A celebration ongoing, part one
October 1st, 2008
“Those who look upon road trips not as a method of travel but rather a hobby frequently describe themselves as Road Enthusiasts or Professional Road Trippers. These motorists take the concept of road trips very seriously, some have devoted time and resources to the pursuit of the hobby. Although there are many personalities in the Road Tripping Community, many road enthusiasts advocate sharing the roadways, preservation of historic places and natural spaces, and safe driving… The goal of road trip enthusiasts is to experience the culture, nature and history of the route, and to celebrate the open road.”
Celebration of the open road. What does that mean?
Every time I glimpse the interstate, which runs through the north of town, I feel this crazy pent-up desire within me to get on it and just go, not to escape but to revel in the unknown landscapes beyond the road’s bend. Whenever I stop at a gas station, especially around sunset or after dark, I can’t help but take a deep breath and imagine that I’m in South Dakota, or Arizona, or Iowa, or Tennessee, and that I have six more hours to go until it’s time to pull over and check in at the first motel I see, unannounced. I have this impulse within me to check the route between my house and faraway places that I hear mentioned in conversation or on the news, just to see what roads I’d need to take and how long the journey would last, sleeping breaks notwithstanding. My father is a cartographer and as long as I can remember there have been maps on my bedroom walls. The strange placenames of cities unknown. Duluth. Winnipeg. Tulsa. Mobile. El Paso. The rolling Midwestern fields at dawn, the fog just beginning to lift. The cool alpine air of a mountain pass allowing snow to lay even in September. The glistening of the city’s skyscrapers, peeking over the horizon against the racing sky. The treeline stretching against ranges unnamed, brown dirt mounds uprooted from earth’s ancient center defying the erosive desert wind. The neon blink of a twenty-four hour diner reflected in wet blacktop. The smell of gasoline. The biting cold of Wyoming’s winter dark. The hush puppies and fried catfish of southern Appalachia. The road. The ever winding and endless road.
13 June 2007, 10 am MDT, Missoula MT
Was going to leave at 7 am to make a good long day out of it but finished packing at 3 am and decided that a good night of sleep was the key to maintaining a consistent 12+ hour a day driving schedule. I roll the car over to the Cenex gas station that abuts I-90 and clean the windshield, fill up, grab a liter of Gatorade. My goal here is a < 10 minute break every three hours at the most, a little foolhardy but not inconceivable, as for now I am the sole traveler. I glance over the packing job as I fill up the car manually. Don’t like to leave the car filling on its own as I have a superstitious belief that the gas won’t turn off automatically and the tank’ll overflow. The presents I’ve prepared are wrapped and I’ve brought a bit of wrapping paper with me, as I’m not quite finished shopping for the eventual recipients. I figure that I’ll pick up the remainder on the way.
The first taste of the road is always a little harsh, much like that first shot of Beam or glass of cabernet. Thoughts race: Am I really doing this? Can I do this? What if something happens? What’s going to happen? Won’t this get a little boring? The new Rush album is in the player, an upbeat choice, a throwback to an old high school conversation that Rush’s Fly By Night is truly the be-all and end-all to starting any journey:
Start a new chapter
Find what I’m after
It’s changing every day
The change of a season
Is enough of a reason
To want to get away
Quiet and pensive
My thoughts apprehensive
The hours drift away
Leaving my homeland
Playing a lone hand
My life begins today
The car purrs eastward past hilly coniferous distant peaks and grassy valleys, and soon I’m stopping for a quick bite to eat at a Subway at the Virginia City exit just half an hour past Butte. It’s still morning in the mountain west so the temperature hovers below 80. I eat in the car and am eager to keep time, not normally preferring interstates but on a schedule that defies mention. I’ve been listening to Kerouac’s On The Road on CD, and it mirrors my emotional state, my thirst and desire to almost be ahead of myself, to be moving so relentlessly that I turn around and see my own body just trying to catch up. The road, although prosaic in physical form, is something that you can lose, something that you can find. It’s as if you physically become your unreachable desires, if only for an instant, the very fleeting nature of their glorious attainment inherent in their power. You reach for it. You fail, you succeed, you move on. You are not a thing. You are an action.
Alone in my thoughts, I fill up the car, eat, and relieve myself at each stop, in order to lessen their irritating frequency. Billings in Montana, Sundance in Wyoming, Wall in South Dakota; I follow I-90’s relentless track east as the sun races past overhead. The rolling western peaks gradually flatten out, becoming rolling brushland with the occasional reddened butte or exposed rock jutting up into the sky. Sagebrush is ubiquitous and trees only exist in the front yards of small town ranch houses. Hot and cloudless, the Oregon Trail in reverse. Such a thing as traffic has never graced this lonely stretch of road. Stripped tires lay across the road in places, clean-up crews being only slightly more frequent than accidents. As if on a stimulant binge, I drink little and eat less. I live only to move.
