…because random thoughts are pretty much the only kind one can afford while staring at the interstate for seven to ten hours a day. The demands of driving and remaining awake make it tough to devote long stretches of concentration to one’s novel in progress or other literary endeavor. Here are snippets from my four days on the road.
A Beautiful Monotony
We have indeed a beautiful country. The mountains, forests and lakes of places like Idaho and Washington always amaze. The high plains and rolling hills of South Dakota and Montana are beautiful too, but after a few hours, even a vast panorama becomes tedious. This may be why Ansel Adams never spent much time east of the Rockies.
South Dakota has the best maintained interstate highway system, even if vast stretches of the road are pink. Wyoming’s roads are not bad either, and they also have miles of pink. For two states that are known for their rugged individualists, this doesn’t seem very butch. I found out later that the color comes from the use of rose quartz in the aggregate used to pave the roads.
I did not bring CDs or audio books on the trip, but instead opted to “go native,” sampling the radio from time to time, to learn what the locals listen to. From the western end of Minnesota to the eastern part of Washington, radio stations are apportioned about 30 percent pop, 30 percent classic rock, 30 percent religious, and 10 percent “other.” Included in that “other” is NPR, which has cleverly assembled a series of stations so that one can almost always be tuned in, no matter where travels take him.
At first it was kind of cool to catch an old Boston hit. I found myself singing (all right, trying to sing) along to Yes, Clapton, and even Heart. I waited in vain for something by Journey so I could really air it out. Not only did I not get to listen to Journey, I didn’t get much of the stuff I listened to in high school. The songs broadcast were the mostly the banal pop of their day, instead of the truly inventive music around at that time. After tuning into station after station of “classic” rock, it struck me that these songs are now forty years old. And the sheer number of such stations suggests that a lot of people still listen to these arthritic tunes every day.
I listened to a few of these for a while, not because the loneliness of the road had me craving inspiration, but out of curiosity over the strategies that make them successful. I’d venture it’s pretty well known that many of the programs constitute little more than a long infomercial aimed at raising donations, and employing a oratorical style reminiscent of the 19th century, in which a single, charismatic speaker manipulates his flock to laugh or gasp or cry on cue (kind of like a Spielberg movie). But there is also a vocabulary of faith. Words like “abound” and “manifested” and “flesh”—words you don’t hear often on the radio or in everyday conversation—pepper the homilies of the radiovangelists, giving their programs a Biblical, archaic, yet titillating feel. In this realm, they work. But I can’t see them used to sell cars or fast food.
Back to the road. The heat of the late afternoon brings the bugs out on the high plains. At times the slap of insects against my car’s windshield became so frequent it mimicked the sound of a steady rain. Occasionally I could see the swarms of bugs before my car plunged through them, reminding me of WWII bomber pilots ducking ack ack fire from below.
This is a town literally in the middle of nowhere, many miles from the amenities most of us cannot live without. It offered no services to the traveler. I passed dozens of such places on my trip. For each such locale, whether set in a stunning valley or a despairing high desert, I imagine that long ago, some pioneer or settler looked around, dropped his/her knapsack and said, “This is it. This is where we’ll live from now on.”
Such a place may be Ellensburg, Washington, although why anyone would have originally stopped there is beyond me. Here is a rest stop and university (Central Washington) town by the interstate, situated about twenty miles from the next one in any direction. Sitting on the high plain it is blasted by incessant 40-plus mile-per-hour winds. But since it is the only break for miles, almost everyone stops there, and its main street—Canyon Road—is crammed with gas stations, fast food chains, motels and tchotchke-like local businesses. I stood in line at Subway behind five boys from the local high school wrestling team. What effect the weather and the sprawling schlock had on their lives I could only imagine. They all ordered foot-long sandwiches to my six-incher, and all were very polite, punctuating their requests with “pleases” and “thank yous.” One of them mentioned a Christian camp he would be attending soon.
If you could transplant the city of Billings from its location in Montana to one of the coasts, it might not seem as out of place as you would think. I stopped there for lunch on Day 3. As in Ellensburg, I could have dined at any one of a dozen nationwide chains—Applebee’s, Denny’s, McDonald’s, Hardee’s, Del Taco, etc. (although I opted for a sushi bar). I saw neither cowboy hats nor pairs of boots. I listened in on business conversations as banal as any you might find in LA or NY. Richard Russo wrote an essay a decade or so ago, in which he noted the dwindling of our uniqueness, the homogenization of America, where no matter where one traveled s/he would encounter the same chains, selling the same food and products in Wyoming as they do in New Jersey. In some ways, culturally, distances are shrinking, despite what we say in our politics.
The Distance Factor
And yet, when I passed by tiny towns like Tarkio, or noticed road signs referencing hamlets miles off the main route, I began to understand why those political differences persist. The chains and souvenir shops are only the cheap veneer that’s been tacked up near the interstates to appeal to travelers to stop and spend a few bucks. But the people who live in the small towns maintain lifestyles and traditions established generations before. They’ve chosen to live, as much as possible, off the grid of progressive thought. So when some politician or journalist or social worker tries to explain why, say, national health care is good for the population in general, they blink their eyes and call it socialism, and vow to vote against it every time, because who in the hell do these people think they are, coming from so far away, telling them how to live?