Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Roadtrip Part I



Prior to moving from Denver to Berkeley last August, I downloaded an audio version of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road to listen to as I drove across the western half of the country. I could barely hear my car stereo due to the enormous drag my overloaded Civic created as it strained down I-80. In Wyoming, a vicious crosswind, whipping dust across the freeway, was so strong that for five hours I was reduced to listening only to the steady roar of the air turbulence.

Despite the breezy distractions, I was able to listen to Kerouac’s trips across the country and his misadventures in San Francisco and Denver. I thought it was neat that the two major cities Kerouac and company seemed drawn to were the start and end points of my own little trip. But for me, the drive was not very interesting… a straight shot west once I’d driven up to Wyoming. After passing through Cheyenne and those dusty fields, I entered Utah with only brief glimpses of it’s alien landscapes in the distance. Then it was Nevada, a state so desolate that it was using its entire package of economic stimulus money to improve I-80 and slow my drive through the necessary construction. Passing through Reno traffic appeared from nowhere and the ride became more difficult, hundreds of cars barreling down the turns of the highway rushing home from weekend trips to Tahoe. Then I was passing through Sacramento and reached the Bay.

It was an uneventful trip.

Flash forward a year and sometime in May I was being distracted from a research paper by the internet and I noticed that the United States Association of Track and Field was holding a new 15K trail championship up in Spokane, Washington. It was a great excuse to go explore some of the northwest for a few days. So at the end of July, Caitlin and I finagled several days away from work and headed off early on a Thursday morning.

There is a perennial fog that presses down on the city and most of the San Francisco bay. It keeps the area cool and seasonless and the morning that we left was no different. This was partly the reason why I needed a break from Berkeley. There really isn’t a summer here: the mornings are nearly always damp and dank, burning off into a bit of sunshine before again succumbing to the Pacific moisture.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s much nicer then the Carolina summers that made running such a humid ordeal, but it would be nice to wake up to sunshine and some heat once in a while. The meteorological stasis is depressing. In the fall, the leaves don’t change color. They simply die and fall off the trees with all the suddenness of a suicide. So, I smiled a little as we drove east out of the dank Bay morning into the central valley and the first sunshine I’d seen before noon in a long time.

The stretch of Interstate 5 that extends from Sacramento to Redding will always struggle to make it onto postcards. Unlike the coast, it has real weather and experiences the heat and humidity that geologic contingency has seen fit to exempt the Bay from. It is a farming area, the freeway lined with olive trees, which border the road like crooked forks with jagged, black prongs stabbing at the sky. After a couple hours of driving, one gets quite sick of the endless fields punctuated by the occasional Indian casino or trailer park. There are the distant mountains both east and west that would be pretty if they were thirty miles closer, but they aren’t and the straight road stretches northward besides the burnt, dry grass. I see now why California still deserves the moniker of the ‘Golden State’. With little exception the land is dried out for most of the year, giving the grass a desiccated yellow and brown hue. It sounds a bit morbid, but it is pretty in it’s own way. Rolling hills of chaparral can catch the sunlight and glow like the side of a lampshade.

Once past Redding, we weaved around the formidable Mt. Shasta. Then we were in Oregon! I have a small love affair with the state. It is open, forested and sparsely inhabited with a balanced mix of conservative people in the hinterlands and some of the most progressive cities on the country. It’s also green. Pines line the highways through most of the state and on the road one dodges logging trucks hauling trees to make notebook or toilet paper. Perhaps it is romanticism but the state seems to hold onto a frontier allure which other western states have lost. For example, Colorado occasionally poses itself as the rugged archetype of the West, but it usually comes packaged as tacky tourist traps like Colorado Springs or trips of nostalgia like the National Western stock show. Furthermore, anyone who has ever ordered a latte or met someone from Seattle will never confuse Washington with the west and it’s just hard to see Napa wineries or San Francisco gluten-free bakeries as rough-and-tumble.

