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.

Good stuff, want more.
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