Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue. (Part 1)

We leave Boston’s Logan determined to be self-directed, free. I’ll be damned if I am going to sit there for up to four days, we were told by surprisingly kind customer service representative at the other end of the airline’s “Need Help?” red phone. Cheryl had done all the talking while the man-boy and I sat, he plugged into his I-pod, me stewing moodily in my thoughts while trying not to be drawn in by the elevated screen flashing the inevitably bizarre landscape of American “news.”

“Did you tell her we wanted to buy tickets? On any airline?” I say when Cheryl comes back to our territory marked with coats and bags, an empty sandwich box, my beer on the floor next to my seat, just waiting to get kicked over. “I think this is a good time to use that emergency credit card, you think?” Cheryl is smiling her way over through the crowds. She can manage her wan smile even under duress while I feel that at a certain point of aggravation with things, I deserve the luxury of a frown. After all, I’m now retired from the airline. I don’t have to sport the molded plastic smile anymore.

“There are no flights,” says Cheryl and sits. She is rummaging in her tote bag for something, her thumb still in the book she’s reading—a fictional meditation on cholera… “No,” I say with impatience as well as a flourish. “We’ll just fucking buy full fare. We’re never getting out of here as non-revs.” I glance at the man-boy who is still plugged in. He gets upset sometimes when I punch up my language. Something that happened in his past. But he’s still plugged in, oblivious.

“You don’t understand,” says Cheryl. “They aren’t selling anything for today, or tomorrow. We’re looking at Jan. 1, the earliest.” Three days away.

“What about American? United? If we’re going to go full fare…”

“None of them are selling tickets, Dave” she interrupts emphatically and then looks at me, waiting for it to sink in. Our situation. The man-boy is trying to read our conversation through the clamoring noise of classic rock and roll. Led Zeppelin? Pink Floyd? Or his favorite, the Beatles? Classic or not, the three have virtually nothing in common with each, I think. But the man-boy is far ranging these days. Perhaps he’s turned down the volume…or turned off the I-pod which he can do discretely with his hand gripping it in the pocket of the coat he never seems to take off.

Cheryl looks at me and gives me her smile. This is the critical moment when a decision must be made, and despite my forceful language, I am going to wait for her. Being the older of us, she is the decider. What do they call it? The one who is pro-active. That way if it goes badly I can complain as the put-upon-one. And if it goes well…well, I’ll always be able to find something to harp on. Either way I won’t be the reason we’re going back into debt. Plus, I have a back up. Even if we don’t rent a car or buy three, full-fare tickets back to Salt Lake City, we’re paying a dog sitter $50 a day at, already, 15 days. Cheryl’s insistence.

“Let’s just rent a car and drive,” she says with what I’ve come to think of as Yankee, non-Western determination. “Let’s just get in a car and get the hell out of here.”

This is what I wanted her to say. The thought of sitting in this chrome and carpeted concourse—eating $15 lobster roll sandwiches—and counting my beers is more than I can handle. We’ve already had to drive from Portland at the recommendation of the gate agent there who told us our chances of flying non-rev, short-hand for free passes for airline and retired-airline employees, are better out of Boston. The agent, with carefully arranged hair to look non-arranged and bust that her otherwise tidy uniform could not hide, was standing with me in the Portland, Maine baggage claim room, the smell of plastic and sweat in the piles of tagged, tipped over and sometimes mutilated luggage—some with dust on them–the buzz of a fluorescent light above us. She was being inordinately helpful, as fellow airline employees are to each other—giving the inside scoop, the way around the problem that only those of our tribe can access.

The three of us leave the airport, gathering up our stuff that has spread out over six seats in some kind of effort to stake a claim on airport real estate while we wait. And we are at a distinct handicap. Our level of technology is woefully inadequate. I have only an old LG flip phone. No access to the internet where we can roam the standby lists, make new listings, look up passenger loads. Strategize. (Thus Cheryl’s earlier phone call to reservations.) Half of my desire to get out of the airport is based on the embarrassment of not having at least a laptop I can tool around on. But this punching of numbers on a phone whose tones I haven’t learned how to silence for my fellow, more tech-savvy Americans, is too much for me to bear.

We leave. Cheryl and I rolling our carry-ons, the man-boy carrying his for the same reason I carried mine everywhere for the first five years as a flight attendant: to distinguish myself as somehow tough, not gay like the rest of the guys in my class at Western Airlines. And we head down the escalator, through the corridor that splits off between arriving and leaving passengers and towards the heavy metal doors, complete with sentinel standing guard, through which once we traverse there will be no returning. Check Point Charlie.

We move to the door. It whisks open. The sentinel follows us with his eyes, unsmiling or just bored, one leg up on the chrome bar of his black-cushioned bar stool. What are we supposed to give him? Some kind of secret handshake to pass through?


In Baggage Claim I am frantically calling from the car rental booth lighted by every garish and stylish car rental logo available—which is to say all of them in this great country of ours. Frantic, because I’m convinced that the hoards of stranded passengers will be doing the same thing and that cars will disappear quickly. Cheryl and the man-boy have gone to see if we can claim our luggage (we won’t be able to; all three of them have left for Utah without us) while I stand guard over our meager belongings while trying to figure out whether Hertz, Avis or Thrifty will be our rental of choice.

Armed with a plan but with little or no accountability for making the plan, I am driven to make that plan happen, and am driven to walk out of the airport and into the rain that is about to begin to freeze, into the New England night and into the shuttle, my little family with our modest belongings slung over our shoulders, hats pulled down, I-pod glowing. We will motor over to the Mass Pike with a figurative flipping of the bird to the massively disappointing airline industry, the inconvenience of East Coast life. Yes, we will flip a collective middle finger over our shoulder without looking back. The Great American gesture of defiance and entitlement, like the glass John Hancock Tower standing on the back bay of Shawmut Peninsula and flipping off Mother England. But this time we will be shouting the equivalent of Screw Fucking You! to someone infinitely closer than Europe, or the Middle East—our touted enemies–or that great, brooding non-touted enemy, China. Someone infinitely closer, indeed. But first we have to get out of the rental car parking lot.

The attendant looks at me blankly when I ask her how best to get to I-80. For some reason, I thought 80 ran all the way from Boston across the fruited plains all the way to the West Coast. She hands me a map of greater Boston with an inset of Logan International, and keeps typing up the details of our Toyota Corolla with an $800 drop fee. She is a large girl, with an almost practiced, put-upon frown that doesn’t put up with any shit. I am more than familiar with that frown, having walked the aisles of many a Boeing and McDonnell Douglas contraption, the frown gripping my face, the beacon of a full body composition that says you are a professional but only skin deep. Don’t fuck with me, a variation of “Don’t Tread on Me,” from colonial times, but contemporized.)

I pull out my old LG, the flip phone from another age as thick with its faux-leather sheath as a bean and cheese burrito but not so tasty. We call our daughter (and the man-boy’s mother) Julianne who lives in Salt Lake with her boyfriend Travis. For the moment we are on speaking terms with her.


“Where are you?”

“Boston. We’re driving home.”

“To Salt Lake?”

“Look. I need you to do us a favor.” There is little that suggests that which is life-affirming in a parking lot at night. Even less in an east coast parking lot at an airport. Something about plopping down behind the wheel of a car while vibrating to the sound of jet engines.

“Can’t you just buy a ticket?” she says. “You guys are going to be a week…”

“I need you to look up the northern route to Utah. I-80.”

Outside, the night converges as I remember dark, dirty Boston nights did when I lived here 24 years ago. Cheryl looks at me with patience. She is in trooper mode. Gonna get out of here in one piece.

I can hear Julie talking to Travis who is clicking away on his keyboard. The two of them in protracted, internally-heard cyber-speak…coaxing, thinking out loud with all the markers of our shared, webbed world.

“It’s I-90,” she says finally. You need the Mass Pike, I-90.

“Then where, where is I-80?”

“You sure you don’t want to go south to DC and across through Tennessee? The weather, you know. Freezing rain, snow…”

I persist. “I thought I-80 was a straight shot west to the Rockies, north of Denver.” Really what this is all about is that I don’t won’t to have to think beyond the nose of the car about what direction to go. Plus—and this is something I don’t really want to admit—I need the comfort of something familiar. “I wish I had a road that I could skate away on” to quote the warbling Joni Mitchell, and that road has to be I-80.

Julie gives me the directions. Cheryl scribbles them down, her glasses perched precariously on her nose, and I snap my phone shut.

There was a time when I was completely charmed by this, the colonial town of bean-ness. So charmed I didn’t want to return home after my two-year stint going door-to-door and canvassing in Harvard Square and Boston Common. But now there is only one way through my mental fix. One way out. And it is west.

The Mass Pike is broad and steely cold, be-lining in a concrete trough below the street level of the city. There are billboards flat against the cement walls on either side, one, I see out of the corner of my eye, touting the Goddamned-given rights to own a gun–a too-tidy reaction to the election of Obama over two years ago, if you ask me. Even so, in the yellow city crime light and dingy concrete canyon, there is a moment where it actually seems to make sense, this owning a gun out of some inchoate fear.

The man boy is in the back seat, legs folded sideways in the best Japanese-made car made in the U.S.A. (sort of) for our money (and good mileage to boot). It’s too dark to read his book on Lennon so he is just sitting in the alternating bands of light and shadow. He’s watching as Cheryl and I are, the world opening out in a thin ribbon of road. I am not above projecting what he might be thinking, and I am there—the man in charge—with a quick judgment of him. He can’t possibly know what lies ahead of him. For this, my live-in grandson, he can only be thinking that this is a drive a little further than Evanston, Wyoming where we have taken him to buy illegal fireworks; or Arizona where we visit Cheryl’s sister when the Maine winters get to be too much for her.

We take a pit stop at Gulf Mart, in West Framingham (or so the sign says). One of the infamous private/public partnerships: exclusive rights to road-weary interstate travelers in need of gas, or a hot dog on a limp white bun. The Pike reverberates behind us, and as the three of us cross the damp parking lot and into the brittle light of the shop, I am still in charge, having just spent more money than we have. We walk towards the chrome and glass bay of refrigerators. I can tell the man-boy is waiting for permission of some sort. “Whatever you want,” I say as off-handedly as I can. I am performing a kind of swagger motivated by a sense that I am the wagon leader here.

Cheryl is humming along in survival mode. She’s picking up huge bottles of water, one for each of us. Trail mix. Dried fruit, as if we’re in need of pioneer stores to load into our covered wagon. The next thing, I think, will be matches and a poncho. I head to the wiener department, snagging a road atlas on the way. We haven’t had anything since the $15 lobster roll sandwich at Logan, and the man-boy won’t figure out he’s hungry for something other than a candy bar until we get back on the road. I load up two hot dogs for him. One for me. Ketchup on his, but no mustard—the way he likes them. The dogs are my rough, inarticulate caring gesture for the one now taller than I am.

