At a waffle house in North Carolina, on a Sunday morning, a kid in a paper hat stood at a grill slapping sausages, flipping eggs, shoving a spatula under hills of home fries. The kid's hat had GOOD FOOD FAST written on it. "Heaven's Just a Sin Away" was on the juke. We had been on the road 24 hours then. It was the first moment I really felt away.

The next night, in Mississippi, a lantern-jawed man in a perforated football jersey turned, grinned, wiped grime from his head with the back of his arm. "You want this next one?" he said. The man was umpiring little league games. He stood behind a backstop rigged with chicken wire. Beyond him, shavers in manila uniforms and hats that were too big crashed after grounders on real grass. Just before the game started, a coach lined up his team on a bench and said:

"Now one thing. We don't want to be heaving the ball around like we did on Saturday. And let's don't be looking at the girls, either, Woody, okay?"

Half the team sniggered.

Crossing the country with one's wife and two-year-old cocker spaniel might tell a man many things. What I think it chiefly told me is that (a) togetherness is vastly overrated, and (b) America is ungodly wide. Kansas is ungodly wide, let alone America.

We were gone seven weeks. Two-and-a-half of those seven were spent on the road. We went something over 4,000 miles. Sometimes I think our mission was to help make Best Western wealthy. The only gas line I remember waiting in was Topeka. And it wasn't very long.

Now that we are back, riding tunnels to work again, dodging pyramids of dog dung, there is the sense of never having left at all. Washington encircles, like Jimmy Carter says. Voices from a summer in the country still come, but distantly now, as if from the bottom of a pool. The pictures get wavier, too . . .

In Roanoke, we have iced tea brought to us in crystal goblets beaded with perspiration. Also chicken livers served on white china. This is at the Hotel Roanoke, a dowager from another day. We aren't staying here; we've just stopped in for lunch. At the next table are three Hollins girls. They are graduating that day. They chat on their summer plans. My wife Ceil wonders why all the help is black.

In Birmingham, two days later, we have barbecue and Pabsts at Grandma's World Famous. Grandma's is across from the Trailways bus station.Outside the window an old black man with almost translucent skin nods off in the sunshine. This picture glazes in my brain, comes back in my sleep.

Days later, in Fort Worth, in a tattoo parlor near the stockyards, a fat unkempt man winces as DIANE gets needled into his paw. The man's wife and baby sit nearby, absorbed. The tattooist, a wrinkly woman with a frozen smile, dabs at the blood with a wadded napkin.The man's wife says she earlier had a butterfly tattooed on her breast. She says 30 guys stood outside watching. She says this and giggles.

Sometimes the pictures seem no more than rubbings on stone, tracings. In Holly, Colo., at the Kansas border, tubes of orange neon flow across a movie marquee advertising "The Champ." It is late when we go through Holly. A John Deere sign shines back at us from a store window. The town seems lonely, depressed, though maybe I am just studying my own reflection. There is an attenuation that comes of piling up mile upon mile of asphalt. Sometimes, late at night, I get out of the car and my knees are wobbly.

The weather could turn freaky, cranky as the country herself sometimes seemed. When we hit New Mexico, the state we had been driving haphazardly toward for a week, a mountainous thunderbird glowered at us. At first we thought it was a mountain.

We kept driving toward it, a strange gray glacier. When we got close, rain pelted the window. The cocker jumped. I snapped off the radio. Out West, it's not as easy to hide from nature. She storms your dreams, rolls at you like a boulder. That's one thing we had to learn all over again.

Another is that nothing is quite as important on the west side of the Mississippi as it is on the east. Somewhere past that muddy, demarcating river, out where wheat begins to shimmer like candies in the sun, there begins a change in attitudes that is as subtle as the change in the land itself. It must have something to do with space, and in turn self-reliance, I don't really know. But I know this: The farther we got from Washington, the less bankable it became to tell people we were from here. After a while I consciously avoided saying I was "from Washington." I was merely "living" here.

It wasn't so much a Washington or East-Coast hostility we encountered. It was simply that people didn't really give a damn. There was an old coot of a farmer in Texas named Curlow who said exactly that. He said the country has a life of her own -- independent of, beyond things like the rise and fall of cabinet officers and Hamilton Jordan's social life.

Pictures cool, images jumble. One day, after we had come to rest in our biodegradable mud-dried adobe outside Santa Fe, my wife and I decided to take the healing sulphur waters at a decrepit spa called Ojo Callente. The town and spa sit back up in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northern New Mexico. The place looks like a '30s TB sanitarium, something Jackie Onassis and her friends would keep a prized secret.

We paid our three bucks. I went in one side, my wife in the other. Figures shrouded in vapors and wrapped in heavy woolen maroon blankets lay on long wooden tables attended by a man in a sleeveless undershirt. In some cases, only eyes and noses were visible. Past the tables was an odorous green pool. Men with great stomachs sat naked on rocks, breathing hard. I felt like I had stumbled into a Fellini movie.

