Land of the Free...

by Carolyn Kellogg



Thousands of miles of American highways beckon, promising freedom and adventure. After Kerouac codified the mythic roadtrip, everyone from motorcycle grannies en route to Sturgis to space cadets following hippie bands have been lured by the open road. But who gets to hit the road? Is it, as they say in English Departments, privileged? Worse still is the news from the Economics department. Finding yourself, like all commodities, is subject to inflation and other market pressures. In the 80s, when teacher William Least Heat Moon was given the boot by both his wife and his job, he bought the myth, took off in his van, and wrote Blue Highways, a low-rent travelogue which functions as a sort of updated, less spacey ON THE ROAD. A veteran cross country traveler myself, I decided to update Moon's book for those hitting the highways this summer.

Gas: $450-$1125
Moon had 4 gas cards, which of course can also pick up the tab for beer, cigarettes, endless coffee and stomach-wrenching snacks and, in states like Indiana and Nevada, ephedrine (trucker speed). Lotta fun for pretend money. But when the bills come in, you'll find you've spent a nut on gas. It's 3,000 miles from Atlantic to Pacific--9,000 round-trip plus meandering. A killer classic car--say a 1961 Lincoln Continental with suicide doors--cruises at 12mpg on a good day. Gas runs from $.99/gallon (Texas) to $2.00/gallon (name your deserted highway location)--average, $1.50/gallon. That totals $1125 to haul your Continental continentally. Cheapest case scenario, you've got a modern, high-on-mileage/low-on-style vehicle coming off the lot with an average of 30mpg: $450. Put it in your wallet and let's move on.

Gas!
Lodging!

Lodging: $440
After sleeping in my parked, locked car during a dozen cross-country road trips, I narrowly escaped being dragged from my Honda by an extremely normal looking 50-ish year-old man. He woke me up, reached into my cracked window, unlocked my door and lunged for me sometime around 3am at a deserted Arizona rest stop. So I say unless you've got someone sitting watch with a shotgun, sleeping by the road is an idea whose time has passed.

Moon slept in his van. But he's a hippy. Motel 6 is worth it, and Mom & Pop places are better. I'm too cheap to go for schmantzy hotels (Vegas excepted your best bet is crashing on the floors of friends you see only when you blow through town. Depending on your family dynamics, you may want to look up any long lost relatives in the vicinity.

Bottom line: 3 weeks, 21 nights, say you get put up by friends 8 nights (as Moon did), and drive overnight twice. In Ohio I spent $58 for the only crappy room in town; in Colorado, $22 for an awesome place that had coffeemakers in the rooms with complimentary packets of Nescafe. So an average not-hourly-rate hotel runs $40; 11 nights @ $40/night: $440 for lodging.

Food: $629.66
Moon ate pretty decently, packing a cooler with groceries and beer and chowing on the local fare whenever it appealed to him. He righteously avoided fast-food joints and never recorded buying any greasy or mashmallowy snacks. As near as I can figure, it would cost $529.66 today to eat as he did. Although about half the places he went are closed, in the same towns you can still get a pint of Olympia for $1.50 or a Kentucky-style ham dinner (whatever that means) for $13.95.

A cooler is essential for keeping costs down, but it's also a pain. Ice melts and leaks into everything (soggy cheese is gross), things left out of the cooler are soon stale or nasty from the sun. And since you've gotta stop for gas, the rest stop snacks start looking really fascinating. Just to be sure, allow an extra hundred bucks for road snack crap that only the holiest of holies could resist. Steak-flavored potato chips? You know you're trying 'em.

Food!
Gifts!

Kindness of Strangers and Friends: $186
They let you crash and bathe for free, and they feed you. They take you to local haunts, from cafes to bars to record stores to the graveyard they got stoned in when cutting class in high school. Moon repaid them with his presence. Mooching ain't cool. You owe them something.

Buy dinner, give flowers, share drugs, tie a bow around the pint-sized jackalope you picked up a few states back. Figure out a tangible way to say thank you. A night of drinking can be $40 for two in a city the size of St. Louis; a sno-globe from the incline plane in Johnstown, Pennsylvania is $3.99. Say an average thanks-for-putting-up-with-me bribe is $22: eight of these runs ya $186. Cha-ching!

Extras: $220
Tourist traps, historic sites, tchotchkes and car trouble. Moon avoided tourism completely, shunning towns with more than few thousand residents; he journeyed to rediscover himself. I had a college professor who said the road myth is about exactly that: to avoid your predictable future, leave home where you're encumbered by falsehoods, find your true nature on the road, and meet your destiny. Luckily, this professor was a black-hearted man, and pointed out that this is Oedipus' story. Try to escape your fate, hit the road, fuck your mom, put out your eyes. Wooo, love that freedom!

Overlook!

Screw the new-age finding yourself theory. Visit tourist spots, go to a couple of National Parks, and buy souvenirs. Embrace your cheesy inner consumer. Graceland: $10 tour, Elvis shotglass, $5.50. Grand Canyon, $20/car. The House On The Rock, Spring Green, Wisconsin, $15 and worth every penny. The New Orleans grave of voodoo queen Marie Leveau is free, but chances are her museum/gift shop will soak you for $25 in merchandise. 6-foot steer horns can run as much as $80, plan at least $10 for postcards and postage, and I haven't even mentioned film. You are planning to take pictures. At least $45 in entry fees, easily $100 in tchotchkes, and a good $75 in film and developing.

Reality : $200
Just when you though you were home free (as it were), the engine starts to rattle. Or a tire blows. Or you find yourself in the middle of a hurricane with wipers like discarded snakeskin. Budget $200 for a new radiator and you'll be happily surprised not to have spent it. Don't budget for it and you too will become intimately familiar with the oily scent of a cracked block (time for a new car, but that 200 bucks should cover your bus fare home).

GRAND TOTAL $2800.66

Don't forget that, once you are home, you've gotta think about rent again. If you divested yourself of all worldly possessions upon departure, you may need to stock up on underwear, utensils, and other luxuries. Responsibility is such a drag. Don't you miss the freedom of the road?   </end>

Carolyn Kellogg once drove a 57-foot 1950s bus through Texas; now she grows restless in Brooklyn.