16 June 2007, 12 am EDT, Revere MA

And we race past downtown Boston, tunneling underneath skyscraper and street, barreling eastward towards the Atlantic without breath wasted or moment savored.

And the smell of that sad and salty air! Fresh off the ocean vast and vacant! The distant streetlights of suburbs twinkle in the urban dark, not points of light so much as stars that spell out human constellation. Past Charlestown, past Everett, past Winthrop and Malden; old streets I’ve not seen in fifty weeks move towards me like adoring fans, pushing up for a rockstar’s smile and signature, and then flittering off again, ne’er to be known or remembered.

And at last the road that has been my guide for the past three thousand miles, dear Interstate 90, the vital eastern artery, shuffles off its concrete coil, ended. From Missoula past Boston, three days, seventy hours. Ever east. Godlike in perfect attainment, we pull over and park and catch our breath and look at each other, Sean and I, just lock eyes for the briefest of seconds, and know, and look calmly ahead, blankly into the dark street, human and vulnerable at last, some kind of simultaneous exhalation of the world’s breath, and just fucking know.

We step out of the car. We grab a few bags each. We walk, maybe two blocks to the apartment. Boyd is outside and he starts to get up to help us. The street and sky hang motionless. It’s that post-midnight softness of Revere, MA, my one-time home, that old and sacred humidity, the sad damp trees and the thick sidewalk, the silent flat street, the high buzz of the clustered power lines overhead, the sound and sight of the things I know and knew, the thin echo of indoor voices waiting for our late late late arrival, the orange glow of Boyd’s cigarette as he sits on the downstairs porch and smiles broadly, goddammit, all of this, this nostalgia, this tightness in the chest, this impending release, this bitter pill. Makes me feel like I have never left; I’m still living there, up on the second floor, my computer’s white cerebral glow giving the crimson red of the old bedroom that sweet vespertine pallor of long days and longer nights, those claustrophobic winter weeks when all five of us, Evan and Boyd and Alex and Beth and I, would sit and wait for the day to happen, those screaming summer soirees of drunken valor and terrible poker playing and midnight cigarette runs, all memories just buzzing through me now, torn in half, fucked, consumed, living both in past and present, oh yes. It is good to be back.

So we move all the necessities up into the apartment and make our appearance. The place is packed. Boyd, Evan, Alex, Gwen, Jess, to be sure, but also Raju and Pevner and Beth2, newer friends from the last two years I was at MIT, and Dmax, a good old friend of mine who spins DnB, and has these impossibly arcane insights about the modern world and its trappings, and is otherwise grudgingly pursuing what some would call a career at the time of this writing. I miss them all so much.

Everyone is impatient to get this party started, but I insist on distributing the gifts first. They are unwrapped to a combination of hysterical giggling and general awe. Lists are boring so I’ll just mention a few of the presents: I got Jess one of those Playskool basketball hoops that stands about four feet tall and comes with a rubber basketball about the size of a cantaloupe. Ages 3-7. Boyd got a baseball cap embroidered with the words “Living Legend”. And so on. The energy in the room at this point is starting to become viscous. People start floating, drifting around the room aimlessly, chatting and screaming and alive with this terrible powerful force. Elastic friendships, pulled apart only to snap back together tonight. Conversations between seperate beings that are so idiolectic and personal and revelatory and pregnant with multiple meanings that it’s like twins meeting for the first time. Fuck soul mates: this is a jigsaw puzzle of soul, complete in one flashing instant, the complete picture so intimidating and electric that it can’t possibly be described, only witnessed. An apartment of deities bursting at the seams. Plus like half of the people there are high, and Sean and I are running on sleep deprivation, and it’s warm and sweaty in the main room with eleven people and one cat all circling around, and it’s pretty late at night so people are starting to get the crazies, and there are six or seven bottles of liquor sitting there on the central coffee table, mocking and taunting and waiting to be opened and consumed. So we get to it.

This is a party that I have held annually in various locations, once a year, since 2004. Like all good parties, it has a theme, a theme which is pretty much necessarily a little self-loathing and -deprecatory and -aggrandizing. Also it’s flat out a great idea. To wit:

The Fifteen Minute Drinking Party

1. One cannot drink before the party begins.

2. One cannot drink after the party is concluded.

A few people get out stopwatches and keep track of the time. Normally the party is held in the smallest room available, but this year there are too many people in attendance. There’s a countdown in seconds, beginning with ten. The bottles are uncapped and uncorked, glasses are readied like musket shot. A handful of us preload. Exuding smiles. Vodka and Hpnotiq and Jager. Silence. Anticipation. Rum and gin and Crown Royal. Ssssh. Total glee, of a sort. That instantaneous moment right as you jump off the diving board, before your feet have left ground, but after you’ve pushed your center of gravity out past the board, your fate somehow both sealed and open to whatever may come. And then:

Splash!

