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)

I-80: A Serialized Travelogue, Part 14

Part 14
          We detour onto I-35 south toward St. Louis.  Cheryl scrambles for the map.  About twenty miles later is our exit which Cheryl has ingeniously figured out in time for us to take.  Route 92 runs parallel with I-80, our ribbboned home away from home.  It is a quiet, snow-blown, two-lane path that stair-steps down in elevation as it rattles West towards Omaha.  We pass through Winterset, birth place of John Wayne—and appropriately named on this icy day—then Greenfield, then Griswold on the Nishnabotna River where we stop for fuel.  Ranchers and work men trundle by in air so cold it seems to crunch as one moves through it to the ubiquitous 7-Eleven-styled “Country Store.”  Back in the car, waiting for Cheryl and the man-boy, a workman in seriously scuffed boots clambers into the diesel truck and inadvertently kicks a clear plastic water bottle out onto the snow-scudded platform.  But neither the brush of it against his cold Levied leg nor the clunk of it to the ground—the diesel engine pulling under the hood—draws his attention and they drive off.  The water will be frozen in no time.
            Griswold lies at the western end of a series of terraced fields now vacant and forlorn, rimmed as they are with the shaggy mop of hair-like growth—flaxen-colored and stiff that tumbles over the edge.  There is pleasure taken in the contours of this remarkably busy land (in an agri-way) the gun metal sky behind it the perfect complement to its heavy earthen load.
            Griswold, quaint with old stores and civic buildings now lost, even here in rural America, to cyber-civic reality and the low grade comfort of home-bound televisions, is also very near the Mormon pioneer trail, a fact that is impossible to ignore as my brethren, ever industrious, have made sure, with the blessing of local historical societies, that the trail be clearly marked.  Outside of this town, about five miles near present day Lewis, IA, my triple great grandfather John Lowe Butler and a Brother Cummings were sitting in a wicciup getting their asses saved by Wacakasuck, who, along with his Pottawatamie band, qualified with the Mormons as yet another refugee of the American people and their government.   April in Iowa, apparently, wasn’t much better in 1845 than December is now in the Hawkeye State.  The weather sucked—rain, hail and ice so thick that it coated trees and grass in seeming crystal.  Complicated by Gramp’s “rumatism” (even in his 30s) the two “Mormonites” were not doing too well, wending their way through the grass and chasing a wild pony to replace John’s which had fallen and died earlier in their journey.  The Indian led them to a small village where they were served baked cornbread, a wood duck (which gramps had shot en route) and strong coffee with maple syrup which, according to Cummings, the scribe in all this and with a thing for misspelled verbal intensifiers, “went verry well…a verry good breakfast.”  After dining with the Pottawattamie village chief which Cummings made some effort to record was “a good looking fellow,” the not-so-bedraggled pair headed off on their journey, “feeling verry blessed.”
            Before all of this, in Missouri where the Mormons had settled after leaving Ohio, Butler made his name by roughing up some locals in the town of Gallatin at a poll where his people were being dis-invited to vote.  Pates were broken and Missourians scattered by the brawn and bravery of my 6 foot 2”, sturdily-built ancestor.  It’s a story that is told with immense pride even today in family circles and Mormon history associations.  We weren’t just the chosen people being driven out from state to state, our tails between our religious legs.  No.  Occasionally, we fought back, goddammit.
            It’s hard to really know what Butler thought of all this, if he thought about it at all.  I say that because as a relatively new convert to a new religion that was decidedly unpopular both on the frontier and in the nation’s capital, his decision to become a Latter -day Saint made early on in Kentucky with his wife Caroline had pretty much owned them from there on out.  Having been essentially disowned by his wealthy plantation in-laws, he and Caroline didn’t have a lot of choice except to hitch their wagon, at times literally, to the Gospel according to Joseph Smith and later to the machinations of Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, and head the hell west.  Along the way Gramps picked up seven more “wives,” including Caroline’s deaf-mute sister Charity and a mother and daughter with the last name of Lancaster who our faithful family histories stridently assure us was non-conjugal—something to do with making “proper” the taking of widowers and the abandoned on the trail to Zion under the care (and name) of a husband.
