Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue, Part 19

Charlie Rose and Guest
Part 19

These days I have kept my hands to myself, except on occasion when Joe is headed out the door to school and I give him an impromptu “priesthood blessing”—hand to the head and a few muttered Mormon words—or to pat him, as he pats me and Cheryl when he’s trying to reassure us. The pat to the back, to the shoulder is our signature gesture, a heterogeneous remark—somewhere between I love you and, to quote author Lois McMaster Bujold, don’t worry, “home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

In fact, I return to room 223 at the Rodeway Inn on New Year’s Eve in the year of our Lord 2010, and they have to take me in. I apologize for my snarky remarks about boots on the bed, and—this is another thing that I’m put to shame by my grandson—he readily forgives me. “That’s okay, Poppa. I know you didn’t mean it.” Nana is less sure she wants me back. I pat her on the shoulder. “I’m sorry,” I say. But I don’t tell her why I’m sorry, or what’s weighing on me. Because truthfully? My own confession might sting me enough that I will break down and cry. Right here in Kearny, Nebraska. The fact is both the distance we’ve traveled across this vast country, and the distance we have yet to in this godawful winter terrifies me. That, coupled with the hemorrhaging out the Toyota Corolla door of our credit and the general malaise of My Country ‘Tis of Thee, and I’m ready to try circling the rim of the bathtub until I disappear.

Later, under the covers, Cheryl’s right toe turned into my bare calf, Joe still lying on top of his bedspread and fully clothed, I listen for the engine brakes of the trucks on Interstate 80, the throbbing of deceleration that for the past three nights has clustered in our heads before sleep. But the interstate is miles away tonight. There is only the sound of the idiot box and the periodic slamming of hotel doors here on the second floor as the alarm clock between our beds digitally morphs to its turning point of midnight. 11:33. 11:47. 11:59…more weather warnings trail in speedy red across the bottom of the television screen. We’ve gone through our savings. Pulled every rabbit out of the hat we can think of . Re-financed our mortgage not once but twice. A country still menacingly entrenched in a recession that everyone keeps saying has bottomed out, and, therefore, is on the mend. (Right?) One party trying to move the country too rapidly while the other, on principle, obstructing everything in a waiting game. National road rage that has migrated off the interstates and into our towns, our homes and stores, our schools and motel rooms. And now this. How will we get through?

That night I dream of the airline. I am wending my way through a nondescript airport, dim, cluttered—with strange 70s shopping mall décor of sorts, a carnival of high school students shouldering back packs. And I am pulling along my suitcase when I realize I don’t have all of my uniform pieces. Am I missing my vest? Belt? Tie? Is my shirt white instead of the newly-issued French Blue? I don’t know, but I find myself pulling over to the concourse side, opening my suitcase. Rummaging. I still have to go through security, and I’m two minutes to sign in. Everyone seems to be going the opposite direction as I am. Me, I’m going against the flow–the stream of passengers, their luggage in tow, waiting for a Starbucks.

And then I’m on the 737 high up in the air. Great blinding light distinctively Western outside the windows and flooding the cabin. We are flying over the Great Plains, over the north Platte River, towards the high desert, windswept crust of Wyoming, over the Sweetwater and South Pass where the pioneers made their way to Oregon and California or south, as my ancestors did, to the Great Basin. In the distance there is snow in the mountains, the Sawtooth, the Tetons, the scalloped sides and frozen tarns in pockets of the Wasatch.

It’s been exactly five years since my furlough, and I’m missing terribly this daily vantage point eight miles above the earth. A working life series of great parabolic arcs connecting the dots of America in a way that, though it was a simulated life—at least made a kind of sense. Thank God. From point A to point B. From Jetway to hotel van. From one sports bar and grill to another on layovers. From one hotel concierge to next, it all bespoke civility, an intellectual engagement of life underscored by the heady surrender to “circumstances beyond one’s control”: mechanicals, weather…the poverty and starvation of the more authentic world behind the frenetic screens of our hotel televisions. Authentically chaotic and senseless.

Still the safest way to travel, the airline is. Safe from the real world.

Here on the first day of the year of our Lord 2011, we leave Kearny crunching over just under six inches of snow, and freezing our asses off. The two miles back to I-80 is deathly quiet, but sunny. This is not Rock and Roll America we’re in. This isn’t Jay Leno land, or even the ethos of Johnny Carson, a Nebraskan by birth. This is ag economics territory where industrial beef, corn and soy bean farmers watch the detailed local weather report with fear and trembling each night. Even the internet and reality TV shows seem to lose their undertow here in mid-plains Nebraska. It’s there for sure, but, it doesn’t seem to be an end in itself like it is for the rest of us. Yet. We will not be stopping in to visit my former brother-in-law, although I can’t help but wonder how he and his family are doing. Did he stay with the military? Is he overseas? The unemployment rate in Nebraska is only 4.7%, about half the national average. These corn-fed, thick-necked folk descended from Polish and Scandinavian immigrants got it in the teeth in the 80s during the farm crisis, and there’s a been-there-done-that kind of jut to the chin here as they watch the country deflate again because Wall Street hadn’t learned its lesson then about loaning money on asset values instead of cash flow. Looking forward now it’s about getting agricultural products to port across roads and rail that are woefully behind, say, Brazil. In Kearney it has always been about the quality of the road east and west, a regular reminder of this being the old Lincoln Highway currently running parallel with I-80, here, under the guise of US 30.

