- I was alone,
- I took a ride,
- I didn’t know
- what I would find there.
- — Paul McCartney
Searching for nothing, I found it royally.
Kansas: nothing. New Mexico: nothing. America: nothing.
(But ah! the varieties of nothing in our Land!)
I got this car, see, and drove it from Providence to L.A. Which is not quite the same as getting one at the top of Maine, say, the Canadian border, and tooling all the way to San Diego, Tijuana. And which, as an accomplishment, may not seem like dick but I did it, or came close enough. For the first time in my life, and I’m no youngster. I’ve “driven the country” — did it solo in fact. By design.
You’re born alone, you die alone, you write alone, and on each hump of the journey I tried my darndest to be alone, massively alone, to be one isolated schmuck aswim, adrift, adrive in the heartlands, hinterlands of a huge neutral mess of GEOGRAPHY, a far cry (I hoped) from the endlessly stacked deck of my own neurotic terrain. I wanted, and got, a hefty, heady dose of highway as isolation tank; a hard drive as welcome respite, rest. And since, as a bonus, most stations of the mess turned out to be anything but neutral, I got to be alone, without distraction, with and within IT. This big, stupid country spoke and occasionally was audible. I wouldn’t have heard half as much with company on board.
But no, it wasn’t my object, certainly not at first, to “see the U.S.A.” Nor was I aiming to “do a Kerouac,” pull some functional update of On the Road, or a ’60s-revisited “goof on America.” Basically, these wheels just fell in my lap. I live in L.A., my girlperson’s in L.A., and up in Rhode Island her father died, leaving behind a ’79 Malibu with — due to his Parkinson’s — less than 18,000 miles. Which she wanted, natch, but couldn’t take the time out to get — employment is like that. Fearing her brother would claim it if she didn’t — property is theft — she dispatched me with gas bucks to fetch it. Since I had nothing better to do (I’m a writer, right?), and since it was her car, not mine, and I could thus do what I wanted with the damn thing, I geared myself up for the challenge.
Challenge? Right, I’d never driven more than 400 miles, in one swoop, before.
- Babbling Brook U.S.A. benign little fucker
- the Primal Disorder
- mother to Man
- or at least distant cousin
- nothing to do with TV!
First hop (don’t laugh) took me HOME to Woodstock. Home in the sense that my sister lives there, home merely being where a nearest amenable relative maintains an address. L.A. is hardly my home, it’s my office; ditto for the Apple, the office of my first 30 years. My parents, those fabulous original home-definers, now live in Florida, too far, fortunately, off my likeliest route. One home on a trip like this is more than plenty.
As homes go, well, there are really only three types of middle-class homes, households, in America: squares, hipsters, and yuppies. My sis and her hubbie are squaresville incarnate; benign squares but what can ya do? “Lenny, it’s time to prune the azaleas” (but they don’t vote for Reagan) — that sort of biz. My niece, meantime, the most nouveau-materialist li’l piece o’ cake you would ever let sit on your nuts, has got yuppie stamped on her 10-year-old designer-jeaned butt. “Let’s take a ride,” I would gallantly offer. “But Uncle Richard” — the little shit — “that’s so borrrring.” Then she’d think a minute, her eyes’d light up: “Oh, we can go shopping. '’ From squaresville to yuppie; at least they’re not wasting hipster genes.
Not that Woodstock itself seems particularly stacked with ’em. I don’t know, was Woodstock the town ever hip? Other than for its five minutes, maybe six, in the Folk Revival sun? ’Cause if so, if such items as Time and Tide have ever really been quantifiable aspects of things Woodstock, then the civic hipster blood-count is at sorry, woeful ebb. I mean come on (fr example), the Not Fade Away Dye Company, not too many storefronts from Vidakafka (the life of Kafka?), home of frilly grandma dresses, none containing vermin of any sort. What a place ...
But there’s Nature, there’s always Nature: I found myself a brook and pulled up a chair. Figuratively, of course — it was really a rock — but I actually sat there staring for three days running. And not just staring: grooving. Appreciating. Water and rocks and moss and bubbles and weeds. No rusty beer cans.
