Thirteen days ago, I got into a car on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, picked up a friend in Times Square, and began driving west on what remains of the country’s first transcontinental highway built for automobile travel. The 3,519 miles we drove over the next eleven days took us across thirteen states and along some of the trails blazed by early pioneers as they trudged toward better lives out West; the Mormon, the Oregon, the California — all were crossed with substantial degrees of difficulty, fear, uncertainty, and a stunning lack of access to anything resembling a Motel 6, let alone a Starbucks.
Just west of the Nevada–California border, we visited the site of the Donner Camp, where an ill-fated band of pioneers spent the winter of 1846–47, many of them succumbing to disease, starvation, death, and cannibalism. Marking the spot is an enormous statute depicting a man, woman, and child looking bravely toward the horizon, their expressions more determined than afraid. The sculpture is so quintessentially mythic American — larger than life; looking ever forward; redolent of free will, distant lands, and manifest destiny. In its presence, you can almost hear the theme from Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring in the background and smell the golden fields of wheat being warmed by the sun.
We saw the Pioneer Monument, as the statue is called, the day before we arrived in San Francisco, our final destination and a jarring — if welcome — contrast to the immense, often overwhelmingly lonely swaths of country we had traversed for the past week and a half. Perhaps more than anything else I’d seen during the course of our trip, the statue impressed upon me how much has changed since those unfortunate families found themselves stuck in the Sierra Nevada, but also how little. My accomplice and I were armed with an enormous AAA atlas, a highway guidebook, and two smartphones, one of the i-variety, the other an Android. Until we crossed the far reaches of the western plain, most of the roads we traveled were littered with the same strip malls, gas stations, dog-eared motels, and Walmarts you’ll find anywhere in the country; it was only during the nights when we camped in national forests that we had any vague sense of having eluded modernity.
Between the atlas, guidebook, and Internet, there wasn’t a road we couldn’t find. When we wanted to camp, Google Maps found us the Walmart in Laramie, Wyoming, where we bought cheap sleeping bags, and then the Cabela’s in Reno, Nevada, where I bought the knit cap that helped keep me from freezing the night we slept under a stand of ponderosa pines near Lake Tahoe. And yet, for all the maps and technology at our disposal, the country still felt vast and unknowable, as foreign and strange as it must have appeared to the nineteenth-century settlers born and raised in small towns east of the Mississippi. I live in New York City and my friend in San Francisco. Although I was born in Alabama and grew up in Michigan, my life has been circumscribed by the easy predictability of towns and cities. So even though GPS mapped with ruthless precision almost every coordinate of the country we crossed, we only had to look up from our screens and out through the windshield to feel utterly lost, if not in the literal sense, then in a more sprawling, existential, lo-we-are-strangers-in-a-strange-land sense.
It was oddly gratifying; short of falling into a fugue state and wandering out of your own life, there are few ways to feel truly lost — geographically speaking, at least — these days. Thanks to the unending flow of information flooding our synapses, we’re reminded constantly of our connections, to one another and to our destinations, even as we feel increasingly isolated, suspended in the chilly glow of our little screens. Still, even with all of the advances we take for granted, we run up against challenges similar to those the pioneers encountered; we want the path of least resistance and greatest reward. Assuming we find it, and our destination, we’re left to ask ourselves what’s next, and how, if at all, the journey has changed us, and why or why not, and what it all means.
The pioneers who safely reached Salt Lake City or Oregon or San Francisco didn’t have the luxury of self-reflection; they were likely more concerned with creating lodging, livelihoods, and functioning societies. The desire to get lost is in itself a function of modern luxury, much in the same way voluntary juice fasts are practiced by people with plenty to eat. In seeking to recreate what early automobile travelers experienced as they navigated barely paved roads that only a half-century earlier had been crossed in covered wagons, we were limited by the tools that made our trip so comparatively effortless. But how perversely reassuring it was to realize that, a hundred years later, the ability lose yourself on a well-traveled road hasn’t gone the way of bands of oxen; if anything, it’s as clear and tangible as a point on a map, and as liberating as a full tank of gas.