Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 7)

Part 7


            Tonight, I wake up with a start.  We are in an antiseptic Motel 6 outside Barkeyville.  I remember vaguely the movie I fell asleep to:  Adam Sandler and Kevin James are pretending to be gay so that they can sidestep civic red tape that prevents the James character from naming his own two kids as his life insurance beneficiaries.  This was how the wheel of fortune decided to send me to slumberland.  But that is not why I wake up.  I awake in a cold sweat with the sudden realization of just how long we have to go.  How big the country is.
            Driving around in our hybrid Ford Escort in Salt Lake City, it was easy to think of the whole nation circumscribed by…what?  National Public Radio?  A twenty minute drive across town to Morning Edition and All Things Considered on the way home, and I had this sense that I had grappled with America, toured its sites, plumbed its depths.  But now.  Lying in bed with the too-hot/too-cold unit grinding away, Cheryl’s soft snoring to my side, the TV blank, I realize, “My God.  We’re still in Pennsylvania!”
            This isn’t just a mental acknowledgement, but a fear-based one.  It is winter.  It is icy cold.  It is Pennsylvania and we have miles to go before we sleep. It is a sentiment I once wrote about for a newspaper, this airline age where we have forgotten that the distance is the same going from point A to point B.  But we have forgotten.  We have believed that we could scoot up from Dallas to Jackson Hole, WY for a skiing trip over a weekend and back to Dallas without a hitch.  Fresh cut limes in the Bloody Marys.  But the wild cards are still there. Weather hasn’t changed, just our ability to believe it isn’t a variable to what we have to do.  Where we have to go.  Mechanical malfunction?  Vulcanized rubber and its progenitors of Michelin and Firestone have “solved” that.  The FAA mandates certain foolproof measures so that at that critical point of nose up at 180+ mph our stomachs don’t turn over anymore, only the pages of our Wall Street Journals.
            Not so, I posited.  The distance is the same.  ATC delays are the Indian attacks of my pioneer ancestors.  The dried up watering holes they relied on for their oxen and horses are now weight and balances during a snowstorm at high-elevation Jackson and a short runway and too many fat Americans toting ski boots so that we have to take everyone’s luggage off and bus it to Idaho Falls for a flight out.  To be fair, in my rant, I also indicted the airline industry.  In their attempt to win customers, they make it sound like getting to Tampa from New York is as easy as crossing the street while watching a movie.  But the fact is that we fellow travelers, fat or not, are still reliant on space and time, energy and…luck to get where we’re going alive.  Or at least with the fresh limes in our Bloody Marys.
            Why is it that I forgot my own brilliant thesis when I stormed out of Logan International the night before last and into the freezing rain with little more than a credit card?
            This Pennsylvania night is scaring the shit out of me, and the debilitating enormity of our task ticks away in my head like a metronome.
In the morning, at breakfast, again at a truck stop that is starting to look like the DNA of America, the man-boy orders coffee.  This has never happened before.  He asks for honey.  I know for a fact that his father drinks his coffee with honey.  We sit at a table watered and fed by a solicitous young waitress who even styrofoams coffee for us to go.  (What would the country do without Styrofoam?)  When the waitress, juggling plates of foot, forgets to come back with the honey, he resigns himself to drinking it black, as I do.
The walls of the place are covered with letters and photos– memorabilia of local men and women who have served our country in Afghanistan and Iraq.  There is more than one poster signed by café regulars, offering condolences to families, to wives who have lost loved ones.  In one photo a helmeted soldier hardly older than our Joe, from the waist up, is grinning wildly, an ethereal landscape behind him.  Another, in full profile and stiffly shouldering his standard issue rifle, stands looking through wrap around sunglasses at the impenetrable blue sky,