But by the third day nothing had happened. There was just no ... scale to it. Neither loud nor silent. Neither crazy frantic nor exceptionally still. Just sort of a midrange nature prop, a fish tank without the tank (and without the fish). Maybe I picked a bad brook. Maybe I’m no Buddhist. Maybe the only reason I was still there was it seemed preferable to hearing my niece complain that she had no checking account.
Ten-eleven years ago, when I threw in the towel on New York, urban blight wouldn’t have made my top five reasons for splitting, had someone pointed a gun at me and said, Okay, list 'em. My motives were essentially “personal” (boy-girl, friend-friend, writer-editor), but framing it all was the fact that I’d just plain used the place up. I loathed rock clubs, hadn’t been to a museum in 13 years, read no books so who needs bookstores, movies were suddenly FIVE DOLLARS so fuggit. Blight, in fact (a/k/a “sleaze”), was probably the last genre of citystuff I actually cared for. So when finally the day came when I’d used that up, and I found myself on a Circle Line cruise around Manhattan (literally: the last cultural straw), I got me a one-way ticket to Somewhere Else — which I proceeded to use up in 30 seconds.
Thirty seconds and a decade-plus onward, having still lived in only TWO PLACES, really, neither proving ultimately satisfactory, in all my born days, I motored south from Woodstock with mild trepidation, returning as I was to the place of my birth, my growth, my shitjoy, piss and oowee, with transit goals and stratagems I had never before employed. Since splitting for the palm trees I’d of course been back — I’d visited, revisited those few remaining Gotham pals ’n’ buds; I’d hugged, kissed, sat around, had drinks, laughs, departed. I would fly to New York, return to L.A. This time, howev, New York was neither principal target nor launchpoint for immediate return. It was but a stop, an ad hoc coordinate, a Mars en route to Jupiter (or a toilet en route to the bar). Having stripmined, from both ends, the whole frigging New York-L.A. axis — Substance versus Illusion as a great American “theme” — I wished for nothing more substantial than a free place to park.
In Manhattan, ha, the Village.
Which I knew would not be easy.
Which could easily break my spirit.
Which I dreaded more than anything else on the trip.
But fuck me, I did it, found something in only 45 minutes, an hour, a mere 12 or 13 blocks from where I needed to be. I even nicked a city tow-truck in the process, the driver too busy hooking up an illegally parked sucker to even notice. A good omen: getting that compulsory first accident over with toot sweet. The remaining 3000 miles would by contrast be pretty much nothin’.
But the town. Between check-ins with cronies I still had to endure a town. Few of the goods and services of which, at current cost, appealed to me in the slightest. Live jazz, which I’d all but ignored while still a resident, was all I felt any inclination to consume, largely because back in the peehole where I now hung my hat the beast was functionally nonexistent. I slapped down 15 bucks, then another 10 for two drinks (the minimum) plus tip, to catch David Murray and what appeared to be his B-unit eleventet on a Wednesday night at some frou-frou dive with a giant stuffed alligator over the stage, yuppies of many races in florid attendance. Then I stopped consuming.
Since last I’d looked, the Apple’s rich had indeed gotten richer, and its poor poorer. Where the chronically homeless — what we used to call “bums” — once confined themselves to certain neighborhoods, certain stoops, stairwells, and alleyways, they were now everywhere. Every 25 feet. And the despair, shee, the kill-you-motherfticker on everyone’s face... I’d never seen so many needles, for inst, in the gutter.
Years without break in a fake, scattered city like L.A. can throw you out of sync with crowds, scum, pus, the Sins of the Pavement. My capacity for blight as foreground thus diminished, I sat with my goodfriend Nick on a pair of folding chairs, taking it in as backdrop, as universal context, as surgeon general’s warning somewhere in an eyeful of anything. Maid walks prize-winning poodle past wino ... young mom wheels babe around sleeping junkie ...
The LIES New York tells itself have clearly reached the stage, the scale, of the kind L.A. has always told itself.
“How’d you get through all that Statue of Liberty horseshit?” I asked my companion. “That must’ve been as bad as our goddam Olympics.”
