition to their highway systems; e.g., too many people smoke in public places. There doesn’t seem to be any restrictions on where or when people can smoke in public. The stench in many locations was totally disgusting. I fully support someone’s right to their smoking addiction but my right to not have to smell it also should be respected.
We never had any difficulty locating acceptable lodging even though we never made room reservations, but there were several minor problems, the primary one being that I am very allergic to dogs and cats. Lodging providers seem to have eliminated restrictions on travelers having their pets in their rooms. While most locations now offer “smoking free” rooms, there isn’t any way to stipulate a pet-free room. Though difficult to verify this was the problem, I woke on a couple mornings quite congested.
Having completed this marathon, would I consider doing it again? Just give me an opportunity to catch up on all the tasks that have accumulated while we were gone. Much more yet remains to see and do….
That’s what I think, what about you?
 Martin Buber was an Austrian-born Israeli Jewish philosopher best known for his philosophy of dialogue, a form of existentialism centered on the distinction between the I–Thou relationship and the I–It relationship.
 List Of Electronic Toll Collection Systems, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_electronic_toll_collection_systems, 3 October 2016.