Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 3)

The on-ramp to I-84 is a bobsled chute that propels us away from the Microcosm, temporarily southwest towards Waterbury and away from the ESPN headquarters in nearby Bristol.  Ah…ESPN—a microcosm through cable unto itself.  A place where a programming team sits around all day in complimentary Nike gear and continues to split the imaginary syllables of the word “Sports”—like we are fond of doing with atoms.  Twenty-two TV stations, 19 internet sites and 9 radio stations later and we are watching everything from scrabble competitions to Rollerblade Hockey, some on SKYCAM, and Fantasy Football to the real NFL  (if there is a real football league anymore) which ESPN paid 8.8 billion dollars for 8 years of broadcast rights.  It’s not easy to imagine what the propaganda dropped over Europe would say if it were written today: “Family first in this bucolic town on the quaint Quinnipiac River, where Mrs. Brown serves her famous cherry pie to her hard-working men decamped for 40 hours straight in front of homegrown ESPN on a tulip-filled spring day in Southington, Connecticut–Microcosm of America.”
            These are the sorts of rants that pickle my brain these days, still stinging as I am from our self-imposed jettison from air travel.  If we can’t make it home before our luggage and our Christmas gifts, by damn, I get to cast aspersions on The Worldwide Leader in Sports, including its coverage of spelling bees and outhouse races. (Shit!)
            By the time we straighten out to a more westward-ho direction, passing Danbury, I am less cantankerous.  Having traveled the world at 40,000 feet, I can’t really say that I’ve ever been to Danbury, a.k.a. “The Hat City.” Even so, Danbury is the site of a federal prison where during the Second World War one in six inmates was a conscientious objector.  Obviously Danbury is not the microcosm we wanted to front to the Germans. One in six inmates in the United States’ federal prisons was a conscientious objector.  Suddenly this relative outpost had a population of highly educated men who enlisted other prisoners in their cause.  It is because local laborers began protesting in solidarity with the conscientious objectors that Danbury started desegregating its inmates.  One of the nation’s first to do so.
            Armed with even this trivia, I still wouldn’t recommend picking up a hitchhiker outside of Danbury.
            Still no sight of I-80, the continuous thread that pulls Utah in our direction as much as guides us westward.  It occurs to me that if its eastern terminus isn’t in Boston, where the hell is it?  San Francisco is its western anchor, that I’m sure of because of family vacations to nearby Palo Alton when I was a child.  It is the second-longest Interstate Highway, second only to I-90 and its first iteration of the Mass Pike.  I-80 is also the closest to the nation’s first cross-country road, the august Lincoln Highway.  It’s the great American West that cared the most about transcontinental travel, for obvious reasons. 
To date, there is a still a geographical inferiority complex in Westerners, from sports teams to publishing.  The only way to compete with the Eastern Seaboard, and to a lesser extent, the Pacific Coast states, is to build one’s own communities, start one’s own universities, start a symphony.  Build a damn Lincoln Highway that connects the homeless tempest tossed to homesteads in the great Mid, Mountain and Desert Wests.  Endure the quips and quotes from Mark Twain.  Celebrate one’s own, whether it be Edward Abbey or Wallace Stegner.  Stake a claim much like one does in the Sierra Nevada. 
            This is what one is reminded of when crossing the country at the end of 2010.  The hierarchy of place.  And only those of us from the West—or worse, from the sub-West (Utah)—even register the insult which smarts all the more.   No one comes to visit us in Salt Lake City compared to when we lived in New York.
            At this point, what hasn’t registered is how long it will take to get home.  Four to five days—it’s just one day after another over Christmas week.  So what?  Get er done, as they say.  Pedal to the metal and get er done.  It’s the American way, like going to the moon or executing a hostile corporate takeover to lay off thousands.
            Eighty Four takes us to the Connecticut/New York line.  Progress.  We are going North by Northwest toward the Hudson River and Newburgh.  When Cheryl drives she narrates everything, reading signs aloud, saying whatever pops into her head, which can be annoying.  She also drives painfully slow and hesitates dangerously whenever trying to pass another car or truck.  This is just my opinion, of course.  And I know that I am in dangerous, dangerous territory when I fault women drivers.  But it’s true.  And what makes it okay in my humble opinion, is that she finds fault with me as well, but for opposite reasons.  I drive too fast and am too distractable.  For this reason, we have come with a brilliant preamble whenever we get in the car together.  We both simply say to the other:  “You are the worst goddamned driver in the world and someday you’re going to murder us.”  The rule is we can say this as loudly and forcefully as we wish, but we cannot say anything for the duration of the road trip.
            I am reminded of this when we come to a grinding halt on the freeway for reasons that neither of us understands.  You’d think that not moving would be relaxing to a backseat driver, but it’s not.  Cheryl instantly starts calculating how much time we’re losing; how many miles we’ll have to add to the next day to catch up.  We turn off the engine.  A cop car with its lights flashing scurries by on the breakdown lane to the right.
            We turn on the radio.  Jesus, country western, Glenn Beck. Rock.  Next?  A little NPR please?   
            “Hey, that’s Foreigner dude.”  The man-boy speaks.  I thought he’d drifted off, absorbed by his I-pod.  But here he is.  I flip past Foreigner not realizing that “Hot Blooded” is as good as it’s going to get for a while here outside of  Pawling, New York, home of the oldest municipality-owned golf course in America and not one but two Metro-North train stops.  Nestled in the foothills of the Berkshires, it is “[a] compelling, stable community” reads its website.  This is what I need.  Stable ground that is equally compelling somehow, and not just because I play golf.  (I don’t.)
“But you’ve got to give me a sign,” the song plays…
Come on girl, some kind of sign
Tell me, are you hot mama? You sure look that way to me
I vaguely remember this song.  It came out the summer after my junior year in high school when I was just starting to feel a biting superiority to popular culture.  Of course it didn’t hurt that the song was overtly salacious.  Nothing more appealing to an insecure 11th grader than the double shot of esthetics-mongering and the righteousness of the religious.  Even though this is from my era, the man-boy can rattle off names of band members, like the vocalist Lou Gramm whose hard-edged, high-strung voice pummels this song with sexual fire… 
Well I’m hot blooded, check it and see
I got a fever of a hundred and three
Come on baby, do you do more than dance?
I’m hot blooded, I’m hot blooded
…and even controversy. 

