Monday, October 14, 2013

Driving Long Distances Through America

I wanted to write a little about traveling this summer and traveling in general and traveling in America in particular.  Anita and I have individually and as a couple done a lot of big road trips through the US.  When I was a senior at Oberlin I worked for a month in Sunland Park. NM doing straw bale building with a Catholic charity.  I drove down from Michigan in I think 2 days.  That was the first (and I think only) time I've ever had Red Bull and I felt like my whole body was vibrating.  I think I went 20 hours one day, slept on the side of the road and started up again after however much sleep in the back seat.  I got a $250 speeding ticket in Amarillo, TX for going entirely too fast in the fog at maybe 2am.  I got a flat tire and this really nice latino couple whom I couldn't communicate well with pulled over and put the spare on for me.  I hadn't even thought to check for a spare.  Why drive this much?  I don't really know.  Just to see what your limits are, maybe?  Or what the limits of the world around you are?

In a similar vein, when I first came to Seattle I was coming from Asheville, NC, which is a really cool little town.  Anita and I had been living together there.  She was going back to finish school and I got an Americorps position with the Seattle Red Cross.  I put off leaving until basically the last possible day.  It was emotional to part and we both cried.  I drove the 2,682 miles to Seattle in 2.5 days, again sleeping in the car because paying $80/night to stay in a depressing, anonymous motel was incomprehensible to me then (and still essentially is, although I'm not as extreme about things now).  I got to Seattle with only a couch surfing arrangement that I thought was set up, but I couldn't get ahold of the guy when I got here.  I ended up staying with my future boss at the Red Cross for a week while I looked for a place.  David was really cool and it's kind of amazing to me that he and his wife Mara took me in like that.  I think he has a big wander spirit that doesn't get out much, because he took to me right away.  He's a great guy.  When I remember back to staying with them, I'm sure I was very polite and did my dishes and everything, but I don't have any memory of the sense of violating social decorum or putting them out.  As in like getting the hint that I should get out of their house asap.  Maybe they really didn't mind having me there, or maybe I was oblivious, but I think I also expected people to be honest and I wouldn't have been upset if they had said hey you have 3 days then get out.  But of course the real world has a lot more innuendo and implication and bullshit that stands in for communication.  Just to say I'm kind of surprised at how naive and in a sense pure and maybe also self-centered I was.

But this is all pre-amble.  An attempt to establish a shared history.  Now you know a little about where I'm coming from with driving long distances, with a sense of wonder and excitement at the sheer motion of it, at the stunned reverberations of arriving somewhere and letting the background streaks catch up to you.

* * *

Two summers ago (before starting grad school), Anita and I put all our stuff in storage and took a 4 month cross-country road trip.  We visited pretty much everyone we know, went to 12 national parks, lived in Vermont for a month and Virginia for 2 weeks, and went over 10,000 miles.  We begun heading East through a northern route that took us to Arches, Canyonlands, Bozeman, Yellowstone, Madison, Detroit, and on to Vermont.  Bozeman and Madison are very cool places and I could see living in either.  We visited Mark in Madison during the period leading up to unsuccessful recall of Governor Walker (which I was disappointed about because he is a total prick).  It was interesting to hear about the issues of the place, and also to see Mark at work in the particle accelerator.  In Detroit, I wanted to see the downtown more because we only ever went downtown for baseball games and plays and Detroit had been getting so much press as a post-apocalyptic incarnation of America's grim future.  We went to Layfayette Coney Island and saw some of the amazing Art Deco sky scrapers from the 1930's when Detroit was at its highest point.  We even got a personal tour of the historic Fox Theater from the architect who oversaw the remodel (he's the corporate head of architecture for the Little Casesar's Pizza empire, which is headquartered adjacent to the Fox and also owned by the Ilitch family.  My dad had some connection, and I think mostly he was just glad to have something other than work to do on a Friday afternoon.).  It was very cool, but I left feeling still disconnected from all the raw artsy stuff you hear about in Detroit.  We went to Michigan Central Station (abandoned and incredible), but we didn't climb the fence and break in.  It was the parents version of the urban exploration trip that I had intended, but it was still impressive.  Detroit is an incredible place, and there are so many things going on there, and so much to learn from it.  I definitely like being from this strange and singular place.

