In 2003 I drove around the country, publishing my notes on LiveJournal. I can’t get LiveJournal to display them in order, and I had this Medium account lying around, so here we are. I’ve reordered them, and edited one or two spots. Headings link to the original LiveJournal posts.
1. The other day I bought a copy of M. Ward’s End of Amnesia to replace the one I’d lost. I think Ward’s latest album is his best yet, and it’s certainly his most accessible, but in its absence I’d forgotten how much I love this one. I once described it as “drifting in and out, like a dream about music,” and it’s still like that. I’m a little worried about listening to it on long drives.
2. I am reading Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, a retelling of the Scottish ballad, set at a near-contemporary midwestern college. The characters argue a lot about poetry and philosophy, and go out to see Shakespeare and Stoppard plays. Having forgotten the awkwardness and tension that were constants in my actual college life, I can now comfortably wax nostalgic about the heady, intense, partly fictionalized parts I do remember.
3. As I understand it, before journeying to the land of Faerie, you should obtain some talisman of your home, lest you never return. Or maybe that’s Hell. In either case, before I set out across America, I have the feeling I should be fortifying myself with fresh memories: Crowds and fountains on the Plaza de Cesar Chavez, music at the Freight and Salvage or the Bottom of the Hill, the ideal suburb of Campbell, and above all the ocean. But I don’t have time to go collect these things, so I’ve had to settle for a pleasant hour of afternoon sun and reading on the patio of the world’s best burrito shop.
4. I’m close enough to departure now that I can get, and can use, weather forecasts for the other side of the country.
No time for the more thoughtful posts right now, but here is a list of some things I have seen:
- CHESS PLAY HERE, spraypainted on a wooden board on a fence on a farm on California Highway 152.
- Protein from Wisconsin! in 50s advertising cursive on the back of a truck.
- Casa de Fruta, a fruit stand grown to theme park proportions.
- There is a place on Interstate 5 where the northbound and southbound routes split to opposite sides of a small canyon. Deadpan, a standard highway sign warns: KEEP OFF MEDIAN.
- If you take the first Palm Springs exit from I-10, you will quickly come to a sign that says PALM SPRINGS CITY LIMIT. You will then drive for several miles before spotting anything that reminds you of a palm or a city. (As for springs, I couldn’t tell you.)
- A MASTER PLANNED COMMUNITY, defiantly lettered on a sign that stands among acres of Arizona scrub and cacti.
- A lawyer’s office in downtown El Paso — a city as entwined with Juarez as Minneapolis is with Saint Paul, except that Juarez is on the other side of the Mexican border — tells you what the lawyers specialize in: IMMIGRATION ACCIDENTS.
A few more comments:
The scan feature of my car radio — which plays a few seconds of each station it can find, then goes on to the next — would be more useful if it were able to recognize when I started singing along.
Texas is huge. Also, gas is cheap here.
It has not escaped my attention that Hurricane Isabel and I are approaching North Carolina from roughly opposite directions.
Where I live, almost all of the open mikes are in coffeeshops. A few of them serve alcohol, but they’re still cafes. This has the advantage that non-performers talking to their friends don’t feel they have to shout to be heard, but the drawback that nobody applauds you more than you deserve because they’re full of drunken love for the world.
In Phoenix, I went to an open mike in a bar — the Dubliner, an Irish(-ish) pub in a lonely strip mall — with these results:
- No iced mocha for me! :-(
- The first time (I’m aware of) that someone at an open mike has tried to pick me up. It took me a while to catch on, but the offer to make me breakfast “to help you on your trip” was a tipoff, and the vehemence of her reaction to my demurral clinched it. It was kind of an icky moment.
- But not as icky as being introduced to two young women — the sort whose body mass is so low they should probably avoid alcohol completely — and watching them slosh into a car and start the long careen home. I kept thinking someone should offer them a ride, or call them a cab, but Greg didn’t do it and neither did I.
That said, this is the first time I’ve been really impressed by a bar open mike — not that I haven’t enjoyed others, but the talent level here was consistently high, the sound quality was good, people were professional on stage and friendly off it. Musically it was my favorite night of the trip so far.
A few words of advice. When planning a lateral cross-continent drive:
- Don’t forget to take time zones into account.
- Don’t forget to understand how time zones work.
- Don’t go to Arizona.
There are three kinds of things that catch my eye from the road.
The first is the vastness of nature. I love open plains, open sea, rolling green hills, the patterns of light and dark that late-day sun makes out of the folds and curves of mountains and foothills. Honestly, I love how the sheer size of the land makes our individual failings irrelevant.
The second, similar in scale but psychologically undermining the first, is evidence of immense human systems. Electrical towers, rows of agriculture, wind turbines lining the crest of a hill, the interstate highway system, even the construction of prefabricated housing developments thrills me a little. As an environmentalist I’m horrified by most of these things, but as a humanist — and as someone who can take hours working out the details of a few lines of program code, or writing a three-minute pop song — I’m awed by them. I’ve been known to gasp at my first sight of a particularly elegant freeway interchange.
