There are parts of America I still haven’t seen, but not many. In the past year, I have driven across the entire country at least twice, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and back. I’ve been all along the Gulf Coast. I’ve been over the Chesapeake Bay. As far north as the Canadian border. As far south as the Florida Keys. And all the paths in between.
I have my reasons for being on the road. For one thing, despite lots of lists and ideas, I don’t know where I want to live yet. Not long-term. And, maybe more importantly, the driving helps me to write. It changes how I think. Somehow the road takes the mess of my thoughts and strings them into linear paths.
As I drive, I take notes. Little things I see. Passing thoughts. I dictate them into my phone, or else I type them out quickly at truck stops or in motel rooms. Then later, sometimes, the notes work themselves into a longer piece. Sometimes they don’t. Either way, they help me to remember where I’ve been.
Here are a few of the things I’ve written down this year…
Los Angeles, California:
The Jacaranda are blooming. It came as a surprise. I’ve read the word “Jacaranda” in books, but I never understood what it meant until now—it’s like a fantasy. The wind came through last night and let loose a flood of violet petals over the sidewalks and the streets. The Jacaranda could be your whole reason for living in Los Angeles. They could be the whole justification for the existence of Los Angeles. No wonder people devote their lives to dreams here. The Jacaranda are blooming. I can’t get any work done.
Gila Bend, Arizona:
I watched a long, skinny train for a while outside Yuma. All along the side of it was a streak of the last sunlight of the day. Pink to gold to silver. The right lane of the interstate’s been beaten to hell with truck traffic and I’m bumping along, thinking about that smooth train track and all those dark, desert mountains behind it. The mountains out here all look like piles of wrinkled linens. It’s beautiful, like old laundry, and that’s the only way I can think to describe it.
I’m hoping for a big truck stop somewhere. They’re like a little world, lit up in the night, with nothing else around. I’ll buy a couple bananas and remember that I’m not the only soul left alive.
Just passed a McDonald’s. I was waiting for the light to change, and I could see a table of old men sitting by the big window, shooting the breeze together.
Seems like every little town has a place where the old guys gather. I remember, in Kansas, it was the local pizza place. But usually, if the town has a McDonald’s, that’s where they are. It needs to be a place where you can get a cup of coffee for a dollar and then sit for three hours without being hassled.
It’s a sad thing, really. There aren’t many places left for those guys to go.
Holly Beach, Louisiana:
Just crossed into Louisiana and there are big plumes of smoke on the horizon where the cane fields are burning. Flocks of seabirds silhouetted against the chemical plants and oil refineries. Big white cows lounging in the long reeds by the Johnson bayou. All I can think is, it’s as flat here as the end of the world.
I’m thinking of buying a loaf of sweet white bread in Jeanerette. Thinking about these roads in Louisiana where I pass my own ghost and wondering if I erase that old self as I drive by, or whether I am just layering out another pass on the blacktop. I don’t know which is better. I hate to lose anything, but then I don’t want to heft around all my history everywhere I go.
There’s water now along both sides of the road. The parish library is on stilts. The church is on stilts. The fire station, amazingly, is on stilts. And suddenly I’m right along the Gulf, with choppy brown waves crashing in. The trees here are shaped by hurricane winds, you can tell. Their arms are all flailing back from the shore.
Someone lost a load of insulation on the highway near Lafayette earlier. There was pink fiberglass strewn across the lanes. Not a good thing, I know. Not for anyone. But it was beautiful. Long strands of pink fluff, dancing in the slipstream of the trucks like cotton clouds.
Athens, Tennessee :
For the last hour, I have been writing a little song in my head, based on highway warning signs. The chorus goes…
Buckle up, Alabama
Pick it up, Mississippi
Sloooow dooown, Tennessee
Rocky Mount, North Carolina:
There’s a house off the highway with faded flowered sheets for curtains. Loose shingles blown off the roof into the front yard. There’s a car in the driveway. The sort of place that’s haunted by living ghosts.
Signs for BBQ. Signs for boiled peanuts. Tamales. Fresh strawberries. Fried pies.
It’s been a slow drive. I was caught for ten minutes behind a funnel cake concession stand, bumping jerkily towards some local county fair.
This quote from a story I just read about the world’s greatest stone-skipper:
“Sometimes he dreams he’s dating a woman with brittle, walnut-like teeth that crumble when he tries to kiss her.”
Now I keep feeling for my teeth with my tongue, just to make sure.
I bought a pie I don’t need.
Earlier, I had to stop driving and close my eyes for a while, and while I was in the strange hallway between waking and sleeping, I thought, well, I will give half of the pie to Jack. That’ll solve it. Then I thought, oh, no, that won’t work. Jack can’t eat sugar anymore. I’ll have to think of someone else.
And only after another moment or two did I remember, suddenly awake—wait, no. Jack is in Kansas.
If it were years ago, before Jack stopped eating sugar, and before I left Kansas, I would have given him half of this pie. For now, I’ll have to figure something out.
Jellos. Meatloaf. Tuna casserole... The more I think about it, the Midwest is like an Arctic Seed Bank of 1950’s cooking. At every Lutheran potluck there should be teams of anthropologists with notebooks, spooning samples of ambrosia salad into tubes.
