The primary road we traveled, Rte. 2, on this cross country trip dates, I suspect, to pre WWII. It follow the path of least resistance such as property lines and/or obvious geographical boundaries such as rivers and lakes or hills and mountains. The super highways, which we were on occasionally, obviously date to the 1950’s when the country made the push to create the Eisenhower Interstate Highway system.

The older roads are not as straight as a rule and have fewer bridges to deal with ravines and small streams which makes for more up and down rides and are more prone to flooding. They are by definition more circuitous. One thing they don’t use a lot of is extra space. They are, within reason, as narrow as they can be. I would certainly not argue that the older roads are better and I am not certain that they are cheaper to maintain. Their scale, however, is much more human than are the interstates.

I draw this distinction to point out that design is fluid for lots of different reasons–larger trucks for one, more travelers for another. What is acceptable at one point in time may not be twenty years later. What is also clear to me is that designers of certain types of things, most definitely roads, feel comfortable, are probably even mandated, to use a certain volume of space.

The pleasure of Route 2 lies in it’s meander and it’s unsuspected pleasures be they fruit stands, old towns that are largely untouched, or scenery that is unadulterated by huge intersections and, of course, fewer trucks. There is, at times, the feeling that you are getting snapshots of the past. I wonder what Robert Moses, New York City’s grand planner, would think of such nostalgia? Probably not much.

Traveling with a garrulous English socialist who loves to talk politics with Americans, is a little bit like beekeeping without protection. You can do it, but just don’t get those bees angry. The ubiquitous Fox News and it’s not so subtle innuendo about America’s majority party is helping to tilt this country to a more conservative outlook. In my book, that is just plain tedious.

My own belief is that the current economic malaise cannot be solved by any political party. Spending more, taxing more, neither is an answer in and of itself. I also don’t believe we are ideologically driven in the face of real disaster either. When we are faced with great danger, think WWII, we respond in unison. So what is the problem?

If I were to guess at anything, I would say it is a crisis of confidence. Americans are, first and foremost, doers, we do not like to sit and wait. If capital is sitting on the sidelines as it allegedly is, then we are sealing our own fate. Inertia is the energy that stifles creativity. In this regard, I have to take my hat off to Steve Jobs. There is a future, but you have to earn it.

California obviously shares with Washington and Oregon the “west” that Horace Greeley referred to in his encomium. However, California also seems to have a broader display, primarily because it is so much larger than its northern neighbors. It also has two legendary cities in Los Angeles and San Francisco, one slick and filled with stars and the other filled with people who know they live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

It is a state that seems to have everything. You can’t fault places for being what they are anymore than you can wish that the weather in New York was more like that in San Francisco. What I do love about being in the San Francisco area is driving through the sensuously rounded hills that are covered in long brown grass, dotted with trees often with the fog rolling over them.

My daughter sent me a picture of fog the other day. It was evening and it was rolling, more like billowing actually, into San Francisco Bay under the Golden Gate Bridge leaving the towers of the bridge red against the bright blue sky. As my host in Novato has said, that is our air conditioning. It is also the summer watering can. This fog is almost like a living presence. I am reminded of T. S. Eliot’s metaphor in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prefrock” where the fog rubs itself along the window panes. It is all part of the genius of this most beautiful and intriguing state.

As you drive through the forests of Montana and Idaho, you see from time to time, areas where there has been some kind of erosion, be it from road building or land slides or something else and you get a glimpse as to how thin the layer of topsoil is. As far as I can see, it is in the range of six to eight inches. I thought it would be different in the California redwood forests, but it isn’t. It is the same thin layer.

I can see how frustrated loggers must get when there is all of this post mature timber still standing which should be cut. It is jobs that aren’t being created and, of course, it is a natural resource of immense value that is literally being left to rot. and when and if fire gets to it first, it must add to the frustration of it all.

There is, however, a direct correlation between the meager topsoil and the rotting wood, particularly in the redwood forests. When there is no rain, the fog coming off the Pacific feeds the water to the forests through the trees stimulating the entire system including what is on the forest floor, which needs the energy of the water to create the compost that becomes the topsoil.

I am simplifying a vastly complex ecosystem here. But what is so extraordinary about these forests is this complex system of regeneration. I don’t know how easily it can be upset or how fragile it might be, but it is certainly marvelous in its design. Of course, don’t forget the plants themselves. Their majestic grandeur should be a reminder that complexity can yield extraordinary visuals. Big trees are just plain awe inspiring.

I always get a thrill when I cross the Susquehanna, whether in Pennsylvania or Maryland, because Otsego Lake, on which my family has had a house for a very long time, is the source of the Susquehanna. So when we crossed it on Rte. 80 in the torrential rains at the start of our trip, I thought about Otsego Lake.

Water is the theme of America. It is everywhere, Too much, too little or just the right amount. As I drive by rivers that I have read about such as the Kootenai or the Snake or Salmon, or when I see the Great Lakes or the beauty of MacDonald Lake in Glacier Park, I am flabbergasted at all its guises. When I see the levees in Minot, N.D. that are at least ten feet tall and realize that this is just a small part of what eventually made its way down to the Mississippi, I am in awe.

Having read, “A River Runs Through It” on this trip, I realize that I am very slow in coming to the realization of the role that water plays in our lives. I have never really thought about it, but now that I see it, it is as clear as a bell. To quote Norman Maclean, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” And his last sentence of the book, “I am haunted by waters.”

The internet has certainly made it easy to look up information and it is pure delight to be able to log onto it while traveling to determine hotel room availability in towns that you might wish to stay in. There is no doubt that information is spectacularly important to us in our daily lives and an absolute godsend on the road.

