THE GREAT AMERICAN LAP: My Dream Trip Across America

Derek Hart imagines the ultimate cross-country vacation

I am sure that most people have fantasized about ditching the rat race - blowing off dreary meetings with boring people in boring suits, telling their micro-managing tyrant of a boss to get lost - and just taking off, traveling and seeing the world. To boldly go where they have never gone before.

In that respect, I am no exception. When the struggles of trying to live, thrive, and survive gets overwhelming, I've often thought about what it would be like to just chuck everything and get away.

That is particularly the case whenever I watch the Travel Channel or read the Travel section in the Sunday Los Angeles Times. I'd see gorgeous scenery on Hawaii Do's and Don'ts, or read about high school drama students visiting New York and seeing Broadway shows, and I want to go online and book rooms there.

It's not like I've never ventured anywhere; I have done a modest amount of travelling outside the cramped, auto-infested confines of Los Angeles, California, where I live.

Most of those occasions were during my college years, including travelling by train to Chicago and back, the first time I have ever been outside of Southern California, and flying to Dallas, Texas with my college marching band. I've also travelled to the San Francisco Bay Area during that time, and to Las Vegas within the past few years.

But that still has not stopped me from imagining myself taking what would be the ultimate trip - a Great American Lap around the United States, seeing all the sites that this world superpower has to offer, that I've only read about or seen on TV or in the movies.

Of course, a trip like that would likely cost at least a couple of hundred thousand dollars, money that I've never remotely had - or likely ever will have. Unless I won the lottery.

Still, a guy can imagine and dream.

So, here are the places I would go and the things I'd see on my lap, travelling by Amtrak train - Like Mr.T on the A-Team, "I don't go up in no planes". Too much hassle and restrictions at the airport. Plus, even though it's supposedly the safest way to travel, too many plane crashes for me.

First, as I'm heading out of Downtown L.A's Union Station and settling in my berth, my first stop would be the Grand Canyon. Not original I know, but I've always liked scenic stuff like that. Checking out the Hopi and Navaho reservations and their cultures would be cool, too.

After seeing that giant canyon, I'd start to make my way east through the desert and the Continental Divide in New Mexico, admiring the mountains and the forests and watching the sun rise. I had seen them before when I went to Chicago in college, and I marveled at how gorgeous that state was.

Continuing on into Texas, I'd make a quick stop in Austin, because I had heard about that state capital being the place to go in that Lone Star state. Home to their flagship university and their Longhorns, along with the popular Sixth Street, I would check out the campus and soak in the atmosphere a bit, before heading on to the Gulf Coast, starting with New Orleans.

I would want to see firsthand how that Crescent City has recovered from that big hurricane that wrecked the place three years ago; from what I have seen on TV the French Quarter and Bourbon Street has done OK, while the Ninth Ward still looks like a bombed-out ghost town, with those tiny FEMA trailers still in use.

After partaking of some jambalaya and gumbo and wishing their Saints well, I'd move on east through the former Confederacy into Florida, where I'd hang a right and eventually hit one of America's quintessential party towns, Miami. Home to Dolphins, Marlins, Hurricanes, Calle Ocho, girls in bikinis without tops, Tony Montana telling people to say hello to his little friend, and my cousin, who I'd make a point to see as we were close as kids.

Since that town is also home to about 1000% humidity, of course I would not wear anything heavier than a T-shirt and shorts.

Leaving Miami, there would be one inevitable, obligatory stop before I headed north, a place where Mickey Mouse hangs out with Minnie, Donald, Goofy and all his other buds - Disneyworld. A big vacation spot, so I might as well, right?

After another quick stop in Atlanta to check out sights such as Martin Luther King's grave, his alma mater (and Spike Lee's) Morehouse College, and Turner Field, where a bunch of Braves play baseball, I'd begin following the North Star, admiring the woods and flatlands of the Carolinas and Virginia, perhaps spotting a few Civil War battle sites, meandering up the eastern seaboard, until I reached...

Our nation's capitol. Where all of those monuments are. Where Redskins, Nationals, and Hoyas play. Home of that big white mansion where the leader of the free world lives: Washington, D.C.

There would be one place where I would be sure to stop and see - the Vietnam War Memorial. My father fought in that war, and my mother protested against it. Even though I never knew my dad, I'd feel obligated to see the place commemorating one of the conerstone events of the past fifty years.

Of course I would do the White House-Capitol Hill-Washington Monument-Lincoln Memorial tour thing as well. That's pretty much mandatory.

The next stop on my big lap: the City of Brotherly Love. Where cheesesteaks, Phillies, Eagles, 76ers, and those Rocky steps where Stallone ran up are (I can hear that fanfare now) - Philadelphia.

I had always wanted to eat a real hoagie cheesesteak at Pat's or Geno's - actually, I'd try both places. Running up those steps like Balboa did would also be a dream of mine.

