Twenty-four years ago, I drove out of Chicago with my buddy (friend) Andrew. Today I’m making the return trip with a new companion at my side. The road trip is the authentic American rite of passage. Route 66, Easy Rider, this is a country that loves being on the road. No image evokes America more than a track of tarmac stretching as far as the eye can see into the Great Beyond. America has always been on the move. I’ve just read a book that argues the defining characteristic of the US of A is that it’s a country that lives in the future. The American Dream is not just wishful thinking; it’s the clarion call of a people driven by the prospect of what lies around the corner. The reason Americans work so hard is that they’re striving for a better future. The reason they tend to be so optimistic and positive is that they don’t want to delay their progress by getting stuck in the here and now. Theirs is a promised land, and they want to be damn sure they’re on their way, on the road to somewhere.
0.0 miles: Turn ignition, check passengers are secure and set off towards our new world in Chicago.
0.5 miles: Cast glance at lettuce-chewing companion in passenger seat and wonder what kind of personal journey could have led to a road trip with a Guinea Pig.
3.1 miles: Seven minutes on clock. Pass Starbucks. Rude not to stop. Big queue, as always. Finally depart thirty-eight minutes later clutching a couple of Grande Cappuccinos for road. Forty-five minutes to complete first 3.1 miles. Calculate an eight-and-a-half-day journey to Chicago at this rate. Drive out of Darien Starbucks. Lump in throat. Never like saying goodbye.
15.0 miles: Exit Connecticut, enter New York State.
26.2 miles: Hit traffic jam. Hate traffic jams. Left London to escape traffic.
30.1 miles: Cross Hudson River. Huge. Big threatening skies. Glance at menagerie in back. Hyperactive Hamster beside itself with excitement, Hamster never done exercise wheel at 60mph before.
40.2 miles: Exit New York State, enter New Jersey. Traffic clears. Springsteen country. Everyone driving faster. Turn volume up and put foot on gas. Reminded of earlier road trip twenty-four years ago as foot-loose teenager. Go to run fingers through hair. Nothing there. Sink into balding middle-aged depression for next eleven miles.
70.8 miles: Join Route 80. Will be on Route 80 for next 726.9 miles (just short of length of British Isles). One road. Don’t do things by half over here.
75.5 miles: 72.4 miles since last Cappuccino. Too long.
76.0 miles: Stop at Hibernia Diner. Walk in (to another world). Place goes quiet. Everyone knows everyone. No-one knows me. Order white coffee. No sugar. Young waitress uncertain. Wary of creature from another planet. Goes to make coffee, but double-checks strange order. ‘You want lite coffee with no sugar?’ Remember ‘white’ coffee confuses Americans. Become concerned that may have inadvertently presented myself as a white supremacist. Drink coffee very quickly.
118.8 miles: Exit New Jersey, enter Pennsylvania. Slower.
140.4 miles: Undertake. Catch Guinea Pig’s eye. Guinea Pig unimpressed. Want to explain that everyone undertakes in America. Guinea Pig wouldn’t understand.
212.9 miles: Bleak. Late. Dark. Snowing. Sign says ‘Wild Pennsylvania’. Sign not joking.
220.3 miles: Another sign: ‘2250 feet, highest elevation on Route 80 this side of Mississippi’. All downhill from here.
223.2 miles: Snow freezes instantly on impact with windshield. Wonder what road must be like. Answer just around corner. Car stranded in thick snow on bank off verge. Do British thing and assume someone else will come to rescue. Look the other way.
232.1 miles: Hungry.
235.3 miles: Very hungry.
240.0 miles: Sign for ‘Twilight Diner’ at next exit. Overjoyed. Hugely hungry.
240.2 miles: Get closer to Twilight Diner.
240.3 miles: Rejoin Freeway.
244.7 miles: Contemplate eating Goldfish. Wonder if daughter would notice.
246.1 miles: Hallelujah. Gamble pays off. Perkins Restaurant and Diner. Different league from Twilight Diner. Free wireless Internet access. Read match-day reports from English Premiership Boxing Day fixtures. In a deserted diner in deepest Pennsylvania.