And yet, I despair when I get into a hotel room and find a 25 watt bulb next to the bed. Or plumbing fixtures that are so clever that you need intelligence and imagination to figure out how to get the water to come out of the shower head. Or, a lighting system that has no central access by the bed. Or telephones that don’t work. I could lengthen this list.

A room to stay in is a gift, particularly when you are desperate as we were in Montana last week. Does this mean that hotel rooms should not be better designed? Of course not. What is extremely pleasant is finding myself in rooms, like the one in the Ft. Peck Hotel or the one I am in now in Stanley, Idaho, that are comfortable, simple and clean. It really doesn’t take much to please the customer.

I am used to the word casino as meaning a gambling club. Not in Montana. In this state, a casino is a room full of electronic games that include variations of poker and keno. The hotel we went into last night had three casinos attached to it and what you do is feed the machine a five, ten or twenty dollar bill and that gives you credits with the unit for action being a nickel. I played five card stud, about ten hands, found it excruciatingly boring and cashed out. I won $3.75.

I gambled when I lived in London in the 1970’s. I used to go to Crockford’s on the Mall and when that shut down, I went to the Playboy Club. For some reason, I thought I could win at black jack. I couldn’t and have never tried since. Ultimately, it is boring to me. But the Montana version of a casino makes my London days seem the height of sociability. Electronic games are solipsistic in the extreme and when you are playing for money, I would think they become a little like watching the eddy in the toilet bowl.

  • And who wants to watch the eddy in the toilet bowl when you can drive up to Logan Pass on the “Going to the Sun” drive in Glacier national Park and see the world. The drive across the park is amazing and at one stop where we got out for a walk, my traveling companion, Michael Hughes, glimpsed the tail end of a bear. He has been to Yosemite, Yellowstone and Zion and this is his first bear. It is probably time for him to go gambling.

The wonder of history, from one point of view, is how insignificant it makes our own era seem. The Interpretive Center in Fort Peck, Montana at the Missouri River Dam does just that as it covers dinosaurs (eastern Montana is rife with fossils) the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the construction of the Missouri Dam in the 1930’s. The compression of that history into one place makes you wonder what was left out. There has to be a great deal more, although what you get to see and learn about is extraordinary, from extinction to courage to man’s response to his environment.

The Montana landscape, vast plains and huge skies adds to the insignificance of the individual. When our bartender told us that they had experienced a ten foot snowfall and that her father had flown feed to his cattle, you quickly realize that man is a visitor that nature can smack down in a trice. The temperature ranges in North Dakota are minus forty to one hundred sixteen degrees fahrenheit. I am sure it is the same in Montana. The people out here can complain about the weather, but they don’t have a Mayor Bloomberg, so I suspect they just live with it.

This history and landscape makes you wonder just what English antique furniture has to do with the world. Its significance seems lacking in the face of this environment, this place of living history. I would say, however, that the significance of everything made and designed by man is man’s response to his environment and that what he makes places him within history. History has many guises and in every case, history acts as a playbook to the future or like the QED at the end of the equation. We just need to pay attention to the lesson.

Whenever you think you are going to do one thing and manage to get nowhere near doing that one thing, you get opportunities to do something entirely different. And so it happened that a fairly early start from Bemidji, Minnesota had me believing that we might end up in Garrison, North Dakota for some time along the Missouri River.

It began with getting to Minot a little too early. What else does one do but try to go see some of the AWACS that are in constant surveillance in our skies save for when they are at Minot AFB. We saw none. The next move was to Garrison where the motel owner was too busy to get off the phone and a delivery man from New York suggested we drive on to Parshall. NO,NO and NO again. Bad idea.

Parshall looked like the set for “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” the gold rush film with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. One of the themes of that movie was mud everywhere. Parshall wasn’t much different. To side track just a second, North Dakota has two things happening–floods and an oil boom. These ingredients make the movie set which is west central North Dakota.

We hiked to the next large town on Route 2 which was Williston, a place rife with the history of Lewis and Clark. I was very much looking forward to spending the night there and going to the Missouri for a gander the next morning. Not to be as every single hotel room within 90 miles of Williston is booked. The oil business is having a field day. What stock market?

The answer of course is to find a hotel another hundred miles west in Fort Peck, a delightful old house that feels forgotten by time and consistent maintenance and upgrades. It not only seems that way, but is that way, but it has a devoted clientele and this is Montana. We are on the Missouri where Lewis and Clark once were. It is time to enjoy the west.

The difference between sitting at a computer and going from Point A to Point B while looking at a map and driving from Point A to Point B is real time versus cyber space. Computers have made our lives instantaneous in certain ways. We can get information, we can communicate and we can learn things very quickly, but when it comes to traveling from one place to the next, it is not just a click.

The immediacy is something you find in driving. The urge to get somewhere, even though you don’t need to get there quickly, is why I was ticketed in Michigan yesterday. We were headed to Duluth, a town I visited last in 1970 with my friends Jack Gerrity and Michael Moore–no, not that Michael Moore. The weather then was extreme with tornado warnings. We went to see “Paint Your Wagon” with Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood.

Route 2 appears to begin at the Mackinac Bridge and meanders across the Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana. I haven’t noticed if it goes all the way to Seattle, but it is a pleasant road. We must have passed a dozen antique shops, but our radar suggests that high end English decorative arts have not found their way to the antique shops on Rte. 2. What we did see were a pair of Sandhill Cranes. Not rare, but impressive in size. They, too, were wandering Rte. 2.