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It takes a long time to drive 9698.8 miles, no matter how fast you're going. This summer, it took me more than 246 hours behind the wheel to log the distance, for a pace of just under 40 miles per hour. At times, I crawled along much more slowly, inching my way through Chicago traffic jams or creeping back to Orlando in stop-and-go bottlenecks after the launch of STS-135. On the empty highways of West Texas, I drove much faster, doing 80 or 85 or 90 and watching for speed traps as if seeing them would absolve my moving violations. Once, I borrowed a car and drove more than 122 miles an hour.
I could see the end of my road trip, on the other side of the deserts of the American Southwest, the sun-parched stretch of near nothingness that conceals some of the country's greatest natural wonders. So after leaving Spaceport America in New Mexico, I prepared for a ironman push to the West Coast, my ultimate destination Los Angeles. Along the way, I'd stop at the Four Corners and the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas and probably some dusty, God-forsaken gas station in the middle of a field of rock and scrub and little else. It was going to be a long drive but, weirdly, I was excited.
In the wilderness of New Mexico, set in the dry, scrubby desert under a crystalline pale blue sky, is a construction site with a bombastic and cartoonish name, incomplete but already a monument to the hubris of interstellar exploration or maybe to tax-payer financed public-private partnerships of indeterminate future success.
Spaceport America, a beautiful collection of Googie-inspired hangars and control centers at the foot of the San Andres Mountains, will soon be the fully operational home of Virgin Galactic, the Richard Branson-backed tourism concern that plans to shoot rich people into sub-orbital space for $200,000 a ride.
The Spaceport could be the next Cape Canaveral, drawing tourists and geeks to see the future of manned (and unmanned) American space exploration. It could be a massive government boondoggle, a wasted $209 million investment that never pays back the people of New Mexico who financed its construction. Or it could be something entirely different. So I drove north out of Las Cruces to see it for myself.
"I've been here about a year and a half," says my tour guide, a young yoga instructor who also works at this art museum on the grounds of a former army base in Marfa, Texas. "It feels longer."
Marfa is like that. Pulled from obscurity by the Chinati Foundation, an art museum started by contemporary sculptor Donald Judd, it's now a tiny raft of a town in the sea of the high desert of West Texas, an island of civilization where you can buy feed for your livestock around the block from a gourmet grilled cheese shop.
This October will be the 25th anniversary of the creation of Chinati. With the occasion comes some perspective on what's changed and what remains the same here in Marfa, where time seems to move more slowly than the puffy cotton clouds dotting the deep blue canvas of the giant Texas sky.
Seeing the recovery underway in Joplin, Missouri was an end point to a chapter of my trip. I'd done the Great Lakes, the East Coast, the South and, now, the Midwest. As I drove out of Missouri, the great expanse of the West loomed, a monstrous stretch of America to cover in the less than two weeks that remained in my trip.
I wasn't looking forward to it. After eight weeks in the car, on the road, sleeping on floors, in tents, in anonymous hotel rooms and cozy bed and breakfasts, I could feel the end of the trip creeping closer, my end goal of Los Angeles in sight, if more than 2,000 miles away by the sinuous route I'd plotted. But first, I'd spend the night in Oklahoma City.
The most terrifying thing about touring the disaster zone caused by the May 22 EF-5 tornado here is the randomness of the devastation, the sight of a vacant lot where a house once stood, literally across the street from a home still whole. The destruction that the storm wrought is already disappearing from view as the Corps of Engineers and contractors raze what's left of damaged structures. The empty lots, the clean slabs, the bare earth, these vacant holes in the cityscape were made so by backhoes and clean-up teams, not the winds and flying debris.
I downloaded an aerial image file for Google Earth, collected by aircraft on May 24, that shows in sickening detail the tornado's random walk through the city. Much, but not all, of the clean up has been done: A white van tossed against a fence on 24th Street, seen in the imagery, was still sitting there on August 1.
A few days after I explored vibrant post-flood New Orleans, reborn and bustling in the wake of the storm nobody's forgotten, I found myself in the lobby of the Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, the largest non-casino hotel in the country.
It's home to the famed Grand Ole Opry, the shrine of country music, and sits along the Cumberland River, which poured over its banks last year, flooding the city and causing more than a billion dollars of damage in an event so severe it's forecast to happen only once every thousand years.
More than nine inches of rain fell on Nashville in 24 hours. By May 3, 2010, the hotel was no longer on the banks of the river. It was in the river.
Vitale's bakery in St. Louis makes 25,000 pizza "shells" a week, turning out the flash-baked crusts on a production line in a sturdy brick building on Marconi Avenue. Many go to local restaurants. But as I toured Vitale's recently, a guy snuck in the side door, his granddaughter in tow, picked up a sack of shells and ducked out. No big deal: He's a friend of the family. It all makes sense in this flag-flying Italian neighborhood, simply called The Hill, an ethnic enclave seemingly impervious to change, just a few miles from the Arch.
The National Park Service brags that the Natchez Trace Parkway is a 444-mile drive through nature and American history, all of which sounded interesting enough for me to attempt the drive over a two-day span. The history was there, with the grave of Meriwether Lewis, a ghost town at Rocky Springs and Native American burial mounds.
The natural beauty is outstanding, too, with a cypress-filled swamp, waterfalls, towering trees hanging over the parkway and a gorgeous bridge spanning Birdsong Hollow. But I came upon a shocking revelation: The parkway is only actually 442 miles long, with the final marker at the exit of the Trace near Nashville, proof that my brochure is full of government sponsored lies. It's a parkway conspiracy!
In the past few weeks, I've spent plenty of time in small towns. They're the kinds of places you only visit on a road trip, when passing through, going to bigger cities and bigger sites that aren't sequestered below the Mason-Dixon, far from a major airport or hidden, for example, in rural Mississippi. (I've never heard my friends, otherwise adventurous types, talk about catching the next flight out of New York to Tupelo.)
But there are great travel experiences to be had in small-town America, where you don't need a lifetime to peel back the layers of history like you might in Philadelphia or Boston. These small towns are manageable, navigable and just plain visitable. (It helps that every single person I met was super-friendly too.) These towns, all with fewer than 50,000 residents, have been some of my favorites stops on the trip, and here's how to see them.