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HAVE HOME, WILL TRAVEL <br> REDISCOVERING ABANDON IN AN RV

I was miserable over my coffee, listening to the bleached-blond waitress telling another customer about her waitress jobs and her kids and a former life or two. The other woman, in the booth next to us at the Denny's in Fallon, Nev., nodded knowingly.

My head was swimming. I was overwhelmed by America.

Three days out on our cross-country RV trip, and I was succumbing to the daunting vastness. I wanted to talk to every gum-cracking waitress and ambling young gas jockey we met. I wanted to drive down all the Main Streets, smell the nuances in the air and stare at the massive, heavy skies and eat grits until I exploded.

But I had just two weeks left on my journey from Los Angeles to Atlanta and a sneaking suspicion that two years wouldn't be enough time.

I have several friends who say they want to buy an RV and see America -- when they retire. I couldn't wait. I was 40 years old and afraid if I didn't put my foot to the floorboard now, I might forget to do it at all.

I was tired of trying to make sense of the illogical rut I had dug for myself in New Jersey. I didn't need sense. I needed to rediscover abandon.

That was my goal, really, my grail, as I headed north out of Los Angeles, bound for Atlanta in our rented RV. I didn't really care about the specifics of our itinerary. We decided on humble U.S. Route 50 east to someplace around Illinois, then south to Georgia.

This was more a sketch, a security blanket for my organized husband, Paul, than anything to which I was emotionally attached. Secretly, I intended to take full advantage of the RV lifestyle: Have home, will travel.

Circumstances did not permit an easy transition from our Toyota Corolla back home. We had beensucked unceremoniously into a maelstrom of traffic, heading north on Interstate Highway 5 -- the Santa Ana Freeway -- out of the Cruise America lot in Buena Park, Calif., where we picked up our Tioga.

We were still trying to figure out how long it would take to stop a moving object this heavy and how far we were from the white lines and the semis howling by us on either side. I was glad Paul was driving.

I couldn't get used to the idea that what we were doing was considered camping. We had a vehicle, not a tent. But our second day on the road crescendoed into undeniable wilderness, as our Tioga slowly climbed into the Yosemite high country, gulping in the cool alpine air at 10,000 feet.

We pulled carefully into the campsite, our mirrors almost touching the pine trees on either side. A chipmunk stood upright on a log and noisily chided this interloper made of metal and glass.

But that's RVing -- roughing it without the rough part; enjoying the outdoors without rocks under the sleeping bag; having our nuked frozen pizzas and eating our campfire-roasted marshmallows, too.

We shivered through the Yosemite night, but the theme turned to white-hot desert when we hit Route 50 -- "The Loneliest Road in America" -- an hour east of Reno. Before us swept a moonscape of gray-white dirt, hard salt bubbling to the top and baking in the 90-degree Nevada sun. Telephone poles marched along the road as far as we could see.

I had to stop not a mile out of Fallon to smell the dusty heat, to listen to the crackling of the salt. I sat in the middle of the near-liquid asphalt, right on the yellow line, and watched as no car or truck or bird or snake disturbed the shimmering horizon.

"Come on, honey," Paul said as our hair began to fry in the sun. "There're gonna be even lonelier places than this."

Hard to believe, but there were. Outrageous expanses of nothing but dirt. Sometimes flat dirt such as the Great Basin in Nevada; sometimes tortured red heaps of rocks as in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah; sometimes soaring precipices assaulted ceaselessly by rivers, as in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument in Colorado.

But always the loneliness was punctuated with remarkable evidence of human determination to conquer: falling-down barns with hay bales still waiting to be eaten; a bleached-white drive-in theater, swirling with the ghosts of Saturday nights.

But Mom's Cafe in Salina, Utah, hangs on; the truckers and the locals still come for Mom's home cooking. Its sign, painted on a brick wall, looks perfect in the late-afternoon light. In fact, the whole dusty, elegantly crumbling town, with its unlit neon and outdated graphics, is the pinnacle of evolution as far as the Romance of the Road is concerned.

The speed limit is 75. Apparently they know how little time there is.

Paul did, too. His main task quickly became keeping us on some semblance of a schedule, a Herculean task when traveling with someone like me, who sees poignancy in broken bottles and exploded tire treads. Sometimes I had to close my eyes to stop my heart from breaking.

It was in the middle of Kansas in the middle of our road trip in the middle of the sunset. The field full of sunflowers was killing me with yellow as it whizzed by.

I couldn't stand it anymore.

"Stop!"