I don’t know how to photograph either of these things. My photos of deserts stretching off to a distant mountain range always look like a big shrub in the foreground with only a sliver of sand representing the thing that actually inspired me. And my photos of electrical towers, well, they look like electrical towers. Even I say “So what?” when I look at them later. And it doesn’t help that most of my photos, on this trip, are taken, without sighting, from behind the bug-spattered and semi-reflective windows of a speeding car.
The third category is signage. I’m drawn by design sometimes, but more often by unusual phrases or funny errors. I can photograph these, because there’s nothing photographic about it: The pictures exist solely to document that a thing existed and I saw it.
Still, when one travels, one must have pictures. So I’ve put up a Yahoo gallery of the first week. (Click on “the big trip”.) I apologize for the few photos that are sideways — I don’t have time to figure out how to fix that right now. I don’t apologize for the rest of them.
I’m about at my quota for free photo posting at Yahoo; anyone got an idea for next week’s batch? Ease of setup and upload is paramount — I don’t have time to mess with scripts right now.
I’d heard about it, but I didn’t really understand how beautiful Arizona is. Or how hot.
El Paso struck me as a downtown that is not just failed but actually horrible.
In Texas I made my first significant departure from the interstates, reaching Austin via the two-lane U.S. 290. For the first time on this trip I was seeing people and buildings instead of just cars and skylines. Also it made it easier to swing into a gas station parking lot for another Dr. Pepper.
Texas is the only place I’ve been that actually mandates a lower speed limit at night than in daylight, apparently not trusting its citizens to adjust for conditions themselves. It’s also the only place I can remember seeing a carpool lane that’s actually walled off from the rest of the highway.
East of Austin, the tragic but unavoidable incidents in which insects lost their lives to my windshield cascaded into a full-scale massacre. Things didn’t let up until Atlanta.
Louisiana is where the open spaces of the West gave way to the claustrophobic deciduous parkways of the East. I have fewer photographs from Louisiana on, but they’re probably better.
Night in New Orleans was just frustrating — overpriced and overcrowded, full of visitors and the people who cater to them, dependent on the selling of a myth about itself. Added to that was the frustration of being car-bound in any pre-automotive city. In the morning, though, it was empty and easy.
Objectively, you’d have to say my night in Atlanta was bad. An open mike I’d “confirmed” turned out to be defunct; I ended up with a fast-food burrito and a failed attempt to see a movie. But just driving around in Atlanta makes me happy. I don’t know why. In the morning, though, I went to a self-proclaimed “diner” with valet parking and a dress code. What?
Asheville is the Santa Cruz of the South. College students, good vegetarian food, leftist politics, too much art, a strange degree of tourism. But no ocean.
Some radio moments:
Something I’ve always enjoyed is the juxtaposition created when you’re between two radio markets, and stations at the same frequency start to bleed into each other. On my camping trip this summer I listened to a weather service station playing over an Andrews-Sisters-ish old country song with occasional bits of numbers station filtering in. In New Mexico this week, I heard the new Jennifer Lopez song for the first time, while at the same moment a distant station started to enumerate the various rumors about her breakup with Ben Affleck.
In Fredericksburg, Texas, I listened to a call-in radio show on which diverse political opinions were treated with respect. The topic was the Rangel-Hollings effort to reinstitute the draft, and the context was a Christian radio station, although few of the discussants mentioned religious grounds for their positions. I was a little surprised to hear this sort of discussion on a religious radio station, but I shouldn’t have been — I think in this case it was the host’s faith that led him to try to listen to and understand his callers, instead of just score points.
For a while a couple of years ago I kept a Christian station on standard rotation in my car radio. During my afternoon commute there was a show in which people would call in with their spiritual and ethical questions, and a thoughtful, slightly hoarse preacher would answer with interpretation of scripture. A memorable, poignant and awful moment came when a caller, suffering from chronic and acute pain, asked if suicide would really consign him to eternal torment — because, he said, sometimes he just didn’t think he could stand to go on.
The host tried to answer, basically, “Yes, you can go on,” because God will help you. But the caller kept saying, “Yes, but what if I can’t?” The host, you could tell, couldn’t say that suicide wasn’t a sin, but he kept trying, within the confines of his worldview, to be kind and encouraging and somehow help this caller who had given up hope. It was kind of horrifying and kind of deeply human.
On the way out of Austin, on another Christian radio station, the hosts expressed outrage on behalf of an Algerian pilot who says his career was ruined by the U.S. government, who made him “a scapegoat because he was a Muslim and a pilot”. While this was an unexpected bit of inter-faith support, I suspect it was less pro-Islam than anti-government. The next topic on the show was a planned act of armed resistance against a Michigan act of eminent domain — nobody wants it to come to violence, but when they come to take away a man’s house, he has to do something.
Later on the same station, I heard an ad for organic farming (because that’s the way God intended it) followed by an interview with an anti-fluoride activist.
In rural Alabama, flipping back to radio after an hour or so of MP3s, I found the station I’d been listening to was now out of range, so I hit the “scan” button, and watched as the receiver spun around and around, trying and failing to lock in on any signal.