“It was quicker. Yours was two weeks, ours was like two-three days. What I did was I stayed inside, didn’t buy the paper or watch the news, and I stuck with stations less likely to go to that button. As long as there’s a Honeymooners or two and The Giant Gila Monster — I think it was on that weekend — you don’t really have to pay attention to all that other shit.”
The rest of the trip, five or six days, I just drove, stopping only for gas, food, urine, or sleep. Shits I took in the morning on waking.
Smog of New Jersey: I remember YOU. The sight, the smell, the life-is-poison presence; last familiar face ’til Oklahoma City.
Pennsylvania in autumn is a beaut. Yellows, oranges, reds, with splotches of green (no brown) that work like a congruous off-yellow. “The Fall!” hawk the billboards, “You’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania”: nature as Product (& don’t you forget it). I’d spot these signs, “Remove sunglasses,” and figure hmm, a real breathtaker coming up — they want you to catch it with no tint, no extraneous shading.
But no, ’s only a tunnel carved through a mountain. By the third such passage I caught on, removed ’em.
After West Virginia, which for the minute or so it lasted seemed ostensibly mountainous, terrain as the road served it up got flat (Ohio), flatter (Indiana). The degree of full-spectrum fallhood dropped radically, as did the height and distribution of roadside shrubs. By Indianapolis, what few trees they had were totally brown or totally green; at Illinois, these in turn faded to gray. Dry, grim and relatively unpeopled, the Land o’ Lincoln at 1-70 latitude seemed right out of North by Northwest — the cropdusting scene — minus (fr contrast) the hills. Yuk, yawn — where’s the purple mountain MAJESTY? At which point the Land of Truman, lush, rolling, and citied Missouri, came along at St. Louis to cut the routine.
Dead animals of course helped. For decor picker-uppers you can’t beat all the weasels, woodchucks, squirrels, rabbits, dogs, possums, skunks, snakes, hawks, deer, and miscellaneous splattered on the blacktop and shoulders — more critters in a day than you’d see at the zoo (or a lifetime of hunting).
Plus you had your higher-mammal fortuities, those local bits, slices of what some think-tanker of yore awoke from a fever dream to dub “Americana”:
— beat-to-shit 100-year-old barn w/ satellite dish (Cloverdale, Indiana);
— billboard, south of Pittsburgh: “The door to alcoholism” (football player, red jersey, #12, beer in hand);
— Caddy w/ BISHOP plates. New Rome, Ohio (gal at his side saying nosir, not the bishop of Rome!);
— Howard Hughes Motel, Greenfield, Illinois (He stopped here, see, on the way to Vandalia...).
Mainly, tho, adverts and exit signs. No need leaving the highway to actually see, inspect, eyeball St. Mary-of-the-Woods College (W. Terre Haute), 24-Hr. Adult Books — Truckers Welcome (Yukon, PA), or the fair town of Teutopolis (Germany-opolis?), Illinois. It’s NICE (or something) just to know they’re there.
And mainliest of all: radio. With both AM and FM, I had it all. I’d be driving through some typical Squodunk, East Jesus, what have you, and signals would come in off these little rinky-dink transmitters. I don’t wanna overstate this, but it was really kind of a joy to pick up earfuls of local crime b.s. (“14-year-old held in theft of waffle iron”), farm commodities crap (“Listeners often ask, ‘What is a pork belly?’ ”), high school football, weather reports, local do-good baloney (an all-you-can-eat breakfast of “sausage, ham, bacon, and eggs,” proceeds going to “the mentally retarded of Korea”), a “reverse trivia” show on which a caller stumped the panel with “Who wrote Philosophy in the Bedroom?” (Answer: De Sade.)
By joy I mean zoom, zoom — the beautiftil, ludicrous, precious, ineradicable AUTONOMY of these insulated fairytale locales would just immensely tickle me as I zoomed past their literal necks o’ the woods. Wouldn’t wanna live there, would hardly wanna visit, but receiving their alien transmissions — in coherent English no less — was more of a kick than Carl Sagan is likely to ever get from his storybook aliens. And it always felt TRAGIC — on the hour, the half hour when master-program central piped in current Big Lies (the “national news”) to eradicate everything.
