Last month I went out in the driveway, got in the Prius, and drove to Texas. Ann stayed in Saranac Lake.
Like most heads of foreign states and all Americans, I was already considered by the NSA to be a person of interest. I became a person of exalted interest, code-red interest, by cruising around in the Adirondacks and along the south shore of Lake Erie in December and then continuing the rest of the 1900 miles to Texas. That’s not how we do things in this great country. We fly. Besides that, I was a vegan bound for a deer hunt.
I trust the NSA did a competent job of surveilling me, but I doubt it learned much about my inner life. It needs a little more time to develop technology so intrusive as that. It probably reached some conclusions based on my choices of radio stations, food, lodging, and my suspicious evening phone calls to India, but that was hardly more than guesswork. Being a patriotic American, I want government agencies to do a good job, so I’m going to lay out below a reliable version of the part of my life on the interstate that was unreachable by existing technology. The NSA is welcome to it.
I had my reasons for driving.
There’s no TSA on the interstate. Nobody kicked the back of my seat. I didn’t have to sit next to anyone who was clothed in a distressingly inappropriate fashion. Not once ─ going or coming ─ did I hear anyone announce into a cell phone the breaking news, “I’m at the airport.”
In addition, it was the best way to transport the Advent gifts Ann had made for the grandchildren. She’d spent days making maple marshmallows and other confections, then more days wrapping them. Five grandchildren times the twenty-four days of Advent made for a lot of packages (120, actually). No ordinary wrapping either. To Ann, design and execution of paper and bows is as important as what’s inside. The last sixty hours or so before my departure were something like those days in college when she made her living baking pecan pies until two or three in the morning during the lead-up to Christmas. She wrapped and labeled and kept a chart all day Saturday, about twelve hours on Sunday, and finished with a few hours on Monday morning while I packed the car.
An offering involving so much effort as that could only be delivered by someone with a strong interest in their arriving in perfect condition. I had that. I carried them into my motel rooms at night lest they freeze or get stolen.
* * *
I like being alone with my thoughts, even in four-day stretches and even if the thoughts are often about whether artfully wrapped boxes of handmade Advent gifts might be about to fall off the back seat. But I managed to reflect on more interesting ─ even weighty ─ matters as well.
I was hardly well started before I wondered how much of the surface of the U.S. is covered with pavement. Through the magic of the internet, I did a thorough five-minute job of research on that question in the parking lot of a convenience store south of Cincinnati.
In 2005, one authority put the figure at 43,000 square miles, an area about the size of Ohio, our 37th largest state. Six years later, a plausible calculation had the number at 61,000 square miles, which is a bit larger than Florida, our 27th largest state. Such a high rate of paving scares me. It won’t be much of a country, if most of it is under concrete and asphalt. But maybe we could offset the harm a little by finding a way to shunt the rain that falls on the coming horizon-to-horizon impervious cover to places that need it, such as the Ogalalla Aquifer or San Antonio.
Another question of deep importance. If Ike were alive today, what would he think of what his interstate highway plan had come to? Maybe not much. He was a fine fellow and a hell of a good general and he kept his extramarital sexual activities out of the public eye more skillfully than most postwar presidents, but so far I know, he was not much given to reflection. (He did, of course, offer that one musing on the dangers presented by the military-industrial complex.)
If he were alive now, he should have some reservations about what the interstate system has come to.
He could start with the widely held belief that the journey is as important as the destination. Just zipping along between exits at seventy miles an hour with an occasional stop at a service area for a Roy Rogers sandwich and the opportunity to line up shoulder to shoulder with truck drivers at a row of urinals tends to argue that in these times, the destination may be undervalued.
Now and then, I make a long drive on roads of the sort Ike found wanting, the kind with traffic lights and no-passing zones and that sometimes go right through the middle of small towns. It’s slow going, but there’s much to be said for seeing something along the side of the road other than a list of motels, gasoline stations, and fast food franchises that wait to greet the zoned-out traveler at the next exit.
Still, travel via interstate is generally thought of as progress. So are many peripheral changes that have grown up as part of this new way of getting from point A to point B. Satellite radio, for example. On my recent pilgrimage to my place of origin, it was both edifying and enjoyable to listen day after day to various news and opinion outlets struggling to make it sound like what was being reported and opined about was not what had already been broadcast on a dozen other stations. For staying informed, you can’t beat hearing the same story and opinions over and over. And few devotional exercises compare to hearing “Silent Night” 500 times in a span of eight days. To keep from getting in a rut, I’d listen to NPR morning and evening. But never for very long. Little-girl voices and vocal fry and upspeak are only tolerable in small doses.
Before Ike’s dream and its accompanying ways were realized, long-haul travelers would twist the radio knob until their fingers were cramped and raw, fighting through static, trying to find something to listen to as the AM signal faded every few miles. That quest was at least as interesting as the redundancy that is satellite radio. And late at night, clear-channel stations would bring contact with parts of the country that were as foreign as Samarkand, places such as Omaha and Tulsa. The ads for mass-produced religious relics and cancer cures on the Mexican station XEG were highly entertaining.
But hold on. AM stations, including clear-channel broadcasters and even XEG, are still right there on the dashboard. Swept along on the wave of radio improvement, I never thought to let them out. Maybe I will the next time Ike and I take a trip.
