Road Trip Memories: Knute Berger Recalls His First Trek Across the Country

Knute Berger  |   May 2014   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
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Knute Berger, center

I’m old enough to remember when Seattle was the end of the road.

When I was young, Seattle seemed like a city walled off from the east by mountains and surrounded by water on the west. Provincial we were, but also isolated and little known, a jumping-off spot for even more remote places. “Gateway to Alaska” was still our geographic claim to fame.

I remember when the city’s link to the outside and “Back East,” where many of our families came from, was a tenuous floating bridge that stretched for a single straight mile across Lake Washington and seemed to disappear into the forests that were the Eastside before Bellevue’s skyscrapers sprouted. Interstate 90 went from coast to coast and was our ribbon of connection with the rest of America.

As a young man in 1971, I had my first chance to get on that road and drive eastward with no parents and no real plan. I was 17. My school-pal companion, Nick, was just 16. We’d somehow convinced my mother to let us borrow my family’s jeep and drive across the country, ostensibly to look at colleges. And we did actually see a couple, including one or two nighttime drive-bys. But mostly, we were very mobile boys—two Huck Finns on a four-wheeled raft.

I will never forget the feeling as we set out across the floating bridge. With the Cascades beckoning in the distance, it seemed that real life was just ahead of us. That feeling of first freedom was a high better than any for which the era is remembered.

In 1971, people from Washington state were a novelty outside the region. From Montana to Maine, when we pulled into gas stations, the attendants always asked us where we were from. They noted our green-and-white license plates and looked at us as if staring at an exotic butterfly. “You’re from Washington, huh?” the conversation often began. “I remember Seattle,” they’d say. “I was there during World War II at Fort Lewis on my way to the Pacific. It rained the whole time.” Yes, the Greatest Generation spread the word about Seattle: It was a cold, gray way station on the road to hell. Despite being longhaired hippie boys, our sheer exoticism seemed to please them, as if they’d met hobbits leaving the Shire.

That trip was a true coming-of-age saga involving love, strange encounters and spectacular sights. We saw the Washington Monument and the northern lights. We fell in with stoned and hallucinating Vietnam vets in the Catskills, and I lost my heart, if briefly, to a girl in Connecticut. We found a crash pad on Martha’s Vineyard, and dined at a small table behind a door at the famous Algonquin in New York.

It was on that trip that, in a motel bookrack, I stumbled across a paperback copy of the great road story The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, a kind of follow-up to his classic On the Road. The cover promised he was “the daddy of the swinging psychedelic generation.” I mean, that was us, right? I wasn’t just caught up by the fiction, I was living it. We’d roll into a town with no place to stay, and improvise; we’d find interesting people and hang out. Our itinerary morphed from day to day, depending on whom we were with and what interested us. And we roughed it, when necessary. I do not, by the way, recommend sleeping under a jeep on gravel in the pouring rain, unless it’s your only alternative.

I came away with an enduring love of road trips. I’ve been on a number of them across America since. I followed that 1971 trip with another in which two college buddies and I drove the entire perimeter of the country from Washington to New England, to the tip of Key West, through the Deep South and back through California. Even now, my annual vacation is a usually a trip on wheels with a loose plan: Let’s drive to central Oregon to see birds, fossils and ghost towns; let’s go to Glacier National Park and come back through Canada; let’s drive around the Olympic Peninsula and see what’s what.

I like the freedom of those explorations. I like being tethered to home, too, taking trips that aren’t endless zigzags, but great circles. Those trips change you without displacing you. There’s no jet lag or sense of disconnection; in fact, the opposite. You know the land around you, you’ve felt its contours, you’ve met the inhabitants. And, maybe it’s illusion, but you feel like you come back home a wiser person than the one who left. I think that was certainly true for me in 1971, but I think it works for me still.

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