When fatter signals were available, I generally aimed my snout forwards, sussing out stations in the next big town, not the last. Through the first couple days I began out of sync and remained out of sync with the hotcha of wherever I was headed, missing some stolen dynamite hi-jinks in Columbus by 12 hours, a bank robbery in Indianapolis by one, and Chuck Berry’s birthday bash in St. Louis by 24. If I’d back-listened as well, I’d no doubt’ve found more to feel out of sync with, but for MASSIVE out-of-sync there was always music.
And I’m not talking country, e-z listen, senior-cit nostalgia, sicko Christian; I’m talking roots, my roots, rockrockrocknroll. The current stuff? Well, c’mon, I don’t listen to current stuff; I’ve got no clue whether it was good current stuff (so-called) or bad current stuff — by current stuff standards — these stations were playing. Or even if it was current stuff. Huey Lewis I recognized — some things you pick up by osmosis — otherwise, dunno. All I know is every rock station — every state — played the same, same shit. No regional initiative, no individual oompah; just playlist playlist playlist up the gitgo. THE SAME PLAYLIST. Everywhere.
Uniform news ... uniform currentstuff. Not that this particularly bothered me — I could always tune out for pork bellies — nor was the fact of it news. Nor, for that matter, would I have felt less out of synch with station after station of non-mainstream currentstuff. Currentstuff I don’t care about — I’ve already said that. No, it was the not-so-varied non-currentstuff the jocks played that irked me, newsed me, underlined my alienation from not only Youngperson Music To-Day but that of the great American RECENT PAST. Every oldies station — oldies program — oldies hour — played not only sameshit, not only sameshit I sonically loathed, but loathsome sameshit I did not even (9 out of 10 plays) RECOGNIZE.
Like, okay, I’d hear this thing by Irene Cara, not the theme from Fame, and think: (1) SHE qualifies as an oldie??? (2) she in fact DID something besides “Fame”??? Or they’d keep playing some pathetic remake of “Earth Angel,” not the Penguins version, an awful remake that sounded like Karen Carpenter. But it’s not Karen, on the third listen (third station) I learn it’s the New Edition, and I realize I’ve lost my knack for even gauging TIME FRAME. You either know something or you don’t, and knowing the antecedents (or the system of deconstruction/reconstruction) still won’t give you a handle on remotely guessing WHEN.
It got to feeling so strange, lost as I was in a time that was no longer time, that an utter pieca shit like “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” by Elton John & Kiki Dee would come on, comfort me, give me a surge of relationship — simply ’cause I could i.d. it — to official history as dealt. Not only do the U.S. and I no longer share a cultural present, we apparently can’t even feign a common past anymore — a common marketplace past, even. I mean Christ-o-mighty, I did once hear “Under My Thumb,” “Light My Fire,” and “Rain” (Beatles) on the AM, let alone FM, airwaves. Why do these bastards choose to forget, to distort, to aid, employ, and abet hirelings who puke on the sacred, the eternal (et cetera)? The eternal is eternal, and I can’t for the life of me CONCEIVE of the represso-shithammer these ghouls have brought in to beat “Eight Miles High” out of their psychic reserve (in favor of Irene Cara).
But ya gotta eat, you still gotta eat so I et. And wherever I et — wherever I looked to eat — the food was exclusively chain, fast, corporate. Wendy’s, Denny’s, McDonald’s, you name it. (Truckstops had Hardee’s, Burger King.) Didn’t matter where I pulled off the roadway, small towns, big towns, within finite minutes nothing was offered but chainfood. What wasn’t chain (w/ one exception) was dogfood. Got off at Little Point, Indiana — try and get smaller than that — and oh boy, the Hen House. Hen House Restaurant. Great, swell, order Beef Stew, get a bowl containing much spud, let’s say 19 chunks tater to 2 chunks of beef. On back of the check: “Love one another.”