            This is all very exhausting to me—this history of the great exodus of Mormon pioneers not so much from point A to point B but in ever-growing, overlapping and concentric circles looping west like a spring sprung, jettisoned out then recoiling, moving forward but only from a birds-eye view or the galactic perspective of a god.  And John Lowe Butler was no exception, in fact in many ways he was the poster child of westward ho alternating with westward ho-hum.  For nearly two and a half years after leaving Nauvoo, the man who was a personal body guard first of Joseph Smith and then Young, was sent on wild errands, mostly to corral the scattered Latter-day Saints into organized companies that would eventually all end up at the Great Salt Lake.  In the migration of 6,000 (?) first-wave Mormons over grasslands and mountains that had little if no trail to follow and precious little provenance for the oxen that pulled those wagons, a vanguard was needed to pave the way.  They were tasked with growing and cultivating crops that would later be harvested by those to come.  It was a vast cooperative unlike those bee-lining along the Oregon trail in solitary bands, not bound spiritually to a collective burned from within by a religious quest. 
            So Gramps was sent by Brother Brigham to criss-cross the Iowa territory, bringing messages, reading letters, fording rivers and eating boiled corn and roast duck the size of quail.  His journey du jour near where we currently are, just off I-80, was designed to reclaim in South Dakota a renegade band of his brethren led by the freethinking James Emmett who, earlier, had been the very man to baptize the Butlers Mormon in Kentucky.  So while the first company left for what would become Utah, Grandpa stayed behind.  Even when the second train left the following spring he was asked to stay on at Winter Quarters, a gathering place on the bluffs of the Missouri near present-day Omaha of transient pioneers readying for the trek.  Brigham had this curious, persistent sense of privilege among the people he was leading.  (He actually used to charge the saints a toll in Salt Lake City for even new arrivals to cross through his land to City Creek.)  Still it seems particularly galling that the Young would tell Grandpa, who was a blacksmith by trade but, as is clear in the histories, the prophet’s unquestioning loyal gopher, “Oh…looks like you and your family really aren’t ready to be going west here, dude.  Looks like you need to stick around in western Iowa and get your shit together.  Maybe shoe a few horses.  Oh, and you know that shirt you’ve been wearing for five years?  Maybe it’s time to get a new one.  See ya ‘round campus.” 
Did Grandpa ever think of throwing it all over and going back to his in-law’s plantation, slaves and all?  Or return to somewhere at least slightly more comfortable than a wicciup or a sodden home in a settlement on the Missouri with the discomfiting name of “Winter Quarters”?  Finally, when he had the chance to leave the heartland, was he tempted by Ft. Bridger at the foothills of the Uinta Mountains, tempted to just gun for California instead of the Great Basin?  Had he done so, I would probably be obsessed with something other than a quaint religious movement that nevertheless still has a stubborn hold on me.
Today, as with the country of my birth, Mormonism feels like a colossal failure to me—a journey out of moribund frontier religion via the ecstasy of a mystic to another moribund faith 180 years later via industrialized dogma.  To wit:  we became the very thing we thought we were fleeing when we left the mid-west—intolerant, moralistic, suffering from a surfeit of Victorian mores.  Now, the best we can muster on the national scene as the pinnacle of who we’ve become is a carefully coiffed GOP presidential candidate with a first name at least as weird as “Barack,” if not weirder.
And yet despite this bile that lapsed Mormons like me can’t seem to rid themselves of, I am moved as we approach Council Bluffs overlooking the mighty Missouri and I ponder anew what the Almighty can do, to quote from the hymn.  Or what something seemingly almighty did.  There in the river bottoms now cluttered with interstate exchanges sits a history that defined a people, a land and generations that followed.  John Lowe Butler believed in something bigger than himself and in a country that despite shitting on his people he nevertheless believed was a promised land where God’s kingdom would be established.  And, truthfully, there was a socialistic impulse deep in his bones and those he aided west that identified more with the trodden down Native Americans, who Mormons considered Hebrew descendants, than with the eastern establishment. 