In Atlanta, I listened to WCLK for hours. It’s the most I’ve enjoyed a jazz radio station since I left New Jersey. In California I have KCSM, which is good but sometimes feels weighed down by its sense of history, art, and responsibility. WCLK doesn’t make jazz feel like a tradition it’s holding up by force of will; it plays jazz because that’s the music it plays.
The Erin Brockovich soundtrack has, since it first came out, been my favorite music for the long dry drive through central California to LA. Thomas Newman’s score is driven by themes that are propulsive, matching the constant rhythm of the road, but the mood changes every few minutes, making the gradual transitions of passing scenery seem more eventful than they really are.
And the main themes are somehow sly, suggesting that the bright sun and blue sky are somehow a facade behind which shady dealings are going on. This, of course, sounds like the film; this could mean that I’m getting my ideas more from the memory of the movie than from the music itself, or it could mean that Newman perfectly suited his music to the tone of the film. It probably means both of those.
Even the Sheryl Crow songs support this mood. “Redemption Day”, halfway through the album, balefully describes the same atmosphere of corruption that the instrumental music implies. And “Every Day is a Winding Road” closes out the experience by insisting, despite all that, on the road’s promise of open possibility. Or at least that’s how I hear it.
The High Art soundtrack — mostly composed by Shudder to Think — is perfect desert music. Hints of middle-eastern tonalities subvert Arizona into Arabia, and the album is made up of eerie open spaces, of languid curves rising over ambient beds of sound, that match the heat and the slow-rising planes of sand along the highway.
I can’t be suffering from post-cinematic suggestion in this case, because I’ve never seen the film. But my understanding is that it takes place in the art world of New York. So how come it feels more like a desert than a city? Maybe it feels like both, and I just don’t know it yet.
Kremerata Baltica’s recording Silencio, though often gorgeous, is less apt for the drive through New Mexico. I can’t tell which piece is which, as I’ve left the track listing at home, but the high shimmering dissonances of the first work seem meant for icier expanses, and a later piece is nearly destroyed by woodblocks, placed much too close to the microphone and overpowering the rest of the work’s subtlety.
I’ve used Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians as driving music all over the country, but I don’t think it’s ever been better than among the mesas of west Texas. The visible strata of the earth, all parallel but none uniform, are echoed by Reich’s minimalist tactics, his steady pulsing and hundreds of similar but never quite identical measures. And the strategy of the piece — in which tension builds very slowly through repetition and then, in one moment, everything changes and a new direction is set — finds its match as I rise imperceptibly to the crest of a low-grade hill, and suddenly find a new vista before me.
I could go on — about Weird Nightmare, a predictable mismatch for daylight in Louisiana or anywhere else; about Brian Blade’s soaring Perceptual and George Enescu’s histrionic chamber music in the lush forests of Alabama and Georgia; about Hooverphonic, an entirely unexpected success in the Carolina mountains — but you get the idea.
And anyway, this story — in which I search at all times for the best extended work to fit the passing landscape — is misleading at best. In reality, I spend most of my time listening to some 3700 songs on shuffle play on my iPod, which — like Holiday Inn, Clear Channel, and the interstates themselves — makes a mush of everywhere.
In Texas, every bridge on the highway is preceded by a yellow caution sign that says WATCH FOR ICE ON BRIDGE. And every time, I would glance at the bridge looking for ice before realizing this caution probably didn’t apply in 90-degree weather. This is true.
You can imagine my relief when I arrived in Louisiana, where the sign says BRIDGE MAY ICE IN COLD WEATHER, letting me know in advance that I’m off the hook. In South Carolina, though, it says BRIDGE ICES BEFORE ROAD, which is admirably concise, but a little confusing if you don’t think that driving onto a bridge means driving off of the road.
Virginia was the first Eastern state on this trip that struck me, from the interstate, as beautiful.
Everything from Louisiana to North Carolina was pretty, and there were breathtaking moments, like Lake Pontchartrain and the chapel in the mountains. But Virginia — the part that I-81 runs through — was beautiful through and through.
Part of this is natural — rolling hills, mountain ranges, rivers — but the built landscape is great too. Lots of farms, with red barns and colonial houses and horses roaming around on the hillside.
All of it looks old — in a good way — perhaps because of Virginia’s general attention to history and preservation history. But the period-piece look isn’t limited to the 1700s. Much of downtown Roanoke — as creepily deserted as any science fiction city — looks frozen in, oh, the 1940s? I don’t know architecture, but I know what I like. And there’s a wall full of old ads, restored in the 90s and now fading again.
Downtown Roanoke is also home to Tudor’s Biscuit World, a cafe restaurant whose entire menu consists of, yes, biscuits, with optional stuff on them. Let me clarify: Heavenly, to-die-for biscuits, with anything you could want on them. For breakfast I had three.
Later in the day I thought I would head over to Shenandoah National Park — home of the folk song — and head up Skyline Drive, rejoining the interstate near the Maryland border. But Hurricane Isabel had thrashed the whole park, and it was closed to through traffic. So here’s my view of this scenic byway:
It’s just as well, though. The interstate was scenic, too, with not nearly as far to fall.
I’ve said a few words about my visit to the Carolinas, but here are a few more.