We get in line. The clerk is not much older than the man-boy and he is intolerably cheerful to the flannel jacket amassed in front of us, blue jeans and scuffed work boots with the metal showing through on the big toe of each. The clerk is smiling. Red vest in place. (“Can I help you find anything else.”) Eyes aglow. The man in front of us—in his late 30s—at least ten years my junior, is grizzled. Leaving work late. Probably drives a truck. The kind of Bay Stater you forget populates Massachusetts even three miles outside of the capitol. While the man-boy and I wait for “Nana” still eyeing the lip balm, I look at him and give him a tight smile. He pulses his eyebrows up, once. It is our short hand for acknowledging one another without giving away where each of us is. Our aerial handshake that, like a gangsta—knuckle bumps and fancy grips—speaks somehow as much of our distrust and suspicion of each other as it does any kind of familial intimacy. Nana arrives with everything, it seems, but a bathtub quickly filled with water.

“What?” She says sheepishly. The man-boy and I exchange another look, consummately sexist. But it is as good as it will get tonight, between him and me. A conspiracy of ridicule to elevate ourselves. The kind of vaulting brotherhood, hard-wired, even for me, a recently retired flight attendant for a major carrier who walked proudly the line between the sexes for twenty-five years without seeming condescension to the other half.

Back on the Pike, just before it starts looking like the Berkshires, we pay the exit toll and then angle south on I-84 towards Hartford. If we can just get beyond there, we can look for a place to overnight—maybe even get as far as PA. Compared to the Pike, our way now seems to be through the wilds, the Mass.-to-Connecticut countryside forbiddingly dark, towering pines on either side. Is this the real start of our journey? I tilt my head back into the narrow headrest. A sigh is in order. The way is now calmer.

I reach out to grasp Cheryl’s hand, still tight as a nut around her other hand, a fist. She isn’t ready to take my hand in return. Not yet. She pats me and says something about the number of miles we will need to log (490) if we are to make it home before we both have to go back to work on the 3rd. She is very much in charge here. What she says, we will do. I know that, and it is both a relief as well as an irritant. A contradiction that you would think I would work around, transcend, resolve here in my 49th year of life. It often means that I have to be on guard whenever we are in real, decision-making time: where to buy a house, how to think, and when to change lanes. On guard because I have to appear as though I have my own opinions, and more important, compelling reasons for them that sing with clarity.

But we are set in our ways. “Wicked” set, as her nephews back in Rhode Island would say. And so I do not, or cannot at this point, realign the dynamic. What drew me to her nineteen years ago was her certainty. Something that I was desperate to flee from after the end of my first marriage. All the certainty that had collared me into a bad marriage, a bad life and an impossible view of the world. But what is strong enough to wrest one from a certainty, of one’s youth, and of one’s family and of…everything, than another, equally certain certainty?

But all of that seems irrelevant now as we follow our headlights through the New England countryside because I am not only ordering the sigh after our harried jettison from airline land, I am inured by my beloved. It is the countryside, I confess. The land from whence she came coupled with the time that has passed—oh, I’ll just say it, nostalgia. I’m adrift in it, remembering how freeing she had made me feel and therefore how everything that spawned her settled sweetly in me. The hoary pilgrim homes, myriad hardwood trees and pine that grew without anyone having to plant them. The abrupt conversational style. Her father’s working-class-turned-upper-middle-class penchant for doing all things for himself, risking life and limb re-roofing that hoary pilgrim house with the 20 percent slope.

Cheryl, who is eleven years my senior, sometimes says that perhaps I would have been better off left alone after my divorce. That what she brought into my life has made me older before my time. But for me there is daylight in her smile even here in the dark. Even though her worried state leaning forward in the car and peering into a past life has yet to bend into a smile. And I remember that this is the place that she left by choice. This is her desert, just as Utah is mine—the place I entertain for the express purpose of someday leaving. And what has ostensibly made me older—the man-boy in the backseat, his head jacked back and to the left against the window, his mouth wide open—is, I’m sure something more than just an agent of age. But what I’m still not sure.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 4)

Part 4

Down out of the Berkshires, winding on 84 still desperately seeking I-80, down towards the Hudson River which I announce so that the man-boy will see the important geographical features of our trip.
            “Cool” he says in response.  “Cool.”
            Someday, I think.  He will remember all of this.  Or will he?  He will remember the crazy trip we took in the same clothes for four-five days with his grandparents, and he will remember it with some kind of fondness, I hope.  That is my hope.  It really is.
            On the bridge, I get a glimpse of the mighty Hudson, and then it is gone.  Back into the trees, but we like to think that New York is substantively different than Connecticut.  These days, post post-modernist days, culture which is perceived is reality, right?  The social construction of reality.  Isn’t that what we were bandying about in graduate school in the late 80s?  So, yes.  New York is materially different than its neighbor to the east because culture makes material.
            I decide not to share this insight with the man-boy.  Maybe if he goes to graduate school himself.
            New York state is short-lived.  And just as well.  We’ve done our time in the Empire State.  Seen it all.  Or at least that’s how we present it to others out west.  Been there, done that.  Burrowed about for our seven years in the subways.  Sampled all the diners from Washington Heights to Park Slope.  Done the proverbial upstate swing through the Catskills, Albany, Ithaca, Syracuse, Rochester, the Finger Lakes and Mormon Country (Important to me.  Or is it?),  Niagara Falls, then south to mid-PA where we are headed now for an extended segment of the trip designed to show the airline industry just how much we don’t need it.
            I-80 must be around here, somewhere.  The way west.  The way home.  As we turn south toward Scranton the hills pile up, the rail yards pool up against the interstate, the factories lie fallow.  The mill town struggling to re-invent itself, like Pittsfield, Mass when I was knocking on doors for the Gospel According to Joseph Smith.  Or the Irish Catholic symmetry of South Boston, row houses guarded by bathtub Marys, corner shops guarded by tattooed men sitting on plastic milk crates.  But, in the spirit of Derrida, Scranton is defined as much by Steve Carrell’s “The Office” as it is by its disposable history of anthracite coal and Joe Biden.  Anyone care to disagree?
            This is a show that we cannot share very successfully with the man-boy, though admittedly, he has eclectic tastes in film and video from “The Simpsons”—which he spent over a decade enthralled by–to “127 Hours” in which Aaron Ralston’s walk-up to sawing his arm off in a Utah slot canyon is as much about the fever dream as the detachment of flesh and bone.  I think this boy, who has his generational if not gender-specific appetite for gratuitous video violence, sees for the first time in this feature film the articulated path for why blood and gore is the necessary expression of something internal.  The terror and terrain of his life, generically adolescent but unique to his circumstances.
“The Office,” with its penchant for celebrating the inanities of life amongst the same group of fictitious Dunder-Mifflin dunderheads is the only television show that at the end of 2010 can make me laugh out loud at the end of the day.  And it is the only show that will keep me from migrating to PBS at the end of the day, after Cheryl has fallen asleep amidst shows that spend more than 50 percent of their time lingering over an autopsy.  Steve Carrell is the guilty pleasure I indulge in when I’m not turning over every stone funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and “Viewers Like You.  Thank you!” to fund my perpetual complaint-based inner dialogue with America and Its Woes.
Then, before I know it, before I’ve left the ubiquitous Levelors opening and closing as framing devices around the characters in a Scranton paper company–that regularly features cameos on Skype of the Texas CEO Kathy Bates–we are suddenly leaving 84 and the short-lived connector, 380 through the Poconos, and merging with Interstate 80.
Hallelujah! Praise Jesus and Glenn Beck.
Cheryl and I trade off in White Haven where we gas up.  I can’t tell you how good it feels to be on the asphalt that extends west through PA, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming…to Utah, “Star of all the West” to quote an old 19th Century hymn.  It’s a thoroughfare that beelines for home and allows me to go on an automatic of sorts.   No more poring over the atlas, scoping out the tangled freeway signs in green.  Now I really can settle in on cruise control:  2,080 miles.
“We’re going to want to do something fun, something rewarding,” repeats Cheryl for the third or fourth time.  “Otherwise, we’re going to hate this.  It’s going to fry us.”  She’s right of course.  What that field trip might be, however, baffles me.  As a flight attendant for twenty years, I was oriented through airports, not freeways.  You’re not really in Chicago unless you’re at O’Hare, in the shuttle or at the nearby Ramada with a report time of 5:00 a.m. Chicago is the Palmer House for longer layovers and a ride on the El to a Giordano’s for pizza or a bar in Lincoln Park.  Chicago is a walk in your layover clothes along Michigan Avenue past the Wrigley Building and the river dyed green for St. Patrick’s Day or a jog along the lake.  It’s the descent over that lake on a winter day where through the port hole, the noon-day sun is glinting off the white caps, the ice and the Sears Tower looking like a giant, latticed cattle prod black against the sky.  Chicago is the destination, not the destination plus the road to, wherever that may be.
Since I’m riding shot gun, I break out the atlas.  Other than knowing that this is our yellow brick road home, I don’t know where the yellow brick wends.  We are moving at a good clip, making good time.  The roads are dry, and even though it’s cold the light is good, lowering in the southwest, rising in inverse proportion to us above the hills of hard wood forests as we sink repeatedly into vales, mist rising above fallow fields backed by red Pennsylvania barns, dotted with houses persistently white.  We are quiet through these picturesque scenes, humbled by the static beauty that we are somehow skirting, even violating by our speed.  These are not towns, but homesteads, linked by country roads   Here and there, metallic silos, some whitewashed to match the more angular homes pin down the roads, anchor the fields…Repeatedly, I look in turn to my charge now at angles to my seat, to see where the man-boy is, what his expression holds.  Who he is.  But always, when he catches my eye, and we bump our eyebrows up in acknowledgment of each other, sometimes with a smile, it is the yellow light of a semaphore:  proceed with caution; clear the intersection.
What do I want from this boy sitting just inches from me?  What do I need?  Is it okay to need anything from a seventeen year old who is riding nearly all the way across country with you? One who depends on you and your wife for virtually everything? Filtered through the windows, the sun lies scattered on his fair complexion.  At times the light strobes.  He is there.  He isn’t there.  He is there.  He….
“Everything good?” I ask.
He nods.  “Everything’s good.”  And then he does that thing he does.  He reaches out casually and pats my shoulder.  Once.  Twice.   Now I am glad that we chose the Toyota Corolla, a small car even with its potential accelerator that might stick as we risk flying off I-80, elevated as we are on a mountain south of a scene so mysterious that it is as likely to eat us alive as it is to continue to enthrall us.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 5)

Part 5

Robert Bly

The man-boy not only knows all the lyrics of classic Rock and Roll songs, but the names of the musicians, the dates of most songs and the cultural milieu.  It’s a walk through American history.  How that is possible, I don’t know.  This musical terrain is only vaguely familiar to me; was only ever vaguely familiar to me when I was his age.  Snatches of lyrics, the steady stream of groups’ names—Kiss, Boston, Def Leppard, Mettalica, Megadeth—at which point I changed the proverbial channel for the next two decades.  It was a stream that went underground and then re-surfaced when Joe’s mother came to live with us in 1991 and she had a CD by a group called Nirvana.

