Forty years across America


In 1978, I graduated from the University of Michigan with no job, no plans, and a 1973 Pontiac Catalina my father got me for graduation. With a 400 2-barrel V8 engine, it managed 13 miles to the gallon.

It was artichoke-green, with a black vinyl roof, whitewall tires, and (later) a Presidential Seal I let my brother-in-law attach to the hood.

I immediately drove it to Cincinnati with my friend Mike. He had a six-pack of Heineken and I a jug of homemade Pina Coladas (hey, it was the 70s). I revved my new car over 100 MPH on I-75, repeatedly. It was sweet, and the freshly installed cassette player was a bonus.

In Cincy, we visited my best friend Bruce, and hatched a plan to take my car across America. Mike had a real job lined up, but Bruce was game.

After working a few months of double shifts at Ann Arbor’s Campus Inn, in the restaurant “Victors” (no apostrophe, as in “Hail to the –”), I returned to Cincinnati on September 23, 1978, with $400, savings bonds from my grandmother, and a Rand McNally road atlas.

Twenty-five states and two months later — including a stint as busboys in a Mexican restaurant in Boulder, Colorado — the Giant Artichoke limped back into Ann Arbor, with two broke and weary travelers, still with no real plans.

As life went on, I started bugging Bruce about recreating our 1978 trip. We had the old journals and photographs, and even a few bits of contact information, like first names and seven-digit phone numbers. “We’ll call it 33 Years Across America,” I told him.

Then it became 34, or 36. Bruce remained unmoved. But with blessings from my wife and law firm, I determined that it was time to take a break from the law and hit the road solo.
“40 Years Across America” will take the same back roads and blue highways we traveled in 1978, thanks to my meticulous journals. It will visit the same towns, seek out the same people, and dine in the same restaurants.

My new adventures will be chronicled, and compared against my 1978 entries whenever possible. Although, I do read those old passages and cringe. I wish I had been more in tune with my surroundings, rather than my own awkward angst — when I wasn’t writing about girls, food, or my obsession with chess.

But when our journey began on September 23, 1978, on the Main Street of a small town in Indiana, I dutifully recorded our encounter with these gentlemen:

I approached and asked the name of the town. One man said – “This little quagmire? You call it a town?” Another gave in: “This is Kirklin – population 712, or 714.” A third: “Yeah, if you count the dogs and cats.”

We told them we were headed for California, “The long way.” One replied, “You can’t get there from here.”

Now if I could just find the guys in this photograph, I’d love to hear what they’d say about the last forty years.

I’m hoping the 2018 record of my travels will show a better understanding of my surroundings, with sensitivity to the people and places I visit. I’m also determined to eat a more varied diet than cheap burritos, although I am looking forward to again visiting the Giant Artichoke in Castroville, California. (Too bad my eponymous car won’t be with me, but gas isn’t 69 cents a gallon anymore.)

I may not come away with any more clarity than I had when I graduated from college, but I will better understand how our nation has changed, what people think about it, and whether we are really any different from who we were back then.

Forty years across America may seem a long time. But the journey, and the stories, are still unfolding.    


Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht & Roumel, PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He is on Sabbatical to retrace a journey he took forty years ago. Follow his adventures at or on Twitter @nickroumel.


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