I’ve gotten into the intermittent habit of visiting the tourist information center as I cross each state line. The man at South Carolina’s (how do you get that job?) was insistently helpful, and pointed out that a scenic route up to Asheville would only cost me 15 or 20 minutes, so I decided to take him up on it.
And the road through the mountains was very pretty. It also taught me that South Carolina roadside stops are a good place to buy hot boiled peanuts, and a bad place to find public restrooms.
Once I crossed the North Carolina border, I stopped at the first gas station and general store I found — right by the library — where I discovered my new favorite food product: Home-Baked Pecan Cake In A Jar. Mmmmm.
The morning of the wedding I went wandering around downtown Asheville, vaguely destined for an internet cafe and bookstore, which I found. It almost goes without saying that as soon as I found net and coffee, Dave showed up.
The wedding itself was really lovely. It took place way up in the mountains, just over the border in South Carolina, in an ancient-looking stone chapel which sloped down toward the altar and no back wall. So the whole ceremony took place against a backdrop of most of South Carolina, or North, depending on which way we were facing.
And the ceremony, designed from scratch for Dave and Kendra, was beautiful too, delivering exactly the combination of humor and sentimentality that I’d been primed to expect by a recent viewing of The One With Chandler And Monica’s Wedding.
Music for the drive west into Tennessee: Everything I had with me by Bill Frisell.
The drive to Nashville was the scariest part of the trip (so far). Post-hurricane wind and rain were battering Tennessee and pushing my car around like an air hockey puck, only louder. Eventually I had to stop off at a Shoney’s and eat eggs for a while as I massaged my tattered nerves back under my skin.
When I finally made it to cwage’s apartment — where, drenched and speechless, I met the whole Belmont University sociology club — I still thought I was going to go out to an open mike that night. I got almost all the way out of the driveway before realizing that more driving that night would be insane.
So the next day Chris and I went wandering around downtown Nashville, which was great, and to the Bluebird Cafe. The Bluebird has one of those open mikes where there’s time for twenty people to play, and fifty people show up. So now I have a ticket that will actually allow me to play next time I’m in Nashville. I don’t expect to be back there for a couple of years, but it’s okay, because it’ll take me a couple of years to write a country song.
I lived in New Jersey for two years. Two years is long enough to get attached, but not long enough for a return to feel like a homecoming. What it feels like — and yes, no doubt there’s some personal history behind this analogy — is like seeing an old girlfriend. You remember with sudden vividness all the things you loved about her, and all the things that got on your nerves. Worse, there are little pockets of unfamiliarity, and you don’t know why: Has she changed? Or have you forgotten? Or were these things about her that you never even noticed?
So: New Jersey is still beautiful. If you’ve never been there — or if you’ve only been to the turnpike and Newark Airport — you don’t know how green it is. My camera’s battery died just before I crossed the border from Pennsylvania, an hour before sundown when the sun makes everything glow, and I was sad not to get the photographs, but I still got to see it. As darkness fell I left the interstate to take the back roads I used to drive, back when the freeway scared me, through old-growth suburbs and past Fort Nonsense into Morristown.
And New Jersey still has terrible traffic (the next day, a half-hour standstill on the way to New York!) and the worst signage in the country (misleading or simply false, where they bother to put it up at all) and the most confusing roads (every town has a road named after every other nearby town, and none of them match up across town borders, and none of them lead to the town they’re named for), and the curious property that, no matter where you are and where you are trying to get to, there is no good driving route from here to there.
And Jersey Boy Bagels is still the Home of the Eggel, and the Edison Family Restaurant still claims to have the World’s Best Oatmeal (and is still correct, as far as I know), and the libraries and banks and post offices and train stations are still grand old brick stalwarts, and the churches are grander still. But was that house in Plainfield always lavender? And when did the abandoned mall downtown, or any mall anywhere, get carpeting? And Clearview has been buying up all the old Bob Roberts art house movie theaters. And the Afghan restaurant is still there, but the gigantic U.S. flag in the window is new. But the guy at the Sweet Dreams Cafe still recognized my face, and that felt good.
Near the post office I looked down at the curb and saw “I LOVE SEAN” etched in angular letters into the curb. I don’t know who wrote it, but I can guess that she was in high school or not far from it, and I can guess that she doesn’t love Sean anymore. Does she still live in Morristown? Does she walk by it on her way to buy stamps or send a package? What does she think when she sees her youthful love still proclaimed there? How many years has it been?
New York still thrills me. Just coming up from the train in Penn Station, moving through the crowd, had me grinning like a fool, which is completely not the right way to be grinning in Penn Station, but I managed to suppress it by the time I got outside. Onto the streets of Manhattan. So great. So much motion, so much intensity.
I can’t even begin to impose an order on the three half-days I spent in New York on this trip, but here are some things I did:
- Drove! I’d never driven in the city before! (I moved to Morristown after years of not driving at all, and New Jersey driving was scary enough for me.) I drove through the Holland Tunnel! And I drove past Pace University in lower Manhattan while I listened to the Democratic presidential candidates debating at Pace University in lower Manhattan! And I drove over the Brooklyn Bridge!
- Later I tried desperately to get onto the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway heading toward Queens, but kept on getting steered back into Brooklyn, so eventually I let the city win and headed back across the bridge and through the tunnel.