             It is a terrain which has been documented, for better and for worse, in Cleveland at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.  Having the excellent catalogue in my acculturated head that I do, I am reminded of this and mention it to get points with the boy.
“Maybe we should stop in.  See what it’s like.”
“Awesome!” he says.  Since I’m riding shot gun at the moment, I return to the atlas, madly calculating the triangle route from I-80 northwest and back while subtracting the hypotenuse.
I, the 49-year old, too-young-to-be-a-grandfather –to-a-seventeen-year-old can win points in a way that no one else can.  My above-it-all perspective from flight attending resulted in a kind of guerilla-styled touring across the nation during two decades, and it yields this:  we can make the man-boy exceedingly happy as we barrel down I-80 to home by first announcing that the hall of fame of his dreams is within a short detour of where we we’re going and that I am game enough to make it happen.  That’s what I do. It’s what we used to call “gumption”:  I’m the one who makes it happen.
The light is fading, exquisite shadings on the vast PA hardwoods.  We will not make it to Ohio this evening, so we start looking for a place to stay.  This is the beauty of America.  Drive anywhere and virtually within the time it takes to start needing to take a wazz, or feel the next pang in three squares a day, and there’s a truck stop, a convenience store and–if you’re lucky–a bona fide mom-and-pop diner.  Emlenton, Pennsylvania is one of these, but better.  The Plaza is both a truck stop and a restaurant/diner famous, we are about to learn, in these here parts.
By the time we pass the famous Emlenton Bridge which I get the impression was built first followed by the town itself, it is dark.  We pull off onto Clintonville Road then parallel I-80 West, turn left into the Plaza, move around to the south, pull into a parking place and our little Corolla quiets itself.  We are far enough from the yellow brick road so that it emits the pensive, Doppler sound that elicits reflection, and for a moment none of us move, the engine ticking, a collective sigh rising in us. None of us is particularly hungry, I realize.  It’s just that it’s that time of the day, and if we don’t find sustenance now we’ll be raiding the candy machines at the next Econo Lodge.
While Cheryl and the man-boy head in, I head out, around the edge of the sprawling complex baked in what seems like acres of asphalt where trucks the size of small  buildings feel right at home as they turn around in an arc that seems as wide as Arkansas.  I need to stretch my legs, get my lungs pumping something other than the stale air of fatigue.  Around the back of the place there’s a dumpster, old restaurant fixtures a stack of badly upholstered chairs.  The place is bigger than I think, and when I round to the north side the pavement seems to expand through the gas pump lanes and to that idling place that trucks go by default off the interstate.  The night is quiet but the darkness at the edges of the massive lot is like a wall, the trees beyond claiming a kind of prerogative for the space we have yet to claim for progress.
One more corner to round and I’m in front of the convenience store, attached to the restaurant, this not-so-clean, well-lighted place that both draws as it repels the weary traveler by its utter predictability:  the usual display of cellophane-ed bread-like artifacts that claim to be pastries, the waning end-of-day coffee against the back wall next to the bank of coolers featuring plastic bottles in a riot of thirst-quenching colors.  Seven kinds of beef jerky.
I ditch into the men’s room, and a stall worn-down with a recent coat of off-white paint.  Public bathrooms, I submit, are where American males first feel the charge of their collective manhood—like what I imagine prisons and maybe military bunkhouses elicit in young recruits.  Since Title 9, the public bathroom is one of the few (and continually receding) places where the lure to merge with what makes one hormonally male and the inchoate shame that accompanies that impulse is still obvious.  That is why the man-boy and others when they are eight or nine, often won’t go to the urinals, but hide away in the stalls.  They sense that in a public lavatory, mankind—and I mean that term “genderly”—enters a liminal space that is charged because it is unstable.
The forlorn men’s movement of the 80s tried to address that.  Poor Robert Bly.  Both were shot down by women and, most importantly, other men, who operate out of a rarified and now moribund feminism.  The men’s room has become a cross between a sports bar and a locker room, strutting and straining.  Elimination and critical comparisons made with side-long glances over porcelain.  It’s a place that has become feminized in that literal hand-washing is done in the men’s room by men first because other men are there policing and then because of the internalized thing that happens in reality-producing culture of the new century.  Real men don’t wash their hands because they’ve held their dick to piss.
I’ll take Camille Paglia any day over Gloria Steinem.  I’m not sure if this is news to me, but that I am reminded of it in rural Pennsylvania and with Lysol stinging my noise should be peculiar.  Maybe it’s just the exhaustion showing.
In the stall, behind the metal box housing the rolls of toilet paper is scrawled “BJ Tap Foot.”  But not being a senator from Idaho, I resist.  It’s nice to know that some things have never changed since junior high.
Someone enters the bathroom, and I’m brought out of this reverie.  (Don’t knock me.  The notoriously constipated father of the Reformation, Martin Luther, is said to have done a lot of thinking about things while sitting on the crapper for hours at a time.)  There is stillness in the tiled room which is strange.  I peer through a space between stall door and wall.  On the opposite, mirrored wall is the man-boy.  These days he spends a good time in bathrooms both at home and when we’re out.  It’s a rite of passage I suppose, and it buttresses my theory of bathrooms, especially public ones, as an unstable, exploratory space.  He is arranging his increasingly long bangs that spill out from under the bill of his baseball hat.  The hat is the only thing that now keeps his hair out of his eyes.  When his hat is off, in fact, the dented hair falls with some grace across his face which appeals to me.  But the hat is part of the ensemble.  At least for now, and I watch as he almost tenderly pulls at the strands, pushing them up under the bill and band while his mouth drops open slightly in concentration.  Often he ditches the hat entirely, bends over the sink and splashes water into his face and hair.  When he comes up for air, dripping everywhere, he is a different boy indeed, the oblong shape of his head in clear outline, the bones of his cheeks higher, it seems, and suddenly shiny.
Actually, Cheryl and I are often annoyed by the time it takes him to go to the bathroom as we wait with menus at hand. Sometimes as long as ten minutes.  But here, as I watch him lost in his own world, I recall my own long hours in front of the mirror, locked behind the bathroom door in my parents’ home, my shirt off, my chin tilted so that the light would reveal that new whisker coming in.  The necessary longing for myself to emerge through my body.
Suddenly I am a voyeur.  And I turn my gaze away.  I will wait for him to leave so that he doesn’t know I was here.  So that there is no risk of any kind of shame.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 6)