The sun sets right as I past into Central Time, my day shifting forward an hour into midnight. The road is my lullaby, I lurch at the wheel. A sudden downpour is a sign that my day is over. I pull into the first town I see, Murdo, SD, which is surprisingly vacancy-free given its nominal population, and check into a Motel 6, exhausted and vacant. A routine begins that I wish persisted to this day – I check the atlas to see how far I’ve come and set tomorrow’s goal; I check the weather on the motel’s TV; I call Beth and others to verify my progress and health; I set the alarm for an early start. I sleep hard, as if I’ve been swimming all day instead of sitting and staring into the constant and shifting horizon.
14 June 2007, 6 am CDT, Murdo SD
This isn’t really the perfect road trip, if only because I know so many people along the way. I don’t consider myself a social butterfly, but the friends I make are friends for life, and I won’t drive past a potential rendezvous, as limited as it makes my route and my timing. Yes, the perfect road trip is solitary and open, both in scope and in meaning. Another time, perhaps. I haven’t seen my friend Sean in more than a year, and to make this long journey financially and emotionally viable, he and another will join forces with me and run the road together. Not to mention that he’s one of the best people ever.
I wake up gradually, around 6:15 in the morning. I don’t really remember sleeping. Even my subconscious is rapt in anticipation. Get moving. Get up and get out there. I dawdle over continental breakfast but see nothing worth the effort; it’s time to begin the day’s momentum. I’ll get breakfast on the road. Outside a panorama of soft fog and rolling green farmland spreads before me. The day is beautifully silent, holding its breath, wishing for something from a dream. The guttural chug of my car’s engine is a crime, gasping to life against the sleepy wordless rhythm of the morning, but I feel the road’s call. It is urgent. Plus, I don’t want to be late. Damn destinations!
Within a half hour I find my place on the road, cruising at 75 mph. The fog is burned away by the rising sun, and the last wisps of mountain coolness evaporate with it. It’s the summer, after all, and my childhood experience tells me that today and the rest of these road days will be hot, sizzling, scorchers all. Farm silos, barns, wheat fields, exit signs, eighteen wheelers, construction signs; they all fade into the mile-after-mile grind. Excepting a hurried check to make sure that the fluid leaking from my engine is condensed water from the air conditioner, the horizon rolls out smoothly, effortlessly. I feel the line between the present and the future start to blur, I’m moving so fast. I exist a little after you do. Not late but prescient. Moving eastward at this rate I feel the power to predict, to transcend, to know. I take I-29 south to just north of Omaha then continue towards the east coast on I-80. I stop occasionally for snacks and to stretch my legs. I’m tired, I’m exhausted, the day runs before me; yet I unquestioningly push onwards. East of Des Moines I run into civilization – there is traffic on the road now, the speed limit slows to a stately 65. The flat sprawling cornfields and straight roads grow dull over time. That and the inability to push past the thrall of fellow travelers angers me, and it just gets worse and worse as I approach Chicago.
Fuck Chicago. I still have never been there and seeing as I can’t get within an hour of it without hitting bumper to bumper four-lane gridlock, I never will. Oh well. It’s clearly my fault; I should have picked a better route. Yes, you’ll agree, it’s very boring, the analysis of the best route to take and making good time, but I assure you that my dad and I have spent hours poring over this very issue. Fact: My children will have maps on their bedroom walls.
Somehow I make way past Chicago and northern Indiana, over to I-94, now in western Michigan, right as the last thread of dusky orange fades to the west. I’ve lost another hour to time zones, which is pushing back my arrival time considerably. I must’ve forgotten to take it into account. Night driving does little for the soul. The machine-like truck traffic lumbering on towards Detroit does nothing to help. I’m delirious, sick with exhaustion and the endless road. The last two hours are the hardest I’ve ever driven. No more road trips, I swear. This is inhuman. I’m doing it, I’m almost there, yet I’m somehow failing. I’m hungover from driving. I’ll never drive again.
Three in the morning, I roll off the interstate a little west of Detroit follow printed out directions to Novi, an upscale suburb near Ann Arbor. The road is wet with night, humid in the eastern air, steamy dark humidity that I’ve forgotten. The trees looming over the road are thick with life and I’ve forgotten them in my single year living in arid Montana. It’s still warm, at least eighty. I idle quietly down the last street, mansions on either side. I pull over and rest for a minute, marveling in my own power. 36 hours ago I was in Missoula, Montana, on the west side of the Rockies. Now I’m within sight of the city lights of Detroit.
I go and knock on the door, my friend Sean answers. We embrace and are awkward for a moment as it’s been a couple years, but barriers fall quickly as we listen to music and jam out to some proto-metal in his computer room. I feel like the time spent apart has fallen away, nonexistent. We chat, we reminisce, we laugh. I manage to last about an hour before I wander off to a spare bed, happy in my ability to do what on the face of it seems impossible. I am proud of myself, my car, my world. I set the alarm and fade. This is only the beginning.