I took the waters. I was led to a table to be wrapped. Next to me lay a man who laughed like a bandit. He said he comes to Ojo Caliente religiously once a month. "Whatever bad I been doing -- liquor, women -- it comes out in the blankets." I lasted three minutes in that wooly furnace and got claustrophobia.

On the Dallas-Forth Worth Turnpike, in a wash of roadside attractions, there is this sign: THE LAST SUPPER, IN LIVING WAX. The turnpike is 28 miles of wide concrete. Drive 55, and they pass you like you're standing still.

We dined at a famous Mexican restaurant in Fort Worth called Joe T. Garcia's. They pile you at long tables next to strangers and bring the food family style. We sat opposite a rancher and his wife who said they had visited Washington a while back. "I wore my hat and boots and people just stared," the rancher said. "But I did meet this one guy. Fixed him. He said, 'You breed horses?" I said, 'Nah, I let my studs take care of that.'"

On the road, each new day seems clean as silver. You get up, study the maps, itch to get going. By nightfall, it is all grime and nerves and irritation at the dog.

Traveling with a dog has its moments. Going out, we hit the Great Smokies in great rain. It was dusk. There went the camping. Our nerves were frayed, especially mine. The dog was ravenous.

We wheeled into a bank parking lot. My wife got out the Kennel Ration Biscuit. I got the water bowl, and Cody dined right there in the foyer. None of us got wet.

You go, of course, bright with plans and promise. I think I took 30 books. I came home with 35, having read exactly two. I did get to gaze at stars in the black cloudless New Mexican nights. I found the Dipper and the Great Bear and Scorpio with her two little stingers. Cassiopeia became my favorite. I learned to recognize the strange cheg cheg cheg of the magpie, and the sound wind makes stirring through cottonwoods. But mostly, I felt as if I never really got started at all. There was too much to experience, too little time to experience it in.

In Big Spring, Tex., you see oil rigs and smell refineries. At the Golden West Motel, the TV sits on a prong coming out of the wall. We sat under eaves outside our room while soft rain made puddles at our feet and huge semis roared out on the interstate. That night we slept with the door ajar, chain locked. There were no windows in the room, only a tiny hole scratched in the door. If you positioned yourself right, you could lie on the bed and see green neon coming through the hole.

A thousand miles and more east, in Asheville, N.C., there was nother window. This one was on Thomas Wolfe, Asheville's native son, and the young girl who led us through his boyhood home. The house, with its broad slatboard porch and leaded windows, is intact. But there is a high-rise hotel not 20 yards across the street now: New America everywhere. The girl who gave the tours talked about "Tom" as if he weren't dead at all, just resting in another room.

We came through Kansas during the wheat harvest. The 1979 yield is said to be the largest in the state's history -- 385 million bushels. Kansas looked like lakes of gold. Combines clattered on either side of the road. The temperature was above 100. We were in a 1972 Ford pickup which we had bought in Santa Fe, swilling lukewarm water from a canteen. Night was welcome.

She lives 50 miles from nowhere on a reservation west of Albuquerque. Her pueblo has no electricity. Some of the buildings date to 800 A.D. In the 17th century, the men of her town revolted against Spanish colonization. The Spaniards retaliated by cutting off one foot of every man in the village.

Her face is like a dried-up river bed. Bent, crotchety, sure-footed, she leads us around. She has on a print dress, varicose hose, shoes that are walloped in the middle. She doesn't once complain about the heat. There isn't a tree or a cloud in sight. She pauses in front of a doorway. Pottery is for sale. A young buxom female Indian comes out wearing a Dayglo T-shirt. The T-shirt has a picture of a Mercedes 450 on it. The old woman shrugs and moves on.

Another face, another voice, another room. This one belongs to a small, muscular man with his hair tied in a knot behind him. He wears bluejean shorts and work boots with white woolen socks. He lives on a ridge in the desert far from sidewalks and lampposts. He grows his own vegetables. His adobe house is solar-heated. Once, he used to race cars in Europe -- at LeMans and other places. He made much money. He gave it all up.

When do you go to bed? I ask.

"Whenever I get tired."

When do you get up;

"Whenever I am rested."

What will you do tomorrow?

"Whatever I am interested in."

Do you read the newspaper?

"Of course not. It's just the same story. Another airplane crash, another speech by the president. When you get away from it all, you realize things don't change, they just seem to change. But you have to get away."

Jimmy Carter is pounding his fist. Things will be okay, he says, the nation will survive.The president is speaking over the clack and whir of an air conditioner. Four of us are sitting in a den in St. Louis. It is a Sunday night. We are on the way home.

Before us are piles of corn on the cob, grilled pork steak. My friend Tom Hayes, a lawyer, lifelong St. Louisan, looks up. This is his house. We have known one another 15 years, since college. "I think," he says, "the president is translating his own lack of confidence this summer. But things will get better."