Back through the convenience store, I enter the Restaurant.  The place is a abuzz with locals sitting at the counter, at tables and at perimeter booths one of which, apparently, is ours, dwarfing Cheryl who is sitting with a plastic menu the size of a motorcycle windshield.  This is definitely an “experience” as we are fond of saying in the United States.  Not for the locals out on a Thursday night for a pie and company, but for the tired travelers who have stumbled in.  Over my own windshield, I notice the angled wooden beams holding up the vaulted ceiling.  On each is stenciled a different quote—from Socrates to Will Rogers.  They look like quotes that have been pulled out of a quote book.  Fair enough.  At least they aren’t scriptures from the New Testament.
            The waitress arrives.  A woman whose plastic name tag announces “Dot.”  I feel the need to imbibe.  I ask if they have a wine list.  She looks at me wryly.  Then smiles and says, a little too loudly, “Wine?  If there was wine do I think I’d be standing here?”  Because of her smile, I am inclined to think she is saying that if there were wine here at the Emlenton Plaza Restaurant, she’d be in the back drinking herself into a stupor instead of waiting on dog-tired feet for customers to decide between baked or mashed potatoes.  I smile with understanding about over liquor laws.  After all, I live in Utah.  But then, after we’ve ordered, it occurs to me as I look deeper into this place now glowing against the PA darkness outside, that perhaps she meant it literally.  “If we served wine, I wouldn’t be working here because I don’t drink and I don’t think anyone else should.”  That is a certainly a sentiment I am not stupid to.
Redux:  I grew up in Utah.
            But there are other tells that this is a place that I should not feel comfortable in.  Perhaps it is the all-white crowd of jeaned and booted men and bouffant-haired women who eye everyone, including each other, with a kind of sterility.  Perhaps it is the glass-paneled lamps on shelves next to the cashiers, each panel featuring the etched or painted image of a U.S. Marine in full-dress, sword upraised.  Perhaps it is the T-shirts for sale emblazed with “Wise Men Still Seek Him” in a biblical font at 200 point.
            The man-boy looks miserable sitting across from us, his hair still damp…but in place.  But I have come to learn that he is also the kind of boy who believes he doesn’t deserve any better than what he gets, whatever he is getting.  So he suffers silently and drifts away in his head to a place where I’m not allowed to go.  We’ve talked about it before, this place he goes.  And the longer he lives with us the more he is able to recall some of those occasions—exhibit A through Z—that aggregated for me, congealing into this modus operandi.
            When he gets like this I feel compelled to rush in.  I know I probably shouldn’t, but I do anyway, determined that he articulate something for me.  Probably so that I feel less afraid of what’s going on for him.
“How do you like this place?”  I ask.  He looks around.
“It’s okay I guess.”
“You going to order the usual?”
“You know.  The usual–bacon cheeseburger?”  He looks vacantly at the menu.
“She’s coming back in a minute for our order.  Are you ready?”  His Nana lowers her menu, looks at me.  The man-boy flips the menu over to see what’s on the back.  He’s already taken his sweet time in the john looking in the mirror, and he’s not going to be ready to order when Dot returns, which she does at that moment.
“Had a chance to look things over?” she says clicking her pen and taking an inventory of what’s on the table:  salt, pepper, ketchup and a wire holder with sugar and sweetner packets.
“Are you ready?  I ask him.
“I’ll have the Caesar salad, with shrimp,” says Cheryl.  She is asked about sides and salad dressings, the latter of which she declines, preferring wedges of lemon.  She looks at me.
            I say, “Go ahead, Joe” for that is the man-boy’s name.  Short for Josiah.
            He doesn’t say anything.  He is stuck somewhere in one of the lower levels of his hell and isn’t having much success clawing his way up for air.
            “Do you need a little more time,” she says.  She could be here all night.
            “Is that all right?” he says, and looks at me.
            “Sure,” I say, good-naturedly.  For Dot’s sake. Don’t want her to think I’m one of these red-necks in the place.  Someone who disrespects kids to hide their own insecurity.  But, in fact, it’s not okay.  This happens all the time.  He takes off for the bathroom for ten minutes while we wait, then he can’t decide what he wants to eat. Nana gives me a warning look, which I resent.  What does she know about raising a boy?  Never mind that I’ve never raised a child—boy or girl–and that this child is not one I’ve raised, even though I, not his father, was the one who made it to the ultrasound of his mother, to see the two-dimensional wedge of protoplasm that was to become our Joe.  Our man-boy.
            But I defer to her.  I am now fuming at the menu that announces boldly that the Plaza is the winner of the regional pie contest, five years running.
I recommend the pot roast, and stab at it on his menu.  He looks at me annoyed.  Even though it is I who seek to take his emotional temperature, to understand where he is, the man-boy figures me out before I do him.  He knows I’m on a train.  It’s one of the compensations, I suppose, of his traumatic past.  He can sense what’s going on in others.  It’s a survival technique.  But what it means to me in this moment is that he’s winning the game.
When Dot returns with “Ready?” a.k.a. “Get your shit together guys, I got things to do,” I order pot roast.  “What kind of lettuce is in your dinner salad?”  She looks at me like she’s about to say something like “green lettuce, you moron” in and around the chewing of her gum.  “Good old iceberg style.  That okay?  You want Thousand Island with that, or ranch?”  I order oil and vinegar which she writes down on her pad without saying anything.
“How about you young man?” There is a pause.  The man-boy is pushing it, I think.  Seeing how far he can go.  “I’ll have the double bacon cheeseburger,” he says, and hands Dot his menu.  He orders a root beer, and we’re off.  I sigh.
On the television hanging from the ceiling over the counter, Glenn Beck is holding court.  I have only one thing to say about Brother Beck, the demagogue of our convulsing age:  fuck him.  Okay, maybe that’s two things. In fact, I have never watched a single segment of his on television, nor listened to an entire program on the radio.  All I know is that my parents in Provo, Utah watch him religiously, and that their anxiety levels over the state of humanity, the earth and the horsemen of the apocalypse are off the fucking charts.  Visit after visit, I am regaled by the latest racism of the nation’s first black president, the latest attack on the family and the latest conspiracy involving socialists.
            But. I am not going to say anything more about Brother Beck, a man who converted to the religion of my childhood because, he said at one point, he wanted to have sex with the girl he was dating, and she insisted on it.  (Of course, the first time I got married was because as a 25 year-old sort-of-virgin, I wanted to have sex too and couldn’t, without tipping over a very large apple cart, without first getting married…but that was entirely different.)
            Fortunately, Brother Beck’s show is captioned, and we can ignore him over our dinner with no wine by simply averting our eyes.
            The meal is passable and passed over by the three of us with little conversation.  After he eats half of his hamburger, the man-boy excuses himself to go back to the bathroom.  I wait for Cheryl to say something to me.  Something about not picking on him.  About, “why are you so angry?  You look like you’re about to jump out of your skin.”  Instead, she decides to excuse herself to go browse the consumable and totchkes—key chains, shot glasses and posters of American Eagles wrapped in Old Glory.  I am left to collect the bill.  And in that split second of Cheryl’s leaving and my signaling Dot, I am struck with a foreboding sensibility.  In my determination to counter what I feel is the lunatic fears of civilization’s collapse—of apocalypse—I think perhaps that I have also discounted the reality and realities of the losses to be experienced as the country and to some extent the world transforms itself into an, as yet, unknown place.
            I think this first began to take shape—from feeling to abstraction–three nights earlier, Christmas night after all the gifts had been opened, the girls gone to bed and my brother-in-law Pete and I have retired to watching the John Wayne version of “True Grit” on cable in the middle of the Maine woods.  But we’re not really watching it.  We’re drinking whiskey and, speaking of trains, Pete gets on his, his strong Rhode Island accent feathering his words.  His voice getting louder as the booze sets in him.
            Pete who retired after 30+ years as a teacher in the Massachusetts public school system, has a perspective nevertheless drawn from the trenches of the working class bloke.  Though now turned so-called middle class, he and his wife, Cheryl’s sister, are teetering on the brink of a slap-down by the powers that be—the super rich, the government, the banks and other financial institutions and corrupt politicians.
            “They don’t get it,” he says.  “They don’t understand that you can’t fuck the American middle class without starting a revolution.”  Pete is more than rankled.  He’s built more houses than I can count, including his second home in Arizona with his own hands.  Clambered through as a shop teacher for the boys who can’t manage to pass in that academic way; served his country in the army reserve.  Raised three of his own boys; managed a rest home—knocking the wind out of at least three consecutive jobs all the while smoking like a chimney.  When we took him and his wife Diane to Paris one year and Barcelona another, the wiry guy with the full shock of black hair that’s just recently gone gray, walked the streets with that kind of sprung athletic look, almost like he was walking on his toes.
I envy his full head of hair the most.
            But now he’s pissed.  Worked hard to retire early and, among other things, has been told that the money he put into his Social Security is being “off-set” because at times during his frenetic work life, he worked double duty for the Bay State.  His conclusions on the state of the American state are not rooted in the popular, ever alternating demonizing/lionizing rhetoric of the day, but are surprising to me in that they are freshly informed by careful analysis and scorching pragmatism.  He never cared that he was going to have to work like a dog.  He only cares that the government in cahoots with big business way-laid people like him and somehow convinced half of the nation that the super-rich deserve to be treated by another standard.
            “This trickle down shit never worked.  Ever since Reagan they’ve been selling us this shit and hoodwinked the lot of us.  It’s nuts.  It’s fucking nuts.  And if they don’t think that there won’t be riots in the streets before this is over, they’re dreaming.  America isn’t going to escape revolution just because it’s America.”  He finishes his drink, his thick glasses making his doe-like eyes bulge in the dim light of the candles and tree lights that Diane has so carefully arranged—but that her husband made happen.  The can-do guy from Warren, Rhode Island turned resident of Riverside to retiree in backwoods Maine and Arizona.  A guy who likes to hit the casinos now and play black jack after felling fifty trees on his thirty acres outside Farmington, Maine.
            “And you want to know something else?” he continues.  Usually when I hear rants about the government and the country it’s red-state-styled bullshit about how the constitution is a static document that the “liberals” have incrementally disassembled and that the proofs of all of this are the moral corruption of welfare moms and abortionists. But Pete is different.  “You know what else?” he repeats.  You can’t tell me that the opposition to Obama isn’t just based out of good old fashioned racism.  They hate that guy because he’s black first and everything else follows.”
            Here, Here.
            The staggering part of all of this train wreck is that the Republicanists have abandoned honest-to-god conservative paradigm—much needed, I might add, in a two-party system such as ours–for the knuckleheads of the tea partiers.  They abandoned the party of William S. Buckley and Dwight Eisenhower and convinced the lot of us on a steady diet of lunatic consumerism and reality shows that it is un-American to hold the super-rich in this country to the same standard as people like Pete.

People like me, I might add.  Okay.  Maybe not people like me.  After all, I had it good.  For twenty years I flew around the world, literally.  Three days on/Four days off before the towers came down and the industry “reorganized.”  And now?  Now, God willing, I’ll collect a pension in a few years.  And right now I have the privilege of at least having a fighting chance of getting on a B-757 for free and flying over 2,000 miles for one week of vacation over Christmas.  Not bad for an English major.

            A fighting chance most of the time.  With 10,000 flights cancelled, we didn’t have a prayer getting out of Boston.  And now we are in Pennsylvania in a rented Corolla, with three to four days ahead of us still.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue, Part 22

Part 22

Ames Monument, WY

We are on the way to Laramie, and C. wants to stop for the night, even though it’s not even the dinner hour. There is something about driving through Sherman, the highest point on I-80 at 8,262 feet above sea level that has triggered her anxiety. Maybe it is Evan’s Pass, named for the same Union Pacific surveyor who has a Cheyenne street named after him and who was killed by Indians. It doesn’t look like a pass, a canyon or a gorge—that will come later as we descend. Instead this backbone of the Laramie Mountains looks like more prairie, but starker, more arid, reached by an ascent that is hardly noticeable. The Continental Divide is still 200 miles to the west, but this summit marks the apex, literally, of the Union Pacific effort to link the country by rail. Nearby the sixty-foot Ames Monument, a stone pyramid celebrating two railroad-industry brothers that carried the name, sits dolefully, quasi-vandalized, a reminder, along with a lone cemetery, of the town’s death knell in 1918 when the railroad made the decision to relocate its tracks further south. C. wants out while I was thinking we might make it as far as Rock Springs tonight. The descent into Laramie through walls of crumbling rock and the wending of the freeway so that C. alternately grips the dashboard and the bottom of her seat, marks the way we often make decisions, she and I.

“We’ve only gone 350 miles,” I say. “Laramie to Salt Lake is a long ways to go in one day. It’s almost 400 miles, and we have to drop the car off by noon.”

“We’ll just pay for an extra day,” she says, not budging. “I need to get off the road. I need to sit in a hot tub.” What is it about hot tubs? I push her on this, aware that Derek is listening to his grandfather, a man who must appear perpetually swayed by the woman to his right. A man without balls?

I offer silence as we shoot down the canyon. My conversational weapon of choice more often that not, these days. Fact is Wyoming reminds C. of when she had cashed in all of her savings and made the decision to move out west. It was along I-80 twenty years ago that it hit her that she had made a decision that she could not reverse. She had left the East and her daughter and the family of her birth to move in with a fucked-up divorcee eleven years her junior.

“Besides,” continues C., “what’s the point in getting home early if it rattles us to death?” I wish she wouldn’t talk about herself in the plural like this. I’m going to cave to her. I can feel it. Maybe it’s her turn to malfunction. I had my meltdown last night—the storm she says she can feel moving in, brewing for miles, or hours up through the earth and into the soles of my feet, rising to my solar plexus, to me head—a storm that all she can do is wait out. Now it’s her turn to have a temper tantrum. Who will strong arm the other through attrition, grind down the other as the wind and rain continue to grind down this canyon from Cheyenne to Laramie? Or who will employ revenge—violent, sudden but hidden until the devastation can be made, well, most devastating? I am winning this one through my signature Dave Silence even while she points at the sign for the first exit at our last overnight stop on I-80 before our arrival home.

When traveling West on Interstate 80, Wyoming can seem the most dispensable of states. Something about the rock and the worn down hills pummeled non-stop by wind. The barbed wire fences. The sky that looks perpetually unkempt. The oil drills dip-dipping like crazed wood peckers. In the patchwork that is the Mountain West, Wyoming—“Forever West” as its state tagline goes–is forever vast and thus forever unarticulated. Yes, there’s Yellowstone. And the picturesque town of Jackson at the feet of the mighty Tetons. Like Colorado this state appears like the perfect square, but it’s a square that doesn’t know it’s a square. It’s never embraced it—doesn’t have a secured marketing plan. It’s the sort of place where Neil Diamond can be born, but doesn’t seem to have become an identifying mark on him. While Idaho gave us Frank Church, Wyoming gave us Dick Cheney.

Wyoming is also the place where young men can get the best education in auto mechanics, and when C. and I sit our tired bones into the hot tub that night, we get talking with a young man, fresh in from neighboring Colorado, and headed to school. What started out as an expression of interest in cars on Derek’s part, led his over-active grandparents to set him on a track: auto mechanic, the perfect relatively high-paying job for a boy who never cottoned to academics. He would go to a school like WyoTech here in Laramie—preferably for motorcycles which can pay easily an $80,000 annum. The man-boy would train for that and have a life, a good life. Right?

