Friday, May 27, 2011

The Interstate: Good Food, Good Times

"Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?"  - Jack Kerouac, "On the Road"

A 1500-mile trek across the country from Pennsylvania to Colorado might be an "epic," a mad Kerouacean picaresque through a peculiarly American heaven and hell. I just did it, in a shiny car, mostly in the night, and "epic" isn't the right word. 

"Epic" is in fact more an antonym for the bland dangers of the interstate highway system - neither Kerouacean, Homeric, nor Quixotic. More Humbertean perhaps, as in Humbert Humbert, trying to hide by fitting into the correct slot at the correct speed, like some hapless soul sent barreling down a hardwood lane in a wheelchair on a league bowling night.

The Road has always been a metaphor for an existential pilgrim's progress, spatial alteration as a stand-in for a person's possibilities, infinities of choice, dilemma, decision. By contrast, The Interstate is a metaphor for an extended repetitive motion injury, with all the breathless possibilities inherent in innumerable displays of Frito-Lay "products."  The Interstate exchanges the comforting solitude of The Road for a nervous conning of large trucks in your blind spot.

I set out from western Pennsylvania with my brother in a quick, shiny car, our plan being to get from there to here as quickly as is legal and safe (roughly 24 hours), which limited us to the interstates. Two days after the big tornado went through Joplin, an ugly rash of thunderstorm and potential tornado cells still stretched from the Gulf north to Chicago and dictated we drive to the north of it along I-80 instead of I-70 through St. Louis and Kansas City, which would have taken us into the center of a nasty-looking system. 

By eight o'clock that morning the Pennsylvania Turnpike had insensibly become the Ohio Turnpike, then the Indiana Turnpike, and so on past Chicago, the road punctuated only at 300-mile intervals with fueling stops at the same truck stop where exactly the same goods were on offer. By mid-afternoon the big trucks had begun to shoal up in the rest areas like carp at a sewage treatment plant - the drivers napping until dark, when the rigs file from the on-ramps, string out into the lanes and begin to pass one another in a lethargic, courteous conga line.

At some point in the midnight hours in the invisible heart of Nebraska, when my eyelids were sandpapering my eyeballs, I traded the driver's seat and fell into exhausted sleep. I awoke in cold gray daylight at a Colorado rest stop, my neck screwed into the wrong place and feeling like Charles Laughton doing Quasimodo.

"I'm home, dear"

By midmorning I was home again, without benefit of coffee, at Chateau de Montaigne. Just another stop, if the kindest and best, on the road to inevitability. 


"Pass here and go on, you're on the road to heaven." - Jack Kerouac, "On the Road"

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