Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Day 4: (Un)Familiar territory
And so we reach the home stretch.
On June 13 I woke up around 10 a.m. in Youngstown, Ohio, in a newly renovated Motel 6 room. I had 396 miles to go before reaching New York City; another 5 or 6 miles after that before I was happily in my own neighborhood.
My mileage count is as follows.
Day 1: 798 miles.
Day 2: 830 miles.
Day 3: 850 miles.
So 400 miles on Day 4 looked to be a relative walk in the park. It was. I-80 glides gracefully through Pennsylvania's green hills and valleys. I spent that time surfing through the college and public radio stations at the low end of the FM dial, absorbing weirdly mortal tunes like the Byrds' "Chestnut Mare." Even New Jersey was a nice jaunt along the Delaware River before heading inland to Newark and Jersey City. Not even the traffic at the Holland Tunnel or the gridlock of Manhattan and Brooklyn could disrupt my mood. I clumsily parallel-parked my new, larger vehicle at one of Park Slope's crowded curbs and met Valerie as she got done with work. After four days away from my fiancee and all normal aspects of my life, I was finally within sight of home.
But really, what is "normal" these days? Frequently, when I get in the Toyota, I don't feel like I deserve a new (only seven years old!) car. Soon I will get married and launch a new, "mature" chapter of my life. Soon we will sell Beaker, the loyal, reliable Honda that drove us to New York City in the first place six years ago. And, after seven years, my career in journalism is out the window.
Four days on the road, with my life in suspended animation, and now I return to a city of questions.
A good friend of mine (who is leaving New York in alarmingly short order) recently wrote a passage in her short story detailing a particular longing that grew from living in the city: "To watch and watch and watch and never again participate." She was invoking the dizzying richness and density of human interactions in the Big Apple, but the same thought seduced me as I made my way across the country. Why not duck the terrifying pressure of ensuring the rest of my life is not one big failure? What story do I have left for myself? Nothing has seemed 100 percent real since my reporting job was eliminated. Often it seems that the world has just continued on with no place for me in it. After the collapse of the narrative arc I saw myself living out, I sometimes feel like a disembodied eye, a designated witness to the struggle of those who still have a stake in things.
It feels much the same to streak across a foreign landscape and look at the people bound for the next town over instead of the opposite coast. I listen to the radio stations and hear advertisers struggling to fill exhibitor booths at an "outdoor life" expo in Elko, Nevada. In Nebraska I hear radio advertisements for crop insurance companies putting a friendly spin on the apparent fact that many farmers can't afford to insure their entire crop. In Cheyenne I see the big brass bell mounted next to the door inside the Arby's, exhorting customers to ring it if they received excellent service--a subtle callback to the dominant era of the railroads, to before the interstate highway system, when that city perhaps meant more in the grander scheme of things.
All those things hint at a way of life, for better or for worse. For now, what I have is a road. Even though I'm done with this physical drive, it's going to take miles of attention, exertion and quite likely some serious cash on the barrelhead for me to find some kind of offramp and stake my claim. At least now I know I'm good for the long haul.
Friday, June 15, 2012
Day 3: Iowa, Illinois, Indiana
Driving through Iowa is like sitting at your desk in the middle of a workday, narcotized by menial tasks, harboring just enough neural activity to be aware of the time you're squandering. Fewer funny town names, fewer landmarks alongside the road. And worse still, too many damn radio stations. The FM band is positively choked with competing radio formats-- from brassy contemporary country that sounds just like '70s classic rock sung through the nose, to all '80s rock, to business channels offering constant farm reports, to sports stations.
Is there anything sadder than a fine piece of FM real estate being taken up by a business or sports channel? Gee I sure am glad that this is in stereo so that I can hear every flap of your mediocre jowls as you talk about shifts in the Fed's monetary policy.
I suppose it makes sense though when you consider the way of life out here in some of the states. There is farming and there's football and I suppose there are enough listeners desperate to hear about either one that it would make sense to not play music on so many of these stations.
There is corn, too: endless rolling hills covered with undulating green stalks. It's a peaceful sight, to be sure, but as a New Yorker, I can't help but think that this is the source of that industrial sweetener that Mayor Bloomberg worries is giving all those troublesome poor people diabetes.
Why, Iowa, could you not have built a monument alongside I-80 the way that Wyoming did? Seeing a giant, scowling bust of a president who by all accounts didn't have much to do with the state paying tribute--it makes you sit up and take notice. It makes you wonder if he occasionally vaporizes reckless drivers with his laser eyes.
I did drive through (or past) Winterset, Iowa, which proudly proclaims itself to be the birthplace of John Wayne (or Marion Morrison, for those of you keeping track). I never much cared for the Duke or the cult of American masculinity that cropped up around him, in part because it seemed fatally inauthentic to change one's name to something more butch-sounding. Of course, reading his Wikipedia page, I gained a deeper appreciation for his American-ness. Turns out that studio executives selected his stage name for him--without him even being in the room. And really, what's more American than refashioning your own identity? Our great shared delusion is that any of us can reach any dizzying height through gumption and ingenuity; that we are not bound by our ancestry or caste and are free to create ourselves. More American still: to agree to be retooled by a conglomerate of merchants eager to sell you to the public.
