It was somewhere over the middle of this country: neat, geometric patterns cordoning off the land into farm fields that looked perfect from a mile or so above in the view from a window seat on a Jet Blue flight going from Las Vegas to New York. I was reading from W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and thinking about the past week just spent in a car with Bonnie crossing this nation in the way I was now reversing, all those sights seen and what it could possibly mean, what I should do with the knowledge that this a large, beautiful, sometimes sad country. And appropriately, I came across this passage:
No matter whether one is flying over Newfoundland or the sea of lights that stretches from Boston to Philadelphia after nightfall, over the Arabian deserts which gleam like mother-of-pearl, over the Ruhr or the city of Frankfurt, it is as though there were no people, only the things they have made and in which they are hiding. One sees the places where they live and the roads that link them, one sees the smoke rising from their houses and factories, one sees the vehicles in which they sit, but ones sees not the people themselves. And yet they are present everywhere upon the face of the earth, extending their dominion by the hour, moving around the honeycombs of towering buildings and tied into networks of a complexity that goes far beyond the power of any one individual to imagine, from the thousands of hoists and winches that once worked the South African diamond mines to the floors of today’s stock and commodity exchanges, through which the global tides of information flow without cease. If we view ourselves from a great height, it is frightening to realize how little we know about our species, our purpose and our end, I thought, as we crossed the coastline and flew out over the jelly-green sea. (91-92)
I think it was right then that I shut the book, stirred by thoughts and a longing for knowledge of what I was doing, and looked down on to this nation of ours. It was one week before that I was on a plane heading from New York to West Palm Beach, Florida and on that flight, I could not help but get excited as we approached the destination, seeing the clear waters, just about every house with a swimming pool in the back, the golf courses, the strip mall stretches of road. West Palm has never been my home, but returning to Florida still possessed that drunken nostalgia that homecomings offer. This land felt right and I don’t know if I can describe it much better than that, that I felt right being there. There was a comfort in the heat, in the long stretches of road, strip mall one right after the other. I like these things, I really do. I don’t know if I feel right in New York. I feel sedated here. The weather does not suit me. I am not sure I like the people, the hordes of cool, young people. I like places where there aren’t that many young people, where they are not all beautiful. There was a bar in West Palm, a blues bar and I drank dollar Miller Lights and played free pool and it was perhaps the most amazing, most “real” experience I had had in a long time. There was a bar next door to this blues bar, the name of either I cannot recall, but the one next door was filled with young people, with a bad, trying to be hip rock bad, tasteful lighting, trendy decor – and it was what I had been hoping to escape on my trip. That bar was what New York more often than not seems to me to be, and the blues bar next door with cheap beer and a stained pool table with an old man singing blues songs on his guitar was, and is, what I want. So I am not sure what needs to happen, most likely nothing will, but I have seen these things and their images, the memories of them will soothe me in troubling times when I am convinced this is the world, this place that I live, I can remind myself of my road trip and say No, no it is not. There are long stretches of emptiness and people nothing like this, towns nothing like this.
There is that stretch between West Palm and Pensacola that was Florida and a little trashy and lovely all the same. In Pensacola we ate a pizza and drank beers in our motel room. The next day we drove to New Orleans, making a detour along the way to see a miniature model of Palestine in the backyard of some Christian in Mississippi. A snake blocked our path to Palestine, was literally lying across the path we were walking. Bonnie and I, both perhaps too self-reflexive could not but help see the meaning and irony in this. This two hour detour to see a disappointing model of the Holy Land was one of a few detours to see attractions that more often than not ended up being a bust. In New Orleans, we got drunk on Bourbon Street and observed the spectacle that that town is, saw a few ladies flash their breasts, and then ate another pizza in the hostel we were staying in. The next day we drove to Austin. I love Austin, the heat there, and fantasize about moving there. There were many yummy, cheap Mexican places, two silly gay bars, and I don’t know why, but I really like this town.
Then the boring drive through western Texas, where the landscape suddenly starts to take on distinct forms I had never seen before. Night in Van Horn, Texas, a depressed town that seems like it must have once been a lot more thriving than it was. This is how many of the places we stopped or drove through seemed to be, and we kept speculating about whether or not more people used to go on vacations out west and now they just did not. We ate at Chuey’s, where John Madden ate at a couple of times, and sadly, this is this restaurant’s source of pride with the back page of their menu talking about Madden, and several Madden photos on the walls. Everyone around us asked the servers about Madden and it felt like some other universe, most definitely not New York, but not good either. Weird and sad.
The next day, more driving through the desert on our way to Albuquerque. We crossed the border into Juarez, Mexico, exchanged some dollars for pesos, ate a couple of really cheap burritos and wandered around taking in the sights and the signs that we could understand only a few of the words of. It also, was a beautiful place. Lovely and bustling. Albuquerque was filled with beautiful old motel signs, had a view of the mountains and also seemed lovely. It has an “Old School” station. Oddly, so did Flagstaff where we spent our next night. And I had started off writing this with plans, hopes of detailing all the sights I saw, the things I tasted, how I felt here, what I had hoped for as we started off each morning, but now after the fact, it is getting harder to recall each of these things – it is hard in attempting to recall it in this format to keep the impressions distinct. There is also the time and hunger factor. I am hungry and this all takes time, making me rush through states, through cities, through this wide country of ours. This is the fast forward version of the affair that took us a week or so to complete. Obviously, things must be truncated. So Flagstaff, a Yerba Mate bar where the barista gave me attitude when I asked if they had any coffee and said he guessed he could make me an Americano. Another beautiful mountain town. However, really small and it has tracks running right through the center of town, which a train howls through just about every ten minutes. At some point in this trip, I forgot to mention, but there was also a detour to see a ghost town that was not at all a ghost town, a detour to see live gators, detours to see dinosaurs sculptures, and any other crap that is advertised along southwestern highways.
After Flagstaff, we made the trip to Vegas but not before making a very important, and a very successful detour (in light of the many failed ones) to see the Grand Canyon. We went on the short hike there, looking so silly since we had not planned on hiking. Me in sleeveless shirt, green and white striped socks, blue tennis shoes, purple aviator sunglasses, and a tote bag. Bonnie was perhaps even sillier seeming since she was in a skirt on this fairly arduous trail. It was hot. I got sunburned. We took lots of silly pictures. It really is an amazing sight. Sublime is the word. Then Vegas, bright lights, insanely hot temperatures. A place that looks like Florida except for the mountains in the background. Strip malls one after the other. I ate custard, more burritos, and watched a pirate show that would have offended anyone with even a passing interest in gender issues. I played a few nickel machines with Bonnie yesterday morning as we were walking from casino to casino before my plane took off. We went to New York, New York, and with a happy longing, I looked forward to being back home in real New York, and yes, I did just say home. Because when the plane landed last night, when it flew over all the lit houses out on the far edge of Brooklyn, I knew that that was what I was coming back to. It was not the feeling that I used to get when I flew into Sarasota or Tampa after breaks from school, but I have not created as strong a sense of home, of community here. But let’s not worry about how excited I was, because I was still excited, and even though there were events shortly after landing that tempered my excitement, in fact, just crushed it – I am here, I am home and I am going to make the most of things.