Driving Through The Land Of The Cacti

Visions of driving across the United States have not only become a part of American culture but have also distinctly entered into the American psyche.

roadtrip southwest usa
PHOTO AMANDA PURCELL

Novels by John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac have, to some extent, glorified cross-country road trips.  The scenic American landscape is portrayed as both majestic and one-of-a-kind — just listen to the patriotic song “America the Beautiful.” Driving seems to provide a connection to the land that traveling via plane simply cannot do.  But does all the hype surrounding American road trips live up to its cultural ideals?

I think the answer to this question depends on where you are driving.  For most of my life, I have annually driven with my family through Southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico to visit family.  This drive through the grand American Southwest is no small feat: driving only one way from San Diego to central New Mexico is about fifteen hours!

My experience with road trips in the Southwest has been characterized partially with boredom.  There is only so much I am able to do when I am confined to sitting in a car, yet I find these yearly drives strangely relaxing.  I am able to escape from everyday life and the worldwide internet.  Instead, I watch miles of American land as my moving car passes by the desert sand.  If I am not driving, then I can drift in and out of sleep while the Southwestern frontier serves as the backdrop to the calming road trip music blasting from the car stereo.  In a way, I am forced to interact with my surroundings, which are also never stagnant.

roadtrip southwest usa
PHOTO AMANDA PURCELL

The Southwestern United States is notorious for its sweltering desert climate.  The highways often stretch for hours through flatlands while mountains hover in the distance.  There is something beautiful about sandy soil that goes on beyond what the eye can see, but also something boring about driving for hours through scenery that looks mostly the same.  I have definitely driven through locations in the Southwest when I have thought that I was in the middle of nowhere — a lack of cell phone service helped.  I have looked out of the car window and seen expanding sand dunes without a building in sight.  Rather, there are tons of cacti in all shapes and sizes.  The cacti are distinguishably a part of the Southwest and especially Arizona.  The plants’ peculiarit stand out while areas of the highway are lined with continuing rows of cacti.

Road trips can also be cramped and I find that most of the gas stations on the major highways in the American Southwest offer large 32 or 44 ounce soda drinks for under a dollar.  Subway signs are everywhere near the freeway rest stops and a burger fast-food chain called Whataburger is also quite popular in the Southwest.  The speed limit for some of the major highways is about 75 mph and there are a plethora of large trucks transporting goods on the road as well.  Gas has a tendency to be less expensive than California as well.

I think, however, that the charm of the Southwest comes from the desert.  I have seen spectacular sunsets and sunrises that beam on the horizon and rest above the faraway mountain ranges.  Occasionally, I have glanced at a full moon glowing dutifully upon a pink and blue desert twilight sky.  The Southwest’s graceful sense of solitude emerges fully and quietly into the night.  I have seen golden stars through the night’s darkened skies that radiate outwards in a manner unknown to city folks.

Road trips through the Southwest can feel akin to long and, now and then, tedious journeys especially when the scenery looks the same.  However, I am appreciative of nature’s supreme power within the miles of desert that connect the hopeful, expanding American past with the illuminating present.  A sunset over a Southwestern desert superbly glows.

southwest roadtrip usa
PHOTO AMANDA PURCELL

Amanda Purcell

Amanda has traveled throughout Europe, Asia and the Americas. Her secret travel tip: visit places during off season. She loves walking around cities that she's never been to before, especially if she can't speak the local language.

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