- Sang! I made my New York Debut at an open mike at Tillie’s of Brooklyn, and it felt good.
- Spent an hour with Time Out New York on the train, deciding where to go when it stopped moving. How do New Yorkers ever manage to go to work? There’s so much stuff to do! Although it all costs a lot. Maybe that’s how.
- Rode the subway. I have nothing to say about that, I just wanted to share this picture of the express train, taken from the local as they raced side by side:
- His friend had just pointed me out, holding my camera up to the window. He made a “did it work?” face, I nodded and grinned, he gave me the thumbs-up sign. Thumbs up!
- Saw eastmountainsouth at Joe’s Pub. I thought the album was hit-or-miss, but I really liked them in concert. When my attention wandered, as it will do, I spent some time mentally composing a want ad for my dream band, specifically the girl singer, who would sound something like Kat Maslich. And I would like to sound like Peter Adams, if that can be arranged.
- Wandered all over the West Village looking for the Belgian cafe that Lynn and I went to a few times. I thought I’d been down every street in the area, but I saw blocks I’ve never seen before. And I found the spot where 4th Street meets 10th Street.
- The next day at Petite Abeille (after a call to Lynn, who found me the address), I ate real Belgian waffles and drank iced hot chocolate — which sounds like it might just mean “chocolate milk”, but is in fact THE BEST DRINK EVER CREATED — and listened to a woman and her mother haggle over exactly how positive the mother had been about the daughter’s decision to have a child without a husband. The daughter recalled her mother saying it “would be a good idea”; the mother admittedly only to saying her daughter that she “would be a good mother.” Another woman with an English accent tried to moderate. It all felt very Will and Grace somehow.
- Went to museums: The Scandinavia House (an exhibit on Jews in Denmark during World War II), the New York Transit Museum gallery in Grand Central Station (Transit Views, a neat collection of prints depicting mass transit), the Aronson Galleries at Parsons School of Design (a moving collection of designs for memorials, the exhibit itself in memory of a short-lived student at the school).
- Watched a choir of cult members in Union Square singing about messages from the spirits of dead U.S. presidents. All of them were dressed in yellow, except for the ones in costume as Lincoln and, I think, Jefferson.
- Shopped at Books of Wonder, Academy Records, the Barnes and Noble main store (crammed at odd angles into a Manhattan skyscraper and by that method somehow almost cool), Forbidden Planet (which used to be a science fiction bookstore but is now a science fiction bookshelf surrounded by a store full of comics, anime, and action figures), and the Union Square farmers market.
- Overcame my reservations about taking pictures of strangers without their permission.
I have a question: Where’d all the babies come from? I mean, I know, storks, obviously, but look, everywhere I turned, there were people pushing strollers around. There weren’t strollers all over the place last time I was in New York. I listened to two neighborhood guys complaining about a woman who pushes a double-wide stroller even when she’s left one of the kids at home, taking up the sidewalk for no reason. The place is overrun. It was so cute.
About that choir: It was the Moonies. Here are the Messages of Peace from 36 Former American Presidents.
I think I am too bold to call You Father. Dear Father, You are so miserable! You are a God of great grief and bitter pain. What can I say to bring You words of comfort, Father? I am Roosevelt. At one time, as the president of the United States, I invested all my energy for the welfare and prosperity of the American people, but I didn’t guide them in any way to help them prepare for life in the eternal spiritual world. It is this point that has caused my heart to feel untold suffering. Heavenly Father, please forgive me.
Even Nixon got involved, although he doesn’t seem to have made a personal statement.
I played an open mike in Fall River, Massachusetts, where I’d never been before. I don’t have much to say about the open mike, except that the featured act, Ryan Fitzsimmons, was good, and something of a disciple of Peter Mulvey, which made Fall River a good way to reenter the Boston area. Oh, and dougo came down to see the open mike and the town, which was cool.
I don’t know much about Fall River, but it’s obviously seen greater days as an industrial town. (A little Google and a little reading tells me it was a big cotton town before the textile industry moved south.) Oh, and it’s where Lizzle Borden lived. These days, the downtown is empty (at least on Sunday afternoon) and retro.
One of the old warehouses has been converted into a haunted house spectacle called “The Factory of Terror”. Doug wondered if anyone had told the President.
On my long, confused way out of town I turned onto a street that had a median strip painted red, white and blue. I got confused by this and thought it was a one-way street. Then I decided I was wrong. Then I got confused again. There was some swerving. Extensive swerving. The weirdest part was that the driver behind me didn’t give me the look of bewildered hatred that locals are expected to use on these occasions. She just looked… resigned.
I only have two pictures from Fall River — I left my camera in the car when we went exploring on foot. This is a cool building:
The writing is illegible at this size — sigh — but carved into the stone is the name: B.M.C. DURFEE HIGH SCHOOL, AD 1886. Can you imagine going to high school in this? My high school was a square, flat, mundane building from the late twentieth century. The sign out front identifies its new use as a county courthouse.
Doug said he thought Fall River could become one of those cool towns where artists live. I’m not sure, but it’s nice to know the Erik Building will be there, waiting for me:
Come to think of it, that’s pretty much what my high school looked like.