In the hot-tub the future WyoTech student, wiry, tattoo-ed, is only two years Derek’s senior, but he already has a girlfriend who is pregnant. Her parents have driven the two of them up from Grand Junction and will leave him here for his first term. He’s pumped about the whole thing—the narrative of his exciting, terrifying life with a kid on the way falling trippingly off his tongue. “One of the best auto tech places in world!” “Always liked engines, and cars.” “This will provide for me and my family!” He says this last part while looking at his girlfriend, lowering herself and her belly into the hot tub, her ill-fitting, faded bikini from her high school days not exactly fitting, if there is such a thing as a swimming suit that fits the pregnant. But more than looking at her when he says this, he is looking at her parents, in particular her father—a man younger than I am, but still thick with middle age—already planted in the tub next to me, his toes periodically peeking out of the surface foam. He hasn’t said a word to me. Only listened to the story that is being told. The story in which he has so much at stake. He abruptly stands to help his daughter into the suds two beats before it occurs to his future son-in-law that he should be more husbandly. Mid-sentence about the first term diesel track and the boy is leaping to his feet, but there’s really not much for him to do. Dad’s already got the girl’s arm and the boy can only stand there, his arms out like he’s spotting her, moving to her right to make sure she doesn’t fall against the side. A dragon shimmers up his left shoulder blade, mouth agape, breathing red below his neck, the skin smooth, aglow in this dim light and the acrid fumes of chlorine.

I am hoping Derek will join us here in the hot tub. I want him to witness how nesting occurs, and what his role is in all of it: education or training, work, provision for the mate that fate will choose for him… how to tell the story to keep the father-in-law at bay. But my boy is not coming over. He’s standing chest-high in the much cooler pool, hat-less finally, the fine, thick, twisted hair of his head falling forward over half of his face. Compared to the volcanic whirlpool of the tub, where he stands is like glass. And he is looking at himself in it, his head cocked down, the fair flesh of his upper arms and back exposed like marble. Having to report later to him what I heard about this “Great opportunity at WyoTech. Remember when we were talking about that? This guy seemed so excited…” will not be the same as if he were here, with me, listening and watching. Instead, he is listening and watching somewhere else, alone. And when he emerges, all the shining, troubled length of him, his hair will still be dry.

He is pining for his parents or, more likely, the concept of parents. To Derek, C. and I are only replacements for them. We are willing and ready for this. Have been now for years, despite our failing him at times. WyoTech is the answer, just like his moving in with us four years ago was the answer then. Like everything we’ve managed to throw his way—taking him on vacations, giving him kick-boxing lessons, wrangling LPs, watching Johnny Depp’s Jack Savage wobble through Pirates of the Caribbean for the 15th time; talking long and late into the night about why he sleeps with a baseball bat, and why in the middle of class he erases himself and returns only at the sound of the snapping pencil in his hands under his desk.

Next morning the light has moved in toto to the sky and it is windy. Everything earthbound feels small, unlike when we arrived last night and Laramie was a pool of light, the interstate shooting out of the canyon and sweeping around this university town in a giant parabolic arc. At the last exit before we head toward over Elk Mountain to Rock Springs, the truck stop envelopes us. I gas up the Toyota while Derek and C. head for the store for provisions. Not that we really need much, if anything. But the Pilot Plaza is one of many truck stops along the way, important touchstones, dots we are connecting as we inch our way back home. Inside, everyone’s a-buzz but in that reserved way strangers are as they edge toward each other through their tasks—some critical, others more for comfort–and the inchoate need that none of us can quite admit to or even determine. This is as good as community will get today for us—ad hoc, searching and mostly filled with a good will. A microcosm not of America but, again, of the world of how humans relate, fill the void temporarily then move on. And I am grateful for it.

Those traveling east explain the warp and woof of the way over Elk Mountain to those of us headed west. This ostensibly to the cashier but really to all in line waiting to buy their coffee and their bag of Cheetos, their latest CD of Country Western, a pack of cigarettes. At the sugar station where coffee is being mixed, someone discloses trouble at the exit near Wagonhound Road where a trailer was blown off the road last night. The Wyoming wind is out and, even though the sky is clear, drifts across Interstate 80 are making visibility virtually zero. C. listens carefully to a trucker young enough to be her son and whose flannel shirt with corduroy cuffs and collar are scuffed with grease. We’ve already headed out of town once this morning before realizing that we had forgotten to fill the tank and that one hundred miles lie between Laramie and the next sizeable settlement of Rawlins. But even in that brief interlude on the road we realize what we’re up against.

C., approachable and solicitous at the same time, is listening intently. We’ve already had the shit scared out of us as we realized that the asphalt is nothing more than a shifting dream of drifting snow. Not only is there no way to see the road but what covers it is in constant motion. We are accustomed after exactly 1,769 miles to register the road in front of us as if it were a rope we are pulling ourselves along, the rope whose constitution and even direction we would never dream of questioning. The road that will take us home. Just follow it. That is our task. But at times now we aren’t even sure that it’s even there, that we’re not driving off into the high prairie grass and the rock. And who’s to say that the truck or car ahead of us isn’t itself veering off? You can’t even follow the tail lights ahead, not if you want to be sure you’re on the yellow brick road.

The guy in flannel and the baseball cap is the size of a wall. He’s been talking about all the chains that loop underneath these rigs like clanging genitalia and how he lent half of them out, used the other half on his own eighteen wheels but is now needing more. “Two of ‘em broke and I had to pull ‘em off the wheel. Fishtailed all the way down the damn mountain. Scared the bejesus out of me. Still don’t know where some of them chains went. Sitting in the snow somewhere on the summit, I guess.”

“How do you stay on track?” asks C.. I move in so I can hear better. So do three other guys, one with an expensive hair cut and in a Gore-Tex jacket and leather gloves. “You can’t see the road. It moves,” she says with a nervous chuckle, her smile perpetually warm.

“Ma’am, you don’t look at the road. For all intents and purposes, it ain’t there. You gotta look at the road markers. They’re your life line.”

C. is persistent, tiny as she is in this coterie of fellow travelers looking for advice, or tips, for “best practices.” “But you can’t even see them sometimes,” she says. Even though we’re under florescent lighting and awash in the persistent twang of Dwight Yoakum rendering “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” ala camp, we’re like 19th Century pioneers who must have stopped and listened to every sentient being coming the other way through mountain passes and churning rivers. “It’s like they’re not there,” C. repeats for emphasis.

The young driver is thoughtful, even philosophical for a moment. “Well, ma’am, I guess you just always keep your eyes peeled for those posts and imagine you’ll see one in time, because they’re most likely there. The government put ‘em there for a good reason. Just don’t get mesmerized by the snow on the road or you’ll end up in Canada.”

Everyone in the group nods, except for C.. She doesn’t like this answer. But she trusts the messenger. I know this because she touches his sleeve before moving on.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue: Part 21

Part 21

There is a frontiersman of sorts by the name of Wayne Baker who actually lives not far from where we are now, speeding towards Laramie. He’s one of the “Greatest Generation,” we’re told. In fact he’s happy to tell you that in so many words in a 275-page, self-published paperback book with so many color photos (160) that it probably cost him forty bucks to print each one. Above the Clouds: The Story of an American Entrepreneur is a first-person account of a guy who flew bombing missions over Germany during World War II, got wealthy scrapping metal out of abandoned mines and bush piloted for decades, ferrying his customers and large family back and forth over the prairies and mountains of the expansive West. In his current home in Star Valley, Wyoming he has built eleven bridges alone across the Salt River, usually, he explains, with just himself and an unnamed assistant.

But of late, Baker is most famous for founding Freedom Arms and the 454 Casull revolver, considered for many years the most powerful handgun in the world. The gun is indeed a work of art with an optional ivory micarta grip and specialty, limited editions with medallions and engraved octagonal barrels. The guns come in a walnut case along with a Freedom Arms gold-and-silver plated belt buckle. Baker’s jingoistic concept of freedom which permeates his self-talk, stems from a unique blend of American individualism, Western defiance and fringe Mormon ideology that animates much of the tea party movement in the intermountain West. Reading through his book, or watching him at age eighty-four hold court which I had to endure one afternoon in 2008 as a co-guest in the house of my just-older sister, one is struck with Baker’s self-serving notion of freedom. The word seems defined by him as doing whatever the hell he wants. “Freedom” is little more than a buzz word to justify his calcified way of life…and to sell guns in the process.

Despite this self-promotion, it is hard not to take pleasure in following the adventures of Wayne Baker set out in his autobiographical narrative with about as much self-reflection as a hero in a Louis L’Amour novel. There is the hardscrabble “Great American Childhood” (title of Chapter 2) growing up in wind-swept Wyoming with a father who lost everything in the Depression. There is his time in the military during World War II over Munich when he and his team accidently dropped a bomb prematurely and ended up, by chance, destroying a hidden Nazi munitions center. This propelled them into hero-dom. His time in the military is obviously the apex of his admittedly raucous adventures because it is the opening salvo in his book which sports his baby-faced, uniformed portrait on the cover backed by an American flag. Yes, freedom all around.

This is a man who at about 5” 6” is sent back from the war on the GI Bill, marries a softball-playing beauty of Swiss descent and swaggers about the West facing down Union “thugs” in his coal mining business, mavericking around the dry, nascent airfields of the Mountain West, routinely landing on highways, heroically fixing stuck landing gear mid-flight in his Cessna 210 and generally making friends with other Freedom-loving Americans like Slim Pickins, Roy Rogers and Art Linkletter, the latter of whom has a cameo in the book, and blurbs it on the back cover as the story of “one of the most exciting adventures in my personal life.”

And so it came to pass that shortly after the 2008 presidential election which ended the nightmare of the conjoined Cowboy Bush/Cheney, that C. and I were invited down to my sister Karolla’s place two days after Christmas. We didn’t know that Thom, her husband, had a cousin, Wayne, who with his wife Mariam would be trailing in after us, to join us for a post-holiday lunch. But there they were, blowing in sideways from Tin Cup, Wyoming, Wayne rather pumped up with the “publication” of his autobiography, the latest catalogue of guns from Freedom Arms, and a huge chip on his shoulder that had to do with our nation’s first black president.

There we were, sitting in Spanish Fork, Utah, knee-to-knee with Wayne and the second sentence out of his mouth to two people he’d never before met (us) was something about the collapse of all things decent in our Country what with that “nigger President in the White House.” This was shocking, unprovoked, or so I thought at the time, and I had a visceral reaction to the “N” word.

“Hey there! Whoa! You can’t use that word!” I declaimed. But Wayne—one must hand it to the little squirt—was a worthy opponent that day to my objections. He said “Nigger President” again while his wife, in desperate need of a little make up, nodded in firm-lipped agreement. C. grabbed my knee. “You don’t know anything about me,” I said. “You can’t say that to me.” Then I rose and walked to the kitchen where my sister’s mouth remained open in equal surprise.

My heart was pounding. Where did this hostility come from? On election night I had watched on television in abject wonder and relief when Barack and Michelle walked out on the platform in Lincoln Park, Chicago for his acceptance speech, Oprah herself on the front row of the masses, looking up, beaming, and I thought to myself, “Oh my God. Someone’s going to shoot him.” That was the real America—black or bi-racial men with sudden power—perceived or real—get lynched—shot through the heart. How soon I’d forgotten, believing that now that Obama was ensconced in the White House, my fellow Americans from sea-to-shining-sea, would, if not breathe a sigh of relief, would perhaps grumble, yes, but they would accept it, and the great ship that is America would go steaming forward through the night, righted. Secured. Onward! I was very, very wrong.