These days cars often have gps systems. If you’re any good at using one, you’ll never be lost. I’m not sure that’s an improvement. Some of my most interesting driving experiences have occurred when I’ve gotten lost. Late one night about twenty years ago, I made a wrong turn coming into Manhattan. One bad decision led to another, and Ann and I soon discovered ourselves to be under an expressway in the south Bronx trying to make a u-turn in an exact recreation of the frightening scene at the beginning of Bonfire of the Vanities. A gps system would have denied us the fun of boring friends with that story all these years since.
At one point in my recent trip with Ike, the dashboard clock jumped an hour. It knew that it had crossed into a new time zone. I wanted to stop right there, and go back and forth over the line and watch it change, over and back, over and back, faster, faster, see if I could confuse it, but it was a lot of trouble to do that on an interstate. Like using a gps, it provided a bit too much certainty in everyday life for my tastes. Life is just not as interesting if you always know what time zone you’re in.
Some cars have television and video players. Presumably, this is to keep the kids from getting bored. Now at this point, I have serious questions about whether we’re making progress in regard to anything. Boredom is a blessed state; contriving to deprive children of it is tantamount to child abuse.
Oh sure, kids still say they’re bored sometimes, but with so many computer games and gadgets available to them, their complaint hardly compares to what children knew in the not-too-distant past. There are probably children alive today ─ and more on the way ─ who have never invented a game to play when they couldn’t find anything to do. Some may never have had an imaginary friend. Who needs one of those when someone has already imagined one for mass consumption and made a video of its adventures? What is the effect on human evolution to have successive generations who have never whiled away hours in the back seat of an un-air-conditioned sedan looking for Burma Shave signs? Probably nothing good.
Well, Burma Shave is no more, and on my drive to Texas, when I tired of having deep thoughts on important subjects, I had to make do with whatever I could find in the way of distraction. For a time, I observed billboards advertising “adult book and video” stores that were coming up in two miles. They were usually old frame houses alone and palely loitering at the edge of a plowed field, surrounded by large but almost empty parking lots, waiting like Burma Shave to pass into the ephemera of history, victims of progress in the form of internet porn.
After a couple of days, I began to wonder now and then if I’d gotten turned around and was driving back where I’d just come from. Every cross-road settlement looked like the one I’d just come through, and it offered the same franchised food and motel and gasoline services that I’d seen at my last stop. If the independently owned, one-off “tourist court” exists at all anymore, it’s on life support. And “tourist cabins” have gone the way of Burma Shave.
“Ike,” I said, “What’s the point of traveling, if everything’s the same all up and down the road?” He didn’t answer. Perhaps he thought the interstate was primarily about moving goods. A tractor-trailer rig full of Little Friskies doesn’t care much about same/different.
I was relieved when I did encounter variation, however small. One Best Western, for example, dispensed liquid soap from a container on the shower wall rather the usual small bars wrapped in paper. A Red Roof Inn supplied tissue in pocket packages rather than from a slot in the vanity. So much uniformity in a country that purports to value diversity above just about everything is confusing.
I take trips in hopes of seeing something that’s different from what I see at home. Corporate America is indifferent to why I take trips. It knows for sure that most people want everything outside of Dubuque to be just like everything inside Dubuque.
The nearest I got to the “travel is broadening” aspect of travel came when booking rooms. I’d pull into a parking lot and call Travelocity to get a reduced room rate on the Hampton Inn I was sitting in front of, and someone in Mumbai would answer. That sounds exotic — booking a room in Goodlettsville, TN by phoning India — but by the second time I did this, the person in Mumbai greeted me like an old friend, had all information necessary to make the reservation, and the time I spent with an interesting person in a foreign country was limited to four minutes, thirteen seconds. But I’d saved money — maybe $50 — by making that heretofore prohibitively expensive and time-consuming call, and that alone was interesting enough to qualify as a minor travel adventure. And I enjoyed imagining the NSA reaction to my calls to Mumbai. “Willcott’s calling Mumbai again. Run a 431 check on that, Agent Johnson.”
I was reassured about diversity as I got closer to Texas. People began to talk like Ann and me. A waitress in Little Rock called me “hon,” and that gave me a nice going-home feeling. I recalled a big-deal, ivy-league-educated Goldman Sachs banker asking Ann incredulously, “You don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in Texas do you? I mean with turkey and everything?” And then there was that time Ann owned up to a Post Office clerk in Saranac Lake that she was a native speaker of East Texan. “Just can’t get rid of it, can you,” he said, shaking his head sympathetically.
To do my part to keep diversity alive, I joined old friends for the deer hunt, but I didn’t pick up a rifle. Killing animals doesn’t much appeal to me anymore. And I pretty well stuck to my vegan diet even as I was surrounded by camo-wearing omnivores (good men all, I hasten to add).
Leaving the deer camp to start back home, I drove for a couple of hours on two-lane blacktop passing through small towns in early morning light. I enjoyed it a lot. It was peaceful. It was home. It was the way life was supposed to be. All that, though by training and adoption, I am now thoroughly east coast and urban.
By then I’d been away from home for about two weeks and Ann was having trouble getting the driveway plowed and the monastery boiler was acting up and she was ready to put up the Christmas tree but didn’t want to do it alone. So just south of Dallas, I got back on the interstate and covered a lot of ground in a hurry. In doing so, I realized Ike’s idea has merit, even if it came accompanied by changes that make me uneasy.