December 17, 2006 — Roadtrips
Beginning in late October of 2006 I spent six weeks traveling around the United States in a Volkswagen Jetta, exploring the backroads and the interstates, the small towns, cities, and deserts. Here is some of what I saw, heard, and thought about along the way.
|Time on the road||6 weeks|
|Distance traveled||8964 miles|
|Gas used||258 gallons|
|Cost of gas||$595|
|Most bibles in a|
single motel room
Sign: "We South Dakotans reject animal rights activists. Furs, fish, and livestock are our livelihood."
Driving along I-90 in South Dakota I found myself often pulling off into towns and getting out of the car. There is something about the state that is particularly simple and peaceful. The flat, barren immensity of the landscape kept me constantly aware of how small we humans are.
Graffiti is everywhere, though its style and content vary widely. In contrast to most urban graffiti, the majority of graffiti I encountered on my trip was neither political nor clever, a point not meant disparagingly. In Amarillo, Texas I had the privilege of spending an afternoon with some graffiti artists as they drove recklessly through town and desert, wantonly applying color to everything from sculptures to water tanks to cacti.
LBK painting a water tank to look like a pill.
The first of several green tumbleweeds.
LBK paints a cactus gold.
LBK with gold paint.
Amarillo graffiti artists standing on "The Legs".
LBK enjoys his Funions.
Sculpture at Stanley Marsh's ranch.
One of the cars at Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo, Texas.
The lineup of half-buried cars at Cadillac Ranch.
Remnants of a bathroom on a San Francisco beach.
Encouraging messages on a wall near Corinne, Utah.
Crossing the country alone a hundred years ago by any means other than rail was impractical. Now, not only is it possible to do, on my own, in just a few days, it's downright comfortable, due to climate controlled cars, widely available food and lodging, accurate maps, helpful signs, and paved roads with bridges. With credit cards and ATMs I hardly need to plan ahead, one of my favorite luxuries.
Today it is common in almost any town for cars and trucks to be roaring down a road at 40 MPH in opposite directions, sometimes just inches apart. This situation is clearly dangerous, but seems safe because of our faith in a thin yellow double-line painted on the ground. I witnessed two car accidents while in Chicago, which may sound surprising. But what is surprising to me is that I only saw two.
In another incident a driver opened his door right in front of a Jeep on a narrow street (Milwaukee Ave between Division and North):
Despite not traveling very fast, the Jeep took off most of the door. It seemed (to me and other onlookers) to be entirely the door-opener's fault but he was large and aggressive and refused to take any responsibility. On the recording he can be heard yelling at the driver of the Jeep. Also audible are a mother and her two children reacting to the crash.
A few days into my trip I found myself studying the power lines. I became fascinated with the fact that there are thousands of miles of cable draped over poles, stretched across the entire country. I began to see the whole network as a giant sculpture.
Rain can be an inconvenience, but it can also bring exciting skies. In both the giant open spaces of the west and the rolling hills of the east I saw awe-inspiring clouds. I love the way they interact with the land and play with the sunlight.
Rain and sunlight near Lovelock, Nevada.
Clouds after a storm in Buchanan, Virginia.
Sunset at Arches National Park, Utah.
Two fishermen in Hyrum, Utah.
Sunset on Hwy 104 near Conchas Dam, New Mexico.
A few of the 27 dishes of the Very Large Array radio telescope in western New Mexico.
Tool shed and barn in Buchanan, Virginia.
Unfortunately, because so many radio stations are now under the control of Clear Channel, there is little left of local radio. There are some wonderful exceptions like WFMU in New Jersey and WDEV in Vermont but for the most part one hears the same voices and the same sounds everywhere in the country. Because I knew I wouldn't be using the radio to learn about local cultures, I brought along some recordings of Jean Shepherd's radio show from the 1950s and 60s. I listened alternately to Shep and live radio to try to get a sense of time, if not of place. Here are two sound collages I've created with material from both:
I came across many beautiful objects on my trip, some intentionally "art" and some not.
A windmill in Nebraska.
Remnants of a car in Utah.
Traffic lights in the wind, Harrisonburg, Virginia.
Crushed pumpkins near Monmouth Battleground, Manalapan, New Jersey.
A roller coaster on the boardwalk in Santa Cruz, California.
The "Largest Cross In the Western Hemisphere" in Groom, Texas.
Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake, Utah.
The view from Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty.
One of 27 dishes of the Very Large Array outside Socorro, New Mexico.
Road signs near Socorro, New Mexico.
Cars drive around a town, pause briefly at stop signs, wait for their turn to go... A truck driver honks at a smaller car... Looking down on all of this from above, it really does seem as pointless as a motorized model town, with its plastic people headed nowhere.
Instead of enjoying the Earth we've chosen to pave it over; we've scattered our junk all over it, and move around on trivial pathways in powerful and destructive vehicles, barely aware of our surroundings. For me, this is an outer manifestation of something inside me: instead of enjoying life I've choosen to find fault with my surroundings and think trivial, nagging thoughts about how things should be. I myself possess much powerful and destructive mental energy.
Escaping this kind of thinking is one of the reasons for my trip. If I persist in an uncomfortable situation long enough to accept it, it becomes enjoyable. With things not so readily available as at home I am also reminded of what I need for physical survival and comfort. My normal concerns are replaced with others. What matters on the road: the taste of drinking water, the cost of a motel, the simple pleasure of moving.
In the end, however, the road trip is not about escaping from my problems, because all my anxieties and weaknesses are still present, they just manifest in new ways. Thus, my escape becomes an an exercise in acceptance, a moving meditation.
Night is a shadow that speeds across the earth at a thousand miles per hour. You can prolong a sunset by driving west very fast.