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Creative On The Road

from FOOTNOTE 1 — “Route 66: The American Road”

(News came two days ago that Martin Millner, along with George Maharis, one of the two stars of the legendary television series Route 66, has died, at 83. As a young boy, my own introduction to the adventure of road travel and the romance of the route came from the series and the experience of new places and people each week of Milner’s Tod and Maharis’s Buz. It seems the right time, then, to offer this excerpt of my “Route 66: The American Road,” originally published, along with the photography of Julia Dean, in the final issue of the also legendary, documentary journalism magazine DoubleTake, and republished now in the inaugural issue of Footnote: A Literary Journal of History.)

….

When the beaver were depleted, and there was too little left to trap, many of the mountain men who wished to continue to live outside of civilization hired on as guides for the new wagon trains leaving from Missouri for unsettled land. The trappers had found the way, and now, from St. Louis, St. Joseph, and Independence, not only individuals seeking fortune at gold strikes and elsewhere, but whole families seeking new lives were heading west. In the heyday of the Western wagon train, from 1840 to 1860, as many as 500,000 people migrated along the Oregon, California, and Santa Fe trails.

These trails became permanent routes west, but as coordinates on maps and rutted wagon-wheel trails, they were paths for the most intrepid— of which the United States has never had shortage—but not for the ordinary lone individual or family. Phenomena like the Pony Express, and the telegraph that spelled the short-lived Express’ demise, provided the first sense of coast-to-coast communication, but they were not a means of travel.

Only with the driving of that last, golden spike connecting the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railroads in 1869, had a means of transportation been established that enabled the free flow of people, without the daunting hardship and risk of wilderness travel, between the nation’s Eastern origins and its Western expansion. It had taken just short of 64 years from the date Lewis and Clark reached their destination across an uncharted wilderness until the completion of the first, fixed, permanent, regular, and safe means of transportation across it. Where once an overland journey would have taken months—it had taken Lewis and Clark twenty— or a journey by ship around Cape Horn weeks, on June 4, 1876, the Transcontinental Express traveled from New York City to San Francisco in 83 hours and 39 minutes.

Before and after the railroad, there was also the stagecoach, for some decades a regular fixture of western commerce and travel. But companies such as the Butterfield Overland Express Company were primarily government- and private -mail haulers and, like Wells Fargo, movers of bank funds. For the nine people crammed into a semi-weekly Celerity coach for the typical twenty-five day, bone-jarring, cold and snowy, or hot, sweaty, and smelly journey from Missouri to California, the fare was around $200, or about $4,000 in today’s money, more or less the price of a one-way ticket on the Concorde SST over its lifespan. If you could afford it, you took the stagecoach before the transcontinental line was completed, or because it went places the railroad didn’t, not to celebrate your individual freedom as an American to travel where you wished.

The railroad, on the other hand, moved thousands, hundreds of thousands—millions. Along with the Homestead Act of 1862, it completed the settlement of the West.

The Homestead Act offered free title to 160 acres—after five years, if you worked the land and improved it. In contrast, the railroads sold the land along their right-of-way, the land they had been granted by the federal government as an incentive to undertake the transcontinental enterprise. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad lives on in the popular historical imagination as one of the great moments in the building of the American nation, and it is certainly that. An extraordinary technical feat and a permanent conquest of nature cannot be denied. But here again, as with every inroad to the West, that tension between the individual and the collective is visible.

An individual picks up from New York, or Philadelphia, or the Ohio River Valley, or even somewhere in Europe, and alone or with his family makes his way finally, by train, to Nebraska, Wyoming, California, or another state, to start afresh. The railroad is available for travel, however, because the government had its grander social and commercial goals, granted land—and its natural resources—to the enterprises commissioned to lay the track, and even subsidized the construction.

The railroad is there to be used because legislators succumbed to wholesale bribery from lobbyists in the form of cash and corporate bonds. It is there because the owners and operators of the Union Pacific Railroad established the shell company, Credit Mobilier—the Enron of its day, owned by the same majority shareholders as the Union Pacific—to which to award the construction contract and bill back the railroad, subsidized by the federal government (and risk-taking private investors), multiple times the actual cost of materials and labor.

Once the Transcontinental Railroad was established, the railroads also went into the business of luring settlers to migrate to the West. They offered reasonable prices for the land, good credit terms to enable purchase, showings of parcels, and even established European offices with representatives to attract additional emigration across the Atlantic. The settlers would populate the land the railroads traversed and help establish the railroad towns that would both service and feed off the railroad. Thus is the goal of a westward expansion fulfilled. Thus does the American mythos of individual initiative and self-determination run up against a contradiction. And that is how it remained for almost 60 more years.