Are you old enough? Will you be ready when I call your bluff?
Is my timing right? Did you save your love for me tonight?

More waling guitars. 

“This is going to really slow us down,” says Cheryl looking out the window at the wall of woods.  Funny how when one stops on a high-speed freeway, a complete stop, the world first takes on the scent of not only inconvenience, but inconsequence.  How dare the world conspire to stop me, is the sentiment.  But then there’s the resultant wake bumping you up and a little sideways on a swell from behind, the wake you were once leaving behind as you sped west suddenly.  It catches up with you, and there is a kind of regret in its aftermath that you have categorically let slip what was propelling you forward.  And its costs.  You regret that too.  At least the sun is out for a minute, limning clouds as it temporarily seeks a place from which to hang. 
We finish out with Foreigner, grateful, actually, for a conversational “in” with the man-boy.  This is where Cheryl and I come together as I imagine we wouldn’t be able to as easily if we were the man-boy’s biological parents.  Holding hands we routinely enter the openings provided by his expressed interests, even when they materialize as discourse about the “radness” of Monster Trucks, or, in this case, a genre of music the two of us claim to have transcended—or just misplaced to be more accurate–at this, the end of the first decade of the 21st Century.
            In the rear view mirror, I notice he has been reading U.S. Today, which he picked up outside our motel room door that morning.  He has written all over the Life section, scrawled words and dizzy designs in pen that make the paper look worn, thin. 
            “What are you writing?” I ask.
            “Stuff,” he says.  A conversational stopper for sure. 
            “Do you like that paper?”
            “It’s pretty cool.”  As a former freelance journalist, I consider launching into my staid-old diatribe about how Gannett’s flagship national paper experiment successfully bled dry its other city newspapers across the country during the 90s.  (Bastards.)  But I elect to forgo that for a potential teaching moment on the joys of reading print, fast disappearing.  Instead, in the silence he surprises me with:
            “Just some of my thoughts, you know.  That’s what I’ve been putting down.”  He laughs nervously, a laugh that both inures me to him and breaks my heart at the same time.  Cheryl is listening, good grandmother that she is, probably thankful for the diversion from calculating mileages.
            “Do you read many newspapers at East High?”
            “Not really,” he says.  Another stopper?
            “How far are you in your book?”
            “I dunno.  He’s still in Liverpool.  They’re talking about his mom.”
            “What about his mom?”
            “She gave him up.  And then she took him back later.”  Nervous laugh.  “Then she got hit by a car and died.”
            “Ouch!”  Cheryl has opened the atlas that is proving woefully inadequate.  It’s best if only one of us carries one-on-one with the man-boy, the other feigning disinterest.  For his sake, we presume.  To keep him talking.
            “Yeah.  It kind of sucked.”
            “Who raised him?  I mean after she gave him up.”  He is looking out the window on the driver’s side.  I can tell, even though I can’t see him without craning my neck.  It occurs to me that maybe he’s perched behind my seat so that he doesn’t have to give me eye contact.  This even though he has to sit sideways behind my seat to accommodate his knees.
            “His aunt.”  He says.  Now I know that the conversation is over.  At least for now.  And it’s just as well.  The traffic is starting to move again.  The sun has disappeared for the rest of the morning.