In Vermont, we lived in our friend Colin's house that he owns.  It's like any other artist/musician rental flop house except he owns it.  He had talked of getting me to help with building projects, but I don't think he was really that motivated because it never happened.  It was kind of a strange and conflicted visit.  We lived there for a month, and mostly it was great.  Vermont is probably the most beautiful, peaceful, comfortable places I've ever been.  I've never really felt like anywhere was home, from growing up in the placelessness of the suburbs to everywhere I've been since, but Vermont probably comes the closest.  There are no billboards in the whole state, and it's all small state roads leading to dirt roads that don't have signs.  When you take the highway into Burlington, it doesn't feel like you're in Vermont anymore.

We where staying in Montpelier, which with a population of 8,000 is the state Capitol.  Like Oberlin, Montpelier is kind of a town that couldn't really exist.  What I mean is, despite it's small size, it has more than it's share of arts and culture and entertainment, primarily because it has an influx of money that doesn't make sense for its size (the school in Oberlin, the government in Montpelier).  Those are good places, and something to look for, I think.  Colin wasn't working and it seemed like no one in his house was working.  Actually, it seems like no one I know in Vermont works much in general.  The impression I get is that's it's an easy place to sort of work part time, and pursue your own creative interests and not ever have to be pushed into deciding things about your life.  Every day in Vermont goes something like this: Wake up and make some kind of veggie scramble for breakfast.  Sit on the porch eating and talking and drinking tea.  There are always people on the porch, and Amanda and Josie and Eric would come by pretty often too.  Make plans to go on a hike or go swim in the river.  Ride bikes to get there.  Come back and decide to go out to Morse Farm for creamies (maple flavored soft serve ice cream).  Come back to the house and play a board game, or read, or go on a walk.  It felt like summers from childhood that felt like they lasted forever.  I remember that feeling, and I remember somewhere in high school when the summers started to feel shorter.  Whether it was because I was growing more aware of time and the structure of life, or busier, or just planning more.  I think the essential element is being bored; not having plans and just letting things happen and approaching each day fresh.  What should we do today?  There's something so nice about that.

I think we were both also a little bored and frustrated with our time in Montpelier.  The flip side of that pleasant drifting feeling is it could feel aimless.  Anita didn't like how dirty the house was and how much PBR everyone drank.  I liked it a lot as a moment in time, but I couldn't really see that being my life.  I felt like I needed more structure - I need to be working towards something, putting energy into something and getting a sense of accomplishment from the results.  And maybe also doing something that benefits people besides myself.  In some ways that life in Vermont is very selfish, because it feels like choosing to withdraw from the world.  To draw a line around what you can control and say this will be my life because here I can eat what I want and do what I want with my time and explore myself, and out there it's compromised and messy.  As you can see, I'm very much of two minds about this.  Honestly, this exact issue is at the heart of how both Anita and I feel about and struggle with growing up and becoming adults and getting careers and all those things that are happening out in the world outside the Vermont, which is kind of the snow globe where these dreams still exist.  It's a big issue, and as with everything in my life right now, it's what this post is secretly about.  But it's also about driving.

