My Drive Across America Was Great Until It Turned Into A Nightmare

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Image for article titled 2021 Staff Pick: Notes On Driving Across America

Photo: Erik Shilling

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I live in New York City but, for a variety of reasons, in December I moved to Los Angeles for two and a half months. The drive there and back in my 2008 Honda Fit was all basically fine, except for what I will probably later call a mental breakdown in Nebraska.

Let’s back up a bit. For the journey west, I chose a southern route, going from New York to New Jersey to Pennsylvania to Maryland to West Virginia to Virginia to Tennessee to Arkansas to Texas to New Mexico to Arizona and finally, to California.

That looked like this:

Image for article titled 2021 Staff Pick: Notes On Driving Across America

Screenshot: Google Maps

This part was great! I did it at a leisurely pace and ate hot chicken in Nashville, barbecue in Texas, a Sonoran hot dog in Tucson and tacos in Southern California. The time in Los Angeles passed without much trouble, and then it was time to head home.

For the route back, I went central instead of southern, going from California to Nevada to Utah to Colorado to Nebraska to Iowa to Illinois to Indiana to Ohio to Pennsylvania to New Jersey to New York.

That looked like this:

Image for article titled 2021 Staff Pick: Notes On Driving Across America

Screenshot: Google Maps

I was expecting that to go how it had gone on the westbound trip, a nice, slow stroll home. I was expecting there to be plenty of maskless morons, too, like there had been in parts on the way to California (looking at you, Texas).

That began pretty much as soon as I escaped LA and got into the desert. It continued through Utah, though people were a bit more responsible in Denver. In eastern Colorado, where it turns into farm country, few people could be bothered. It became more aggressive Trump territory from there. By the time I reached Nebraska I was in real middle-of-America-fuck-you-I’m-American land.

Which, you know, I grew up in a conservative part of Ohio so I thought I would be well-equipped to deal. But have you ever been to Nebraska? It is fucking endless! And then you get to Iowa, and that is endless too. I felt attacked from all sides — the bullying tractor-trailers on the highway, the flatness, the cold, the constant anxiety about where it would be safe to piss.

Which is how I found myself at a rest area somewhere outside of Kearney, Nebraska, having a panic attack. There were still hours and hours ahead on the road, and I was bored and depressed and frightened that I might do something irrational — intentionally driving off the road was one possibility — just to mix things up.

So I stopped and smoked a cigarette, the first one in a couple of years, which didn’t help. A big part of it was how foreign my own country felt; I’ve traveled to plenty of other countries and never felt like as much of an outcast as I did there, with plenty of miles still to do.

After about 45 minutes at the rest area, I gathered myself and continued on, sometimes driving on local roads to avoid the interstate. I drove through most of Illinois on U.S. Route 30, which was slow going, especially in the exurbs of Chicago, but I told myself that it was the historic Lincoln Highway and thus worth it, for Historical Reasons. The truth was that I still wasn’t quite mentally up for the interstate.

I reached Elkhart, Indiana, on the fourth day of driving, an embarrassingly slow pace for someone who used to pride himself on driving double-digit hours at a time. But by then I was back in more familiar territory, and save for a stop in Ohio to see my mom, the rest of the journey back to New York was uninterrupted, hours and hours of interstate and fast food.

I had worried about the Fit breaking down during both cross-country trips, but all the car needed in that time was an oil change. Instead, I feel a little lame to be confessing that it was me who broke down, probably in some part the consequence of a year of pandemic. Or maybe it was just the consequence of driving alone for days.

Still, Jesus Christ, have you ever driven through Nebraska?

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