But if our world is anything, it is a world of contradiction. However settlers may have arrived—by someone else’s wagon train, stage coach, or train, or by steamer from another part of the world—whatever corporate hucksterism or nationalistic boosterism had sold them an idea about the circumstances toward which they traveled that was not entirely in accordance with reality (disgruntled natives not entirely glad you’re coming, anyone?), they had made their own choices, determined their own wills, and endured hardships their neighbors would not undertake. They possessed the independence and strength to travel far from unhappy or unsatisfactory conditions that others less daringly abided, and they felt no less individual because they aimed to shape their destinies within a web of relation and influence they could not always see around them.

Perhaps that is why the lone cowboy on his horse, crossing the panhandle, passing among the mesas, a speck on a vast prairie beneath an enormous sky—what so few, in fact, ever were—became our resonant American myth. Nothing is ever how we portray it, but our symbols are what we feel, and we feel for a reason. The cowboy, as we see him, is singular and integrally himself within the natural world. His kindnesses are not mandated, but his own. His cooperation is given, not required. And if he’s of a mind, whenever he’s of a mind, he’ll go his own way. Just point his horse’s head like a compass, and move on.

Yet, how many could really live that dream?

Beginning November 11, 1926, anyone.

And with the affordability of Ford’s Model T—soon to be a fixture on the new Highway 66—the automobile was quickly developing into what it would not take very long to become, the singular and democratic mode of transportation of the 20th century and beyond. Route 66, the first transcontinental interstate highway, was created to serve it.

It is true that in the years before the opening of the route, there had developed the romance of train travel, and the train has its romancers still. Stand in so many small towns across America—a town, say, like Dwight, Illinois, through which Route 66 runs—and watch the train pass through, even now. Listen to its whistle. Hear it “moan mournfully,” as Thomas Wolfe’s Eugene Gant heard it. Far places, it says. Distant lives. The great, wide world. Teasing you with its call. Passing on. For so many who longed for experience, the train’s receding rumble, the lingering whisper of it gone, uttered the great paradox of the nation—that while one might live, it seemed, smack-dab in the middle of it all, one felt stranded so far from everything that was happening. To live in the middle, it turned out, was to reside at the edges. To move to the center meant to travel to the boundaries, because the boundary—the frontier—is where the “other” is, and the other is experience.

….

AJA


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Categories
Creative

How We Lived On It (51) – Route 66: The American Road

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The New York Times reported the other day, while talking with series co-star George Maharis (along with Martin Milner), that the complete four season series of Route 66, the iconic television show of the early 1960s is now available on DVD from the Shout! Factory. Post Kerouac’s On the Road, pre Ken Kesey’s Magic Bus, Tod Stiles and Buz Murdock drove their Corvette across America.

IF there is such a thing as a visionary time capsule, the newly released boxed set of “Route 66” is it. Watch these discs (from Shout! Factory) and you are transported back to a version of the United States that was still basking in postwar success, a country rich in blue-collar jobs and industrial production and somewhat oblivious to its problems. But while enjoying that return to America as it was, you may also be struck by how often this half-century-old black-and-white television series tackled issues that seem very 21st century.

“Route 66,” which ran from 1960 to 1964 on CBS, was an earnest, ambitious serial about two young men on a random journey across North America in a Corvette. It was shot on location, something hard to imagine given the bulkiness of equipment at the time. Viewed today, a scene on a shrimp boat in New Orleans or at the half-built Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona prompts admiration for the producers, camera operators, electricians and others who made the shots feasible.

The romance of Route 66 is not just American. When Julia and I drove its length in 2006 on the occasion of its 80th anniversary, we discovered first hand the well established lure of the road (and love of the TV show) for many Europeans. Common for groups of French, German, or Scandinavian romancers is to fly into Chicago en masse and rent a score of Harleys for the journey west. We crossed paths with several groups just on our trip. The following is an excerpt from the middle of our “The American Road: Route 66 at 80,” which appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of DoubleTake, the great magazine of narrative documentary journalism, founded by Harvard’s Robert Coles, unfortunately now defunct. You can read the ending here. Photography is by Julia Dean.