I take four shots of vodka in as many minutes, and then wait for a moment for the stomach to regroup. Sweat is pouring out of the walls almost. Someone breaks out a shot glass that stands eight inches tall. This does not end well. I lock eyes with various friends. After the first five minutes people start to talk, the pained grunts grow sparse. Unwritten rule: if you drink so much that you vomit, you lose. It’s a fine line. Fast music catalyzes the continued debauchery. I get into a brief but serious conversation with Raju and then Dmax about plans for visiting Montana. There is some screaming somewhere. I am hailed by someone as a king. A girl tries to get up but can’t. It takes about ten minutes for the effects to kick in. It’s very warm inside. No air conditioning. The main table starts to get caked with a thin layer of 80-proof resin. People knock shit over, things are upended. And just like that, the party is over. We all shout: “One minute!”  “Thirty seconds!” “Five, four, three, two, one, stop!”

Of course most people forget to stop drinking. I’m sipping on a beer, but with no drunken intent; I’m thirsty and I haven’t thought it out. A metaphysical line is crossed. Pevner damages my shoes with long distance stomach acid; fortunately I took them off earlier. Someone leaves and falls down the stairs in lieu of walking. Sean and I get into a beer fight. People’s socks are sticky. A cake, which appears out of nowhere, is partially devoured and the rest smeared on various people and objects. Shit gets acausal. The tension built up from coast-to-coast car travel is partially responsible. Fury unleashed. Things don’t wind down; they collapse. I lived here for fifteen months in 2005 and 2006, and the poster that we original five taped to the door is still there, drawn crudely on a sheet of computer paper, albeit sticky and dusty: Welcome To The CDF: Competitive Drinking Fortress. Ah, youth.

I come to, knocked out of a coma, just like that. Asleep and then not. Somehow resting in my sleeping bag. Sprawled out on a futon, headaching, uneasy, but together and undamaged. The floor is littered with cans, bottles, colored liquids, food, dinnerware, clothes. I sit up and immediately regret it. Everyone has left except for Sean and the people that live here. My T-shirt is stained pink for some reason. The place slowly comes to life as we compare notes and clean up. It’s about noon. Alex cleans some cake out of his ear. I change socks and put on my backup pair of shoes. Four of us – Evan, myself, Sean, Boyd – go out to lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant and linger over our food like alcoholics in their fifties, heads down, burping and groaning, old clocks rusty with age. I could wax philosophical about the human need to alter consciousness at this point, or justify my bizarre and self-damaging choices as paneceatic, a treatment for my own personal ills accumulated through Western isolation and three days of endless gazing into the horizon’s maw. I won’t. There’s no need. This and all parties, regardless or in spite of their objective immaturity, are brought into being by a secret contract of camaraderie. The rules are personal, the societies veiled. The fact that I am not ashamed but proud of my stories, the way that we all relish our “this one time” and “I can’t believe that I” narratives, is so very vitally important. Book clubs, bar friends, best friends, bands. Community. Be all, end all.

Some other irrelevant things happen. We shop for CDs, play some strategic board games, indulge in a little beer pong. We eat at a Brazilian restaurant where the waiters bring out just-cooked meat, skewered on swords. A brief nod or motion tablewards grants the user endless chicken hearts, garlic pork, kielbasa. Evan chauffers us around Boston in my trusted Subaru for a whole day before realizing that the emergency brake is still activated. Sean meets up with a good friend of his, Black Metal Justin. BMJ and his girl live on a boat at the harbor, having sold most of their possessions. A subletted house pays the food and gasoline bills. We gaze across the harbor from his boat, watch the sun set, listen to Motorhead, drink shitty beers. I meet up with Chris for a little while, and we hang out in Central Square. Eat some Ethiopian food. Walk around Cambridge. And all of a sudden, two days have gone by. I have done nothing, it’s 6 am, I’m groggy from razor-thin sleep, Sean is still awake, the car needs to be packed, I need a shower, my clothes are dirty, the car needs gas, we haven’t packed any food; yet I can hear the low moan of the road just below us. I am on old time once again. The sweet siren beckons. We can’t resist. We head out into the summer dawn, Pennsylvania-bound.

From Wikipedia:

“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.