I drove across our beautiful, delightfully strange country. I’ve done this before, many times. It’s always different. I always learn something. I always go into the journey with expectations, which is stupid. I never come out with any answers, just more questions and a new handful of stories.
This particular adventure, I found myself in an unexpected state of shock, suddenly set loose and feeling inexplicably unsafe – obviously I haven’t left my nest in the forest for far, far too long. “Bewildered” is the most appropriate word I can think of, even if its meaning is literally the opposite of what was happening to me.
And I wondered if the Beats would still feel at home in our America, with its pockets of fast food and big box stores, a sorry excuse for civilization. Would Ginsberg really have to ask why our libraries are full of tears? Would Kerouac, now nearing one hundred, use an iPhone? Or would he stay up late clackity clacking away on that mystical Underwood, reeling and railing at the scene around him? Would Burroughs even notice anything was different? Those guys were always so good at seeing beauty in the ugly and the dangerous, and yet I think maybe we would be too much for them.
And I wondered, driving past abandoned town after abandoned town in the desert: what happened here? These houses, spray-painted or burned out, who worked to make cozy homes of them? Were they the same people who put murals of birds and gods and trees and lovely, lively things on the ruins of their old lives? Like explorers who left their homeland, then set it on fire and signed the ashes? Or was that art put there by strangers, itinerant scavengers who, in fine American fashion, were so desperate for unclaimed space?
And I wondered about the shuttered trailer with four identical, gutted, and sun-bleached Fairladies in the yard – was there a fifth? Was it patchworked together out of cannibalized remains of its sisters and made beautiful again, with love and sweat and blood and beer? Was it screamed at, laughed over, turned into an important part of someone’s world? And, when the time came to board up that house and flee whatever happened there, did the owner look for a moment at those four dead husks and thank them before driving away into the cold, dusty night?
And I wondered: why are all these small farms brown and dead and their houses empty? Why do all these big, green, lush farms have McMansions bristling with satellite dishes, big shiny trucks out front? Why can’t I finish this thought? Why doesn’t that speak for itself?
And I wondered if this is the beginning of the end of the world. If maybe we’re missing it, not noticing, because it looks like empty houses and spray paint and reality television, rather than the angel of death.
And I wondered, driving across Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas: is it possible to grow tired of the sky? Of it hypnotizing you into thinking you’re the smallest thing in the world? Of feeling both crushed and yet somehow completely untethered to the earth?
And I wondered, in Tennessee, what the folks who travel great distances to go to Graceland or Nashville or Dollywood would think if they found themselves up in a holler. How would they handle themselves when faced with those Appalachian stereotypes which, while vastly overblown, contain a certain measure of truth? Porch picking and moonshine are hidden wizardry, the architectural mathematics underpinning all that other shit. I wondered how many billboards it takes to erase history.
And I wondered if I’m a disgrace to my hitchhiking, road warrior, punk-poet brethren and ancestors. The Merry Prankster types who we worship as young pot-smoking liberals. Do I dishonor their memory, their legacy, the church of the blue highway, by traveling in this way? Or am I just thirty-three, with two bitchy dogs in the backseat, and people texting me every damn hour to see what city I’m in now. How about now? What about now? How many miles? Which state lines? And I wondered if I’d be happier traveling on those small back roads of America again. Those teeny little squirrely ones, like the veins in a wrist. Am I psychologically safer on the big interstate, where everything is always the same? Reliable? Or was I merely in a hurry this time, and what I need to do for my sanity is hit up some delicious paths less taken? Will I even see them in the same way anymore? Have I lost that thing that makes places magic? Have I turned every vista into a postcard? Why is this all so blindingly absurd?
And I wondered, coming home to the town where I grew up: how’s this going to go? Has the town changed? Have I? Can I be culture shocked by my own culture? On the way to the grocery store (now a quick ten minutes away rather than two and a half hours – thank every pantheon in every language) I saw two Trump stickers and a Confederate flag. To each their own, obviously, I’ve got no beef with self-expression. Still, things like that will take a bit of getting used to. The young lady at the grocery eyeballed my soy milk and was annoyed that she had to look up all the codes for my organic vegetables. She asked if I was from here and, without even thinking about it, I said, “I used to be.”
And I wonder what the hell that means.