By Bob Greene, Wall Street Journal, July 2, 2017 5:09 p.m. ET
image from article
We were just west of Bartonsville, Pa., one warm recent morning when the rain began to pelt the windshield in earnest. Two competing candle stores—American Candle and the Candle Shop of the Poconos—beckoned to us with roadside signs, but it seemed advisable to motor on.
A predicted band of storms were sweeping across the eastern part of the country as this new summer was beginning. I’d been in New York and was due in Chicago by mid-evening. Flights were being canceled. So, the night before, I’d called a fellow I’d met during the New York visit—a former long-haul truck driver who’d told me he hankered to see the Great Lakes again—and asked what were the chances he’d be willing to drive straight from Manhattan to Illinois. He said sure; we worked out a price.
By 8 a.m. we were on the road. You know how divided this country is reputed to be? How ugly things allegedly are? Here’s a suggestion: Cross the United States by road this summer. Take a good look out your window. The country itself is pretty swell—beautiful and vibrant and full of small surprises. We, who live here, may do everything we can to screw things up, but our mutual home brims with moments of random loveliness.
On a busy street corner in Newark, N.J., a mother protectively clutched her daughter’s hand as they waited to cross. In eastern Pennsylvania, the soaring, craggy rock formations by the highway sent a silent message: We were here before you were born and we’ll be here after you are gone. Driving over the Delaware River, with the splendor of the famed Delaware Water Gap below, we caught the first magnificent sight of the Pocono Mountains—and those trees, all those breathtaking miles of ancient trees. Who could ever count them? An impossible task.
In large cities life can seem crowded and claustrophobic. In rural Pennsylvania the overwhelming sensation was of how much open space America still has to offer: the room, if we choose, to spread out, to free ourselves from barking over each other’s shoulders. What must life here have been like before the telephone, before television, before the internet, when people didn’t have thousands of angry and disembodied voices—the voices of strangers—barraging them every day, stirring them up? When the voices they heard belonged, in the main, to their neighbors?
The onetime truck driver favored classical music on his radio, which gave our unfolding view a quietly majestic soundtrack. The lines between counties, the divisions, felt artificial, invisible. The physical nation felt seamless. Exit 277: Lake Harmony. If only.
We would hit 20 or 30 minutes of bright sunshine and then another storm. On farmland east of Bellefonte a dozen cows stood in formation in the downpour. At the Milesburg Travel Center we parked next to a gray car populated by one man, his two sons, and three bicycles lashed upright to their roof in the dark rain, like props-in-waiting for Margaret Hamilton in “The Wizard of Oz.” The skies cleared anew; Tchaikovsky was on the radio, and in a pasture near a farmhouse in Hazen a family had set up twin sets of soccer goals.
Six hours and 10 minutes into our journey we were in Ohio. So many stretches of concrete over bodies of water, both wide and tiny; this country, when it wants to, has always known how to bridge things. We crossed the Mahoning River en route to Warren. Before the end of our drive there would be the Cuyahoga, the Vermilion, the Maumee, Crooked Creek, Grapevine Creek, the Grand Calumet.
In Lorain County, Ohio, was a big new Riddell factory where football helmets are manufactured for the kind of conflict from which combatants expect to go home not hating each other. The Florence Township headquarters of Bettcher Industries, maker of cutting-and-trimming tools, resembled a pristine, quintuple-scale red barn. Someone in the Meadows of Perrysburg housing development had painted a beaming smiley face on the side of a home facing the Ohio Turnpike.
Then we were in Indiana, with golden bales of hay positioned so artfully in emerald fields you’d have thought a painter with an infinite canvas had placed them for maximum effect. Near Elkhart, matching the mood, were roadside directions to Linton’s Enchanted Gardens. In Gary, as the clouds lifted, the U.S. Steel Yard, home ballpark of the minor-league RailCats, lured passersby to a long summer of baseball games.
A man in a lovingly restored black-and-white Studebaker passed us on the right and we entered Illinois. At 7:24 p.m. Central Time, 12 hours and 24 minutes after leaving New York, we pulled up to my destination. I told the fellow behind the wheel the quickest way to his hoped-for Great Lake, Lake Michigan, and we said goodbye. Some country. Some day.
Mr. Greene is completing a new novel, “Yesterday Came Suddenly,” about an America with no internet.