            Across from us, in a booth, a couple sit facing each other over their table with coffee and the ruins of a half-eaten breakfast.  Leaning in, his soiled down vest over a flannel shirt bulges into the table edge, he is speaking to her in tones that I can’t hear.  Short, penetrating words that are making her turn away from the room, toward the wall.  She fingers a cell phone, her own bulky coat like armor, her liquid brown hair curling over the collar.  Both are in jeans, boots with laces hastily and half-tied and the air seems thick between them.  He lazers in.  She dips her head more, and runs a finger along the white edge of a plate.  The end of each of his syllables drives home with the lift of his chin.  He takes her hand.  She pulls in more, but in that way that indicates she is also drawn to him, unsure of what to do with what she thinks she desires.  Hopeless to help herself resist. It is seven in the morning during Christmas break.  A Friday.  And I can only imagine the back story.  Their separate cars outside, hers with an empty child’s car seat.  A receipt for one night in his jeans pocket, snug against his thigh.  The buttons on the phone she fingers thread immediately to her other life.  That that life is just one press-of-a-button away makes the sweet whisperings of this man through morning whiskers all the more thrilling.  Behind them on the wall is posted letterhead from the Department of Defense addressed to someone from Clinton, Pennsylvania.
            Dear Mr. and Mrs. Butler…
I carry the Styrofoam cups which our eager waitress has insured are pint-sized through the gift shop and out to the car, while Cheryl pays the bill and Joe looks at a Rolling Stone magazine.  Outside a thin skiff of snow has covered everything and the islands of gas pumps steam in the morning light.  It is taking both of my traveling partners longer than I expected.  Plus I have to pee.  I place the coffees on the trunk of the car, turning them into the snow, and head back in.  When we return, we see that they have melted through the snow and fallen to the ground, lids and cups forlornly lying in the chocolate covered snow behind the car.
“Shit,” I say.
“What were you thinking?” says Cheryl with an edge compounded by two days on the road.  Yes, she is the coffee queen—so much so that when we started dating two decades ago, I called the perpetual mug in her hand her “prop.”
            “She went to a lot of trouble for us.  What a waste!”
            I decide to remain silent this time, smart ass defensive verbal back though I am.  Admittedly.
            This time Joe, looking thoughtfully over the scene, comes to my rescue.
”It was an honest mistake, Nana.”  He pats her shoulder consolingly.  Sometimes he can seem so mature to me, this boy who has sat behind my seat in the car for the past two days and never complained.  But always, always he is kind.  Even when I took him, at age 11, three times a week to Muoy Thjai Boxing, he would sit with Dallas, a six year old terror and patiently play with  him and his Matchbox cars.  Building him up while his mother screamed at the trainer who had effectively dis-invited him from class because of Dallas’ acting out.  This boy of mine seems to know what it means to be treated unfairly.
            I scoop up the mess.  Return to the eternal truck stop where we can’t seem to escape this morning, for two more cups of java for the road.  Joe goes with me.  The fact is, my grandson does not believe at any moment of his life that he deserves anything.  Days after the fact, we will realize that he hasn’t had lunch money, that he’s just gone hungry.  Only when we find his converse top-siders torn through, tread-less on the bottom do we ask why he hasn’t told us he needed new shoes.
            “I don’t need new shoes,” he says.  And then when we press him, “They’re expensive.  I just didn’t think we could do it.”  They are expensive.  Kids are expensive.  But, in typical Dave fashion, I am first angry at him when this happens, then the Inquisitor, then sullen.  It is only in moments like this, outside Barkeyville, PA under a gunmetal sky, that I am heartsick, reminded of Exhibit A through C; F through N; X through Y.  Little stories about when he was with his mother and his father—first together then after they separated and we were still in New York.  He doesn’t feel he deserves better than whatever he’s got at that moment.  No one even has to tell him that now.  He calculates it out on his own.  Instantaneously.
“Where’s your I-pod?” I say.  Nana is driving, leaning forward and reading all the signs again out loud.  I’ve noticed in the rear-view mirror that Joe is wireless.
