04/21/2008 12:56 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Open Road at $3.99 a Gallon

We just got back from a drive across the country - 4,000 miles, twelve states, more than 36 hours of Harry Potter on tape - and our feat has been met by almost universal shock that we undertook such an arduous journey. "How many times did you smack your sister?" the swim coach asked my 15-year-old. "So did you die of boredom?" a friend asked my 12-year-old. "Are you still speaking to each other?" the neighbors want to know. The truth is that while there was a little back-seat scuffling, some miles that would definitely qualify as dull, and more than a few arguments related to the interpretation of maps, our drive across the country was one of the best family vacations we've ever had.

For one thing, we visited some of this country's most breathtaking sights - sunrise on the rim of the Grand Canyon; a storm from the top of the St. Louis gateway arch; snow on the ground at Niagra Falls; and the patina of history that gathers around the Liberty Bell. We also came across some unexpected pleasures - an art gallery in Santa Fe whose owner welcomed us like family; a library in Kansas City whose façade looks like the bookshelf of a literate giant; an artisan gelato shop in Princeton, New Jersey whose mocha sorbet was so extraordinary that we changed our plans to accommodate a return visit.

But the main thing was the sheer pleasure of the open road, the joy of just going for the sake of going, and knowing that nothing would stand in our way. It's so easy to forget how truly vast -- and free -- this country is until you get out there and drive it. There are no border crossings between Kansas and Missouri. There are no officials at the Pennsylvania state line to question who you are and where you're going. You are free to drive all the way from California to New Jersey and to watch the land unfold in all its glory.

While you are out there, you will remember the resourcefulness of the people who lived on that land without the benefit of a single Dairy Queen; and you will be impressed with the efficiency of the trains and the 18-wheelers hauling things to every corner of the country; and you will see that every city, large and small, sprung up in a place where it made sense to exist and that we all have different ideas about life because all these places are so very different.

We spent $534 on gas. Kansas City had the cheapest at $3.15 a gallon. Needles, in the Mojave desert, had the most expensive at $3.99 - which made us stop and stare and gasp before we handed over the credit card. Perhaps the time is coming when it will be prohibitively expensive for a family to drive across America for spring break, or when our delicate atmosphere can no longer tolerate such an insult. That, to me, is the thing that it most worthy of universal shock.