When work involves travel, there are rules—no dawdling, leisurely pit stops, or eating of pungent or drippy food. It’s more like a NASCAR efficiency test (I’m not speeding, I’m qualifying), less like a scenic cruise with frequent stops at roadside attractions. There are a few advantages—you can muse and meditate on a solo 500 mile, eight hour, one pit stop road trip; or listen to mix tapes or audiobooks. There are no backseat drivers or grumblers asking ‘are we there yet?’ It’s just you, your GPS, a thermos of coffee, the road—and an unrelenting onslaught of driving rain.
Four major thoroughfares run horizontally across America. At the top is US 2, the Great Northern route, from Acadia National Forest (East coast) to Seattle, Washington. The next is US 20, the Oregon Trail, from Providence Town in Maine to the Oregon coast, followed by US 50—dubbed the loneliest route— extending from Chesapeake Bay to San Francisco. About 1/3 of the way in on US 20, traveling East to West, you can take Route 66 southwards, then West, all the way to LA. Finally, there’s the Southern Pacific route, from Savannah, GA to San Diego. I took none of those routes; instead, I drove NE along Interstate 40 and I-81 to the Washington DC metro area for a 2 ½ week consulting gig.
Interstate 81 begins (or ends) in Dandridge, Tennessee (TN) and stretches North to Wellesley Island, NY, on the Canadian border, just shy of Ontario. It’s a path blazed by Native Americans, and used as a war and trading route; it was also used by migrating critters, Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers, pioneers, and immigrants. Now it’s simply a byway to the busier I-95 corridor, and a bit easier on the eyes than I-95’s neon and noise, smoke stacks, and South of the Border billboards. I wrote about many mind numbing 27 hour excursions from Maryland to Key West, Florida in my poem Black Macadam Highway (see end of blog).
I headed East in pre-dawn hours, and followed the crimson glow of countless tail lights hauling silver domed trailers and make-shift campers. I followed folks headed to jobs and 18-wheelers carrying cargo ranging from fresh produce to wide load modular houses. The wipers had the Promethean task of removing raindrops and tsunamis of water thrown on my windshield by larger vehicles. I could barely make out the tenderly budding woods and bedroom communities on either side of the interstate. This was no Route 66—no place to ‘get your kicks.’ It was a blurry road rally, a soggy start to my work week.
My loner skills serve me well on trips like these, though I don’t really travel alone. I travel in the fellowship of 5: Pirsig, Robbins, Ventura, Miller, and Chiefs Joseph, Seattle, and Crazy Horse. Robert Pirsig wrote just two books; his first, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a cult classic, describes a trip Pirsig took from Chicago to the West Coast. It’s about his teenage son, two friends, and a classic motorcycle; it’s a mental tour de force that includes a chatauqua about the philosophy of quality, living with intention and science, rebellious teens, and the view while in perpetual motion.
Tom Robbins, a savvy world traveler, writer, and cockeyed philosopher, wrote several travel themed books, including Another Roadside Attraction and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. The first book is about a hippie flea circus and cross-continent trip from the Vatican to America’s West Coast with a most special dead body…and all that implies. The second book is about a mega-thumbed hitchhiker named Sissy Hankshaw, a renegade ranch, cranes, underground clockworks, and the underbelly of Richmond, VA.
Michael Ventura is an award winning journalist, poet, philosopher, and prolific essayist. My two favorite Ventura books are Letters at 3 am and We’ve Had 100 Years of Psychotherapy and We’re Getting Worse. He also wrote a book called If I Was a Highway. It charts his East/West coast crisscrossing travels in his 1969 Chevy Malibu while meditating on boho concepts (love, truth, beauty, and freedom), poverty, our place on this planet, the gods, and the souls they inhabit and haunt (including his). He drives while apologizing for polluting, paving, and populating what was once pristine countryside. He says the roads he likes the best are where stillness and ancient activity abide.
