This is My America - Part 1 of 2

By Jessica Shepherd

Last week I undertook an odyssey, driving the breadth of the United States in the week leading up to the 4th of July. In addition to picking up a car, I was out to explore America. Could a 3,000-mile journey help me to understand not just what divides us, but what unites us? 

Hal and I had been down to one car since the onset of Covid when my VW had been totaled. But now, with Hal traveling for work again, I was stranded at home. I started looking for an SUV with enough guts to tow a travel trailer while delivering good gas mileage. A used Toyota Highlander Hybrid was really the only option in my price range - averaging 28 miles per gallon and capable of towing 3,500 pounds. 

An online search gave me a pretty clear idea of price and the realization that I’d probably have to travel out of state to procure one. I trolled the internet until I found exactly what we’d been looking for - a 2013 with only 37,000 miles, complete with a roof rack and hitch. I told Hal I’d found our car, then paused for dramatic effect before adding, “but it’s in Delaware.”

“Delaware,” he considered. “Is that a state?”  Neither of us has traveled much beyond the Mississippi River. Delaware, as it turns out, isn’t any larger than the municipality of Anchorage. Sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and Maryland, it’s accessible through DC or Philadelphia.  The dealership, intrigued by my willingness to fly from Alaska for this car, agreed to pick me up in Philly. 

It wasn’t lost on me that I would be flying 4,800 miles and driving another 3,000 miles to buy a hybrid, rather than purchase a non-hybrid in Alaska. One could reasonably argue that the carbon released in bringing the car north would never be offset and I’d be better off buying something locally. I decided not to do the math. With desire overruling logic, I saw this as a great opportunity to buy a reliable vehicle with low miles, (a “unicorn” according to the dealer) and to take a road trip by myself – something I hadn’t done in a long time. I flew on a red-eye out of Anchorage and was met in Philly by a burly driver named Dave. Within two hours of arrival, I drove away in my new car. 

Hal and I ascribe names to our cars. His RAV 4 is, unimaginatively, named Silver. Because this car is a Highlander (think Scotland), she became Fiona. Fiona and I got acquainted on rural roads in Delaware for an hour or so before heading to a hotel for our first evening. She rolled along smoothly, sun dancing through the moon roof, leather seats contoured to my body, and the air conditioning moderated the heat of the day. I drank in the lush, pastoral landscape where perfectly groomed thoroughbred horses trotted in inside well-tended fences. Ah, the good life.

Day One – June 29th   Middletown, Delaware to Oak Openings State Park, Ohio

Awake by four, I hit the road at five to avoid rush hour traffic pooling toward DC, Baltimore and Philly. I confess that, after 30 years in small-town Alaska, I am not comfortable in heavy traffic. Using my phone’s navigational setting, I avoided large cities, opting to take slower, less stressful routes. I used Interstate 90 between cities to make time, and set an ambitious schedule, driving 400 to 700 miles per day. 

Slipping through Maryland into south-central Pennsylvania on a two-lane road afforded me a glimpse of a doe and her spotted fawn and 20 Canada geese parading across the road. The 

Central Market in Lancaster was open, and I filled my little cooler with a dozen eggs, freshly churned Amish butter, bacon, local cherries, and a slab of tender smoked turkey breast. 

I drove the length of Pennsylvania that morning on farm roads dotted with hold-over Trump signs, a reminder that Biden won here thanks to the cities and suburbs. I guess change comes slowly here. Farmhouses were paired with vintage Iowa-style barns, some freshly painted, others faded to gray or falling into disrepair. Corn grew high amid rolling hills, and I passed a black buggy driven by two men in wide-brimmed hats. The clomp-clomp of the mule’s hooves could be heard over the whine of my tires and I wondered, “Am I crazy to drive across the country for a car? Surely, if reducing emissions is the goal, the Amish have the right idea.” I consoled myself by noting that Fiona was averaging 27 miles to the gallon.

I had been to Pennsylvania once before with a boyfriend during college and recalled that drive from a lifetime ago. We’d visited his family north of Du Bois, and I had anticipated a future with him. Where was he now? Was he content with his life? So often we lose track of people who were once central to our lives and can only guess at the direction their lives have taken. 

That afternoon I drove across Ohio on I-80. The day was hot, hovering around 95 degrees until a heavy rainstorm lowered the temperature to a comfortable 72. Traffic slowed and lightning displayed across the northern skyline. I worried about hail, wondering where I could shelter Fiona. But eventually, the rain tapered off and our pace quickened.

In need of a break from the interstate, I diverted north to Sandusky for a view of Lake Erie. Once there, I was disappointed by what I found. Walking along a concrete pier, I gazed into the cloudy water which smelled like an aquarium in need of cleaning. Erie is the most polluted of the great lakes due to run-off from industry and farms, and I recalled how the Cuyahoga River, a tributary, had caught fire in 1969. This had spurred an effort to improve water quality but, clearly, they still have work to do. 