355.8 miles: Check into Holiday Inn Express with one Yorkshire Terrier, one Guinea Pig, one Hamster, two Goldfish at 10.46 pm. Sign behind Receptionist reads, ‘Maximum 3 pets’. Enter philosophical debate with Receptionist on what is a pet. Tell Receptionist that Goldfish would die if left in car overnight in sub-zero temperatures. Receptionist then tries to apply the $15 per pet surcharge on Goldfish. Yorkshire Terrier marks territory in corner of foyer.
355.8 miles: 10.59 pm. Guinea Pig, having been without water for journey, drinks for England when re-united with water bottle. Try hiding head under pillow to cut out noise of Guinea Pig’s incessant slurping. Squeak of hamster wheel starts up. Wonder if guests on other side of paper-thin wall have any idea what’s really going on.
355.8 miles: 7.30 am. Dog refuses to get in car. Dog prepared to spend rest of days in Holiday Inn Express, Brookville, Pennsylvania rather than one more minute on road. Dog does runner down Holiday Inn corridor. Give chase. Eventually corner dog behind ice machine. Drag dog into car.
377.6 miles: “Buckle up. Next million miles”. Weird sign
428.0 miles: Exit Pennsylvania, enter Ohio
446.3 miles: Praise the Lord. Starbucks. The first since Darien. 441.2 miles. 17 hours, 25 minutes. Buy six grande cappuccinos. Figure if the Goldfish don’t want theirs I’ll have them. Buy Dog some Beef Jerky.
446.5 miles: Try Beef Jerky. Spontaneously spit it out. Would rather eat dog food. Dog eying Beef Jerky as if dangerous rattlesnake.
570.2 miles: Big landscape. Isolated clusters of trees. Distant white barns. Sheen of snow.
580.9 miles: Trailer park
583.1 miles: So this is Ohio. This is where the American election takes place.
612.9 miles: Yet another trailer park. Wonder why anyone would choose to live in a trailer. Fair enough if you’re a Bedouin, but these trailers are going nowhere. No wheels. Only time they’ll ever move is when hit by hurricane.
666 miles: Exit Ohio, enter Indiana. 666 miles on the clock, imposing Baptist Church looming high above.
696.2 miles: Big billboard. Good clean-cut Americans with brilliant white smiles. Slogan promises ’outstanding Christian entertainment’. In God’s Country. Banish bad blasphemous thoughts.
699.0 miles: Speed limit now 70 mph. Bit racy for America. With God on your side, you can travel a little faster.
653.9 miles: This adventure a mind-blowing experience for Goldfish. Never been out of Connecticut before. Wide-eyed. Never realised another world existed beyond goldfish bowl. Will soon have forgotten where they came from. Goldfish memory span no more than three seconds. Right now, Indiana is all they know.
797.7 miles: Turn off Route 80. Goodbye, my old friend.
810.5 miles: Beginning to get industrial & grubby. Must be getting close to new home.
825.8 miles: Can see Chicago skyline. Cross bridge to a welcome to Chicago by Mayor Richard. M Daley. Must have passed into Illinois without noticing. Have also somehow passed into a different time zone. Chicago is in a bygone hour.
825.9 miles: Hit traffic jam. Begin to realise that condemned to a life of traffic jams. Unfortunate consequence of being married to a Big Conurbation Queen Bee.
834.0 miles: Arrive outside 2632 North Lakewood Drive at precisely 5.00 pm. Twenty-six hours on the road and thirty seconds within rendezvous time. Pleased as punch with punctuality.
834.0 miles: Enter new home. Expect hero’s welcome. Unlike Scott, I made it alive. Also delivered five pets, not one dead. Family too busy to notice arrival. Then daughter sees Dog. Ecstatic welcome for pets. Driver still not seen. Perhaps they think pets made their own incredible journey. Trudge back to car and start to unload luggage. It’s a dog’s life.