Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 2)


We manage to get to Southington, Connecticut by 9 p.m., and, since this is Connecticut, there will be no cocktail or glass of wine tonight.  By law, we can’t even buy beer as it is after 8 p.m. This is not hospitality even by my Utah standards, especially for the “Microcosm of America” which Southington was apparently billed by the War Department during World War II.  Photographers, we are told, roamed this small town on the Quinnipiac River, and published their photos of busy residents at work, and in their homes and churches in a pamphlet which was then dropped by the thousands from military aircraft over Nazi-occupied Europe.  This to highlight just how bucolic and value-driven Americans were in a land that also inspired the illustrator Norman Rockwell.
We find an EconoLodge on the edge of the American Microcosm, in a neighborhood known as Milldale famous for its American Clock and Watch Museum, which we won’t be seeing.  Being without alcohol, we can nevertheless log in and tune out on the internet which the motor lodge happily provides.  So while the man-boy collapses in front of the TV upstairs, his boots tumbled to the floor at the foot of his bed, I navigate Google Maps.  I-80 stretches across the screen in blessed digital format, the yellow brick road home that in my imagination has come to represent a lifeline out of the wilderness of the East.  Oh to see a vista!  To shoot across the prairie in our little Toyota.  To be home.
We have 2,250 miles to our driveway in Salt Lake City…by car.  Thirty days and one hour if we are to walk on a carefully planned path that will take us through a section of Canada and require that we board a ferry. (“Use caution – This route may be missing sidewalks or pedestrian paths.”)  If we prefer to bicycle it home, it will take us a mere 9 days and 2 hours if we follow the 1,341 points of direction filtered by Google and provided by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy with the following disclaimer:
These directions are for planning purposes only. You may find that construction projects, traffic, weather, or other events may cause conditions to differ from the map results, and you should plan your route accordingly. You must obey all signs or notices regarding your route.
Hell yeah, we’ll obey all signs or notices.
We decide to stick with the Toyota, despite the recent dangers, real or imagined, of sticking accelerator pedal recalls.
            Still there is some weird comfort in knowing that one can Google every configuration of how we will cross the country with the exception of going by camel. Weird because the internet is paradoxically home and an alien space craft the longer we traffic in it.  A Niagra Falls of the utterly inane and, at the same time, the utterly absorbing, so that when we leave life on the screen we are reminded—most of us are reminded—that it is virtual. Unreal.
            It is also the Great Facilitator to resisting work.  Somehow I feel as though sending an email is the same as getting work done when most of the time after clicking “send” what I’ve really done is just contributed to the debris of inner space.  Compounded by the ability to pull up whole threads of emails, one can show definitively (in a cyber kind of way) that WORK HAS BEEN DONE.  Not so.  Work has been delayed, flayed, held up under fluorescent lights as a monument to the similitude of work, of thought, of even, perhaps, real connection.  Email is where we go to avoid work or at least delay it.  It elevates TO, FROM, RE, SENT to a scream of productivity and self-importance.  Some offices, I’ve heard, have a quiet competition going on to see how long one can avoid talking to another, live person.
I have a theory:  here, at the end of the year 2010, the majority of us are so damn happy to think of ourselves as on what we use to call the “superhighway,” and no longer trying to figure out why we can’t get a dial tone on our AOL, that we are now doing what we always do.  We are digging in, making the collective groove that, as in unbridled “growth,” as in trickle down economics, as in the discovery of the wheel, for god’s sake, will eventually turn out to be a problem so acute that we are sitting around with our thumb up our ass and some long-haired pinko commie fag will have to batter us over the head for two decades to get us to wake up and smell the coffee.  As in global warming.
            My burrito rings.  It is Cheryl, upstairs.
            “Where are you?”
            I want to tell her somewhere over the news now pulsing on Comcast, our server of choice, about missile strikes inside Pakistan and how short weekly bouts of eccentric exercise may offer big health improvements, according to a story in the LA Times.
            “Still on the computer.  Google maps.  I’ll print it out and be right up.”