Wayne finally quieted down, his Freedom Arms belt buckle tucked under his belly like a pie tin. For the sake of my sister and her husband and everyone else in the room—not to mention the memory of C.’s firm grip to my knee—I conversationally moved on. The only way out of this was through it, I realized. That was when Wayne handed me a copy of his book which I pretended to look at, and he continued promoting himself with his secret weapon—Mariam, the smiling softball player-turned-Wyoming-wife to a megalomaniac—nodding obliquely and in agreement with everything her husband said. I learned in that painful moment waiting for lunch to be served that he was a self-taught mining and bridge engineer. That he was a pilot, flying by the seat of his pants. That he was still pissed off with the home of the brave “sticking its nose into another country’s business” (e.g., Apartheid South Africa) and that he purposefully moved his business out of Idaho where he lived for much of his adult life and across the border into Freedom, Wyoming because of “the socialist, if not communistic” climate of the potato state, represented in the U.S. Senate by Frank Church. Egad. Was this guy for real?

Baker was real, in the flesh, sitting across from me all aglow in the backwash of the Greatest Generation, and C. and I were stuck, Derek fortunately lost downstairs with my nephew Chris and playing the guitar. Later, I remembered that Baker’s relocation hissy fit from Idaho to Wyoming was the way many of our mutual ancestors handled things when they felt that their “freedom” was being impinged on. Brother Baker’s and my own polygamous grandparents commonly “Lied for the Lord” by disavowing the practice of celestial marriage–a.k.a. polygamy–especially to the Feds. One way to keep ahead of the enemy was to run across state lines. Freedom, Wyoming was one of those polygamous settlements established in the 18th Century to keep law enforcement scrambling. When agents showed up in Freedom, Idaho our persecuted ancestors walked across the street to Freedom, Wyoming—and vice versa. This little maneuver lived on, apparently, for Baker and his Freedom Arms. The fact that Wyoming is considered by the State Business Tax Climate Index as “the most business-friendly tax system of any state,” with plenty of corporate welfare, was probably also a lure for our entrepreneurial Wayne Baker.

After the blessing on the food we lunched together. Baker now seemed a bit chastened by his earlier bombastic behavior. I actually found myself listening to him, with a kind of perverse curiosity if not sympathy. But ego of this kind seems to know no bounds, and as soon as the table was cleared he was presenting me with the latest catalogue of his…guns. Everyone knows that after Obama’s election to the Presidency, firearm sales and concealed weapons permits exploded throughout the country (no pun intended). It seems that Obama is the anti-2nd Amendment President, even though more restrictive gun laws were never high on his platform.

Let’s see. We have a newly-elected African-American president. Gun sales are booming. And Wayne Baker, founder of a company that created and markets a finely-turned handgun more powerful than the 44 Magnum, has just referred to Obama as a “Nigger President.” Oh, and now this pipsqueak is hawking his guns to anyone who will listen.

Oh my.

C., Derek and I leave. We kiss my sister goodbye. We civilly nod at Wayne and his Secret Weapon. I am carrying his glossy catalogue of guns along with a few late-delivered Christmas gifts from the family. Out we go and into the driveway. It’s bad enough, I suppose, that the car we are driving, and which now sits side-by-side with Baker’s gas guzzler is a hybrid, but it also sports, I’m reminded…an Obama/Biden bumper sticker.

I had forgotten about that. It seems that Mr. Baker in his shit-kickers and with his wife had rolled up, turned off their eight cylinders, only to be stared down by evidence of Dave and C.’s political proclivities.

On the way home, I am pissing and moaning which may surprise you, dear reader. Finally, C., her Yankee practicality finally emerging, says impatiently, “You want to get even with a jerk like that? You hit him in his wallet.”

“What do you mean?”

“Make sure his gun sales suffer.”

“Yeah, but he’s retired. He’s not the CEO or president anymore. That doesn’t seem fair.” Yet again, piss-and-vinegar Dave, stung by his powerlessness has gone to his wife to get her to fix it. No. Not just fix it, but make a decision about what to do so that I don’t have to take responsibility for it if it goes south.

“Fair?” she says with some mockery. Already my feelings are starting to get hurt. This is a game with which we are infinitely familiar. Her late father’s sensibility roars forth. Frank Daley, the man who always said, follow the money trail if you want to make things happen.

“Write his son,” she says. “Tell him what happened today with his father. Tell him you’re a writer. Tell him you’ll go to the press.”

Hmmm. This gets me thinking all the way back to Salt Lake, limping along in our Obama-imprinted Hybrid, the liberal media of NPR playing as background. The glory days of Obama’s win of the White House ends here. The enemy of our hope is the face of Wayne Baker, the cowboy constitutionalist of Star Valley, Wyoming.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue, Part 23

Part 23

Wayne Baker (right)

And so it came to pass that while Derek hums “Come Together…right now…over me….” and C. does rear-view detail for vehicles coming up too fast from behind, I take the wheel and we set out across the mountain. I am Odysseus guiding our little Japanese-inspired car with the New York plates through the Charbydis of going too slow and the Scylla of going too fast, while averting my eyes from the writhing, snake-like ribbons of snow across the interstate that seem now, in the last leg of our journey, to have betrayed us.

Near the town itself of Elk Mountain, population 192, on the banks of the Medicine Bow River, we are surprised to see a tiny gas station, open for business. Up here the drifting seems to have abated some, the sky still a vault of winter blue above, the mountains—including the town’s namesake off to the Southwest—blanketed in snow but appearing, somehow in this de-oxygenated terrain, dry. The station sits wind-blown to the north of the Interstate, and is preternaturally run-down with old water heaters outside, fading, stripped-down chip board siding and a dark retail space with a bearded, elderly man sitting behind the counter, reading a paperback western. He’s on oxygen, himself, the tube winding its way back down to a green tank and the other end climbing itself up his neck, around his ears and two-pronging into his nose above a shaggy gray beard. There is a picked-over shelf of candy bars, some T-shirts touting the world-famous trout fishing in the area, an empty freezer chest un-plugged and a cash register. I wait for the bathroom. There is one other car outside gassing up. Oddly, it smells like lavender in here. The man, slumped over in a sweater of wide cables doesn’t acknowledge me, his breathing steady but slightly wheezy. The stuffed head of a deer—or is it a small elk?—stairs down through marble eyes. I try to read the title of his mass market book until he looks at me over his glasses and I look away, finishing the lyrics of Joe’s humming, like a baton has been passed, “One thing I can tell you is you got to be free….”

Back outside, we’ve topped off the tank and we’re ready to roll. Derek has elected to stay in the car. While I am alive with adrenaline from wading through miles of shifting road, and antsy to get out and see the terrain however stark in this high elevation light, he is categorically uninterested in any of it. Suddenly, I’m quite sure he will not be going to WyoTech in motorcycle mechanics, or any kind of mechanics. And this recognition leaves me baffled. How is it that I am supposed to care for this young man when I don’t understand him? For every solicitous turn I take in his direction, he seems to turn away, and those moments where we sit downstairs in front of the computer and he pulls up one You-Tube music video after another, those moments seem now to be pointless exercises in distraction. Could I possibly have been this drifty at his age? Without purpose?

C. would say I had too much purpose in my life at seventeen. Hell, by then I had been made a priest in church, a sort of automatic ecclesiastical advancement in which all boys that age were told after ordination that they now housed in their bodies and souls the power to act in God’s name. “The same power given to the prophet!” it was announced with amazement over the pulpit. Three decades later and I’m wondering if it was just religious delusion that injured me the most, or just the fact that I was burdened with something that neither I, nor my cohorts, were ready for at that tender age. What disservice we do to our youth to give them power when they likely don’t even have the power yet to act in their own name, let alone deity’s? But Derek is in just the opposite predicament as I was at his age. There’s not enough direction in his life. There seem to be no demands. Just suggestions. And he is left wandering through the walls of East High and the video library of You Tube. And yet I see and hear and feel Derek’s potential for something akin to greatness. Yes, something bigger than he that shouts down the frenetic, mindless world with authenticity. Neither my church nor my father could have ever told me at seventeen what or where my own greatness was, though Lord knows both the institution and the man tried, inflected with a kind of programmatic faith that felt industrial. Perhaps what Derek needs, what I needed back then, was to have someone who could tell me, in the right way, to just go out and find it. Whatever it was, whatever it is—just go out and find it. At an elevation of 7,264 feet, this is what I’m thinking of as I climb back into the car and head down the mountain for home.

The closer we get to the cartographic point where Wyoming and Utah conjoin, the more I am reminded of my nemesis, Wayne Baker. In Evanston, on the state line, U.S. Highway 89 shoots north to Star Valley and the unincorporated community of Freedom, and I remember the letter I wrote to his son after his father’s Nigger President comment. The letter went something like this:

“Dear Mr. Baker, You’re father was an asshole recently and you better get him to apologize to me for his bad behavior or, as a journalist, I’ll be publishing something that talks about how the founder of Freedom Arms is calling the current president of the United States a ‘nigger’ and then hawking guns. Very Sincerely Yours…”

Actually, I was much more professional than that, carefully drafting a letter in which I mentioned that I had very little if any issue with the broad interpretation of the 2nd Amendment (largely true) and that the Model 83, 454 Casull revolver is highly regarded by my close friend Mark (very true) who nevertheless was quite shocked (not so true–just rolled his eyes) by my report at how wonderful it was that Wayne, one of America’s “Greatest Generation” had sacrificed (said grudgingly) so much for the freedoms that our country enjoys, blah, blah, blah…. But really, I wanted to stick it to the old guy with the ditto-head wife. This was in January, a few weeks after my unfortunate encounter with Wayne and, being the ninny that I am when it comes to firearms, unlike my friend Mark, I actually returned-addressed the letter to my work, sans the Company name, because I was quite sure that in the middle of the night Captain Wayne and his 40 Thugs 40 were going to creep down to my house in Salt Lake and put a 454 Casull up my ass.

Apparently, Bob Baker, second son of Wayne and Mariam, is a practical man who is concerned about taking care of his wife and kids and actually having a retirement after his old man kicks the bucket, because one rainy morning that following March I got a phone call on my cell phone at 7:30. It was Wayne, the entrepreneur, “Founder of Freedom Arts, Inc. and Many Other Ventures” as the subtitle to his autobiography shouts. In retrospect, I’m sure he was hoping for voice mail. Otherwise, why call so early? As it turned out, he had to talk to a live, bleeding-heart, nigger-loving liberal journalist from–horrors!–the big, homosexual-friendly city of Salt Lake.

“Is this David Pace?”


“This is Wayne Baker calling.” (Pause) “I’m sorry for what happened. I just get so angry some times, and I speak my mind and that’s why I’m calling…(muffle, muffle…click).

So that was his apology? Though modesty forbids my articulating the visual I had just then between father and son, it really did sound on my end as though the barrel of a 454 Casull was at minimum being held by Bob to his father’s temple.

