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Tuttle

Traveling across America, a common theme emerges: the desire to be somewhere different

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It's the Tuesday before Mother's Day, and I'm halfway between Tucson and the Bay Area in a seedy motel along Interstate 10. This place is so shabby it even lacks tissues poking out of a box beneath the cracked sink.

Last night, sitting across a table from my daughter, I announced that my time for road trips was behind me.

"My, my, times do change," she said, dipping a slice of firm-crusted bread into the olive oil, balsamic vinegar and herb mixture she'd concocted. It was a poignant moment, for over the years, our journeys marked the chapters of our lives.

Perhaps a passion to travel, and to embrace encounters the world presents, is passed on through the generations. My father was a seaman; my daughter has talked her way around the world, and I can't recall a time I didn't yearn to be on the road.

But now, I find myself eschewing the excitement accompanying the novel in favor of quiet moments and comfortable surroundings. What I've discovered, after years traipsing from one end of the country to the other, is that I'm road weary.

I am tired of truck stops, bad food and sludge-like coffee. What I once found interesting, I now find sad. I am tired of the foul smell of diesel when a poorly functioning 18-wheeler accelerates and spews black smoke from its exhaust pipes as it hauls its cargo of superfluous merchandise across once pristine land, land now littered with the detritus accompanying excess.

Once, somewhere in the middle of America in the middle of the night, I came across a dark-skinned man with a foreign accent selling trinkets from behind a display case full of gaudy jewelry. Ever the curious journalist, and wanting to know how this man came to be in this God-forsaken place, I started a conversation.

Perhaps he'd seen too many American commercials, or perhaps he thought any woman traveling alone at night would be open to his insinuated proposition. By now, I'd learned he had a wife and several children (not that it would have made a difference), but that fact added to the peculiar sentiment of sorrowful anger I felt as I moved on into the night.

Each time I crossed America, I hoped to find the country I didn't know existed only in my imagination. As a young child, I believed the nation was peopled with idealistic men and women who led lives guided by principle, integrity and honor. I spent years on the road trying to find my vision of America, only to have it dim, fade and finally vanish in images from an Iraqi prison viewed from a motel television.

So I am tired of the road and driving endless stretches of highway, only to find variations of the same lonely story hidden behind the billboards proclaiming "God, Duty and Country," or "Vasectomies Reversed," or displaying pictures of come-hither females and the message, "You Can Find Me at Flesh."

Several summers ago, during a season when gas prices were once again making news, I stumbled across some inexpensive fuel in New Concord, Ohio. Since I was hungry and have a friend from Ohio who never tires of talking about how wonderful it was to grow up there, I thought I'd do some exploring and find a place to have lunch.

A 19th-century building on Main Street--once the town library but now a café--beckoned. It was all you'd expect: dark wood walls and floor, high ceilings, nooks and crannies and terrific food at reasonable prices. It was early for lunch, so the place was deserted except for a dark-haired woman with reading glasses and a magazine. I learned she liked soba and cellophane noodles and, through her catalogs, ordered sea salt from the coast of France.

Three bottle blondes entered. They were heavily made up but wore their beehive hairdos and shirtwaist dresses with confidence. A fourth woman (a flashier dresser, but whose hair color was also the result of a chemical fix) joined them after tossing a perfunctory greeting to the woman sitting alone.

The women chatted and laughed and, since it was a small town, Mary, the reader, occasionally leaned toward their table to make a comment. None of the four asked her to join them, but from time to time, Mary glanced at the group over her magazine. It was clear she didn't want to be alone.

And in a sense, she is not. In my imagination, she joins all the lonely people I've met over the course of my travels: the trucker in the Midwest hoping to find a whore for the night to provide an illusion of comfort; the black driver sitting apart from the white men with their paunches and Southern accents; the blank-eyed waitress wondering how she ended up serving endless meals to passing strangers; the elderly couple praying they make it safely across six states to their grandchild's graduation.

All of us connected by unspoken longings to be somewhere other than where we are.

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