But Oregon is different. There may still be legions of boys like me adjusting themselves in their skinny 511 Levi jeans in Portland, but get into the woods and it’s desolate. We stopped at a state park somewhere south of Bend and ran up an exposed trail and got a bit cooked in the dry heat. In a few minutes we were totally alone and climbing a ridge towards some ancient caldera. It’s always a bit exhilarating to distance oneself from other people by foot, to be really alone with several miles separating you from civilization’s outlying tendrils. Maybe it’s an underlying reason elite distance runners are abandoning their altitude abodes to settle around the Nike headquarters. Even amidst corporate sponsorship, one can be a bit more grizzled in Oregon.

The state is volcanic and the next morning, running along a river in Bend, Cait and I followed a lava flow with a friend’s German shepherd in tow. Sharp, broken fragments of black rock line the trails and sunshine, unmitigated by fog, singes the skin. Mosquitoes swarm over you when you pause to ensure you’re on the right path or let the dog gulp some river water… And then we were back on the road leaving the irrigated parts of Oregon in our wake before we ran into the Columbia River Gorge.
The river is an impressive, visual debunking of creationist theory. The scoured banks rise high above the water, funneling the air and creating a natural wind tunnel for anyone lucky enough to be traveling by sail. Dams bisect the river and create monstrous, frothing cataracts at points where the Columbia is allowed to pass through. There’s an incredible amount of energy floating across the surface of this land. Windmills with arms like airplane wings cut through the air and dot the horizon like a field of malignant flowers; a forest of pallid white steel, waiting to wreak havoc on flocks of migratory birds. Then we climbed out of the gorge and were again in farmland.

I’ve always been impressed with the ways American farmers water their fields. It’s indicative of everything our country does well. Massive fields are traversed by huge wheeled contraptions which slowly roll across the rows of crops. Several steel cross bars connect the wheels and hosing runs along the length of the machine, sprinkling water onto the earth. It’s as if a giant was playing with an Erector Set and gave up on an attempt to create a multi-wheeled go-cart. These are commonplace across the country’s interior, but I’d never seen one until I drove to Denver a couple years ago. It is an unelegant, but simple and smart way of approaching the problem of watering hundreds of acres of plants. 


It reminds me that this is a country originally peopled by Type-A personalities. Only someone with moxy and a bit of kookiness would risk his slight farming profits to invest in some cockeyed watering contraption. Extended to a broader scale, one gets to thinking that every wave of immigrants from the puritanical English to the Irish to the Chinese to the Latino consisted of the go-getters of their communities. You would have to be. I certainly have never contemplated leaving my family, friends and familiar neighborhood to seek a better life in Switzerland or New Zealand. Even the people chained and shipped across the Middle Passage had to be made of the sternest stuff to get through such a hellish lifelong experience. Every one of us thinks we can improve our lot, create a neat little life for ourselves. But at the same time very few of us believe we are entitled to such a thing. For the most part, our liberalism extends only to wanting to give as many people as we can the opportunity to create those neat little lives. Political debates never wrangle over the validity of equal of opportunity, but how it should be done and when community assistance towards that end becomes an undeserved handout.

And maybe that’s why I chuckle at the Spanish idea of siesta. And shudder when I hear a Greek protestor on the radio argue that a job is a natural right, not a privilege. And maybe it’s why the East Bay’s more relaxed pseudo-European/Eastern/balanced strain of lifestyle seems invasive and a bit toxic. For better or worse, this country has never been made up of balanced people. We work too much, think too much, train too much… take drugs to help us stay awake, think better, deal with the unnaturalness of a cerebral lifestyle… we’re anxious, increasingly infertile and struggle with our weight. But as a naturalized citizen once reminded me when I was criticizing the US for whatever reason, this is also the center of creative thought, entrepreneurial ideas and political innovation. We fucking invented the internet. Balanced people do not do such things, do not go to such lengths. Go us!

So among other things, we water fields well. This is still a place ripe for growth and people still want to come here so their kids can go to Cal or UNC or Brown and think up the next iPod or effective cancer treatment. And as we drove into Washington, past those half-built irrigation go-carts and dodged the American Recovery Act highway construction, I thought for the first time in a long while that maybe things will be ok after all.