I point out the remnants of the old Lincoln Highway to Joe, now and then, when a marker comes up or, in a town like Ogallala, population 4,737, we can actually see the route on the north side of the river when we stop to gas up. Before the old highway, the site was a stop on the Pony Express and then, beginning in 1867, the terminus of the Union Pacific, absorbing cattle drives up from Texas. But today, as we climb up the hill from the river in search of something touristy, the town is effectively dead, streets branching out from plain-looking homes and tin warehouse-styled businesses, and ending, it seems, under cottonwoods just a few yards beyond.

Joe is restless, as I am. Cheryl, when she’s not gripping the dashboard or more to its design the convenient hand hold above her head, as an impulse against my jagged driving, is more than ready to be home. We’ve come from wooded New England, across the Eastern Seaboard Megalopolis, skirting the Great Lakes and muscular Chicago for this view over the Platte River Basin, 130 miles east of the Wyoming state line, and it’s got to betting old. We turn off the car. We sit for a minute. A dog barks. Someone drives by in a jacked up four-by-four spewing white clouds in the frigid air. Do they wonder what the hell a car with New York plates is doing on New Years Day in Ogallala?

“I think I like this place,” says Joe in the back seat. And then before I have the chance to ask him why, he says, “It’s quiet. Not much going on.” To the South is streaming I-80, and beyond that the prairie empties and empties and empties itself into the blue sky tingeing brown and steamy as it lowers to the earth.

“Could you live in a place like this?” Cheryl asks, herself suddenly lost in the scene of winter trees lining the river, trees with black branches upturned like reverse brachia. A low-slung house with a brown shed out back, smoke pressing out of a silver metal chimney. Joe thinks for a minute.

“Maybe.” The perfect non-committal response. When he says this about anything, it means no.

“Do you want to go to the art museum with us?”

“Do you want to try this new salad dressing?”

“Do you want to go to college?” It’s the first time I wonder why it is that whenever the man-boy says something unsolicited like “I think I like it here” we parentally rush in with “So what does that mean?” “So what are you saying?” “What is your ultimate evaluation of this pensive thought put forth to your grandparents both terrified that you will not ‘turn out,’ that you’ll grow up to be a serial killer or worse, a Republican?” So…on second thought, “maybe” from Joe doesn’t necessarily mean “no.” It might mean, can I just make an observation without evaluating it from the ground up as to what it might fucking “mean”?

What a concept. Living in the moment. Just living. I practice my breathing.

Experiencing the full breath body I breathe in…

Experiencing the full breath body I breathe out…

A chill has set in, starting in our extremities and moving inward. I ask Cheryl if she’s tired of riding shotgun. She answers by opening the door. Air blasts in. “You okay?” I say to Joe, turning in my seat. He smiles and then lays his hand on my shoulder.

Back on the freeway, as co-pilot, I have the luxury of drinking in the Sandhills, one of the largest dunes in the Western Hemisphere and constituting one forth of Nebraska’s landmass. This is cow grazing country, no farming here, and also the historical lands of buffalo that supported the Cheyenne and Arapahoe. Now bison, as they are also called, can only be found on preserves, where Japanese and German tourists scout out the beasts through digital lenses. In the warmer seasons this area, floating on an aquifer no less than one billion acre-feet large, is spotted with lakes and grass and wild blasts of color flowering in sub-irrigated meadows. Only the cumulous clouds re-configuring ahead over I-80 as the miles drone on seem to punctuate any visuals, but today there aren’t even any of those. The Sandhills are not one of what Walt Whitman called America’s “natural shows” –Yosemite, Niagara Falls and the upper Yellowstone. “[B]ut the Prairies and Plains last longer, fill the aesthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest and make North America’s characteristic landscape.”

Not sure how to read that. Characteristic landscape? To me it seems like this whole area is the horizontal axis from which everything interesting either descends or rises. And of course from my subjective hiding place, the plains are Nebraska from which a now ex-wife of mine was spawned. At minimum this “characteristic landscape” is inflected by a stinging ambivalence toward marriage, the institution as much as the object of. My Ex was the great hope of marriage. The outlier—Catholic-turned-Mormon who tested the religious premise purported by my parents that faith in the restored Christianity, and not a pioneer pedigree, was the most important criteria for marriage. To me, she was Mormon but not. An eager convert but not hard-wired in the way I am. She was the most daring deviation from my oh-so-programmed life that I was willing to entertain. The smiling Polish brunette, smart as a whip—she was my ticket out of orthodoxy without announcing it as such. Or so I thought. In fact my first wife, the first woman I would tumble into bed with, was angling for the collective’s center as much as I was vectoring for its perimeter. It was like I was headed east and she west on a line as straight as I-80 in western Nebraska.