Exception: Thurston’s, next door to Motel 6, Columbia, Missouri. For $6.99: all-you-can-eat ribs, brisket, chicken, frog legs, salad bar, beverage, dessert. The second or third best meal I have ever ate.
Okay, national news & music, national (w/ one exception) food. But how ’bout a national nation? — one not requiring TV. To see if there WAS one — heck, I’d come this far — I opted to stay on the interstate.
Only by continuing at double nickels-plus could I get an adequate sense of overlap, continuity, discontinuity, whatever. Only by hitting my quota of states per day could I take the whole thing in as a single anything. (A single multiplicity; a single horizontal blur.) By mid-Missouri, even the idea of New Jersey was receding fast. Only by getting THROUGH it could I possibly get TO it. So hop to it, Meltzer, max transit! (Drink fewer Cokes and you’ll need fewer stops for a wee.)
these amber waves of I dunno, alfalfa maybe wheat waving wheat are driving me —
I don’t know is amber brown? or is this umber? umber waves of
I know not what grain this is
but the sheer unrelieved
is driving me, well,
I have no thesaurus so let’s just say bats
and the only animals
winged or unwinged
living but especially
road in Kansas
I should’ve guessed something was UP when “MacArthur Park” began in Kansas City, Missouri, and ended in Kansas City, Kansas. “Someone left the cake out in the rain” — it was too sunny for words — but would I be up for it?
Kansas is flat as a cake. Flatter. Even with ripples in the wheat, it’s as flat as a ’61 Gus Grissom flattop. I think the word is horizontal. It’s also the first state I hit where they groom the grass adjacent to the roadway, inotherwords flatten it. Flat must be synonymous with neat, jake, as-suggested-by-God, cute-as-a-cuddlebunny.
Vladimir Nabokov, bug collector, would’ve loved Kansas and, worldly s.o.b. that he was, probably did. Butterflies attack you as you drive — at least they did me. Monarchs, sulphurs, fritillaries, swallowtails: a reg’lar Lepidoptricon. You see them flutter a ways off, the only real color in the landscape, and ’fore you know it they’re the color and glop on your windshield. It’s no great leap of mindset to imagine The Wizard of Oz as having been conceived, gestated, and written here ... L. Frank Baum meets the author of
Lolita (15 rounds; who will win???).
Maximum flat after harvesting — some acres had been reaped — is no more, no less, than Basic Flat minus the ripple, minus some inches and feet. You can’t out-max max. You can’t see to a FURTHER forever in all directions. Simulated “infinity” is the upper, but also the lower, limit; the norm. I didn’tTiafta be a math whiz to put two and two and shout eureka, hmm, L.A. was not geo-drastically diff. In certain crucial geo-posited ballparks it was/is hardly different at all. On an unsmoggy morn before they put up the highrises, adrive to work on the freeways of L.A. and Orange Counties, you might indeed have seen forev in any of several directions: hence the onus of smog.
To the inhabitants of L.A., smog is a Cultural phenomenon; smog as negative “health” referent is culturaler still. Before I’d ever set EYES upon Kansas, I was convinced that L.A. was its cultural Capital, that Kansas was in fact THAT WHICH Los Angeles, California, was the sole and logical capital of. Its principal industry made films “about” Kansas, based “in” Kansas, to be consumed by “Kansas” (or some such mid-American shuck).
But here I was in KANSAS, literal Kansas, and godamighty there were too many, too many, too many points of literal concurrence: the flat, the groomed, the fake forever, the ontologically shitfaced-boring (masked as Divine). Outside Emporia, a billboard demands: “You must be born again.” Please! indeed! by all means! yuh yuh. But don’t, on the life of your ma, let H’wood film it, script it, cast it, buy it, precurse it, prefigure it, or. The temptations are immense I know (mythic congruence is Mythic Congruence; Ameri-Jesus bucks are ameri-jesus Bucks), buh buh but.
