My wife left me in San Antonio. I wasn't surprised. There had been subtle signs over the past few months that she didn't want to drive across the country, such as her repeatedly telling me she didn't want to.
But ever since we quit our jobs and decided to abandon our Manhattan studio apartment for a house in the hills of L.A., I'd hoped to exploit our freedom. I wanted to drive west to feel the vastness of the move, to understand the country instead of just transporting ourselves on a plane from one giant yuppified city to another. So I made her watch Lost in America. I ignored her fears about the trip adding more stress to our lives, and how it was making her feel even more rootless than we already were. I thought it would be romantic. I had also thought similarly about the studio apartment.
I loosely outlined a full-on 17-state, 6,000-mile tour of the United States, from Cassandra's parents' house in Hoosick Falls, New York, to Hollywood, full of barbecue and plantations and wide expanses of national parks.
The reason Cassandra abandoned the trip in San Antonio had nothing to do with me or the trip or the troubles we'd been going through in our marriage: she got a modeling job. This was especially surprising considering she isn't a model. But three weeks before we left New York, a model scout saw her carrying supermarket bags, which, admittedly, she does do really well. Two days into our drive, she got a call hiring her for a magazine-ad campaign back in New York. That's when I found out that being married to a model is not all it's cracked up to be.
The car she left me in was a Ford Escape SUV hybrid. This, I figured, would be the ultimate L.A. car: environmental, rugged, and completely hypocritical. The SUV hybrid was more wasteful than it sounds, since once it gets above 25 miles an hour, it's completely gasoline-powered. And we averaged 80. I went through more tanks than Donald Rumsfeld.
But the smooth, roomy car was perfect for a cross-country trip, especially since the best part of having a vehicle with a battery is that it has a real electrical outlet. That plus two cigarette lighters allowed us to plug in an iPod hooked up to the radio, a radar detector, a PowerBook G4, and a Magellan RoadMate 700 GPS system that directed us to every hotel and restaurant we went to. By Macon, Georgia, we'd solved Fermat's Last Theorem.
Drive South, Young Stein
We took our first leg fast, getting down I-95 to Cassandra's friends in Hilton Head, South Carolina, in two days. Hilton Head is the whitest place in America, which I can scientifically prove with the fact that it is the home of the original stand-alone Jeff Foxworthy store. That's an entire store with nothing but items plastered with YOU KNOW YOU'RE A REDNECK WHEN... sayings. Including a Foxworthy's Redneck Bar-B-Q Sauce I can't really rate since I can't bear to open the bottle with its awesomely campy black-and-white sketch of the smiling comedian. Ironically, you know you're a redneck when you're collecting unopened barbecue sauces.
It was in Hilton Head that I calculated that even if we skipped the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Zion national parks—the highlights of the trip—we still wouldn't make it to Los Angeles in time for Cassandra to fly back for her modeling gig. And it was in Hilton Head that Cassandra stated how stupid it was to drive across the country just to fly back to New York. And it was in Hilton Head that a lot of the issues in our marriage flared up. And it was in Hilton Head that my editor at Travel + Leisure told me to stop whining and get back in the Escape.
Neither of us was happy. The SUV felt even bigger during the long silent stretches. We cheered up a little in Savannah after following a tour trolley to a quaint old cemetery and quaint garden squares, where the guide yelled "that was in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" whenever it stopped. Suddenly, I felt I was getting closer in my search for truly authentic America. I wasn't as much interested in discovering this by interacting with "real" people as I was in eating their food.
Our first stop was brunch at Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room, an old brick basement boardinghouse from the 1840's that, with its Victorian teapots and lace, captures the Old South by saying charming without saying slavery. We waited in line for an hour before sitting family-style at a table and passing around plates of every Southern food ever created, all of it amazing and some of it not even fried. It was perfect, like Thanksgiving with much better food and no members of your family. It reminded me that regional American food has a terroir that makes traveling to find it worthwhile. And that such thoughts are best kept to yourself when trying to compliment the Mrs. Wilkes' waitresses.