And if that marriage was a collision of sorts, my second, at least at first, was a reaction to it all. Second time around not only would I marry a bona fide “gentile,” but someone twice divorced, someone eleven years my senior, someone from the east coast. (Confession: Not being clear in the wake of divorce as to which of the above three would be the most offensive to the home fires, I thought I’d triple up.) Nineteen years later and the woman who was the object of my reaction is still sitting next to me, in the drivers seat, both literally (as in today) and spiritually. And it is somehow working for us, “still crazy after all these years,” to quote Paul Simon.

So here in the Nebraska outback not only has the world last night put to bed the first decade of the chaotic new millennium, so have my beloved and I arrived at a point of equilibrium. Is this an accomplishment to announce here in the back wash of a world whose systems seem to be falling apart? A respite from it? It doesn’t feel like that, except now as we speed along on what is probably the last leg of our journey home. Here with Joe in the back seat, alternatively bemused by his fuddy-duddy grandparents and lost in his inner-Joe life, our couple-hood is in repose.

“What, if I may be so bold to ask,” asks my inner Charlie Rose, “is the secret to your marital success?” I sit at the iconic round, wooden table, Rose leaning in, his chin sharply forward, Cheryl at my side, both of us worn-looking in our week-long travel clothes but nevertheless attractively pensive in that PBS way. “Most,” he continues, using the adjective as the indistinguishable collective-at-large, “most would consider the chasms between the two of you too great to cross—religion, age, culture….” Great word, Chuck: chasms. It materializes the bluing maw of The Grand Canyon in my mind. Maybe we really have done something remarkable.

Then again, maybe we were just too embarrassed to admit defeat which, if we had thrown in the towel, would count as four divorces between the two of us. (Or is that five?) Fortunately, now the inner Oprah Winfrey takes over and the proverbial expert guest on the show fills the vacuum of inarticulate specimens on display. “It’s interesting to note,” says the expert, leaning in, taking up all the oxygen, “that statistically men who marry older women get divorced far less than those who marry women younger or the same age.” The studio audience, most of them women, nods approvingly in time for Oprah to do her quipping thing dead on into the camera, “Ladies, get out there and start robbing the cradle. Had I known…!” Laughter all around. I am blushing. Perceiving that I am the center of many adoring females.

But that’s not fair. None of this is how it seems in the studio with the upholstered chairs and an audience who will go anywhere the show’s attractive host will take them. The fact is, over the course of more than ten years, the couple that is now awash in our fifteen minutes of fame brutalized one another. Whether it was revenge or spite, ignorance or neglect, dishonesty or bald cruelty, our competitive malfunction created a horror that to this day, neither of us can recall without re-living it. And yet we stayed on. With each other, in our tiny New York apartments, and before that in a tiny Salt Lake apartment and now in the little house we dance in. We know the worst things about each other, the horror and inhumanity we are each capable of. But somehow there is this grace. It’s only because we know of each other’s worst selves that staying on with each other has inexplicably opened up a space in which each of us is able to mend. Still, what we know of each other shocks us still. And yet we stay on.

This is not the sort of thing that segues well on the second half of the Oprah Winfrey show as we go to commercial. So it will all be left unsaid. We collect our check from Harpo Productions for services rendered and return to O’Hare for the flight home, and in our first class seats winging west over the “characteristic landscape” of America, the irony of it catches up with us. The reason we will each be okay is because the other is there still to hold our worse selves in front of us so that we can move on, heal ourselves.

As the flight passes over Ogallala, she and I release our seat belts from our first class seats, run through the galley to the 1R door, rotate the door handle to the left (in the direction of the arrow), and fling ourselves into the sun-dappled sky. We hold hands as we descend, float really, to the ground and to the Toyota Corolla, parked on a hill overlooking the North Platte, Joe folded into the back seat dreaming, perhaps, of what it would be like to live in this quiet town of Ogallala, Nebraska.

As Cheryl and I pass each other in front of the car’s hood, I reach for her, pull her into me. “What?” she says, startled. “I love you,” I say. “I’m glad you’re here.” She breathes in the cold, looks through the windshield that is all a-glare. Is the man-boy watching? She kisses me lightly, and we disentangle from each other. What I don’t tell her there on that frozen rise of hill above one of the largest aquifers in the world and beneath the contrails of the plane jetting west is this: She is the only one that I would choose to be with on this journey across the country. And she is the only one that despite it all—the brutality of it all—I would choose again to companion me into the unknown. The unknown of myself. I like to think she feels the same, and that this is the answer to Charlie Rose’s question.

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