The American road trip

Road Trips — By on August 20, 2007 at 7:35 am

The American road trip is a classic journey. Many is the person who has either completed or dreamed of a drive across the United States. The latest such individual is Matt Gross, who reported on his cross-country driving adventures for the NY Times. Here is an excerpt from the tail end of his journey:

“Nothing but sagebrush for 130 miles,” said the construction worker in the orange vest who was temporarily blocking U.S. Highway 20 in southeastern Oregon. As the Volvo idled in the midday heat, I looked past her at the landscape – at the dry, slowly rising hills matted with blue-green-purple tufts of hip-high scrub – then down at my map, and was impressed with her precision: For almost exactly 130 miles to the east, south and west, there was indeed nothing but sagebrush. This really was the desert. I shut off the engine and crossed my fingers, hoping the car and I would survive…

These car troubles, which I should have expected in my final week on the road, only deepened my desire to see Oregon’s deserts. I wasn’t drawn simply to their reputed beauty and remoteness, but by their place in American road-trip history. This was, in a way, where the fabled tradition began.

Back in 1903, the automobile was a novelty, expensive and unreliable. And with no gas stations and few paved roads outside of major cities, horses and railroads offered more reliable transport than a creaky chassis powered by a breakdown-prone internal combustion engine.

Which is probably why Horatio Nelson Jackson, a 31-year-old doctor, bet friends at the University Club of San Francisco that he could drive a car from coast to coast. They scoffed. A few days later, Jackson was at the helm of a $3,000, two-cylinder Winton automobile, accompanied by Sewall K. Crocker, a mechanic and chauffeur, and heading east.

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