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Highways unleash America's wandering, restless spirit

By Nicole Saidi, CNN
  • Americans are restless and their world is designed for freedom
  • Roads and transport are of extreme importance to some small towns
  • There are many industries that have sprung up to cater to travelers
  • How do you get around? Share your story with CNN iReport

Editor's note: As part of CNN's Defining America project, CNN iReport is conducting a cultural census. We're asking people to share a self-portrait, show off their handwriting, tell us what they typically eat for dinner, and more. This piece is part of our series focusing on how people get around.

(CNN) -- The sun bakes the earth to a dusty golden brown, but a few heat-hardy plants still manage to protrude from the desert floor.

Hell in the summer, but winters are pure heaven.

The quest for oh-so-ephemeral Goldilocks temperatures drives plenty of folks to take up residence in Quartzsite, Arizona, for a little while. It's a town full of mobile homes, and the site of a major RV gathering each year.

If the American dream is to own a home and sprout two-point-however-many children, places like Quartzsite teach us that the American fantasy just might be to throw caution and property boundaries to the wind by carrying your home around with you.

David McLane visited the town and documented what it's like there, along with many other small towns. He's a storyteller who loves interesting places, and Quartzsite is just that. For most, it's a stop on the way in and out of California along Interstate 10, but for others, it's home for a few months of the year.

Transportation is woven into Quartzsite's history. The cemetery houses the pyramid-shaped tomb of Hi Jolly, a Syrian camel driver hired by the U.S. Army to start a Camel Corps transport system in the deserts of the United States shortly before the Civil War. The plan never took off, and war helped put an end to it. But Jolly was a local hero for trying, and people celebrated his accomplishments long after. He's even been memorialized in films.

McLane, 76, lives not so far away in Congress, Arizona, a tiny town that he stumbled upon while traveling. Years of chance encounters with the place were all the persuading he needed to put down roots there.

There is little or no public transit in this part of the desert. Commuter trains and extensive bus routes are trappings of the larger population centers.

What kind of transportation do you use? Share your story

Residents rely on themselves to get around. People drive cars and trucks and motor homes, and there are plenty of roads to accommodate them. If you can't drive, you walk or bike. There's a helicopter available at the hospital in case of emergencies. Businesses in the area cater to small-town life and the people passing through.

"In the West, in general, people drive long, long distances." McLane said.

The story of the American West is in part the story of advances in technology and transportation, including air conditioning and the highway system, which made it possible for people to live comfortably in more places. We're always on the go now, and our world is designed for travel and driving.

The area around Congress is a good home base for someone like McLane who loves to travel, and who loves to tell stories. Often, he does both at the same time. That's how we found him. He's an iReporter, and he has been sharing photos and stories from his various expeditions. He showed us his Astro van as part of the Defining America cultural census focus on transportation.

"I think in a way everything is interesting," he said. "You just have to sit around and listen for it."

There's usually some kind of over-arching editorial theme to his trips; one journey was called Red States, Blue Road, and involved asking people about their political views before election season. Another was focused on looking at the economies of small towns against the backdrop of the recession.

You could say McLane's entire life has been influenced in some way by his travels. He long ago captured the heart of another man's girlfriend while tracing Charles Lindbergh's air route to Paris. The boyfriend eventually stopped showing up. Those were the humble beginnings of McLane's 30-some years of traveling abroad. He would wander to Nepal or London or India, or wherever his visas would let him go. He taught English in Asia and married a woman from Japan.

Upon moving back to the United States with his wife in 2000, McLane never really gave up exploring. His wife had never driven a car, and everything was new for her.

"She learned how to drive a car in Joshua Tree National Park in July because nobody goes there," he said.

McLane ended up in Congress (the town) by chance on several occasions. He decided to buy a never-before-lived-in adobe home from an Alaskan family who were forced by circumstances to sell.

And now, he goes all over the West and indeed the whole country. His passion is for telling stories about the way people really are. He calls this motif "Actual Life," modeled after a project he started with his wife to represent how people actually talk versus the canned phrases in language textbooks.

McLane was already packing for his next adventures when we spoke with him. With the Occupy Wall Street protests spreading, he wanted to head out to Phoenix and find out what was going on downtown. He suggested he might also want to go to other places.

Over the years, he has broken down in New Jersey and slept in a McDonald's parking lot in Utah, all in the name of finding out a little bit more about this world.

He'll either spend the night in the van or in a tent. Often, the parking lots of stores like Walmarts are the accommodation of choice. The only challenge is the weather, which can get cold in some places.

"We only stayed in a motel once, when it was snowing at 6,000 feet, during the whole 5½ month journey," he said of the small towns project.

So many places cater to people on the move, like the truck stops and gas stations and tourist traps situated along the highways.

Lots of people make their living providing goods and fuel for all these visitors speeding by. There's an entire service industry devoted to travelers.

And then there's Marty Pigue, who camps out where the wind takes him, and is often seen driving a trailer with huge heaping bags of refuse rising above it. He started a project called "Recycling our Highways" in which he picks up the things travelers leave behind, especially recyclable cans and plastic bottles.

McLane found Pigue at a travel stop in Vidal Junction, California. People know about him, and they bring him their goods as well.

In America, this land of opportunity, we're always wandering, always seeking out that next trip. As long as we're still doing that, Pigue, McLane and others like them will be keeping their eyes on the highways.