Forty Years Across America

. December 31, 2018.
Bruce and Nick with the “Green Artichoke”.
Bruce and Nick with the “Green Artichoke”. Photo courtesy of Bruce Weil

In 1978, I graduated from the University of Michigan with no job, no plans, and a 1973 Pontiac Catalina my father got me for graduation. It was artichoke-green, with a black vinyl roof, and whitewall tires. With a 400 cubic inch 2-barrel V8 engine, it managed 13 miles to the gallon.

I immediately drove it to Cincinnati with my friend Mike. He had a six-pack of Heineken and I had a jug of homemade Pina Coladas (hey, it was the 70’s). I revved my new car over 100 MPH on I-75, repeatedly. It was sweet, and the freshly installed cassette player was a bonus.

In Cincy, we visited my best friend Bruce, and hatched a plan to take my car across America. Mike was commited to a real job, but Bruce was game. After working a few months of double shifts at Ann Arbor’s Campus Inn, in “Victors” restaurant, I returned to Cincinnati on September 23, 1978, with $400 cash, some savings bond (gifts from from my grandmother) and a Rand McNally road atlas.

Twenty-five states and two months later, the Giant Artichoke limped back into Ann Arbor, with two broke and weary travelers, still without any real plans.

As life went on, I started bugging Bruce about recreating our 1978 trip. We had the old journals and photographs, and even a few bits of contact information, like first names and phone numbers. “We’ll call it 33 Years Across America,” I told him. Then it became 34, or 36. Bruce remained unmoved. But with blessings from my wife and law firm, I determined that it was time to hit the road solo.

Thus began my Bruceless “40 Years Across America.” I took the same back roads and blue highways we traveled in 1978, thanks to my meticulous journals.

Flying solo without an artichoke

With the Giant Artichoke abandoned to the scrap heap many years ago, my 2014 Dodge Challenger would have to do.

I visited the same towns and sought out the same people. For example, when our journey began on September 23, 1978, on the Main Street of a small town in Indiana, I recorded this encounter.
I approached and asked the name of the town. One man said – “This little quagmire? You call it a town?” Another gave in: “This is Kirklin – population 712, or 714.” A third: “Yeah, if you count the dogs and cats.”

We told them we were headed for California, “The long way.” One replied, “You can’t get there from here.”

I showed the photo to a woman on the street and she recognized one of the fellows as “Red”, but I wasn’t able to track him down. Down the road, a ways, I turned into tiny Bearmouth, Montana (population 2) where I learned the extraordinary story of a young woman Bruce and I had met in 1978. Later beset with health problems so unusual that she was featured on NPR, she became an inspirational speaker on the Montana church circuit.

Deep in the Oregon’s backcountry was where Bruce and I had one of our most interesting 1978 encounters, picking up a young woman hitchhiking with her three-year-old son. I tracked down Becky and Travis, and learned that the precocious boy taught himself to play the spoons by watching the “Spoonman” featured in Soundgarden’s eponymous hit song, and performed at carnivals, toured with the Flying Karamazov Brothers circus act, and was featured in an ad campaign for Friendly’s Ice Cream. He and his mom recreated one of our 1978 photos for me:

Becky and Travis in 2018

Becky and Travis in 2018. Photo courtesy of Bruce Weil.

I continued down the California coast, where we had encountered several additional hitchhikers. I didn’t pick any up this time, but I did have a harrowing experience trying to sleep in my car in a Motel 6 parking lot in Castroville, California, the “Artichoke Capital of the World.” I awoke at 3 AM to a loud and threatening argument two spaces away, over something that two men couldn’t find in a slammed car trunk. I slunk away to sleep in a muddy artichoke field.

I revisited San Francisco, Hollywood, and Las Vegas, where I had met a real one-armed bandit in 1978 – a man who brought me tremendous luck in the casino until the police took him away. Alas, I wasn’t so lucky this time.

More rewarding was my time away from populated areas. I camped in Joshua Tree National Park and awoke to a beautiful sunrise.

Returning to a fork in the road

My final destination: Boulder, Colorado, where Bruce and I lived at the Youth Hostel while working as busboys in a Mexican restaurant. We made many friends, and I managed to track a few down. We both thought we might return to live in this beautiful and vibrant city. We didn’t, and the only reason I can think of is that we were just itching to get on to the next place.

In one of those nice twists of life, my daughter now lives there. She attends Naropa University (which I thought I would attend), and has fully embraced Boulder, hiking and cycling in the mountains, busking on the Pearl Street Mall, and learning to rock-climb. She works in a coffee shop/bookstore while attending classes, and shows no signs of wanting to live anywhere else – though she does enjoy driving her 1999 Subaru Forester, “Joni”, on back roads to places like the South Dakota Badlands. So yeah, maybe I returned to Boulder after all, just not in the exact form I envisioned!

Humanity is a mess, but people are good at heart

This is what I learned about America in 2018: It’s as beautiful as it was in 1978, and in many ways timeless. Main streets in small towns look pretty much the same now as they did back then. They may seem indistinguishable from one another, but when you look closer, there is often a unique “sense of place” that you won’t find anywhere else. It may reflect pride in the natural features, or local culture sustained by native tribes. In the western states, there is a palpable sense of the “rugged individualism” that runs through their politics. (Example: billboard with a candidate posing with a cowboy hat and Winchester rifle while hugging a steer.)

Discerning these differences helped me to understand the people I met. I might ask about their family, describe how their town has changed, what they like doing for fun, or the local food specialties. Almost all the people I met seemed good at heart. It’s humanity that’s a mess – then and now. We muddle through, most of us trying to make ourselves and the world better, the best way we can.

My 8788 miles across America did nothing to sate my wanderlust. I’m already planning my next trip – along the Alcan highway to Alaska – the only state I have yet to visit. So while my own journey will continue as long as I can, I can’t predict what the next forty years will bring for America. That’s a journey for our children to take up, and their own book to write.

Nick Roumel is a civil rights lawyer by day, a restless traveler and foodie by nature,
and a long-time contributor to Current. 
Read the full tale of his adventures at
FortyYearsAcrossAmerica.blogspot.com.

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