Early yesterday morning I came to understand the difference between the West and the Midwest. I had been driving all night: I made the mistake of attempting a cross-country trek the same weekend as the opening of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in the Black Hills of South Dakota. So enormous is the gathering that every hotel room on I-80 between… well, I can only attest to the distance between Laramie, Wyoming and eastern Nebraska, for that is where I tried to stop for the night, a distance of more than 400 miles, although it was probably more expansive than that… was taken. There was simply no way I could stop for the night apart from a fugitive, 20-minute nap or two crumpled into my car seat in a gas station parking lot.
So I drove on. And at dawn some place in central Nebraska, I looked to my left over the fields on the other side of the road to find the sun timorously revealing a bank of waist-high, floury fog standing listlessly about the soybeans. There was such a frivolousness about this expenditure of moisture, much of which might burn away for the sake of a kind of stage effect seemingly for my benefit alone, that I felt a queasy shock of parsimony, and I realized that I had become, at least in part, a Westerner, worried about water and its misuses at an almost fundamental level. But then I looked further around and saw that my frugality was impertinent; I was no longer in Utah, and a little fog was not the same as someone running their sprinklers at noon. There can be droughts in this region, but moisture is not immediately and invisibly taxed from you at confiscatory rates the way it is in the arid West, where your very sweat disappears into the greedy air without a hint of acknowledgment of the taking.
There is a sort of knowledge that cannot be bought nor hypothesized nor extracted from texts that comes, I think, with driving over the vast breadth of the United States, over the “flyover country” in particular, but in general that comes with the driver’s eye view. Much has been written about the way that interstates have flattened, homogenized, alienated, etiolated, enervated, estranged the traveler’s relation to the country she is driving over, but there is still such an enormous difference between driving—being, at the very least, rolled with the wind that comes over the hills or through the windbreaks between the fields, forced into the shape of the road as it winds through outcroppings and arches over rivers—and flying, or assuming what a terrain is like based on second-hand testimony grubbed from our texts. I would like to suggest that historians, Americanists, should have that knowledge, as much as they can manage.
Cross-country travels are, even if they are made under superior circumstances to mine, grueling. The particular path I traveled traces many of the names that I first encountered in the computer game Oregon Trail, a cherished relic of my generation’s childhood. Fort Kearney, the Platte River, Laramie—I have enjoyed this revisiting of the hours in the school computer lab trying not to die of dysentery as I drive over this land, but it reminds me constantly of both how minor my discomforts are compared to the real travelers of the Oregon Trail and how much travel will always, to put it plainly, suck.
Furthermore, I know that my circumstances—living in Utah, but with my graduate school base and part of my family in New England and the Midwest—are unusual, and that I am fortunate to be able to have taken a number of cross-country trips to stay relatively close to those on the other side of the country. In other words, I know that saying that U.S. historians should have some experience traveling over the breadth of the nation is not asking little; it is asking something rather grand, something big. And it is perhaps presumptuous at my age and at my stage of career to think that I have some insight-bearing experience to cherish; that ought to be proved, after all, by turning it into something worthwhile.
But I offer this now as a stopgap, an encouragement that you will have other experiences like mine yesterday morning—though under more favorable, more comfortable, and less harrowing conditions. To the open road!