Paul slammed on the brakes, sending pebbles spraying and dirt wheezing. We stopped as quickly as a house on wheels could. He looked in the rear-view mirror to assess the damage.

"The puzzle's on the floor," he said.

Again. All 500 pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of America we had bought in Utah were splattered everywhere but on the table where it had been a point of honor, after several such splatterings, to get the damnable thing together.

I decided, in Kansas, to let the pieces lie where they had fallen.

Somehow, despite my incessant requests to "Stop!" and conversations with countless waitresses, we arrived in Hutchinson, Kan., for the state fair -- the centerpiece of our trip -- as planned.

Saturday night, the big night. The RV campsite looked full, but gatekeeper Elaine Welch, the quintessence of maternal, told her husband to find us a place, with electricity and water: 10 bucks. We couldn't believe our good fortune.

Cleaned-up cowboys and cowgirls streamed by between the rigs on their way to the big Saturday night. We became part of the flow. Babies dozed in strollers; farm women toddled past, intent on their Pronto Pups, "best thing that ever happened to a hot dog."

As we followed the road through Kansas, we found yet another heartland legend. The sign by the side of Route 50 near Newton proclaims, "Johnny's Back," with the coda: "Fresh Pecans."

Where had Johnny been? A tall man with a road map for a face and a firm handshake introduced himself as Johnny Jackson, and he told us. The county decided four years ago to widen Route 50 right here, and it put Johnny's Legendary Fruit Stand out of business. Johnny thought he would retire but couldn't stand it. Missed people. Set up again, 50 yards from the original site.

"I'm a sentimental old cuss," he admitted, brushing his eyes with the shoulder of his T-shirt.

Johnny looked off at a truck passing by.

"That's Pridey. They haul cattle." He waved. A roar of truck engine, then the sound of a horn sang through the air.

Before we left Kansas, we had one more argument about detouring to see the Biggest Ball of String in the World, but I lost.

I did, however, persuade Paul to make a detour to another segment of civilization: riverboat gambling in Kansas City, Mo. The riverboats aren't boats, really, but buildings erected on barges. They don't have to cruise anywhere and don't even have to be on a river, just within 1,000 feet of the main channel.

The casinos had regular two-hour "sailings" for which passengers are boarded and allowed onto the gambling floor -- deck, that is. At the Flamingo Casino, the newest of the "fleet" in Kansas City, there was little else in the way of pretense. Even the clerk in the huge gift shop admitted she never got seasick, even during the stormiest weather.

Another aspect of Americana awaited us in Nashville, Tenn., where we lingered for 24 hours because we had met Eddie Thompson, a country singer, and Lila Hyatt, a waitress who fell in love with Eddie two years ago and moved up from her home in Louisiana, "lock, stock and barrel." Eddie and Lila work nights at Skull Schulman's Rainbow Room in Printer's Alley.

Eddie has the New Country Look down -- big white hat and gold rings on his fingers, and eyes so sincere you want to offer him a record contract. That almost happened once. Almost.

Still, Eddie can't complain. He has a steady gig at the Rainbow Room, and whenever he wants, he can look across at Lila, who's often leaning on her bar tray at the counter while he's singing George Strait covers, looking at him like she could die right now and be the happiest woman on Earth.

"I ain't got no money," she explains, heavily mascaraed eyes squinting through her cigarette smoke. "But you couldn't buy the two years of happiness we've had."

East of Nashville was one more notable outpouring of commercialism: Pigeon Forge, Tenn., endless miles of outlet stores and fast food emporiums, crescendoing in Dollywood. Thankfully, the protected terrain of Great Smoky Mountain National Park was waiting on the other side.

Finally -- inevitably -- the end of the road. After 3,421 miles, our rolling home rattled into its drop-off center near Atlanta.

We emptied its contents: socks, crushed pillows, the plastic, sparkle-laden Yosemite glass that had served as a bowl for my oatmeal, the remains of the roll of quarters left over after we did our "stanky britches" -- one local's epithet for laundry -- in Dodge City, Kan.

I grabbed the unopened bottle of white wine we'd bought at the Peaceful Bend Winery in central Missouri, where we'd spent hours talking to the winemaker.

We left a few pieces of the puzzle on the floor, on purpose. Then the attendant drove our Tioga away to make it presentable for the next adventurers.

Johnny Jackson had asked us, "Why are you in such a hurry?"

Maybe I was a little glad we had to keep moving. Maybe I just liked the speed, "the blur," as Paul put it. The too-soon goodbyes, after all, did leave just a little more for next time. Not to mention that elusive ball of string.