            “In my pocket.”  I conjecture that he forgot to re-charge it at the motel last night.  He isn’t going to volunteer that information.  Sometimes, especially with me (chronically with me), to admit a minor oversight to his Papa is to admit being flawed.  It pains me to think that this is our dynamic:  a teenager who has somehow picked up from the alpha male that he can’t even forget to do something as minor as charge his i-pod without having it reflect badly on his character.  I do the conjecturing after all (see above).  Then again, he is seventeen.  Maybe it just goes with the territory.
            I flip on the radio.  I fiddle with the knobs.  Not really sure anymore what the knobs and buttons are for on this factory-issue item.
            “You have the bass up kinda high,” he says, and I tweak it lower.  “That’s okay, “he continues.  The music has its own bass.”
            We listen to the music in our separate zones.  Then Aerosmith’s re-make of the Beatles’ “Come Together” arrives.  I had forgotten that they did that for the 1978 film “Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band.”  Ironic that the film was my first real introduction to the oeuvre of the Fab Four—and it was all remakes of their songs, from Billy Preston to Elton John, designed, I suspect now, to get the disco-fed babies back up-to-speed with the “real rock and roll to me.”
            I decide to play the provocateur.
            “What the hell does any of this mean, anyway?” I ask.  I strike gold.  He leans forward, his left arm on the back of his Nana’s seat, and gives me a running exegesis on Ringo’s blues roots (“Here come ol’ flat-top”) to Lennon’s increasing drug use “bad production” and “You can feel his disease.”)
            The toe-jam football, Joe explains, has to do with barefoot soccer playing, which followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi with whom George had become enamored, played while  worshipping at the yogi’s temple.
            Impressive!  Not the yogi, but the man-boy’s encyclopedic knowledge of all things Beatles, through the portal of the most heady of the them, John Lennon.
            “How do you know all this stuff?” I say, turning around to look at him in astonishment.
            “He’s reading that book,” offers Cheryl.  “He’s got a good memory, just like his folks.” She glances back at him in the mirror.  God bless her, she’s campaigning still to make sure there are admirable things about his absent parents that he can love.
            “Actually,” he confesses.  “I read it on the internet.  It’s amazing the number of acolytes the Beatles still have on there.”
            Acolytes?  Do I even know what that means?  And this is a kid whose GPA, though I admit is on the rise, hovers in the 2.5 range.
            On the radio it’s now time for more year-end review, a curious national pastime that, this year, promises to make me develop acid-reflux.  There’s mention of the Ground Zero Mosque mixed with the popularity of the TV show “Glee” and the BF Oil Spill playing off Lebron James’ insanely protracted decision to move from Cleveland to the Miami Heat, stretching his 15 minutes of fame to weeks.  (More evidence from Uncle Pete that the NBA has become a league of street thugs?)  Speaking of thugs, there’s also the riveting reminder of how Jay Leno gave up his late-night gig to Conan O’Brien only to renege when in his own new show Leno started looking like he was chasing his own tail, poor bastard (he’ll never recover).  They play a clip from Conan’s gracious farewell show in which he thanks NBC, the network that in true American fashion can spin a rationale for its greed over ethics faster than you can say “Enron” or more to the point of our most recent descent into The Great Recession, “Goldman Sachs.”
“Every comedian dreams of hosting The Tonight Show,” reported Conan “…and, for seven months, I got to do it!  I did it my way, with people I love. I do not regret one second. … I’ve had more good fortune than anyone I know and if our next gig is doing a show in a 7-11 parking lot, we’ll find a way to make it fun.”  Even the Will Ferrell-led Lynyrd Skynyrd song Free Bird  couldn’t eclipse the sincerity of the lanky guy with the mop hair.  But do good guys ever really win in this world, or at best do they just get told, “hey, you played hard, but you didn’t play it right, dude?”
“If I leave here tomorrow…” the dudes sang in their crackpot way, and…I remembered that as I lay in bed next Cheryl, the glow of the screen filling the room on that late February night, they really did look like they were having a good time.  To me anyway, God bless ‘em.

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 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.

 

THE END
August 2010, Great Salt Lake, Interstate 80)

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 2)

 

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