At the time, ours was an oppositional stance to a promised land of liberty that could not keep its promise to everyone.  (Some things never change.)  “We want to take you to a land where a white man’s foot never trod,” the people were told by one of many they esteemed as a prophet and apostle.  Why?  Because “we are not accounted as white people and I don’t want to live with the white people.” And so we were not accounted and not in the parlance of the royal “we,” but in the parlance of belonging to a group that seems in many ways to be ethnic. 
And so it came to pass, that “we” put our money where our mouth was.  We gave the finger to the East, shouted “damn the torpedoes,” married as many times as we were commanded, crossed the Missouri, survived the Sweetwater in the high plains of Wyoming…made the desert “blossom as a rose.” ….Mid-wifed George Romney and his son Mitt several  generations later.    

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 12)

Original Nauvoo Temple Sunstone
Part 12
Further along, near Mitchellville, two, three, four other cars are off the road, flipped on their sides, or…one other again on its roof.  This time, however, yellow police tape girdles them indicating, we assume, that they have been cleared of their occupants.  We creep along, the anxiety of the morning building from mile marker to mile marker.  It is New Year’s Eve day.  The last day in the year of our Buddah/Allah/Elohim Lord 2010.  The last day of the first decade of the 21st millennium and it feels like things couldn’t get any worse.  No change of clothes (or precious few that, even still, we have to wash out in the regulation plastic sink of an EconoLodge every night), a car that will run forever—thanks to the Japanese—but is likely to have its thin hide run over by a sliding Ford Tahoe or Cadillac Escalade–bad talk radio and not a Starbucks in sight. 
But passing through Des Moines, it does get worse. 
We are drawn to a sudden stop behind a massive 18-wheeler.  It’s like having a firewall in front of you with nothing but a phone number to call if we don’t like someone’s driving, and mud flaps with the ubiquitous, silver silhouette of Sister Big Boobs.  Cars to the left continue on, but the sign we’ve just passed says that I-80 is veering to the right.  Okay.  We can wait this out.  It might even turn out to be a reprieve from all the slip-sliding away.  I can see that the man-boy is back to peering through his John Lennon book, and I almost ask him what’s going on in Liverpool, or have the Fab Four moved on to Hamburg, but the silence among us three, our little family—we are a family, aren’t we?—is calming, and I decide against it.  We turn off the car.  The sound of engine brakes rumble toward us from the traffic in the left lane.  It has warmed up some outside.  The sun is even peering through the shattered light of this winter day, this end of the year day.  I imagine what it would be like out of here, trudging in warm boots through the Great Plains of the mid-west.  Wondering at birds which find life in the barren trees and the grasses now brittle in the winter sunlight, fading like an afterthought. 
I am less and less sentimental these days about my pioneer ancestry, but I cannot think of Iowa, let alone sit in it as I am now, without remembering the little nipple of land that juts into the Mississippi south of here, near the Missouri border.  The little nipple of land that was, that is Nauvoo, Illinois. It was from this Mormon spot, which in 1844 had a larger population than Chicago, that my people set off across the frozen river and into Iowa to escape what had turned out to be relentless pogroms from nearby Missourian “mobocrats” and, later, from their Illinoisan brethren.  They set out in January in long strings of wagons, leaving most of their belongings, their farms, some of their kin in “The City Beautiful” set on a bluff surrounded by what had once been swamps.  And some of them remember looking back over their collective shoulder to see their nearly completed temple of white limestone torched,  black smoke rising to the sound of wagon wheels over frozen soil. 
This trail is south of I-80 but merges somewhere with it in these corn and soybean fields west of here, and as I sit behind our firewall truck in Des Moines, that is where my mind goes, as it is often wont to do despite my best efforts.  I shouldn’t complain about our trek.  The first wagon train carrying Brigham Young and 140+ other Latter-day Saints spent 120 days on the trail west.  The average distance traveled was eight and a half miles per day.
Like I said:  I shouldn’t complain.  But…of course I will.  It’s the most American thing I can think of doing these days.
We move forward.  Then stop again.  When we get to the junction overpass of I-35, we see a semi—cab and trailer—lying on its side.  It appears that as it shuttled down the graded up-ramp of the northbound route it lost its footing.  Now it nests in a snow bank as if a giant hand had come out of the sky and gently tipped it over, like a tired toddler, into rest—Whumph!  We crawl along, then stop for five, ten minutes at a time in the far right lane.  Cheryl is visibly rattled but elevating it through at least three levels of forced  cognition:  enumerating the harsh details of the scene to me and the man-boy, calculating the time being lost and philosophizing on the broader picture of interstate travel.
Eventually, she picks up the burrito—her phone inconveniently buried in a coat pocket—and calls the dog sitter.  This is where she puts on her best face, as cars crawl past us on the left, the windows steamed from the inside, collecting ice on the outside.  I’m alternately shifting from drive to park to keep things moving.  The man-boy has again discovered the charms of this morning’s USA Today as an alternative to Lennon.
On the phone, C. explains to Kate our predicament in calm, measured tones that belie her perilous state of mind.  We are way-laid by ice.
We are witness to repeated road trauma.
We are half a day behind schedule.
We won’t be retuning to Salt Lake City until Jan. 2.
“How is Jiggs?…The cat?…Has Maxine been by?  Don’t pay her any mind if she does; she’s already called to tell us that she hasn’t seen you walk the dog the entire time we’ve been gone…Yes…she’s the one.  The one who went to Palm Desert for Christmas and, no, when I asked her how long she’d been home before she noticed you hadn’t been walking Jiggs, she said one day.”
More laughter.  Release.
“Exactly.  How does she know who hasn’t been walking the dog all week if she’s only been home for one day?” 
“Well…thank you so much Kate.  Do raid the refrigerator and don’t feel like you have to be nailed to the house.”
The House.  Cheryl longs for her house.  And so do I, if I’m honest.  Not the house, really, but my life…no, my security.  My sense of order…you know, the routine that I wanted so badly to interrupt with a “much-needed” vacation.  There’s my work at the nonprofit located in the old Del Rey grocery store in the Marmalade District just west of the Capitol Building.  There’s the Republican Irish pub where on occasion Cheryl and I will meet up after work to sit at the State’s longest bar—over 70 feet–under the watchful, John Lennon-spectacled eyes of James Joyce, in a hat.  There’s our neighborhood with crazy Maxine and Ivo, the art films screened at the Tower at the center of our neighborhood that sits at the junction of 9th South and 9th East. 
Liberty Park.  The blue and green backdrop of the Wasatch Range to the east.  We miss it all.
We finally arrive at the point of Interstate trouble.  Three cars have plowed off the curving ramp that continues as I-80.  They’ve bee-lined as if on an imaginary track, straight, into the graded  hollow under the overpass, two others, one backwards, pushed off to the right—plowed into the snow and dirt, shocking in their incongruity, after all this road is by definition a steady flow of forward-facing and speeding vehicles, a veritable river of wheels, barreling over the earth in a fashion that makes us oblivious to that earth.  If not for these three wanton cars covered as they are with snow, ice and mud, their tracks soft, obscenely inappropriate in this hyper-ordered world.
Interstate Eighty is closed.