Last week, to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, my wife and I took a road trip to certain parts of our personal Midwest. Along the way, we looked forward to spending time with beloved friends and family members, as well as with certain favorite places.
Of course, a trip like this would also put us face-to-face with what’s happened to gasoline prices in the past few months, not to mention what’s come to be known as “America’s crumbling infrastructure.”
Needless to say, this ain’t Jack Kerouac’s America anymore. With the price for a gallon of fuel tickling $4, driving isn’t cheap. Nevertheless, it looks more and more as if the high price of gas is a stand-in for this country’s lack of an energy policy. What’s more, it’s actually starting to work.
Think about it: As driving becomes more expensive, people are becoming more thoughtful about when and where they drive. Not only that, they’re apparently thinking differently about what they drive. Sales of SUVs have fallen dramatically. As we drove into St. Paul, Minn., we saw an aging recreational vehicle unceremoniously stopped by the side of a busy through street. It was hard not to imagine the driver running out of gas and abandoning the guzzler, unable to face what it would cost to fill ’er up another time.
And in Madison, Wis., I was almost run over by any number of commuting bicyclists, a sign that even in a town where they put up with over 100 inches of snow last winter, people are opting for alternative forms of transport whenever they can.
Finally, wherever we went, from Milwaukee to Red Wing, folks were talking about the importance of the local food supply. With the cost of shipping produce from faraway places like California and Florida going through the roof, there’s a greater incentive than ever to buy local. If this keeps up, we might actually put the “culture” back into agriculture again.
As for the roads … I can’t say they were better in Kerouac’s day, but they couldn’t have been much worse. It didn’t matter where we drove — interstates, state highways, back roads or city streets — axle busters were everywhere. Last winter, I know, was hard, especially from Chicago up through Minnesota. But it seems even harder to account for how it is so many roads in so many places have fallen into a gross state of disrepair.
If you go to the new Guthrie Theatre complex in Minneapolis, you can walk out onto an elevated deck that looks down the Mississippi River. From this vantage point, you can see the place where the 35W bridge collapsed last year. We heard people in the crowd around us pointing it out to their companions, murmuring things like, “There it is,” and, “Look at that,” and then falling quiet.
You see this and then, after the show, you get in your car and crack your teeth hitting a pothole in the middle of I-94. Let’s say it makes you think.
For all the wear and tear, though, there’s still something almost irresistible about getting behind the wheel and, as Mark Twain wrote, “lighting out.” From Indianapolis to Minneapolis, the country was open, the skies were blue and the water was fresh. Late one afternoon, we stood on the shore of our region’s great inland sea, Lake Michigan, with a friend who told of seeing a white, freshwater pelican for the first time.
The next day we drove up Dylan’s Highway 61, along the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi, a river so wide in places it made us wonder.
It seemed like we were following spring. The redbud trees were almost done in Indianapolis, but they were blooming in Wisconsin. In St. Paul, it was just two weeks since Lake Como was covered with ice.
We were reminded that this great stretch of the Midwest is really a nation of its own. Everywhere we went there were backyards, clotheslines and grills. Dandelions and, best of all, trees standing above the rooflines of houses in the neighborhoods where they grew.
A friend and I walked beside Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. He said the winter there had been “old fashioned,” meaning brutal. But now it was gorgeous. People were everywhere — running, walking, biking — and no matter what they looked like or how old they were, you could tell they felt sexy. It was the middle of the week, but it seemed like Saturday.