Then I pulled into Wichita, a compulsory petrol/pee/minimum daily caloric requirement stop, and it’s like I was REALLY there. The cultural cum physical L.A. Malls, sprawl, thoroughfares, burgercruise, vacant faces/posed, ill-fitting clothing as statement of UNIVERSE, let’s-pretend-we’re-a-city-while-a-large-box-of-macaroni-would-probably-fool-us-as-well, nothing to block or filter the killer sun (which blinds, maims, causes cancer).
And which came first? (a dipshit might ask) — film? concept? chicken? California? kansas? egg? But the answer is too, too (boo hoo) obvious. ’Tis generic, ’tis Ameri-generic, and that which is generic is no grander, no hepper, no more life-nurturing than THIS.
This Kansas in Oct. as I drive and see lines, I see telephone lines, but I don’t see no linemen. “I hear you singing through the wire, I can hear you through the whine” — I’d give years off my life to hear “Wichita Lineman.” And I’d give more than that for the code by which nothing yields something.
For the first time all trip, though, I find — past tense — found me some sync. Saturday, fall, college football: Kansas vs. Kansas State. Two crummy teams (3-2 vs. 1-4) but still, a tradition. Intrastate. Just before the half, K-State leading, I passed a billboard, “Kansas Beef — Famous and Nutritious,” and at the half, no lie, radio guest was media director for the Kansas Beef Council. He didn’t say “famous” but he coughed out “nutritious.”
in the mirror when I turn my head I can spot a cowlick
and there’s probably
if I knew what
they looked like.
ditto for cowfish
don’t know if cowsnakes
exist or cow
clouds but my belt is cowhide
so pardon me while I cower (I’m a coward at heart).
And the best piss stop was Panhandle, Texas, this gas station w/out self-serve run by an affable hydrocephaloidish lout who kept running between the pumps and the Cowboys pregame show on a dinky antique black & white. Over a huge swath of wall he or someone had scribbed FLUSH THE TOILIT ASHOLE, which seemed redundant (or worse) in light of the bowl’s nonstop gush.
Tobacco juice trickled off Hydro’s lip as he scraped and wiped Kansas and Oklahoma off my windshield. Eyeing my alien plates, he farrowed his brow, shook his head, spat and finally asked: “Where y’all from?”
“Where in hell is that?”
“Oh, kind of northeast. Beyond New York.”
“What’s it like?”
“Well” — furrowing my own brow, quickly taking in the local nada — “to tell you the truth, it’s exactly like this.” (Bleak, mankindforesaken, an opening scene — let’s say — from Paris, Texas.)
“That’s inner-est-ing to know! Y’all have a nice day.” (And when they pay him to rewrite the motto for Texas plates, it no doubt will read: “Texas — the place like everyplace else.”)
I’ve always liked Texas. And/or loathed it in a Wrestling sort of way. Its bluster either plays or it doesn’t. Been there umpteen times — to Dallas, Houston, Austin — the bluster of Culture. But never, ’til now, to Amarillo, West Texas, where the bluster wears neither denim nor dick: the bluster of nekkid Land.
After all these states where residential mythos did not exactly jibe with the lay of the land, it was refreshing to see a hand dealt where A equaled A. Since Pennsylvania, excluding Missouri and a couple of urban accidents adjacent to rivers, a suspension of disbelief had seemed called for in cozying up to the question WHY HERE? Why a bunch of Euros would come here for this and, having come, why they’d settle for this — property-as-theft notwithstanding — or even tell their children’s children they did.
Britain predates Rome — Stonehenge and all such truck. You wanna talk Brit mytho-history, you’re talking archetypes, paradigms, psychic protoplasts; the “existence” of a Richard the Lionhearted no more cries for “verification” than does that of a Zeus or a Thor. But Indiana, Ohio, Kansas: none of these designated regions of habitation seem more than theoretically livable NOW, and you wonder what subspecies of migratory Humankind could have deemed them so THEN — a scant (non-prehistoric) 200-300 annums past. BOOKS tell you ’bout wagons and families, oxen and men, ladies in burlap dresses w/ heirlooms in their tore up socks singing (in French, Bohunk, Norwegian) Indiana, here we come. I mean pshaw, I ain’t debating the veracity of such claims — no sir, no ma’am, not me. But the Land, the Land in Question, does not meet the Legend halfway or even a third.