And so it came to pass, dear reader, that I got my revenge on the Entrepreneur of Wyoming, Wayne Baker. A man who, like me, was descended from pioneers who settled the West by dint of their vision, their faith and their stubbornness. A man born into poverty, eating a concoction called “Lumpy Dick”–flour, milk and salt and pepper–and who flew bombers over France and Germany and came home to found Mountain States Machinery and Supply. An uneducated but fiercely self-taught man who built with pretty much his own hands nearly a score of bridges over the Salt River on the Wyoming/Idaho border and taught himself to fly. A pilot and gun maven who fathered seven kids and a passel of grandkids. Newly minted as the owner of a coal mine, he is also a man who found an enemy in Democrats and the federal government, the latter being the very entity that had spent thousands training him in the military, honored him for his service, educated his children, bailed out Depression-era families (although not Wayne’s father who would never declare bankruptcy), and built the roads and infrastructure that made it possible for Wayne to build all those bridges in the rangeland of Idaho and Wyoming. For Wayne socialist “if not communistic” schools and politicians during the Civil Rights and Vietnam eras essentially destroyed the country, the fabulist idea of which he carried like a warmed-over nut under his left pec through adulthood and into old age. With money in hand (and savings backed exclusively in gold and silver, of course!) from his mining and mine-scrapping, he not only built Freedom Arms but funded the John Bircher W. Cleon Skousen—a pseudo-intellect in the vein of Newt Gingrich—animated by the obscure, 19th Century prophesy that Mormons would be the ones who would in the “last days” rescue the U.S. Constitution which would “hang by a thread.”

This is not only Wayne Baker’s legacy, but mine. And perhaps that is why my encounter with him in Spanish Fork, the very town that my triple-great grandfather John Lowe Butler ended up in and is now buried, really stuck in my craw. I read all of Skousen’s books which re-cast Bible stories into Mormonese, a grand, purplish story that placed a quaint religious tradition indigenous to America at the center of the universe . I went to Skousen’s lectures at BYU where he told us the exact year of the great, universal flood in the days of Noah and, later, at his Freeman Institute lectures, how the Founding Fathers were chosen—descendants of the lost tribes of Israel via the British Isles—and just how pleading a personified Europe was with their grand-nephew America who was experimenting with socialism the way my friends were experimenting with pot in the mid-70s. “Go back! Go back!” Skousen would intone in this lectures, quoting a personified Germany, France and England. “Go back to capitalism!”

As a senior at religion-soaked Provo High School, I volunteered for Skousen’s “Institute” to build my 17-year old resume to get college scholarships. A descendent of Danish pioneers, he was in fact at the time my hero. After a particularly busy day stuffing three-ringed binders with constitutional study materials, I would walk by his office in a giant warehouse off of State Street in South Provo and find the bald fellow sitting behind a desk with the authority of a jolly Ben Franklin. As with his protégé, Glenn Beck, Dr. Skousen, along with advocating to “Get us out of the United Nations,” had learned that detailing the “murky truths of the known world,” as Steve Almond has said in the online magazine Salon, would never capture the conservative American’s heart over “the ecstatic possibilities of the imagined.” Skousen’s misbegotten American narrative would end up engineering Frank Church’s ouster from the U.S. Senate (after a 24-year career) and, in Utah, vault Orrin Hatch to Washington on the coattails of Ronald Reagan. This is who Wayne Baker became and who I could have become. He helped seed the tea party movement and the likes of Glenn Beck, and the whole thing just pisses me off.

And yet…somehow, hearing Baker’s plaintive voice on the phone on that rainy morning singing his ditty of a song of repentance, made me feel sick to my stomach. There really was no joy in humiliating a man old enough to be my father. Revenge may be sweet, but it is saccharine sweet. And all I can think of now as we fly by the exit that would take us North to Freedom, is how Baker’s oldest boy Alan used to fly “above the clouds” with his bush pilot father all around the west.

The story goes this way. One day in 1964 the two of them made a trip in their Cessna to visit business customers in Ely, Nevada, the airport to which had become snowed in. When Baker radioed in, he told the tower that he was going to land on the highway eighteen miles east of the city to wait out the storm. Shortly after landing at an intersection of the highway and a dirt road, the storm hit. Thirty minutes later two police cars arrived to tell them that the weather was likely to clear up sooner close to town than out where they had landed. With a police escort, and visibility under one hundred feet, Baker drove the Cessna into town. They ended up at the main intersection stop light. Police had stopped traffic everywhere so that they could continue over the railroad overpass and on out to the airport to wait out the storm.

Alan was sixteen, and it must have been the most surreal adventure of his life creeping

through the snowy, blinded streets of Ely with his dad who must in fact have seemed like a kind of god to him in command of the entire place, the lights of the cruisers flashing. Three years later, Alan would be killed coming home from a hunting trip. A mile from the family home, he would fall asleep and run into an abutment of a bridge, perhaps not so unlike the one that Wayne Baker would become famous for building with his own hands in Star Valley, Wyoming. Alan Baker, a dark-haired, quiet boy with the full Swiss face of his mother, was the oldest child of Wayne and Mariam.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue, Part 24

Part 24

John and Sean Lennon

North of Evanston, not far from Freedom Arms, my Grandfather Butler would have descended, as we now are, towards the last long stretch of the trail. Today, the road west—actually southwest—is calm, the drifts seemingly stilled by the persistence of the late-morning sun. This is the segment of the great American migration west where my ancestors on both sides made a departure from the Oregon and California Trails to the Great Basin anchored by a salt lake. It was the less desirable location to settle—dry, desert-like and isolated. But it was the place that the leadership wanted, a place this “peculiar people,” still in the early grip of polygamy, could call their own and be left undisturbed. And that is how the last day of our journey across the country began to end at the start of the second decade of the new millennium. The sky is big, the way is clear and the wagons in my mind roll along a path that is hardly a hewn trail, but more of a rock-strewn mirage of a path worn down by trappers, Indians and deer. The Donnor Party which became entrapped in the early snows of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to a devastating end were the only settlers to come this way before the Mormons. And the way was filled with mountain fever, dying cattle and the ennui of wagon travel.

Derek is headed back to school in a couple of days. And C. and I are back to work tomorrow. With the end in sight, am I feeling relief or nostalgia? The very things I have been internally railing at for the past five days—my country, my people, my family—is suddenly in my mind at rest even as we speed down Echo Canyon towards Coalville. At one’s home one must find sanctuary, no matter the cost. And so it is here for me. “This is the day thou gavest,” goes the old hymn, and this is the place we call the terminus of our travels though we may dream of California gold as another pioneer grand father of mine did before leaving his clan and heading further west. But it’s not just evening, the close of this “day” that “thou gavest.” The hymn says to me that you get what God gives you, whatever it is. And you can either be resentful of it and stymied or somehow grateful and move on.

Grateful as was my prodigal ancestor who reportedly returned penniless two years after he left the city of saints for the gold fields. He had in fact struck it rich in California, but on the way home he had been robbed of everything except a pony so small his feet dragged the ground, and his hat, it was said, was crownless. They took him back in, this grandfather of mine, twenty-something at the time, home being the place you go and they have to take you in.

Currently, home for us is a neighborhood in Salt Lake City near the cross streets of 9th East and 9th South and the sort of place that, after seven years in Brooklyn, seemed like the only possible home C. and I could endure as we returned to the reddest-of-the reds, what the Denver Post once tagged with the enduring moniker, “The Church State.” Our heavily-treed enclave sports urban Liberty Park, walkable streets and a left-leaning, mixed student, family, gay-friendly population. It is home to the art film house, The Tower, where the Sundance Film Festival takes up residency every January. It is also home to the tres gay Cahoots’ Gift Shop, along with the swankiest bicycle shop in the city (bicycles being very big) and The Children’s Hour—definitely harking back to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, not Lillian Hellman—with its insanely high-priced cutesy clothes for kids.

Since our return from New York to Utah in 2003 gentrification at 9th and 9th has spiked, and even during the current economic down-turn, home prices have stayed relatively high. But we are lagging, C. and I. We can hardly keep up with the taxes on the little house we dance in. The salad days of the airline have receded through a Doppler blue in our minds. Even with the flight benefits I maintain on furlough, we don’t have the means to do anything once we arrive somewhere. Then there are the complications of Derek. Traveling “non-rev” with three is a challenge, and he can’t be left at home alone. The trip East for Christmas has proven all of that—splitting up to get on separate flights to Maine—two of us through Detroit, one of us through Atlanta and LaGuardia. An extra night stay in Bangor. And now this. A five-night/six-day road trip west that has turned our first extended vacation with our live-in grandson into our financial undoing.

Maybe I can go back to teaching a class or two, to make ends meet. Return to the infamous Trail—that bone-crunching stream of immigrant grunts behind yoked oxen–as Grandpa Butler did five years after he settled in Utah with his multiple wives. It seems the crops didn’t come in sufficiently those first few years in Spanish Fork. Grasshoppers ate everything one too many times. So he left his first wife Caroline and oldest son in charge and dusted off the blacksmithing tools of his original trade that back east had made him so valuable to the people he called his own. Two summers in a row John Lowe Butler returned to The Trail that was both his escape and his terror, his hope and his sorrow to repair wagons before ferrying them across the Green River so they could continue on to the Continental Divide and South Pass. He did it. Why shouldn’t I have to scramble as well for a living in the promised land? Return to the trade. Go back East, temporarily?

Back in New York, it is 1975. The Beatles have long ago broken up. John and Yoko are ensconced in the seven-story Dakota on the upper-west side. And after two miscarriages, Yoko has delivered Sean. Lennon has moved from being just a rock star to presumptive leader of world enlightenment. But characteristically, Lennon is clueless as to what any of it means and it’s all reflected in his song “Imagine” which Elton John once parodied in a concert with,

Imagine six apartments

It isn’t hard to do

One is full of fur coats

The other’s full of shoes

Despite being, arguably, an insipid string of bromides, over one hundred artists have recorded “Imagine,” including David Archuleta as part of his American Idol outing two years ago. I guess you can’t really argue with success.

So it is after Lennon’s primal scream therapy songs and the global Rorschach test release of “Imagine,” that Lennon’s paean to his five-year-old son Sean, “Beautiful Boy” appears. And it seems to cut through the songwriter’s fog of heroin, the residuals of his tortured try at open marriage (“Whoopee!…But it was god-awful,”) and, though well-meaning in that now-that-we-have-a-platform-let’s-show-‘em-we-care way of faux activism often shouldered by celebrities, fundraisers. The song actually seems real, heartfelt. Something I can relate to as we descend out of the high Wyoming plain and into the Great Basin. In 1980, the year Lennon left us he said

The joy is still there when I see Sean. He didn’t come out of my belly but, by God, I made his bones, because I’ve attended to every meal, and to how he sleeps, and to the fact that he swims like a fish. That’s because I took him to the ‘Y’. I took him to the ocean. I’m so proud of those things. He is my biggest pride, you see.