My journal method for the trip was this: I bought a little blank book with pages in various bright colors. Along the way, stopping for meals or sleep, I would jot little notes to myself about what I’d done and seen, notes like “looking for Belgian waffles” or “trying not to step on the cat” or “Jews in Denmark in WWII”. The idea — which worked out for a while — was that I would get to a computer soon enough that these fragments would jog my recent memory and I would know what to say about them in full sentences.
I have no notes from Boston. But I remember I had a great time.
Boston (and Cambridge and Somerville) was the most aggressively nostalgic stop on my trip. I figured I had a lot of old favorites to visit, and only a few days to do it, so I’d better not waste any time. With a few exceptions, I went only to restaurants and stores and cinemas and places where I’d hung out when I used to live there. People would say “I know this really great Greek restaurant” and I’d veto it solely on the grounds that I’d never been there. So I went to the falafel place across from my old school, and the Thai restaurant down Mass Ave., and the CD shops in Harvard Square, and generally was all about rekindling old affections.
The major exceptions to the nostalgia campaign were the open mikes. I played at the Cantab and had a good time, and played at the BCCA and had a good time, and in between I played at Club Passim, which felt like an achievement even though I only got to play one song and I had to pay to get in.
The one song (“Snowblinded”) went over well, though — after a long, depressing drought across the south, I made my first CD sales to people who didn’t already know me. I also traded CDs with Sam Bayer (who traded me his mammoth 3-CD compilation for my 22-minute EP) and Myq Kaplan (who I hadn’t seen but who turned out to be really funny) and I think some other people but it was a while ago and to be honest I haven’t unpacked the CDs yet. And also The Animators were there and it was great to see them again, and I stayed an extra night partly so I could see them at the BCCA.
And in the process of eating at old haunts and playing at new venues, I met some online friends for the first time and saw some other friends for the first time in years and saw some other friends I’d seen earlier that week and saw a whole lot of dougo, who I was staying with. I’m doing this from memory, so I’m sure I’ll forget someone, but let’s see: There was bnewmark and perci and evandra and shoebox_bird and rawrin. And dougo. Seems like there were more. Anyway, all of whom were fun to hang out with. Except one. YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE. Just kidding, it was all fun.
The one sad thing about visiting Boston was this: If visiting New Jersey was emotional but fraught, and visiting New York was thrilling but exhausting, visiting Boston was… well, nice. It was nice because it was a nice place where I used to live, and I knew where some cool stuff was. (Somewhat proudly, I didn’t pull out a map the whole time I was there.) There was nothing about it that I didn’t like. But it didn’t pull me back the way it used to, the way I expected it to.
So maybe next time I visit I’ll try to cut the strings of nostalgia and see Boston like a new place. But on the other hand, I miss Bangkok Cuisine and Boston Shawarma again already, and I’d hate to miss whatever’s showing at the Brattle, and I didn’t even make it on this trip to the Someday Cafe or the Museum of Fine Arts. So maybe I won’t.
OH and also at Club Passim I hung out with marm0t, the most remarkable person I have ever met. (Right? I’m doing this from memory, remember. Please don’t dock my pay.)
My original plan was to spend three days travelling from Boston to Chicago, via Ohio, where I had a friend to visit. But when the Ohio plan fell through, I figured out I could stay an extra night in Boston (to see, you may recall, The Animators) and drive a more direct route to Chicago in two days.
The halfway point was somewhere in upstate New York or Pennsylvania, but none of the cities around there particularly captured my attention, so I picked Buffalo more or less at random. (I did think about routing the trip through Toronto, a city I loved last time I visited, but one of the goals of this trip was “see America,” and crossing the border seemed like a dilution.)
When I got to Buffalo, I realized two things: that one of its selling points was its proximity to Niagara Falls, and that, despite this, it was probably a more interesting place than I’d suspected. There were lots of interesting-sounding restaurants and buildings and things, but what I wanted to do was hit an open mike, and to my surprise there were at least five listed for that night in the local arts weekly. So I chose the one that sounded like a coffeehouse and looked close to my motel and headed out.
What that turned out to be was… a different conception of the open mike than I had previously encountered. The first thing that struck me was that, although there was something musical happening, the cafe was completely full of people talking loudly to their friends. The second thing was that I was older than their friends by at least ten years.
While I was ordering a cup of tea, the guy who seemed to be in charge — I think he brought the amp — yelled to one of his friends, “Hey, you should play something,” and that set up his friend as the featured performer for as long as it took me to finish my tea and leave. The performance consisted of him sitting at a table playing sullen riffs on an electric guitar, while another guy sitting next to him sporadically started to sing something and then subsided.
You win some, you lose some.
The next morning I went to Niagara Falls. I’d never particularly intended to go there, but I was right next door, and I figured, if not now, then when?
What I learned is this: Niagara Falls is not a good tourist attraction for a person with even a mild fear of heights. It had been raining all night, so the sidewalk was slippery. It was still raining a little, so I was carrying an open umbrella. It was windy, so the umbrella tugged gently in various directions. And the sidewalk? It slopes down towards the falls.