Hey: pre-interstate travel must’ve been a fucker; the source of many odd quirks of spatiotemporal duh-duh. (Mere jetlag has caused teams to lose NBA championships.) AMERICAN GEO-HISTORY: last of the Eleusinian Mysteries???
All of which is but buildup for the author’s unconditional seal of approval (& firm, sweaty handshake) for West Texas qua PLACE. The no-pretense, no-alibi turf of not exactly “tough guys” (though that couldn’t hurt), uh, let us say “outlaws,” “renegades,” no-home-on-earth “misfits,” “sleazebuckets,” “desperadoes.” Maverick: a motherless calf. “Mavericks” too. Such folk are eminently credible now/credible then. And the land: NO comfort from the land (only whiskey, orgaz, beer, the Cowboys on Sundays).
No sissy, macho, jaycee, godswilling “immigrants” need apply.
And then: the Void.
Hours and hours (& hours) of New Mexico.
The major Nowhere that minor nowheres far and wide unwittingly aspire to, that select 1000-miles-from-nowhere watering holes and buzzard farms are by the luck of the draw a thousand miles from. Before this little jaunt, I’d been to fringe outpost India, to rural Quebec in Jack London winter, out on the Pacific with naught on the horizon but horizon. But aside from an occasional psychic mass disjuncture, I’d never felt this far afield from human-content Earth.
Hundredmile after hundredmile went by with few, if any, signs of Life. Fewer exits, fewer billboards, nary a trailer camp, no visible crops, maybe three-four cows, calves or colts the entire run. But rocks a-plenty, and dry creeks and red clay and sky. You drive along and the basic detail, the only detail, is lifeless plethora, inanimate muchness: a planet complete — and completely full — before dinosaurs, or before mastodons, at least before Stonehenge’s grandpa breathed its breath. Everywhere you look it’s the Grand Canyon, sure, but hardly — experientially, “existentially” — a souvenirable postcard snap thereof. “Details” as microminutiate Americana neither register nor compute.
And you think of all the fraudulent mileage Ansel Adams got from such topography: selecting, juxtaposing, framing, exposing silly rectangles of film with great American coffee-table intent. Romancing the stone, indeed! (Or maybe — great American benefit o’ the doubt — it was a grand act of Dada, a Man Ray multiple imaging of this-rather-than-that-but-what’s-the-diff?) Me, myself, I prefer the fly-by-my-car of structurally imposing an-ciency which NO MAN, certainly not an American, EVER BUILT. And I’m not saying “God” did either.
Hey, this ain’t even “untamed wilderness” (who, or what, would a missionary talk to, mesas? raindrops? drops in temperature?) — it’s the Moon, the Void. And in this void, Nothing — no assortment of nth-percentile rules or expectations — applies. Among the smattering of standard-issue whitebread humans who actually live here are those who not only build domes and hold annual artso film rites, some (we’re told) even worship the devil. Most,
I’m sure, also worship money, exploit in-juns and vote for a-holes, but who said life was perfect — even in a perfect void?
Arizona, next up, had three things going for it, three one-ups on every Place else on my map. It was the only state with a dead porcupine, a snowpeaked mountain (outside Flagstaff) or a Navajo country station (the jocks spoke Navajo, the news and commercials were Navajo ... then they’d play Ronnie Milsap). Basically, though, until Kingman, Arizona was little more than an extension of New Mexico, a more groomed and color-coordinated New Mexico ... the Santa Barbara version (if you know what I mean) of No Place, really.
