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.

 

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