But I went out there anyway, because I hate feeling constrained by fears. I wasn’t actually able to look at the falls for more than a split-second at a time, but I did manage to look at the camera’s viewfinder long enough to produce this utterly unexceptional photograph of America’s oldest state park:
Chicago provided the worst traffic moment of the trip, when I found myself trapped between three semi trucks in a right triangle, with only the one behind me still moving.
I have to say, though: When I was planning the trip, it seemed like everyone I mentioned it to had done a cross-country trip of their own, and they all shuddered in horror at the memory of the demon trucks. But in my experience, except for Chicago and one Fauber truck that plagued me for a full day of driving somewhere in the South, all the truckers were professional and courteous on the road. They put up with much worse behavior from stupid drivers in small cars.
I was in Chicago to see Kari and Emily, two friends from high school — although, as Emily pointed out, really, we were friends practically from birth. I’ve known them since before I can remember knowing them, but I haven’t seen either of them for at least seven years, and it’s been a lot longer than that since we were part of each other’s everyday lives.
So dinner ended up being the most emotionally complex experience of the entire trip, which manifested itself as incoherent rambling by me late at night. I won’t say much about that here, except that I was happy to see how, well, how okay everyone’s life had become — we all have problems, but everyone seems more comfortable in their skin — and kind of sad not to have been part of those lives. Since that night I’ve been thinking a lot about the passage of time.
The next day, breezing through fall foliage in Wisconsin, looking up at a blue sky made slightly creamy with clouds, I was overwhelmed by the thought: What could we possibly have done to deserve a world this beautiful?
Today I ate at a “raw food” vegan restaurant, saw at least four people riding recumbent bicycles, visited a community co-op grocery store, and was nearly run down by a swarm of women on motorcycles. Minneapolis is more Bay Area than the Bay Area.
Tonight for the first time I did that thing where you nervously press a copy of your meager little CD into the hands of one of your musical idols. More importantly, I finally got to see Ida in concert (seen here with special guest Fred Thomas).
Time for bed now, and tomorrow, Omaha.
I already posted from Minneapolis about my Bay Area day (although I left out my visit to the best science fiction bookstore in the world) and seeing Ida at long last. (I didn’t post about the plethora of other concerts I missed — among others, Josh Rouse, Erin McKeown, Nadine, and Joe Henry all played within a week of my visit.) I even mentioned Al Franken, who was getting local-hero coverage from the free weeklies.
The big picture of my Twin Cities visit, though, was a strange thing: It felt like the end of the trip. Part of this was probably because four weeks was about all I could stand of constant motion. And also, it was the longest I stopped in one place, and Newton tells us that stopping makes you feel like continuing to stop. And, well, it was just nice there. See the previous paragraph, and know also that people were just friendly in a way I’ve become unused to. And the weather was beguilingly gorgeous. And without leaving the city I drove for miles along tree-lined creekbeds and lakeshores and, oh yes, the Mississippi River.
But the most satisfying reason, from a dramatic standpoint, is obvious: It was a homecoming. I never lived in the Twin Cities, or even spent much time there. I grew up in a small town about an hour and a half southwest, and for most of that time I didn’t drive, let alone own a car, so my visits were limited. But still, they were The Cities, the way New York and San Francisco have since become The City to my suburban homes. I knew their high points. And, although urban Minnesota is different from rural Minnesota, the social atmospheres have enough in common for me to feel right at home.
And then there’s family. I stayed with my parents, who now live in Minneapolis, along with my youngest sister, back from Romania. And my other sister, newly engaged, lives with her fiance across the river in Saint Paul. Cousins and their families are scattered around Minneapolis. Everyone who has a family knows it’s a mixed blessing, and I sure wouldn’t want to stay in my parents’ basement forever. But I can’t deny the gravitational pull, or the pleasure of being around people who’ve known me as long as I’ve been me, and like me anyway.
But of course it wasn’t the end of the trip; I still had another 2000 miles between me and my apartment. At first I’d planned to do this in five or six nights, stopping for some open mikes along the way; but now that the trip felt over, I decided to speed it up to four days. We’re in the home stretch now.
The worst day of my trip was in Nebraska. The landscapes I drove through for most of the day were drab and dull, and then it got worse. A Nebraska State Patrol car passed me; I slowed down from my slightly-speeding pace; the patrol car dropped behind me; I thought uh-oh; the flashing lights went on; and pretty soon I was stopped on the shoulder of the next exit ramp.
I rolled down the automatic window before shutting off the car. Officer A. Indecipherable (as I later read his name from an official document) then walked up on the passenger side, so I had to put the key in the ignition and start the car up again just so I could roll down the other window. That probably didn’t get us off to a good start.
Officer Indecipherable looked about 19 — if memory serves, he was wearing braces — but he projected authority well. He asked me some questions about where I’d come from and where I was heading. I explained that I was on my way home to California after a month driving around the country. “Sort of a vacation?” “Yeah,” I said, “sort of a vacation.” All through our encounter he had a perplexed look of concentration on his face, like he was sure I was up to something, and if he could just find the hole in my story, he’d blow this case wide open.