            The man boy and I have to wash our underwear in the sink for tomorrow.  She is probably playing good cop with him.  I am to show up, rapping on the door with my Billy club and demand that he roll his lank off the bed and away from the television showing a re-run of Rocky Balboa, which we’ve seen thrice and now own, but which is nevertheless the balm of the hour.  Demand that he strip off his boxers and wash them in the sink with shampoo.  And, with my boots and gear clanging at my imaginary policeman blues, I will need to be ready to counter his remonstration with: no you cannot just turn them inside out.  Actually, that’s what I would just as soon do myself.
            The room’s temperature, in typical Econolodge fashion, is impossible to get just right.  By morning we’ll be either sweltering under our starched sheets and polyester bedspread, or freezing our asses off.  Or, more predictably, the man-boy, who is closest to the unit (and in direct line of the massive TV) will be sweltering and we will be freezing.  No matter.  We are here for only our short 8 hours and then, as Cheryl has planned out, we will be on our way for the next 490-mile stretch.
            I will drift off into a fitful sleep in the Philadelphia of Rocky the boxer-turned-restaurant-owner.  Then being the light sleeper in the crowd, the insomniac even, I will wake, either sweltering or freezing, to turn the TV off.  Cheryl will be struggling to breath and the man-boy will be lying there, one arm pulled up over his head, his boxers drying on the towel rod.  He will have the half-levitating look in his young face of one who dreams about John Lennon in 2010.
The eight hours of rest turn into 10.  We were more tired than we thought. Outside, Connecticut is cold.  Snow banks in the parking lot now ice across from the plastic orange and Day-Glo mauve of a Dunkin’ Donuts that this morning in the frigid air shattered by the air brakes of nearby tractor trailers looks incontrovertibly unappetizing.  The Corolla looks forlorn next to the snow, its New York plates giving it instant contrarian definition in this otherwise sad sack excuse for a Microcosm of America.  Can one make a fair assessment of any place from the parking lot of a donut shop and an Econolodge?  Probably not, but assess we do.  What else can we do in late 2010 America except peer out from a temporary static point on the superhighway and take a snapshot with our camera phone?
            I load the car with our luggage then shiver back inside to join Cheryl and the man-boy for the free breakfast that comes with last night’s accommodations. To approach the breakfast nook of an American Motor Lodge is to approach an obstacle course.  Into this vortex one becomes a high school sophomore all over again.  Where do I go?  How do I act?  Mini bagels…toast with or without schmear?  The other two are already seated at a teetering table, everything in Styrofoam, plastic spoons barely concave enough to snare two Cheerios at a time.  Two men, one young one old, one thin, one fat, are at the next table, leaning against the wall, each with a white disposable cup designed to provide a token of coffee or tea before the MotorLodge bids ye farewell.  Cheryl, wearing the same black patterned dress with black leggings and boots as the day before, has a way of ingratiating herself to strangers, prematurely if you ask me.  She is already smiling and solicitous to them, eyes bright and inviting.  They are working stiffs, cuffed at the dungaree ankle, booted, flannelled both.  Grizzled as on-the-road men become, especially when only in the company of other men.  I twist my cornflakes out of the plexiglass dispenser, back and forth.  It takes one and half turns before the sheeny white disposable bowl is filled with no room for milk, sized to be held between fingers like a thimble:  “Eat thy morsel then Fare thee, well!”
            The two men are on the road, the younger, David, driving the rig with a double-wide pre-fab home, and the older, Clayton, driving the lead vehicle with “Wide Load” emblazoned on it.  This is their moment of repose, together, the backs of their chairs leaning against the cheesy, breakfast nook wall-paper.  It would appear that because of a recent stroke Clayton is no longer allowed to drive the rig.  He must wait a year before being allowed to drive and now, at age seventy, is following the much younger David who says less, is less sure of himself and seems ready to hit the road.  But Clayton, taking his cues from the inquiring Cheryl, recalls driving his rig in Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001.
            “Been there thousands of time, but never…never seen it like that.  Chaos.  The traffic either stopped still or racing like the devil.  Cop finally come up to me says, just get the hell out.  Get the hell out of New York or you’ll be here for a long time.”  He clamps down his teeth, looks thoughtfully at the floor.  Cheryl is a good listener.  She’s told him how she and I heard the second plane hit the towers in our Brooklyn apartment, before we moved back out west.  How we watched it on the television after a phone call from an out-of-town relative alerting us to what was going on.  For Clayton, as for all of us, I suppose, the story of 9/11 has migrated into an archive.  To retrieve the memory means to hazard re-living something that makes the throat catch, the heart race, the future to recede as fast as the past normally does.