Leaving Lake Erie behind, I headed toward Oak Openings State Park southwest of Toledo. After locating an obscure campground I’d booked ahead and backing Fiona into our spot, I set up the car for sleeping and made a light meal from the turkey breast and some coleslaw. As I was washing up, a sparkle caught my eye, like an ember from a campfire, or frost on a blade of grass. Then another twinkle and another. Fireflies! The oak forest took on a magical charm, and I wandered among the trees, as delighted as a child.  

Day Two – June 30th   Ohio to Lake Michigan on the Michigan Side

At first light, I headed north into Michigan on rural byways, flushing doves by the dozens as they lifted off the road in the early cool. I passed old graveyards and fields of corn and soybeans, rows so straight it was as if a giant comb had been drawn through them. I shook my head at small white signs, one after another, that read, “No Solar Farms.” I noted an eerie lack of bugs on the windshield, due, no doubt, to the herbicides and pesticides used on the crops. What then do the birds eat? 

By pre-arrangement, I stopped to visit friends Janine and Mike near Linden, northwest of Detroit. They recently bought a summer home on a small lake to escape the increasingly unbearable heat of Tucson. “We’re early climate-change refugees,” Janine explained. We went to eat in Linden where adjacent diners shouted over each other and we agreed that we missed the quiet imposed by the pandemic. Covid was, in some ways, a boon for introverts. 

Before I hit the road again we stopped to look for birds at a pair of settling ponds. We counted families of mallards with their young, attempted to follow the flight of violet-green swallows and plovers, and watched a graceful Swainson’s hawk drift across an open field. Birding was our first connection over 30 years ago when we both worked for Arizona’s Prescott National Forest, and it remains one of our greatest shared pleasures. 

On I drove, oaks giving way to pines. Past firework stands and flags snapping in the wind. Past flatbeds hauling loads of fragrant hay and fields of corn that became shorter as I progressed northward. Semis hauling pesticides for the fields lumbered by, and in one small town, a fire truck worked to extinguish a chemical spill emanating from a sprayer truck - the smell of burning tires lingering after I’d passed.

As a woman traveling alone, I didn’t strike up many conversations. When I did, I mainly talked to other women. They seemed intrigued by my sojourn, the idea igniting their imaginations. At a campground, the female park ranger looked at me with keen interest and asked, “Have you always been this adventurous?” 

On my second night camping, at Ludington State Park on the shores of Lake Michigan, I walked over sand dunes and into the tepid water with bare feet, then lingered as the sun sank into its watery reflection. The campground was crowded and noisy, but the hot showers were clean, and there were no mosquitos to speak of. I was parked next to a large RV that, given the rug spread on the ground, the barbecue, bikes, and lawn chairs, looked like a home on wheels. A man sat outside nursing a beer and keeping tabs on an Australian shepherd. I had to check my impulse to greet the dog and hence the man. Instead, I discreetly brushed my teeth and locked myself into Fiona for the night. 

Day Three – July 1st    Wisconsin to the Mississippi River on the Minnesota Side

Horn blasting, the SS Badger pulled away from the Ludington pier at nine the next morning. I had opted to take the ferry across Lake Michigan rather than navigate around Chicago. The coal-fired ship (the last of its kind) moved along at 18 knots and the journey took four hours. I indulged in a cinnamon roll from the little cafeteria and found a deck chair in the sun. At 307 miles long and 118 miles wide, Lake Michigan is equal in size to Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. When we were two hours into the crossing I couldn’t see land in any direction and imagined I could detect the curvature of the earth. 

Once Fiona and I had departed the ferry we struck out across Wisconsin, making for the Mississippi River and a campground on the Minnesota side. Despite the heat, people were out mowing and weed whacking, engaged in our national pastime of subduing the wild. There were graveyards, storage units, church steeples, and a billboard that read, “Pride is like the summertime – it cometh before the fall.” As difficult as it is to identify birds at 70 miles per hour, I tallied red-winged blackbirds, a slim white egret, indeterminant swallows, and (a favorite) eastern bluebirds. 

I stopped briefly at a small Mennonite grocery and got to chatting with the bonneted woman behind the counter. Once I’d revealed I was from Alaska, she wanted to know about gardening in the far north. How long was our growing season? Turns out, Homer’s is a bit longer than theirs. The next person in line, also a woman, listened intently, and I noted the potato chips she was buying, wishing out loud that I’d picked some up. Then we joked about hiding our favorite snacks from our husbands. After I headed out to my car, she hurried after me, chips in hand, saying, “I wouldn’t want you to leave Wisconsin without experiencing some mid-western hospitality.”  We exchanged names, and I drove away contemplating the kindness of a stranger named Mary. 

Crossing the Mississippi into the western United States, I felt a sense of homecoming. Raised in Colorado and having traveled widely around the west, I knew the rest of the trip would be as familiar to me as an old friend. I camped at a quiet, well-tended campground off I-90 overlooking the brimming river far below. Mature oak trees were home to nosy catbirds and I walked along a wooded path to take photos of the Mississippi at sunset and then again in the early morning before I departed. 

(Part 2 will post on Tuesday, July 19th)