“Nice hood ornament,” my father said as he pointed to the grill of the car. Somewhere along the trip we must have hit a bat & it had gotten stuck in the grill like a little horror movie decoration.
We were busted but that wasn’t a big deal, we had each known that the fake permission slips we had Steph clandestinely make for us wouldn’t last, they were just the invitation for the best road trip of our high school lives. The trouble that we were going to get into when we got home was something we just had to accept before we had even left. It was the cost of a two week odyssey to Austin & when four teenagers have spent two weeks sleeping in a car in the desert it was a given that the smell alone would convict us.
But that was how my first rambling ended. I lost driving privileges for an entire summer. It was worth it & it fostered a love for America that Europe could never top. One of the friends on that trip lives in France now; he’s married to a French woman & has fallen in love with Europe. I can’t blame him, Europe is beautiful, France is stunning, & socially & culturally, & politically it’s much better than America. But I’ll take the Pepsi challenge with that shit any day of the week. America, I firmly believe, is just better, & now that it looks like I’ll be working again I have to start planning my next little odyssey, I certainly won’t be able to afford an international trip, but there is still a lot of America that I have to explore.
He’ll tell you that in Europe, he can drive for three hours & be in another totally different country. For starters, this is a lie. I know where he lives in France, if he drove north for three hours he’d only be in Paris. I’ve taken that drive & honestly, the sunflower fields are far more beautiful than the vineyards.
America’s not like that, you can cover a lot of boring driving across America, but that doesn’t mean it’s not amazing. On our way to Texas we stopped at the side of the road to let the car cool down. Once you leave & step into the desert you see until you simply can’t see any longer. There is nothing but flat land & it looks daunting and endless. No rolling hills, no mountains, no city, just endless flat land.
They say that Columbus proved that the earth wasn’t flat, but the Native Americans that lived in that part of the desert could have told everyone that. If your car overheats & you find yourself & three friends stuck in the middle of nowhere American desert, step out of your car & you’ll know that the Flat Earth Society is full of shit. It looks like you’re in a bubble. When you can see until you simply can’t see any longer, the horizon line is simply the curvature of the Earth & the sky is a dome above you. It’s like you are trapped in a massive snow globe, you get struck by how big our little planet really is & how small & insignificant you really are. It is amazing.
When I was growing up my mother was an Elvis fan. She’s OCD & she worshiped him with the fanaticism that only OCD people can have. She worshiped Elvis like everyone else in the world, myself included, worships Led Zeppelin. This led to the unfortunate situation of having to make a yearly pilgrimage to Memphis. Memphis is a seriously cool city, it has the Blues—not as good as Chicago Blues—but still, who doesn’t like the Blues? It’s where King was shot, when mom would get wet on her visit to Graceland dad & I would visit the King Museum, & then walk a few feet to visit the oft protested museum of the bastard that shot him. You can’t do that in Dallas, in Dallas they absolutely will not let you set foot near that window. They don’t want you to look out of it & scream “Bull shit!”
After a few years of Memphis, family vacations changed. Mom & my little sister would make the trek out to Elvis. Dad & I would pack the car & pick a direction. Dad taught me how to travel correctly. As Lao Tzu said: “A good traveler has no set destination & is not intent on arriving.” That’s how I came to see the Smokey Mountains. For starters, they are smoky, the early morning fog clings to the valleys & if you are driving through them in time to see the sun rise it is spectacular. Its day break at the top of the mountain & night in the valley & you can pass over several mountains before the sun finally reaches the valley.
A few years ago Dad dropped the bomb on me when he told me that he had never seen the Rocky Mountains. I had spent a week sleeping on an old hippy’s couch in the middle of nowhere Colorado. He lived in a trailer on a mile of otherwise empty property with his wife & twin daughters. It was flat where he lived but you could see Pike’s Peak in the distance & it stood in the open nothing the way you think of gods as big. And it was purple, just like Woody had promised me.
Dad had never seen the Rocky Mountains so we packed up my car & drove straight west the first chance we got. On our way out there we had to make a day trip to Kearney Nebraska to get my breaks fixed. Kearney is the perfect little town where in the same building that housed a theater you can get your dental work done, it’s exactly what you’d imagine a big small town out west would look like. It has an enormous coca-cola mural & a little music store with a painting of a pained Virgin Mary clinging to the lifeless body of her son on the right side of the door & a black & white painting of Ella Fitzgerald on the left.
Because we were close to it & because we didn’t know where we were going to begin with, we took a detour to Chimney Rock & found out that the Native American’s called it Elk Penis. In the trip between Kearney & the Elk Penis you move from flat & boring to the Wild West in the blink of an eye. You cross over one rode & suddenly you’ll find yourself in the vast khaki wilderness sprinkled liberally with little mountains & canyons & on the way, the few cars you do pass, are battered pick-up trucks with tools in their bed & a gun rack in their back window.
When you’re a kid from Chicago, mountains are awesome. You grow up with the rolling green fields of Wisconsin to the north (not unlike Ireland) & nothing but flat cornfields in your other cardinals. Ocean’s don’t do it for me, at their best they are enormous versions of Lake Michigan & at their worst they are blue cornfields & grey cornfields in the Northeast. So you tend to get a little rubbery one when you first see the Rockies in the distance, even though you know you are still hours away.
“The way you think of gods as big,” my father said quoting me & Bob & his bitch tits. Its fun when you see them in the distance, but that fun turns to terror as you drive through them. In Illinois everything is flat when you are driving down the street, in the Rocky Mountains there is a cliff & a deadly drop two feet to the left of your car & the psychopaths that live there think nothing of it. If you are from Illinois, you take it slow & panic each time the locals’ rocket past you on the two lane road.
But the pay off is there in spades. In Estes Park, where we ended up, the town looks like you can still find gold prospectors & as you move closer to the park you’ll have to stop abruptly when you find the elks blocking the roads & completely unaware that you’re stuck for fifteen minutes in the middle of them & pounding on your horn. But the mountains are there & they are purple & majestic, & Woody told you the absolute truth, as he usually does. It’s the exact opposite of the Great American desert. The Rocky Mountains surround you, they tower over you, & you can’t see beyond the valley. If you climb to the top of Long’s Peak, all you can see is more mountains, they block you’re vision entirely & are absolutely breath taking.
So now that it looks like I’m working again, eventually I’ll have to move on. I have America to shoot again, I have to rebuild over 15 years of pictures that my mother destroyed & I have no idea where to start. I travel on the cheap, thanks to the couch surfing network, I can do Europe, outside the plane tickets, for under a thousand dollars, but that’s not something I’ll be affording any time soon, & besides, America is really where my heart is. There is still a hell of a lot of the country that I have to explore & I have no idea where to start next. Should I go south to the live oaks & Spanish moss again, or west to the endless bubble & Rocky Mountains, or East to Boston & the most confusing streets outside of Dublin?
There’s still a lot of America left & I need to pick a destination that I might not actually arrive yet & plot a route with enough sidetracks to keep me occupied. I’ve lived in a city most of my life & when I travel I crave the open road. A car is the only way to see America. Airplanes trap you at a specific location & you can’t see shit from the 15,000 feet on a four hour flight. I like the open road for travel; I love the American highway system & all the little treasures that you can find if you veer off of them for a couple of hours, or days.