Lustful Henry Miller wrote books that made him both famous and infamous. One of my favorite Miller books is a memoir of his East-West trip across America (pre WWII) in a 1932 Buick after spending a decade in Paris. In The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Miller wrote his country of origin had no rhyme or rhythm; he called America cruel and sterile, more an odd-yssey than a picture postcard. Perhaps his ex-pat eyes saw and revealed a mood and spirit tangled up in greed, technology, fear of another war and a rising nationalism, rather than what America’s forefather’s envisioned. It is a revealing snapshot and a warning most have not heeded.
The wise chiefs of the Nez Perce and Sioux tribes echo through this land if our perception meter is attuned to what lies beyond stone and steel monuments. They warn and remind our journeying job is to witness and leave no trace, to tread softly, enjoy the nothingness of night, and the unapologetic, lonesome faces of mountains and old growth forests. They entreat us to consider, before making a major decision, what the effect might be seven generations later. Chief Seattle’s words are carried on the wind and form a plea on the lips of those that speak but aren’t yet heard “we are but one thread within the web. What we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together and connect…”
Interstate 81 is considered an essential route, passing by state capitals, the grave of Dr. Pepper, Natural Bridge, moonshine stills, and Virginia Tech, where my grandson is completing a BS degree. Hours before I saw the impertinent metal and stone buildings that encircle the Washington metropolitan area, I sensed it. It’s a feeling similar to what Pirsig wrote about in his second book Lila regarding NY. He said patterns that built NY City aren’t understood anymore—it’s a giant, faceless system beyond comprehension. It feeds off your energy, then excretes you and chooses a new, younger victim. However, those that escaped and returned recognize the power, traps, rhythms, noise, speed, height, and smells for what it all really is—dynamic quality. Soon I’d been be donning camouflage gear and blending into the giant’s matrix.
On the last leg of this journey, the thermos was empty, the gas tank ½ full (or empty). Giant aside, it felt good to be knee deep in the kind of work I’d been doing for over 30 years—writing, collaborating, interpreting government documents like a hard-boiled Raymond Chandler private eye. “On first read, it was an average, give me something for less proposal. But I could read between the lines—this one had ulterior motives—it wanted you to spill and grind the coffee beans, climb the stalk, and deliver the golden goose…”
I brought a few techno-beans to trade for safe passage during this work staycation. I brought my Cherokee talking stick, facilitator skills, a wheel-barrel of words, and my trusty car, which I refuse to name, but might resemble Steinbeck’s Rocinante in Travels with Charley. It was crammed with suitcases containing spring and winter clothes; a rolling carry on stuffed with 2 laptops, notebooks, and office supplies; a roadside emergency kit; and bags of paperback books, snacks, and extra pairs of shoes.
The rain had accompanied me the entire way east and lengthened my driving time. I pull into an outdoor space in Embassy’s Suites parking lot and watch men in black suits and trench coats scurry into the hotel. I mentally recite names of towns I drove by that were named after places I’d visited on other trips: Bristol, Dublin, Glasgow, Lexington, and Woodstock. Was it just a coincidence I’d arrived in Vienna, as in Virginia, not Austria? I found it curious I’ve never encountered a ‘middle of nowhere’ sign. We are always somewhere, aren’t we? We are driven, not chauffeured. We drive and are driven on…
Here’s the poem I wrote many moons ago…
The black macadam highway is long and low
We ply the endless miles, regimented rows
Of bouffant tree tops
While thick, shimmering words on signs
Lead us into—temptation.
Shreds of tire treads, and an endless assault
Of fast food jive unrelieve lines
Of telephone poles
Roll up the window, cut us a line . . .
Pale, puffy blue skies reflect and are our eyes
Sailing through the state of disrespect
Where trash is king, and it is:
“Fine for littering”
Picnic remnants ornament roadside rests,
Two hundred miles of bearded pines,
Peach wine and promises, outlets of unrest,
Fireworks and fireflies . . .
Extinguished by a rising light.
Go softly now, awake the dawn;
We drive, and are driven on…
The black macadem highway.