Kingman, though, was the doorway, the anteroom, to Someplace. California’s sudden nearness was all too loud ’n’ palpable, its grimy orange extending well ’cross state lines to tempt and beckon every local Eve Adams (soon to star in a made-for-TV erection). If it snatches them in from New York and Paris, what chance you wanna give a poor dusty burg with Dreams so poor, so dusty it’s actually named one of its larger streets ANDY DEVINE AVENUE? “Hey, Wild Bill, wait for me!” — how’s that for desert role-model wish-hopin’!
smog in the desert, BLUH-colored mtns.
bottles at the foot of
make this your California trip,
(kick yo’ ass up the ghost ass of Route 66)
It’s a good thing the scientist in me got to catch & sniff both Jersey and California in a single week. Immediate sensory evidence can sometimes be useful; the memory romanticizes too damn much. For ten years I’d held to the notion that New Jersey and partner-in-crime Manhattan were atmospherically grimmer on an average day than L.A. on its life-snuffing worst. Well I dunno from average, or even from worst, but 30 yards (or some such figure) from Needles.it was already smog-gier (by a fanciful factor like 50) than the N.J./N.Y. of not only five days previous, but of drastically mismemorized days of yore. And this was just desert, for fug sake; L.A. the “city” was still 250 miles down the road.
I’d never before approached California, Southern or otherwise, from this direction — a preferred route for Dust Bowlers and, one assumes, the author of “Route 66.” Gateway to the garden (of Eden), to the pot (of etc. at rainbow’s end). Well, seeing how tawdry and ugggggly the damn thing could be, and finally knowing in fact where it came from (from turf more pure, interesting and “spectacular” than itself; from Nothing which knows its Being and its Place), I instantly KNEW — evidence enough — that the California Ruse must predate even the film industry. Realtors thought it up, or historians. Lying to keep from crying! Well, Mary Jean, I’m sure it ’ll pick up when we get to the sea...
Follow... the sun.
And I did a 2nd take on Kansas: it had its reasons. Agriculture, physical isolation — reasons for being bland, modular, unaware. Southern California has no reasons; none, that is, dealt by geographic, geologic reality. In matters of mindset and heartset, Southern Cal is geography denied.
Or maybe it was just my dread of returning Home.
I’d been so long in transit, and it felt so okay, that I really didn’t want to stop, and certainly not here. Around Pomona or Ontario, the smog so thick you could barely read the signs, traffic slowed, crawled: first traffic jam of the trip. Which made sense. All a venue of ALL CARS can offer, in the end, is the illusion of transit; cars become geography, er, real estate; the smallest units of propertied immobility. Or some such lunacy, some fitting Jim Morrison terminalism (to celebrate my less-than-joyous reentry).
This was the end, it hadn’t been too rough a haul, and I realized two things. One, that Jack Kerouac’s biggest problem was he didn’t drive, that by depending too exclusively on others for both general mobility and immediate vectors into and out of place-coded situations and experiences, he was ultimately consigned to a sensibility — as both writer and man — too monochromatically that of the Passenger: passive and/or “out of control,” restless of hand and foot, unaccountable, “not responsible.” Heck, I’d only really had one car problem all trip (in a storm in New Mexico it didn’t start, then did), and I hardly ever drove at night, so I’m not talking courage, adventure, tough-guy stuff, or any of that. The daily stresses of wheeling into nasty setting suns, of holding a curve while holding in a wicked number-one, were challenging but by no means immense. The rewards were, big deal, rewarding.
But the whole thing is more than plus/minus, than a series of small but concrete “achievements.” By handing the reins over to the Lew Welches and Neal Cassadys, what Jack missed out on was a heap of ORIENTATION. A means of viewing activity, basic functional NORMAL activity, from a vantage point which is also its CUTTING EDGE: the Zen of merely driving. An easy one (and, again, no big deal), but throughout life, except for rare practice spins, the King of the Beats was too cheesed out to bother.
Two: New York and L.A. are not contiguous. That’s with a g (“adjoining, adjacent”); and, with an n, nor are they continuous (“linearly connected”) by connections other than instantaneous: airplanes, TV. No surface passage is quick enough or smooth enough to pull it off, so you’ve gotta fly (or plug into network poison). “Bicoastal” scumbags (and watchers of networks) are the bane of both coasts. That’s it.
No, wait, THE NATIONAL BIRD should be the CROW. After catching its act in every state I crossed, the case with no other feathered friend, not even the sparrow, I feel very strongly about this. The racial implications alone (they’re black, right?) could be far-reaching. Write your congressman and dump the eagle NOW! □