Kadoka, South Dakota:
There’s an 1880 town somewhere near here, east of the Badlands. I keep seeing billboards for it on the interstate. And, if you stop at this 1880 town, you can see the grave of Buck the horse, one of the horses who played Cisco in the movie Dances with Wolves. That’s something they think people would want to stop and look at.
The other billboard that I just saw was for some Mexican restaurant someplace. It claimed its Mexican food is so good that Donald Trump would build a wall around it.
Now, that actually cracked me up.
They’re always harping on the “big sky” thing here, but the skies are just as overwhelming over Malibu, or over the Flint Hills in Kansas, or over, I don’t know, some fish and chips joint in Far Rockaway. There just isn’t a lot else to talk about here, I guess. Sky and grass. More sky and more grass. They could call it Big Grass country.
I left South Dakota this morning with a million thoughts in my head and about 20 pages of notes. I have too many words these days; it’s too much to even put down on paper. The past year has felt like being a teenager again—the changes are so big, and they come so quickly. Every little detail is distinct. I just keep telling myself to write them down.
I just saw a billboard on I-70 that asked, “If you died today, where would you spend eternity?” and it gave me the idea for a TV sitcom. At first, it would seem to be about the employees at a random Costco and all their weird regular customers; then, over the course of a season, the show would turn out to be a story of all these souls trapped in Purgatory for eternity.
Costco being Purgatory in this case. In all cases.
Santee, South Carolina:
It’s been a nonstop tunnel of trees this morning on I-95 through South Carolina. You can lose track of time that way, just watching the light weaving through the long, skinny shadows on the highway. At the last exit, there was a big billboard that said “Repent” in big letters. First, it made me laugh. But then I started to imagine the person who made it and I was sunk into a mood for a while.
It’s December, but the days are warm, green and wet. The palm leaves were dripping this morning when I woke up. It’s such a wild country, just barely civilized. A constant rustling in the trees overhead. Scurrying noises under the bushes. I get the feeling that, if I pushed into the foliage at all, I’d walk into a waiting, open, toothy mouth.
I am parked safely along the sidewalk, and I’m looking up the names of things. The alien fingers of the Bismarck Palm Tree. The purplish cone-fruit on the Buttonwood Mangrove bushes. A profusion of red Star Jasmine. In the berm between the sidewalk and the street, a flock of white Ibis are picking through the dirt for bugs. I didn’t know what any of these words meant before now.
Somewhere outside Tallahassee, at a Love’s truck stop, there is a skinny, scraggly guy with a cardboard sign that says, “Anywhere but here.” Underneath, in small letters, it says “Don’t worry. I won’t kill you.”
I imagine he’s still standing there, but I wonder if I’m wrong about that.
Deming, New Mexico:
I spent the past hour thinking about how some part of my mind is still stuck on a school year schedule, decades after I left school. The way summer still feels like you’re being set free. And September still feels like notebooks and beginnings. But especially the way the sun still crashes down on Sunday afternoons, when there’s just no reason for that at all.
Los Angeles, California. Again.
It’s a full moon. You can always tell. I just saw a car overturned, busted in, lying on its shoulder on the sidewalk. It had taken on a concrete retaining wall. A few people were standing around, looking at the scene. Waiting for the cops.
Then, a couple blocks later, a recently boarded-up storefront, with black soot stains all around the doorway and the windows.
Happy Birthday, Allison Becker. So says the sign outside the pizza joint.
Earlier, on Beverly, was a store with big carpets hanging in the window, all of them purposefully faded and threadbare. I guess it’s so you could pretend your grandpa bought them in Turkey eighty years ago, back when there was still some magic in the world. I’ve been thinking about it all night. It’s funny to me, but it seems like the more money people have, the more they just want to buy time.
Passing the Shell station at Fairfax and Olympic. It’s like an art installation. Gas for $7.39 a gallon. Three dollars higher than it was a mile ago. There was a car at the Shell, pumping gas, as though everything were perfectly normal.
Cielito Lindo, the taquito stand, was supposed to close a half hour ago, but there’s still a line at the window. It’s tempting to go around the block and park the car somewhere and stand at the back of that line, because suddenly eating a couple taquitos seems like an interesting idea. But do I want to find a parking spot? And do I want to risk waiting and being turned away? And, even if Eve Babitz is right about the taquitos, do I want to chance my stomach on the last one of the night?
Taquitos are much better than heroin, it’s just that no one knows about them and heroin’s so celebrated. –Eve Babitz
Another ambulance blares through the intersection. It’s headed north. All the cars sit at the intersection a half second afterward, taking a moment of gratitude to remember we’re all alive right now. Just a brief moment, then the hostilities resume.
Malibu Beach, California:
Woke up at 6am and saw a big white moon setting over the water. There’s a muffin somewhere. I’ll find it soon. But first, I wanted to write down a note to look up the Bermuda Triangle later.
I never hear anyone talk about the Bermuda Triangle anymore. All those unsolved mysteries you used to hear about. Is the Shroud of Turin still on a wall somewhere?
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I had a hard time reading through this because at every turn you sent me on a tangent ... memories, faces, bits and pieces of lives met along the road. As I read this, I made notes and lists. So inspiring, Tonya. So luscious with just the right details to evoke a million stories.
Oh I want to drive across the country by myself now! if for no other reason than to give myself the time and space to slow down, zone out and let the thoughts and attention to small things come to me.