            David nods in time to the story.  His left boot tips to the side, resting on the floor.  There is a hole in the sole.  The two of them look as ungainly as I feel, thrown together in a room of wobbly, pressed wood breakfast tables with fellow guests readying for the ride in the three-day old wake of Christmases past, the lobby tree, tumescent below a holiday cheer banner as flaccid as the tree is artificially erect, humming with lights.
            The man-boy has left his I-pod in the car the night before and is without wires.  Hunkered down over his tiny, inadequate bowl of Fruit Loops look-a-likes, he is listening to the conversation.  His long, light brown hair is still wet from the shower and shooting out from under his soiled blue baseball cap.  He was eight when America was attacked in 2001.  And being the thoughtful grandfather living in New York City at the time, I squirrled away the New Yorker (whose somber cover is completely black except for the merest hint of the twin towers) along with the front page of the Times.  For posterity, I thought at the time.  But it’s hard for me to think of him as caring for anything material like that in the age of Google.
            We’ll see.
            We bid the men goodbye.  Cheryl all smiles.  Warm.  If they could, the two of them might take her to lunch just so that they could keep talking to her.  I think of myself as a good conversationalist, friendly with strangers, always doing the asking.  But Cheryl’s authentic while I’m a performer.  Genuine while I just work the room.  It occurs to me that she is grounded by their regionalism—upstate New York for both of them but close enough to Yankeeland which she misses, although she is quick to say that she does not.  Most of the time.
Earlier, while I was showering, Cheryl had gone out and picked up a couple of T-shirts for me and the man-boy.  While she was wise enough to carry extra under things, and even another dress and tights, the man-boy and are what we wore out of Aunt Diane and Uncle Pete’s house the morning before.  Now he and I are twins, pocketed T’s that have that starched, creased look to them right off a hanger or a box.  We both wear a size large and I can’t help but notice as the man-boy slips his on how much he’s filled out in the shoulders.  And though I have forty pounds on him now, I realize that very soon he’ll not only be taller than I am, but larger.   This is not what I want to hear.  The boy has been living with us full-time for four years and, in typical male fashion, our bodies have been the nexus of our competition with each other.  It wasn’t that long ago, perhaps eighteen months or so, that the rough-housing had to stop.  We were standing in the tiny bedroom where Cheryl and I don’t make love anymore due to our sudden full-time parental duties in a tiny house, and the boy was slugging me in the arm.  Hard slugs, really, at age 15+, proving for the hundredth time where he ends and I begin.  I had taken to hitting him back, all in good fun.  Right?
It’s the way we show affection for each other, I had told Cheryl who whenever she heard us grappling, would scold us and the dog would start barking.
“It’s just our competitive nature coming out.”
She looked at me worried, unbelieving.  “Your father used to overpower you to the point that you hated him,” she reminded me.  “You’re doing the same thing with him.  He doesn’t like it.”
That was early on when the man-boy was first hitting puberty.  So early on I set a policy for this boy who was often trying to get a reaction out of me through his fists:  don’t ever start it.  But there was another policy I decided on that, even still, I’m not so sure about when it comes to the boy turned man-boy who lives with me.  It doesn’t do him any good to handicap yourself, to hold back, or the man-boy will never know what he is capable (or not capable) of.  He’ll never know what it means to have and honor a worthy opponent in life.
That worked for a while.  He would give me his best shot, to the arm or to the chest, and I would give it back, both of us ever-calibrating in that tussling way males have when muscle was being flexed and where the kidneys lay.  But, as in that tussling way males have, calibrations make way for besting the other, at times at any cost, and emotions flood the plains.  Perhaps it was that, or perhaps it was just that sometimes we could not decide when the other was game for the game, and heartily resented it when a fist came out of nowhere in the hall, the car, or, on this particular fateful day, in the bedroom.
“You hit me harder than I hit you!” he exclaimed, eyes flashing in a head whose hair still sported a buzz.
“I hit you as hard as you hit me,” I said.  “And I wasn’t expecting it.  You always start these things but then you get pissed when I fight back.”
He slugged me again.  Hard in the shoulder.  I hit him back, my frustration growing.  “Cut it out!”  He said, rubbing his arm.
“You cut it out.”