And in the music video of the song, Sean, with his Dutch boy haircut is orbiting in and out of a cluster of adults, which include his parents. Then, in juxtaposition, the video melds to the final, pensive iteration of the scene, emptied of human life, the garden chairs and table sitting like sculpture.

I don’t know why Derek loves John Lennon, why he wants to read about every aspect of his life in an 800-page biography that he isn’t likely to ever finish. But I know why Lennon matters to me now. It’s because he loved a child in that hankering, drifty way that makes one exult in the repetition of

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful

Beautiful boy…

And if, as the songwriter sings, “life is what happens to you/While you’re busy making other plans” then I am in trouble as a father to Derek. While I have been taking out whole life insurance policies for him, tracking him through the Salt Lake Arts Academy and East High, running after him down the sidewalk behind his tottering bicycle…all with some giant planning wheel spinning in the sky of my mind, Excel spreadsheets numbered and pulsing with what needs to happen to raise this boy to manhood–while all of this has been going on, Derek’s life has been taking place largely unbeknownst to me. Both C. and I have attempted to manufacture memorable experiences, including this trip back East for Christmas, to off-set the horrors and traumas before he came to live with us. And we have gone into debt, the consequence of which I am holding at bay somewhere south of my sternum. But quality time, in the parlance of family scientists (a contradiction in terms), isn’t something you can schedule. Because as with life in general, both on the micro and macro level—at the hearth and in the White House—plans are what we make to keep us from the realization that the world is an arbitrary and terrifying place. Beyond our control.

My brother-in-law Pete is right. America is not beyond a revolution—rocks being thrown in the street. Guns a-blazing. Dirty bombs. Some of our population already knows this. They live with some version of it virtually every day. But white middle class folk like me living in the Mountain West? Not a chance. We still feel as though we are immune from what the gears of a world that grinds on without knowing that it is grinding at all. It’s a regional expression of the poet’s “View with a Grain of Sand,” the grain that “calls itself neither grain nor sand/It does just fine without a name….” The world being outside from what we call it:

Time has passed like a courier with urgent news

but that’s just our simile.

The character is invented, his haste is make believe,

His news inhuman.

As with Lennon’s joy over his son, “the joy is still there” when I see Derek, even now in the rear-view mirror, the three of us hurtling home. And that joy is there only because I understand more today than ever before, here at the start of the second decade of the new millennium, just how aimless we are in a place that has never obeyed our naming of it.

Lennon frequently asked his Aunt Mimi, the woman who had raised him in Mendips, Liverpool, to come to New York for a visit. “I’m not going to a land where there’s guns, John” she said. On December 8, 1980, Lennon was shot dead by a deranged fan outside the Dakota in New York and “Imagine” and “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” both took on new resonance to a population on both sides of the Atlantic that could not seem to get over it for days, weeks…decades. The terminus for Lennon was outside his apartment on a winter day not so unlike today.

Manhattan and the Salt River Valley of Wyoming couldn’t be more different from each other, especially in terms of the goddamned, God-given right to bear arms. Pot-smoking John Lennon with the wire rims next to crew-cut, fierce “constitutionalist” Wayne Baker, armed and ready—it’s hard to think how both of them could have found a home in America without destroying each other. Maybe they did destroy each other. Maybe they still are–destroying each other and the country they both claim(ed) to love at the same time. “Give Peace a Chance” and “Guns, God and Guts”—two mantras that one could argue have always animated, however circuitously, the experiment that is America.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue, Part 25 (End)

Part 25

July 2010, The Uinta Mountains, Utah

At Wanship, Utah the freeway curves so sharply below the escarpments of canyon walls that the speed limit drops to fifty miles per hour. We’ve left the original pioneer trail to deviate down Parley’s Canyon, past Park City. Many pilots and flight attendants live in this alpine town, 2,500 feet above their domicile at Salt Lake International and away from the city with some of the worst air quality in the country. They live in condos and McMansions on golf courses that are still only a half hour from the airport thanks to I-80. Today, passing by the familiar turnoff at Kimball Junction to the old mining-town-turned-ski-resort-turned-posh-mountain-city-of-the-beautiful-people it all seems unreal: familiar but strange now, considering the journey we’ve made, and we are silent. The goal is in sight, and for the first time, it seems, we have the critical cognitive mass to reflect on the costs and the compensations. Who we are now having gone nearly the full 2,535 miles from Farmington, Maine to the place we recognize as and call home.

Unlike his mother, father and his Nana, Utah is the only home Derek has ever known, the home I left only to return to…returned for him. He was here, needing us. But how badly he needed us, we couldn’t possibly know. We still don’t know, in a way, and never really will. And I’m told by my family of birth and others that C. and I have done this wonderful thing, stepping in as we did to raise this boy. But it wasn’t really C. and me. Derek located us. He knew what he needed and one day he just didn’t go back to his Mom’s. And what’s more, one day when C. and I are not the right place for him to be, he has the radar and the good sense to move on. He made it happen then. And he’ll make it happen at that once and future date when he says goodbye.

Derek is going to be okay. And perhaps it is not my relentless living of his life’s minutiae, but the quality of earnestness he sees in me that is valuable to Derek. In the end we can only inspire our children through our own growth. And in that way we can teach beyond the level of our own ability. And that will have to be okay with me–Derek elevated beyond my own abilities. Smarter, stronger, more intuitive…kinder.

We tune back into the local classic rock station which will wane in and out as we descend, the peaks rising above, the sun a-blaze in the cold mountain air. U2 starts up, a concert version of one of their biggest hits of all time first appearing on their breakout album “The Joshua Tree.” True to the album’s title and to its iconic image of the strange cactus “tree” with weirdly upraised branches, like arms to the square, the songs featuring the high-wire tenor voice of Bono are an amalgamation of Celtic and American root music. Threading through it are the strains and beats of jazz and gospel—ur-text to rock and roll. In fact, this version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” recorded in Mexico City features a full-throated choir of gospel singers in full exultation.

This is the kind of Rock I can resonate with. It’s more than an artifact wrung out of pop culture; it’s the musical embodiment of human evolution—the stream, the river that is never the same from step in, to step out. It’s what Lennon, perhaps, aspired to, and sometimes succeeded at, vetting and sifting through the detritus of every contemporary Western musical genre to create something new, like the surreal and wistful “Strawberry Fields,” or the most restrained and thus effective protest song, “Working Class Hero.” And it was all done unconsciously, bumping around in the dark through the “muff-diving” of Hamburg, to the break up of the Beatles and from the multi-genre experimentation with Yoko to the admittedly silly bed-ins. But it was fluid, malleable, and even at its worst, interesting. It helped keep the conversation going.

That is what the contemporary group U2 is doing, in my estimation. They are the natural successors of what’s best in classic rock and roll. And this re-imagining of one of their greatest hits, honoring , this time, the punch-to-the-gut soul of Gospel and all of its musical shadings, is enough for me to believe in more than the genre, but the connections it makes with everything painful and beautiful about being alive. In 2010.

I have kissed honey lips

Felt the healing in her fingertips

It burned like fire

This burning desire

I have spoke with the tongue of angels

I have held the hand of a devil.

It was warm in the night.

I was cold as a stone

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

That U2 can still elevate this anthem to a new realm by returning the song to its fundamental architecture, and re-imagining its glory enervates me. It gives me hope that our cultural forms have no end, only a new sensibility, a new vector to follow. Is this a love song or a bald command to come to Christ or just a nod that He in some way “broke the bonds and loosed the chains”? Bono may sing of “the Kingdom come” but he immediately undercuts any theological imperative with the new age notion that “all the colors will bleed into one.” It seems to have taken a rock band from Ireland, not from the U.S., to deconstruct this country’s religious obsession into transcendent spiritual longing. And U2 did so by brilliantly merging Celtic soul and Gospel.

Except for its dip down into the valley of the Great Salt Lake, Interstate Eighty follows the entire track of the first transcontinental railroad completed in 1868 at a place called Promontory Point, north of the Lake. The joining marked the end of the pioneer era and the end of the isolation of an intermountain “Zion” and the larger fantasies of my own people that they would become their own sovereign state—first literally and later spiritually. You see, the way west was paved with good intentions of promise, adventure and greed, sometimes marinated in religious feeling, but it is was also paved quite literally in freeway, rail, and, finally, “air lines.” And all of us traveled those roads and are traveling them still, the connections real and psychic, both the hard shoulder with mile markers and the cultural web that we are all suspended in. And along the way we figure out what we’re made of. And maybe why, in some big way, we might be here. Derek has had his late and troubled start. So did Grandpa Butler, who was so laden between age seven and twenty-two with “rheumatics,” arthritis and neuromuscular troubles that sound a lot like polio, that he wondered “about my future existence and I often thought what the Lord wanted of such a being as me upon the earth.” And yet Grandpa thrived, weirdly growing another two and a half inches between age twenty-two and twenty-seven and growing “verry stout indeed.” Stranger things have happened, I suppose. And even if the man-boy never finds his way into a single space I recognize as purposeful, I have a kind of secular faith that life is somehow naturally filled with compensations. I have religious faith that my spontaneous hand to his head as he leaves for school each day is a kind of father’s blessing that he will find the trail ahead of him safe, but more importantly one with high adventure and promise.

And what of Interstate 80, our companion of the past five days? Its western terminus in San Francisco was supposed to extend through Golden Gate Park to the Pacific Ocean near the famous Ocean Beach area. But public opposition was hot, so the second longest interstate really ends/begins at U.S. 101, a few miles shorter than originally planned, at the series of U.S. 101 exits near Van Ness Avenue. Some, however, still argue that it actually ends at the Embarcadero exit.

And where does I-80 terminate in the East? Overhead signage shows rather decidedly that it ends at the junction of Interstate 95 in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey. But some argue that it really ends at the Hudson River. After all, the exit numbering on I-95 north of I-80 approximates the same numbering of I-80 if we think of it as extending to the river.

Everything seems in dispute these days.

One thing I do know for sure, I-80 does not go near Boston, as I thought when I lived in New England nearly thirty years ago. Back then it was admittedly a comfort to think that, connected to America’s birthplace by miles of asphalt through the lush countryside of Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania, the drainages east to the Atlantic and west to Mark Twain’s Mississippi was my mountain-desert home. That skirting the Great Lakes in Ohio and Illinois, the hickory of Indiana and bisecting the plains of Iowa and Nebraska was that thread that belted the country’s bread basket, its industrial center and its western coast through seeming impossible terrain. That it was and is my toe-hold to the world beyond my view and the belief that fades with age and the changing rise-upon-mountain rise that I knew what was there—at least in its broad, stereotypical contours, and therefore who I might be. In my broad, stereotypical contours. But here it is. Less and more than I thought.

At home, Jiggs is there, wagging his tail. The cats still everywhere you want to be in the little house we dance in. C. is back to the business of making our home, thanking Kate for her dog-sitting. Sifting through the mail and the phone messages on the old answering machine. And my Derek, the man-boy, heads downstairs into his “cave” we call it to recall the life he left nearly three weeks ago and to imagine his life to come. I miss him already, and he still lives with us.


August 2010, Great Salt Lake, Interstate 80)