46 days. 23 states. Nearly 9,000 miles. And now here I am, sipping coffee on a cool September morning in the house I grew up in, wondering whether it was all just a dream. A hundred years ago the vast majority of Americans never ventured within 20 miles of their birthplace. These people were probably smarter than me, tougher than me, more resourceful than me, and yet I’m the one who traversed an entire continent in less than six weeks with money saved from an unskilled service industry job. What a succinct exemplar of life’s basic cruelty.
My final two stops on the Tour were probably the most leisurely of all. I didn’t visit any museums or search for any profound revelations, I basically just hung around in places I already kind of knew. After eating breakfast in Danville, Indiana I headed for Chicago with nothing particular in mind. Actually, that’s not true; I wanted to visit Intelligentsia Coffee in Wicker Park, one of the city’s more hip, upscale neighborhoods. There I happened to stumble upon the Renegade Craft Fair which took up several blocks of Division Street.
It was yet another fortuitous happenstance and I took the opportunity to dig the fashionable digs in one cozy white tent after another. Here I found myself confronting hipsterism on a level as stark as anywhere on my Tour. Wildly swank, expensive gifts of all kinds abounded. Soy candles, custom-printed T-shirts, artisan soaps made from liquor (?), and much more. Here are just a few examples:
My first thought upon encountering each artifact of decadence was, Jesus God, who has the money to spend on such nonsense? My second thought usually was, I want it. I want it all and I need to find the money. Why don’t I have the courage to just rob people?
Like so many other times on my journey I contented myself with window shopping. It was amusing enough to witness they types of crafts on display, the pride of the artists hustling their goods, the twentysomething customers laughing to their friends about what somebody just texted them. This is the end purpose, the meaning of history, this is what our ancestors struggled for and our veterans died for. Comfort, distraction, joy. I’ll take it, it’s better than being hungry or bored.
I could have gone straight home but instead I spent that night at the apartment of my friend Tawnee in Rockford, Illinois. I didn’t take any pictures of Rockford but I don’t really need to either. There’s really not that much to see. It’s a small rust belt city, surrounded by corn and foreclosed factories and populated largely by blue collar Trump supporters. Whenever I hang here with Tawnee we laugh about Rockford and its seemingly hapless existence but the truth is I kind of like this town. With the exception of the indigent and utterly surreal Firebaugh, CA this is probably the least pretentious, least gentrified city I visited this entire time. One has to struggle to find a 3 foot bike lane in Rockford, let alone a pet grooming spa. It’s a throwback to a vision of America that is dying for reasons both good and bad, and under my peculiar circumstances it felt like something of a respite.
I left Madison on July 27th and came back on September 10th. During that time period America witnessed a Total Eclipse, threats of war with North Korea, the repugnant horror of Charlottesville, and a whole array of natural disasters which I curiously managed to avoid. I got out of Texas less than a week before Harvey hit and left Atlanta before that area was doused by Irma. I experienced a tiny bit of wildfire action in Montana but nothing like the cataclysmic inferno that would ravage the area a few weeks later. On the one hand I’m grateful to have avoided any seriously troubling weather, but as a writer I can’t help but lament what a great narrative it would have made if I’d witnessed such disasters first-hand.
People are starting to ask me if I feel any different, if my trip has changed me in any way. I’m sure it probably has, but the truth is right now it’s hard to tell exactly how. It’s much easier to observe change in others than change in yourself, so I’ll have to rely on my friends and family to see if there really is a new Nick Vitale out there. In time I know the true meaning of Ghost on the Highway will become more and more clear; as I drift back into something like “normal” life I’ll catch myself reminiscing about this weird street ranter in Atlanta or that apocalyptic Christian radio station in North Carolina. I’ll catch myself affecting a posture of worldliness as I hit on girls in Madison bars simply because I can (kind of) talk about the best hiking trails near Bozeman or the best coffee shops in Asheville. And of course if anyone wants to start a debate over the merits of Jimmy Carter’s presidency I’ll be more than ready.
Seriously though, I’m glad I did this. A lot have people have told me – both before, during and after my trip – that I was doing this at the right time. What they usually mean is that I’m young, unmarried and generally free of most adult obligations, and they’re right about that. But it was also the “right time” for an entirely different reason. My generation might be the last to enjoy this type of road trip, because my generation might be the last to drive automobiles at all.
We’ve all heard of self-driving cars, but for most people it probably seems like a distant fantasy, more of a sci-fi curiosity than an inevitable fact of life. And yet those who are really paying attention know that self-driving cars are coming faster than we think. We’ve already had autonomous cars driving coast to coast, and every day the computer-powered cars of Google, Delphi and Mercedes are racking up thousands of miles and growing ever more sophisticated. As scary as it sounds to some people there are a great many logical reasons why self-driving cars will and should replace human drivers. It will increase safety, and likely decrease congestion. And for a number of different industries like trucking and taxi services the economic advantages are obvious.
I’m not a Luddite that detests the inevitable march of technology, so I welcome the advent of self-driving cars. However I do think we owe it to ourselves to acknowledge what’s being lost with every gain. There’s something intangibly magical about driving your own car and especially driving it across long distances. It’s a raw sexual thrill that speaks to humanity’s inherent desire for mastery over nature. For me it’s a unique form of meditation, a singular serenity through the simple act of propelling oneself through space.
It’s a pleasure I believe everybody ought to experience.