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue, Part 20

[Dear Blog Followers:  As I get closer to sending this project off to an agent for possible publication, I have changed my wife’s name to “C.” and my grandson’s name to “Derek.”  Thanks for reading…]

Part 20

On to Wyoming. In truth this is not the first time C. and I have driven this stretch. It’s not even the first cross-country trip we’ve taken together. In November 1991, after six months of dating, we decided to relocate her to the City of Saints next to the Great Salt Lake where I was based with the airline. I had made numerous trips to Satellite Beach, Florida where she had been forcibly relocated from Maine—and separated from her pre-Derek daughter. First in April when, this being the second and final separation from my wife, she took me under her wing. Three days later, my petulance even starting to wear on myself, I returned to Salt Lake. But the visits continued. I would fly in for a layover to Orlando or Melbourne and she would drive in for visits, and I would whisk away on a Boeing 757 or the MD88 (“Mad Dog”) back to my other life. In June she came out to Utah for my birthday, where the bombshell of our conjugal visits was dropped with my at first disbelieving (very religious) parents. And…the rest is cross-country history. In November I found myself driving a truck half the size of our first New York apartment and towing a little Toyota she called “Chuck.”

All of this to say that this is our second time traversing Wyoming in the winter.

Skirting the corner of Colorado, I-80 takes us through Chappell then Sidney, and we cross the state line at Pine Bluffs at 2 pm, several miles south of where the Mormon Trail still follows the North Platte. There are no pines in sight in Pine Bluffs where, again, I-80 and its predecessor, the Lincoln Highway, converge, running parallel all the way to the state capitol and onto Laramie where the Lincoln heads due north. Cheyenne is of course named after the Native American nation, but as with most big western cities there is little evidence of Indians there except as a memorial. We head down into the historic district, across the tracks, crunching over snow pack and to the Capitol Building, cast in a strange bluing light here in the mid-afternoon. At 6,000 feet elevation this is one of the windiest cities in the country with the Chinook driving down from the Eastern flank of the Rockies. And today, New Year’s Day, the place is positively dead. It has been said that the most enduring relics of those who have gone before will be found in names. It is thus in Cheyenne. In the streets of the downtown area are found the names of the early engineers and officials the Union Pacific railroad: Evans Ave. (James A. Evans, Division Engineer), Seymour Ave. (Silas Seymour, Consulting Engineer), Maxwell Ave. (James Riddle Maxwell, civil engineer). Despite the names, and the memory of the natives who existed long before the trappers, pioneers or the railroad, Cheyenne is an empty city today, unbearably lonely. On airline layovers in Milan or Paris, the streets in August were similarly bereft of denizens, much as they are in American cities on a holiday like Christmas and New Year’s. Here, I suppose we’re all holed up with family watching television and picking over the carcass of a turkey which, I might add, can be an equally distressing scenario. The close-knit blood lines of Western Families ala The Ponderosa outside TV’s Virginia City are as big a myth as what we’ve come to believe of the Cowboy. In fact, in 1982, Cheyenne was the site of a notorious dysfunctional family that ended in patricide, a prequel to the much more notorious Menendez Brothers’ murders in 1989 and the trials that followed.

The Cheyenne incident happened right after I returned from my Mormon mission to New England and involved a 16-year old boy shooting his father with a shotgun while his sister sat in the living room with a rifle in case he missed. An IRS agent, Richard Janke was, by all reports, a monster, abusing his two children and wife Maria while isolating them from any neighbors near their house on Cowpoke Road and, with his first love—guns—praying for a prowler to enter his house so that he could “blow his brains out.” Cheyenne seemed like a distant world to me in 1982, and yet it was just up the interstate—a straight shot—from where I lived in Utah.

Even before the trial of her boy Richie, convicted of manslaughter and sent to prison, Maria had found a new life. In an article she talked to a reporter of the kindness of her neighbors. “I remember leaning down over his body when suddenly I felt a hand touch mine,” Maria reported to People Magazine from her home. “I looked up and saw George Hain, who lives across the street and came running over. He said, ‘I’m here if you need me.’ My whole life I was so isolated; I knew nobody. George called the police station and when they were finished questioning me, the police said, ‘Your neighbors, the Hains, want you to spend the night with them.’ I couldn’t believe it. …Oh, I’m going to live. I’m going to live to the hilt. My son has freed me. He has freed all of us.” (People, March 7, 1983, Vol.19, No. 9)

This is what I think of as we head back out to I-80, the plasma that forms under virtually any human circumstance. How this stream of motorized cells, of semis and sedans, SUVs and little rental Toyotas with New York plates like ours have become a longitudinal site of belonging– by necessity and by proximity, by one’s mere direction, the vector West. That we would watch one another’s backs out here—and not just one another’s back fenders. That we would leap out of our vehicle on a frozen Iowa stretch to see if there was anyone in the overturned car, encrusted in ice. That we would greet one another with good will, even share our stories in the truck shops next to the coffee bar, with the cash registrar—our surrogate mum. And that that she would give us a little something, a nod, a sort of blessing with the bump back of the cash drawer sounding as we gather our wares and turn back to the road, a critical American artery that carries a current of our lifeblood, our history and our future.

