USA 2006

December 17, 2006

Beginning in late October of 2006 I spent six weeks driving around the United States, 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.

ROUTE

Map of my route.

STATISTICS
Time on the road6 weeks
Distance traveled8964 miles
States visited22
Gas used258 gallons
Cost of gas$595
Photos taken3412
Most bibles in a
  single motel room

3

South Dakota

Words on a billboard: "We South Dakotans reject animal rights activists. Furs, fish, and livestock are our livelihood."

Both politically and topographically, South Dakota is a world away from my home in New York City. The landscape along I-90 is vast, flat, and full of lonely treasures. It reminds me constantly of how small we humans are.


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A water tower near Montrose, SD.

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A shack outside Chamberlain, SD.

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Power lines outside Chamberlain, SD.

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Sunset and Interstate 90 near Murdo, SD.

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Ripples on the Missouri River near Oacoma, SD.

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Bales of hay near Presho, SD.

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Badlands National Park, full moon rising.


Graffiti

Graffiti is a prominent feature of both cities and the country, though its style and content vary widely. In contrast to most urban graffiti, most of what I encountered 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.


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LBK painting a water tank to look like a pill.

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Andrew.

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The first of several green tumbleweeds.

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LBK paints a cactus gold.

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LBK with gold paint.

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Amarillo graffiti artists standing on "The Legs".

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LBK enjoys his Funions.

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Sculpture at Stanley Marsh's ranch.

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One of the cars at Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo, Texas.

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The lineup of half-buried cars at Cadillac Ranch.

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Remnants of a bathroom on a San Francisco beach.

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Encouraging messages on a wall near Corinne, Utah.


A World of Roads

Crossing the country alone a hundred years ago by any means other than rail was dangerous and impractical. Today, not only is it possible to do alone (in just a few days), it's downright comfortable. The roads are paved, maps are accurate, signs are helpful, food and lodging are readily available. With credit cards and ATMs I rarely need to plan more than 24 hours ahead--one of my favorite luxuries.

Today, in nearly every town, cars and trucks travel the roads at 40 MPH in opposite directions, sometimes just inches apart. This situation is clearly dangerous, but seems safe because of our faith in lines painted on the ground. In Chicago I witnessed two car accidents in as many days, which may sound surprising. But in a sense it's surprising to only see two.

The black BMW ran a red light and hit the van which knocked over the traffic light and went through the iron fence. (The orange tape is there because the sidewalk is under construction.) A man in the street is holding up a wire so cars can get through the intersection, the driver of the BMW, cell phone in hand, is walking away from his car, and the old woman (visible in the van window) stays in her car. Fortunately nobody was injured.

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.

Donkeys surround my car in Nebraska. I think I was on their turf.

Power Lines

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.


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Land, Clouds, Light

Rain can be an inconvenience, but it also brings excitement to the skies. In both the giant open spaces of the west and the rolling hills of the east there were awe-inspiring clouds.


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Rain and sunlight near Lovelock, Nevada.

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Clouds after a storm in Buchanan, Virginia.

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Sunset at Arches National Park, Utah.

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Two fishermen in Hyrum, Utah.

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Sunset on Hwy 104 near Conchas Dam, New Mexico.

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A few of the 27 dishes of the Very Large Array radio telescope in western New Mexico.

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Tool shed and barn in Buchanan, Virginia.


The Radio

Unfortunately, because so many stations are now under the control of Clear Channel, there's 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 songs 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:

News, Opinion, Morality:
Modern Medicine:

Objects

I came across many beautiful objects on my trip, some intentionally "art" and some not.


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A windmill in Nebraska.

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Remnants of a car in Utah.

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Traffic lights in the wind, Harrisonburg, Virginia.

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Crushed pumpkins near Monmouth Battleground, Manalapan, New Jersey.

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A roller coaster on the boardwalk in Santa Cruz, California.

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The "Largest Cross In the Western Hemisphere" in Groom, Texas.

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Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake, Utah.

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The view from Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty.

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One of 27 dishes of the Very Large Array outside Socorro, New Mexico.

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Road signs near Socorro, New Mexico.


Escapism, Acceptance

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.

Loneliness is a basic fact of a solo road trip. It's uncomfortable, but I've found that if I persist in the discomfort long enough, it begins to teach me things, and to present new joys. With food and privacy not so readily available as at home I am reminded of what I need for physical survival and comfort. What matters on the road: the taste of drinking water, the cost of a motel, the simple pleasure of moving.

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.