The question of speed — well, let’s say of velocity — never came up. The reason he pulled me over, he told me, was that I had no front license plate. This was because I had bought the car shortly before leaving California, and the new plates the DMV was supposed to send me hadn’t arrived yet. My explanation didn’t seem to satisfy (and later I learned that it was wrong — thanks, Toyota dealer!). “It is my intention,” Officer Indecipherable told me, “to write you a vehicle defect card.” There would not be any fine or jail time associated with the vehicle defect card; I would just have to correct the defect, and have a law enforcement officer witness it and sign the card so I could send it back. That sounded easy. I was relieved.
Officer Indecipherable asked if I’d mind coming back to his car while he wrote out the vehicle defect card.
On my way back to the squad car, he stopped me to ask “Do you have any weapons on your person?” I told him I didn’t. “Not even a knife?”
Not even a knife.
As he wrote out the vehicle defect card — it seemed to require an awful lot of writing — we continued our conversation. “What have you got in the trunk?” Instruments, I told him, and some suitcases. “Oh, you’re a musician?” Sadly, I admitted that I was. “So that’s why you’ve got all those bags in the front of the car?” I had an awesomely messy car because I’d been driving for a month, but that seemed like extraneous detail.
“Do you have any weapons in the car?” I told him I didn’t. “Not even a knife?”
Not even a knife.
“Do you have any contraband in the car?” No. “Any heroin, cocaine, marijuana, LSD?”
Some of you don’t know how prudish I am. I didn’t have heroin, cocaine, marijuana, or LSD in the car. I have never had any heroin, cocaine, marijuana, or LSD in the car, or in anything else that I own. I don’t use the legal drugs, either — I’ve never smoked a cigarette, my use of alcohol has been limited to communion wine and a couple of sips of champagne. I don’t even like to take aspirin when I have a headache.
So when someone insinuates that I’ve been, I don’t know what, drug-running? my reflex reactions are to become indignant, and to laugh.
Uh-oh, I thought again. I turned toward him to look him in the eye and give him my sincerest “No,” and that’s when I noticed the guns that were securely locked in their upright position, three inches from my head.
“So if I were to search your car, I wouldn’t find any contraband?” No, he wouldn’t. “Would you mind if I searched your car?”
Obviously I’d mind if he searched my car, but I had a feeling it would take less of my time to let my car be searched than it would to refuse. “If you really want to,” I said.
So he searched my car. He had some trouble with the car alarm transmitter on my keychain, so I had to sit in the squad car and re-disarm the alarm each time it looked like he was about to try to open another door. He pulled out my suitcases, opened them up, browsed through my clean laundry and my travel-sized toiletries. Curiously, he didn’t open any of my instrument cases, so I guess now I know where to keep all the drugs I have no intention of transporting.
Eventually he motioned for me to get out of the squad car and take my vehicle defect card. He had one more hope of busting me, but he already knew he’d lost — “So those CDs in the back,” the box full of identical CDs with my name on them, “did you make those?” Amazingly, I was confused by this (I didn’t manufacture them), but we straightened it out, and then I was free to go.
So, yeah, as stories of police harassment go, I’m aware this is pretty mild. I got my car searched for having long hair and a messy back seat. It was an invasion of my privacy, but it probably cost me half an hour at most. (It felt like hours.) The worst effect was that I had to spend the rest of the day driving alone down the highway muttering to myself about what I could have, should have done or said to somehow handle the whole thing better. But it was enough to make me never want to go to Nebraska again.
Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada — the last three states before I got home — couldn’t be more different, and yet they seemed to blur together. Maybe because I was racing to get through them. (Although, after my encounter with the Nebraska State Patrol, I was racing through only as fast as the posted speed limits would allow.)
Wyoming was physically stunning — far more beautiful than any of my photographs suggest — but the first town I went through was Laramie, and I only know one thing about Laramie, so the whole way through the state, even while I was awestruck by the scenery and appreciative of the hospitality, in the back of my mind I was thinking of Matthew Shepard.
A couple of days later, in Nevada, I heard a radio interview with Marcus Zill, a Lutheran pastor in Laramie, about how Shepard’s murder — “the jury’s still out” on whether he was killed because he was gay — helped campus radicals spread the homosexual agenda.
I passed through Utah too fast to see much. Salt Lake City had six-lane one-way streets with utterly prosaic names (“400 So.”) and no traffic to justify them.
The rest of Utah was red mountains, salt flats, and churches.
Nevada was sandy mountains, broad deserts, and casinos.
My favorite spot in these last two states was Wendover. Wendover is actually two cities — Wendover, UT, and West Wendover, NV — nominally separated by a state border. You start seeing billboards as far away as Salt Lake City advertising West Wendover’s casinos, gentlemen’s clubs, and adult bookstores. As you approach the state line, you see the “Wendover: Too much excitement for just one state!” billboard. You pass through Wendover, a small Utah town with no particularly striking features, and then, right on top of the state line, you see your first casino, and you’re in West Wendover: Where Utah goes to sin.
Now, to commemorate the last stretch of driving (3 days, 2000 miles), I’m going to GO FOR A WALK.
ETA: I mean, four days.