After Iowa came Illinois, another largely pastoral drive punctuated only by two jarring moments on the radio. The first was an advertisement for Illinois' soybean industry, presented as a news interview with a friendly, gravelly-voiced pig. The pig talked about how soy products comprise most of the feed that livestock and poultry eat. "If it weren't for soy, I don't know what we would eat," the pig said, sounding a little worried. As if thoughts of a world without soybean meal would be the foremost concern of a sentient creature being raised for slaughter.
Listen, I'll give you anything you want if you hide me in your van and get me out of here. You like truffles? I--I mean, I'll root through a thousand forests for you. I'll get you a pile of those things. Please, man. You've gotta help me. My friends are dying. The chickens are snitches. I guess I would be, too, if I could sell what came out of my butt. They took my parents into that long building over there and they never came out. Every day they come by and fill my trough and they ogle me while I eat. They want me to get fat, I know, but I can't stop eating. I just can't. Damn you, delicious soy products!
Poor eloquent, delectable pig.
The other radio shocker was a hard-rock cover of the traditional folk song "Man of Constant Sorrow." You know, the song that was the pillar of the Coen brothers' excellent "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Know what makes a song about being an isolated, destitute wanderer in an economic wasteland less biting and poignant? Loading it with guitars tuned to drop-C played through 120-watt Triple Rectifier amps and singing it with all the pain and weariness that comes from getting a tribal pattern tattooed around your bulging bicep. Cool ballad, bro.
After Illinois came Indiana, whose groves of tall trees and rolling, grassy hills gave a magical luster to the twilight. Steven Spielberg's films could have been born behind a sturdy, weathered barn in the Indiana dusk. All too quickly, Indiana was behind me and we were on to Ohio, where the darkness and incessant road construction conspired to stretch the drive out a couple hours beyond my desired stopping point. After 850 miles, I pulled into a Motel 6 outside Youngstown and slept like a rock.
Tomorrow: The journey's final leg.
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Wyoming is known for its breathtaking natural beauty. We visited Yellowstone during our 2006 trip, and this time around all I saw of the state was the view from Interstate 80.
I woke up in Evanston, where the temperature had neared 30 degrees overnight. Loading my two guitars, my suitcase and my satchel into the car, I departed with essentially no impressions of the town except for the fact that I knew I was finally in truck country.
Those who grew up in urban environs might think it's a stereotype that most people who live in rural areas drive trucks. It's absolutely true. And for the most part these people need to trucks to do things like to get around a large ranch area or haul construction equipment. Or pull a horse trailer. Or serve as the setting for a rather on-the-nose country song about redneck seduction rituals.
It's partly because trucks are such useful tools (and actually used as such out here), and partly because they are regarded as large powerful and durable, that they have become emblems for American masculinity. Men love their trucks--sometimes too much, as those Calvin-peeing-on-Ford's-logo stickers amply demonstrate.
Those are pickup trucks of course. The other half of the vehicles you see on the road in wyoming are 18 wheelers. Or 22 wheelers or 26 wheelers. There seems to be no end of unusual permutations of the tractor trailer configuration out here, and they all seem to be going to hell for leather somewhere. Many of them are in a hurry because they are hauling something away from a fracking well site, perhaps actual natural gas, perhaps toxic waste water or other chemical byproducts. Time is money of course and the drillers aren't going to waste either one. Nearly all the tractor trailers out here are a quilt with antelope bars that protect the headlights and radiator grill from impact with cloven hooved animals. It makes me feel a little bit like I'm driving in Australia and honestly I was a little relieved when I finally hit Iowa and they disappeared.
I spent much of the day chasing freight trains as they headed into Cheyenne-- no surprise really considering that cheyenne is the headquarters of Union Pacific, the largest railroad in the United States. Frankly I was excited to visit Cheyenne because it brought back memories for me.
Yes, I was a train freak as a kid. My father took me to Railfair at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, and I became acquainted with just about every steam locomotive still operating in the country. Somewhere there are photos of a 9-year-old Jeremy beaming from ear to ear standing on the cowcatcher of one of these huge locomotives.
Why do I mention all of this? Because Union Pacific owns two of these big relics, and still operates them on special occasions. I didn't get to see those, but I couldn't resist visiting their cousin. Engine number 4004 sits on display in a small municipal park just a few blocks from the massive rail yard where it once pulled freight trains. It's part of the last generation of American steam locomotives, and just about the largest ever made. Built in 1941, it weighs about 1.2 million pounds, has 16 driving wheels each as tall as me, and it logged more than 440,000 miles over 17 years of service.
Who cares, right? Well, steam engines are just more fun to watch. They're almost like living creatures, while diesels do the job efficiently and without any fuss.
