05.29.2010 - 06.19.2010 96 °F
I don’t know if anyone has been wondering what goes into a trip like this, but the experience of driving across the country has been almost as attention-consuming as the things we’ve seen and done along the way.
The first thing on our minds every driving day is time. When you wake up, the mantle of the number of hours to go settles on your shoulders and keeps feeling heavier until you get on the road. If it’s a driving day, which was most days of the trip, it can be difficult to enjoy stops along the way because the hour or mile count is there, waiting. Surprisingly, I didn’t much feel the weight of how far from home we were, although if the car had broken down or something like that had happened I’m sure I would have felt it.
Even if you’re staying in a place for a day or two, you still feel the time passing, although it’s not as bad. It’s just that, when you go to these beautiful places, there’s lots to see! You have to adjust to the fact that really enjoying a place means not hurrying around to see everything, but rather just accepting that you’ll miss things and enjoying the things you do see.
Along similar lines is maps. When I have eight or nine hours of driving to do, I start focusing on the map. We have a wonderful road atlas which is marked now with circles for the towns and cities we’ve gone through and with places we hoped to see and didn’t get to. You get to know how long an inch of map takes and you have conversations about whether the scale marker on the top of the map is really right – ours seems just slightly to underestimate distance, not a desirable factor. But that atlas is really suggestive. It seems to say, you can go anywhere on this map, given enough time and supplies. You just have to start driving, and here are the roads you take. Just before we reached Yellowstone, WY, a little more than halfway through the trip, the GPS kicked out and wouldn’t turn back on. So between Yellowstone and somewhere near Cleveland, Ohio, where it began working again, it was all maps. It is much better than navigating with a compass, which I just haven’t mastered yet.
Another thing on your mind is the sun and other sources of heat. Our trip started out warm, but as we headed west and south, there was just more and more heat. Because the jeep doesn’t have air conditioning – just air flow – we had these wonderful things called chilly pads, which we bought on Amazon. They are towels made with some fabric that basically acts as a super sweating device. If you soak them with water, the evaporation significantly cools the fabric and you. They work best in dry heat, which we had an abundance of. But of course, we were hot nonetheless. Like the sense of time passing, the heat is always there, day or night. There is the direct heat from the sun’s rays touching you, but there’s also the ambient heat, held by the ground and everything around, as well as the heat that comes in on the air currents and just stays. I don’t know any weather science at all, but the differences in temperature over a short distance can be striking. We drove into California and the Mojave Desert, and it was immediately hotter than the adjacent part of Arizona. Much hotter. We were driving after dark, around 10 PM, and the air outside the car was over 100 degrees. The car was so hot Jeff couldn’t touch the hood to check on the engine. The radiator held – if we had A/C I’m sure it would have been a different story – but it was intensely, impressively hot. And then on the other side, later in the trip, in Utah, we were in hot lands, drove through a mountain pass, and then it was suddenly a misty 50 degrees. These differences aren’t just caused by the sun; there’s all kinds of other mysterious things at work. And then there was Yellowstone, where heat from a volcano forces steam and super-heated water up through the ground… I think some of that heat is caused by the intense pressure in the earth, combined with the fact that there is nowhere for the water and magma to go, so the pressure is converted into heat. And yet Yellowstone is substantially cooler than everywhere else we went, because it is so high up in the mountains. Jeff and I talked about this for a while, but it seems like we need a physicist to talk about altitude, pressure, and heat.
I could talk about the mysteries of heat for a long time, but mostly it would just sound like me saying “It was hot! Really hot! Why was it so hot?!” So unless anyone can shed some light on that burning question, I will move on to… water.
When we left on this trip, there were people who wanted to shake us and say, drink lots of water. And there were also people who asked why we were bringing jugs of extra water and fuel with us, and thought that might be kind of silly. Well, it’s not. When you are in that heat, any normal paradigm you have for fluids, like “I drink juice at meals, and water when I’m thirsty” or even “I drink eight glasses of water a day” … that way of ordering your life is done. Instead, if you can feel sweat on your skin, you should be drinking water. If it has been 20 minutes since you had some water, you should be drinking water. If you’re not in the middle of something, and even if you are, you should probably be drinking water. At the Grand Canyon, our second national park of the trip, I read in the newspaper they give you that if you lose too much salt from sweating, you can actually develop what looks like sun stroke but isn’t. It’s just your body being unable to absorb water because your salt is gone. People talk about American junk food and our sodium problem, but we were out there looking for tortilla chips and salty foods because it was certainly possible that our bodies were getting low. I didn’t measure how much water we drank every day, but it was always on our minds.
You may be wondering how we enjoyed things, or why the amazing natural beauty isn’t much mentioned in this post. The answer is, we really did enjoy the natural beauty and a lot of other things. There was just a lot of work and background thinking going on the whole time.