The 16-year old Richie may have saved his mom and his sister, but he couldn’t save himself, sentenced for a prison term of five-to-fifteen years. The Governor eventually commuted the sentence and the boy spent his remaining months as a minor in a reform school.

The radio plays Led Zeppelin, and Derek talks about Jimmy Page, the great guitarist who still can jam with the best of them.

“Is he the greatest guitarist?” I ask, the high plain moving toward the mountain pass that will drive us up, up and then down, down into another windswept Wyoming city, the second largest. “We’ve already talked about that,” he says annoyed. He reaches through the two of us up front, a long arm with the hair and musculature that seems teeming with life, and turns up the volume.”

Hey, hey, mama, said the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove.

Okay, so this is where he is. I can hardly blame him. He’s been stuck in the back of the car going on five days. It could be worse. He could be so sullen that he doesn’t even acknowledge us.

Oh, oh, child, way you shake that thing, gonna make you burn, gonna make you sting.

Hey, hey baby, when you walk that way, watch your honey drip, can’t keep away.

At least this group, at least in the relatively early album that included “Stairway to Heaven” wasn’t trying to reinvent popular music through a disco beat. No. It’s more of what we’ve all known and loved: barely legal lyrics smothered in a penetrating beat and waling guitars. Honey drip?

Ah yeah, ah yeah, ah, ah, ah. Ah yeah, ah yeah, ah, ah, ah.

When the song ends, I turn down the volume.

“I remember when my sister brought that album home in the 70s.” I’ve said the right word: Seventies. Derek’s obsession with The Simpsons led us, for a time, to buy him his trove of 70s-style junk—not just the turntables which are making a comeback, but a portable 8-track player and even mounted phones with rotary dials in powder blue and bright red. Fully operational and hanging on the walls of our little Salt Lake cottage even as we streak home.

“Really?” he says with renewed interest. “Wasn’t that scandalous?” He’s mocking me now. But playfully. I use the term “scandalous” all the time, mostly because we seem to be living in an age where nothing’s not been tried, printed or broadcasted or internet-ized, from porn to politics. Truth is, nothing’s a scandal anymore, not Super Pacs, not a pre-emptive war in Iraq, not students at East High School in Salt Lake City who live in cars.

“My parents didn’t know what was in those lyrics. The beat drove them away before they could comprehend it. Hell, we didn’t even know was in those lyrics. Still don’t.

And as we wind on down the road

Our shadows taller than our soul.

There walks a lady we all know

Who shines white light and wants to show

How everything still turns to gold.

And if you listen very hard

The tune will come to you at last.

When all are one and one is all

Huh? But a song like “Stairway,” a group like Led Zeppelin, a guitarist like Jimmy Page, it all served to delineate us from the generations before us. That and the album art which my sister Karolla—my grandmother’s name, not the name of the Toyota we are driving– prominently displayed whenever the album was on the family console stereo upstairs while she did her Saturday chores. It was a stairway to somewhere, and we were on it.

Not sure if Derek is on that stairway too. But then…I wouldn’t know, right? I’m on my parents’—my grandparents’ even—he’s the one “buying the Stairway to Heaven.”

Derek looks thoughtful in the back seat, thinking, perhaps about all of this as I am. Or just bored out of his gourd, lost in Derekland which can terrify me and C. as much as it disables him. There is a territory Derek’s generation regularly goes to—it’s more than a kind of built-in cyber space; it’s too much talk of end times, a stark hopelessness that the older generations have fallen to in this so-called Great Recession. It’s a landscape that Derek and his age group travel to, sometimes live for a terrifying amount of their day. And it’s a place that can’t be gotten to. So as parents, we just have to wait. Wait out not the storm but the lull and absence of our children who seem to have accepted that this time around America isn’t going to be found in forging ahead. The actionable deliverables of your historical frontiersman, Students for a Democratic Society. Unions. A conjoined cowboy president like Bush/Cheney. “How fragile we are,” to quote Sting, the one rock star that seems to have at least tried to grow up, move on. So fragile that all that had to happen to tip us over as a people was not being able to buy at Walmart anymore all the collective shit we demand.