So the 9-year-old still hovering in the recesses of my brain was thrilled to see the old train. But the 30-year-old me is unspeakably relieved that I left childish fascinations at the door of adolescence. They call adult rail fans "foamers." As in "foaming at the mouth."
I had no desire to stop and photograph the immense Union Pacific railyard on my way out of town. That nostalgia trip lasted for half an hour and then it was behind me, like the bold "UP" badges on the locomotive shops and the towering refinery chimneys that take the place of skyscrapers in Cheyenne. I had another 500 miles to go before bed.
Monday, June 11, 2012
The first day of my trip was a day for familiar sights and sounds. I woke up in the house where I spent my entire childhood and had breakfast with my parents on the porch.
I got a late start but after spending the previous day driving back and forth from the Bay Area, that was not very surprising.
So around 12:30 p.m., it was out of Paradise, winding down Clark Road into the valley going to Highway 70 into Oroville and to Sacramento. This is a route I have driven countless times before.
I had with me the old metal cd case that held all of the albums I listened to in high school. Because I am a cultural anachronism, they were all rock music from the sixties and seventies.
So on played the Beatles' White Album, Caravanserai by Santana and Axis: Bold as Love by Jimi Hendrix.
And as the golden dead grass and stately oaks of the Central Valley gave way to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada with their digger pines, John, Paul, George and Ringo sang songs like "Rocky Raccoon" and "Glass Onion" and "Cry Baby Cry" -- all of which were the soundtrack to I can't count how many teenage camping trips.
I can still remember the summer when my best friend discovered the White Album and exposed the rest of us to it. It expanded what we knee the Beatles to be and also expanded what we thought rock music could be. Since we never heard any of these songs on the radio, we felt that we had discovered something secret and wonderful.
So as I ascended into the Sierra Nevadas, into that rarefied realm where you round a bend, look back toward the valley and the whole world looks like it's made of green pipe cleaners, I felt that a rush of familiarity -- the promise almost that I was bound for another of these lazy, goofy outings like no time had passed.
But there are a dozen dead seasons between then and now, and instead of going to swim in some secret hole in the woods or camp at a music festival, I was just leaving; for a small apartment in a four-story brick walk-up in a rapidly gentrifying borough that's already pretty much too expensive to live in. It's an almost a terrifying shame how much we leave behind when we decide to do anything.
There was still snow in some of the peaks as I reached the 7,200-foot summit of Donner Pass. As I descended into the eastern Sierras, I thought about that fateful clan of pioneers (who supposedly resorted to cannibalism after getting stranded on the pass during the winter. I'm not providing a link because I'm writing on a damn smartphone.). It occurred to me that I was pulling a reverse Donner: fleeing the golden, arid expanses of California for the muggy, populous East. How appropriate, then, that I should wind up regurgitate myself nightly on this blog.
With Caravanserai blasting on the stereo, I descended rapidly down into the canyons among the foothills and into Nevada. The color of the stones turned yellow and sandy, and before I knew it, I was completely surrounded by the barren expanses of western Nevada. With the light beginning to fail, I pressed eastward into the nearly entirely unpopulated central region.
The famous Bonneville salt flats are in Utah, but Nevada appears to have some of its own. As I passed through these, I couldn't help but notice that various travelers had stopped and tried to make messages using the coal-black rocks that proliferate among the alkalai.
Most of these messages seemed to be crude hearts with the names or initials of lovers assembled nearby. I found it comforting that those who wanted to leave a lasting impression on the landscape, some sort of communication for the world to see, do it out of love.
Perhaps it speaks to the essence of inspiration. Or maybe we've reached a point as a culture where this is the only thing left not worth saying anonymously on an online message board. Only the stones know.
Tomorrow: A visit to a railroad town.
Transcontinental, the sequel
This, ladies and gentlemen, is going to be an interesting experiment. I am blogging from my smartphone and an attempt to use a bluetooth keyboard succeeded only in costing me 60 dollars.
Six years ago my now-fiancee and I set out across the country to seek our fortunes in New York City.
Of course, she wasn't my fiancee at the time--and that's not the only thing that was different. We had Beaker, her old Honda Civic. Beaker has served us very well, but now it's time for us to upgrade.
So I purchased my mother's old Toyota Corolla, a 2005 model. Now I have to drive it all the way back across the country to New York. By myself.
I need to travel about 800 miles each day to get back to New York within the time I have given myself. That's why I'm writing now from a hotel room in Evanston, Wyoming, which is just on the border with Utah. I got through 3 whole states in a single day, which I think is not bad at all.
There will be more posts to come featuring more of my musings on the drive and also featuring my shoddy smartphone photography. You can also check out my more impromptu updates on Twitter: @jeremyrwalsh
For now I will leave you with an amusing photograph on the outskirts of Sacramento and the thought that tomorrow I tackle Cheyenne--home of the Union Pacific Railroad. Onward!