* * *

I'm going to shift gears a little and leave that summer of 2011 behind.  This past summer (2013), we took another big long road trip.  3 weeks and 5,000 miles through all of the Western states.  We went down to California, over to Las Vegas, into southern Utah, up to Yellowstone, and on to Glacier, Montana.  Here's the thing about America and the West.  It's enormous and incredible and there's so much empty space.  I had some kind of slow dawning realization on another trip we took (maybe it was part of that one in 2011?) driving through the middle of nowhere looking for a place to camp in Wyoming.  We had intended to stay in Grand Teton National Park, but there was a forest fire and we were forced to evacuate.  We ended up driving through this extremely desolate area of central Wyoming looking for a state park to spend the night.  The road felt like a thread laid through these giant, prehistoric rocky canyons.  The only things out there were the road, the rocks, the ever-present wire fence, and occasional pronghorn antelope.  We passed towns there were the intersections of two highways with one building, not even a gas station.  Finally we came to the Wind River Canyon, which was a state recreation area with a small, desolate, wind-swept camp ground on a hard patch of clay above the river.  There were a few other people there in tents and RVs.  We pitched our tent and huddled against the wind and just felt small.  After that day of driving through Wyoming, I feel like I understand the conservatism of this country more.  Politically, I mean.  The big cities on the coast and foreign countries and wars on other continents just felt so remote and unreal there.  This country is enormous, and so much of it is still wide open empty spaces.  Sure someone owns the land, but it isn't all developed, and it isn't anything like Europe, where we would have passed through 3 or 4 countries, each with a distinct culture and identity.  You just don't get that kind of casual bumping up against other cultures or ideas or ways of living in so much of America.  Beyond this, it's simply profound to just experience the space of this country.  The raw openness of it.  This is something we have that so rarely gets talked about because so much of the culture is centered in the cities, and is very anthropocentric.  Driving through Wyoming is something like going to the moon compared to living in Seattle.

This summer we spent the most time in Utah.  Utah is an incredible, beautiful place, if you can get past the creepiness of Mormonism and the 4% beer.  They were driven out of everywhere else that was settled, so they came out west to find their Zion and they picked one of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet.  Besides Salt Lake City, which is in the north, there really isn't much in the way of development in the state.  A lot of small towns that mainly cater to tourists, 5 incredible National Parks, a number of National Monuments, and the background landscape in-between, which is just as amazing.  We saw slot canyons and shear granite faces and wild animals.  At the National Parks there were hands down more foreign tourists than Americans, especially Germans.  It seems strange that we have these singular places that are worth traveling half way across the world to see and yet almost no one I know has bothered to take a trip out to see any of them.  For my money, the National Parks are one of the best things this country ever did.  And this is maybe the other thing this post is about.  Because in the traditional sense of traveling, of going to exotic foreign places and seeing lauded sights, I've barely done any.  I went to Germany and the Czech Republic for 2 weeks to visit Mollie (which was great), and I went to Australia for 3 weeks when I was in 8th grade as part of this student exchange thing.  I've spent a little time in Mexico and Canada, but not even really that much.  That's it.  I never did study abroad at Oberlin because I always felt like there was so much going on there that I didn't want to miss.  I haven't done any study abroad at UW because it's expensive and I don't think the education is as good and I would be away from Anita and just out of the rhythms of my life here.  It's something that I feel almost guilty about, because what everyone really loves is to hear about your travels.  And the kind of people who travel a lot have this shiny veneer of excitement and passion and or living life more deeply than the rest of us.  Maybe I'm being defensive about it, but there's always something I distrust about that rootlessness.  About being willing to let go of all your connections to others and just set off into a new place, where you'll meet all sorts of people and do all sorts of things, but never really get too deep into any of it, and then move on to the next place.  It's exciting, but there's something about it that is using change to replace substance, if that makes any sense.  Again, maybe it's just curmudgeonly of me to think this way, but I wanted to put this out there as an alternative.  See America!  Get in a car and drive a million miles across the desert and find these magic places.  In Capitol Reef National Park, we saw so many stars at night, you could hold a finger tip up anywhere in the sky without covering one.  When I took long exposure pictures, you could see the colors of the stars.  It was almost spiritual, being out there in a dark sky environment and thinking about all the things that are right in front of us, but that we can't see living our lives in the city.

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