After doing all of that and making that obligatory stop at Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence gave birth to these bunch of states, and seeing that big bell with the crack in it, I would then make my way through New Jersey to perhaps the big highlight of this quest...

This is the place that I have especially wanted to see for the bulk of my life, where so many things have been written, sung, and filmed about. It would be like meeting a celebrity that I've admired for a long time, or finally getting a date with the most gorgeous girl in school.

I am talking about the city with the island that the Dutch ripped off from the Native Americans for $24, that never sleeps according to Sinatra. A home to eight million people spread over five boroughs that's considered the crossroads of the world: New York City.

So many famous sites dot that place, it would be impossible for me to visit them all. Or list them all.

I would make a specific point to visit Times Square, take in a show on Broadway (preferably "Rent" if it was still playing), see Central Park and check out that "Imagine" spot memorializing John Lennon, and be sure to visit Harlem and the Apollo Theatre there. The Empire State Building would be on my itinerary, too.

I know that these are unoriginal tourist stops, but since I would be a tourist, I think I could be excused.

Of course I wouldn't forget to take in a baseball game at the place where those guys in pinstripes play, and I would not dare leave that Big Apple without seeing that spot where those jets took out those two giant buildings a few years back and giving homage.

After taking a bite out of that apple, on I would go to that town with the baseball team those pinstripers hate, that play with that huge green wall in left field: Boston.

Not only would I make it a priority to see those Red Sox, I'd be sure to view all the historic sites, like that old church where Paul Revere started his ride, and not leave before checking out the campus of the place where lots of the country's smartest kids go - Harvard.

After that was done, it would be time for me to make a left turn and start heading west.

But before I did that, I'd make one more eastern stop, to a little town in upstate New York called Cooperstown.

Why go there, one may ask? Because it's home to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Since I've loved our national pastime for most of my life, it would be like a Muslim going on the Hajj to Mecca, seeing the plaques of all those diamond gods.

With that pilgrimage finished, I could then hop on the Amtrak, admire the eastern mountain ranges and the forests, and wind my way to the city of cars and the Sound of Young America: Detroit. I would stop there to see the Hitsville, USA building where Berry and Smokey started that Motown company featuring all of those legends. That would be a special priority.

Having paid homage to that, as well as go to the place where those big Bengal cats play baseball, I'd have unfinished business in that windy city by Lake Michigan - Chicago.

When I visited there before, there were plans for me to see the town's landmark baseball team at one of America's landmark ballparks, Wrigley Field. In a doubleheader no less. Unfortunately it poured rain the whole time I was in town, and those Friendly Confines flooded. By going back to that "second city" and seeing those Cubs, I would achieve what I had intended to do back in 1987. Oh, and I'd stop at this place called the Home Run Inn - it makes perhaps the best pizza I have ever tasted.

With that unfinished business taken care of, what would probably be my favorite part of this odyssey would follow - the train ride across the Great Plains, going through Nebraska and Colorado (with a little stop in Denver), then making a slight right turn through the Rockies up to the Pacific Northwest.

This would be my favorite part of the trip because of the scenery I would see. Having spent my early childhood in a rural area about 70 miles outside of Los Angeles, ever since then I have always gotten a good feeling inside whenever I would be on a trip and see wide open spaces, like when I would ride on the Greyhound to Las Vegas on the I-15 and go through the desert. There's just something about it that reminds me of when I was a young kid.

That would be the feeling I would get as I travelled through the plains and those Rocky Mountains. A feeling of space and room, where I could just roam if I wanted to, that I don't get in L.A.

Going up through Wyoming and Idaho, where the deer and the antelope play (as well as some buffalo, I'm sure), I'd eventually make my way to the town that's considered one of the coolest. Home to Starbucks, Mariners, Seahawks, Huskies, Bill Gates, and a lot of rain. Where Kurt Cobain and his Nirvana friends made their name, and where Pearl Jam made their Grunge sound as big as the Merseyside and Motown sounds in the 60's. I think I've described Seattle pretty well.

My home stretch would begin after that. Taking the Pacific Surfliner south along the coast, I would be taking in some spectacular Pacific Ocean scenery as I'd coast through Oregon with all those trees, and finally hit California again.

My last stop before home would be San Francisco and the Bay Area. Having been there a few times during my college years, I'd make sure to check out Berkeley with all their coffeehouses and their university, ride the BART Rapid Transit across the bay to get some Chinese food in Chinatown, and visit Fisherman's Wharf and particularly the Franciscan Restaurant - if it's still there, of course. I had eaten there before, and even the water was great.

After that, it really would be time to go home; I'd desparately want to sleep in my own bed. After leaving San Francisco, I would be at Union Station in roughly six hours, back in L.A. after God knows how long.

But this odyssey, this lap around America, would be something I'd never forget, to say the least. Eye-opening, life affirming, it would be the kind of trip that I would thank God that I was able to do. One of those things that I would be glad to be alive for.

Like I said, one can dream.

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