It is true that in the years before the opening of the route, there had developed the romance of train travel, and the train has its romancers still. Stand in so many small towns across America – a town, say, like Dwight, Illinois, through which Route 66 runs – and watch the train pass through, even now. Listen to its whistle. Hear it “moan mournfully,” as Thomas Wolfe’s Eugene Gant heard it. Far places, it says. Distant lives. The great, wide world. Teasing you with its call. Passing on. For so many who longed for experience, the train’s receding rumble, the lingering whisper of it gone, uttered the great paradox of the nation – that while one might live, it seemed, smack-dab in the middle of it all, one felt stranded so far from everything that was happening. To live in the middle, it turned out, was to reside at the edges. To move to the center meant to travel to the boundaries, because the boundary – the frontier – is where the “other” is, and the other is experience.

Before Route 66, in any of America’s countless small towns, with the train seeming to emphasize more the distance of it all than the nearness, it must have been hard, at times, to really comprehend it as one nation. Of the nearly 3 million miles of highway in America in 1920, only 36,000 had the all weather surface to sustain automobile traffic. Today’s interstates are massive arteries. The roads before 66 were capillaries, so small and spindly before the size of the country and the scope of its ambition, who could have truly imagined, standing in one of those towns and looking out, the extent and oneness of that to which, in fact, those roads did not adequately connect them.

Julia Dean 2006

After Route 66, though, small towns were never quite so much that again, because the highway not only takes you to the other; it brings the other to you. People passing through, people you would otherwise never have met, needing places to stay, to eat, to fill up on gas – even recreation, in odd, road side attractions: petting zoos, trading posts, statuary, motel rooms in teepees. Spend a dollar. Make a dollar.

The first of Route 66’s four distinct eras began with only 800 of its 2448 miles paved. The remainder was graded dirt, gravel, asphalt-covered brick, or even planks of wood. But those early travelers came.

Starting as far east as Chicago, they would drive through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. They traveled through the Ozarks, the Okalahoma prairie, the Texas Panhandle, the Great Plains, the Mountains of northern Arizona, the Arizona and California desert. They had to prepare for cold and great heat. On long stretches of road a Model T might be far from civilization in the midst of forbidding geography. Still it was an adventure, with picnics beside the car, for those picking up and moving, and for those inaugurating the tradition of the long distance road trip.

From the beginning, Route 66 was promoted across the nation. The National U.S. 66 Highway Association dubbed the route “The Main Street of America.” A marathon foot race, The Bunion Derby was organized to follow it in 1928. The soon to be famous sequential Burma Shave signs appeared along the route:

A peach

looks good

with lots of fuzz

but man’s no peach

and never was

Burma Shave

It didn’t hurt either that in its last years, a Model T could be purchased for as little as $290, only $3,000 in today’s money, or nearly three quarters the cost of that single 1860 stage coach trip to California – for a car that was your own and would last.

Julia Dean 2006

It wasn’t long before a new era dawned. The Depression put a crimp in road trip tourism, but it and the Dust Bowl sent new legions, from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas onto the road. It was the single greatest migration in American history. John Steinbeck, who drove what he and others then called Highway 66, to research his book, memorialized the route in The Grapes of Wrath, providing it with a new, and its most resonant, name:

…and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.

Woody Guthrie sang:

Been on this road for a mighty long time,
Ten million men like me,
You drive us from your town, we ramble around,
And got them 66 Highway Blues.

In the end, one quarter of the Dust Bowl population uprooted itself and moved away. As many as 2.5 million people left the Great Plains, nearly 400,000 of them coming to California, and they did it along Route 66. As no road had been since the 19th century wagon trails, the mother road was at the center of the American story.

AJA

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On The Road

Letter from Paris: a Lump in the Throat

Yesterday’s Jazz Is entry, a Dexter Gordon film rendition of “Body and Soul,” put me in mind, for a reason you will soon understand that number always now does, of an another experience of the jazz standard.

Manhattan Bridge Tower in Brooklyn, New York C...
Image by The U.S. National Archives via Flickr

It was September 2001, and I was beginning a sabbatical year with a month-long drive around Europe. Julia and I had leased a Peugeot, which we picked up at Charles de Gaulle and drove into Paris. I was happy, as we entered the city, to find my youthful New York City cabbie skills tested and up to the task. (On a later occasion, l’etoile, at the Arc de Triomphe, was the inescapable Godzilla of my driving nightmares.) From Paris we would drive through Germany to Prague, then to Vienna, Budapest and back, on across Italy to the Riviera, and then to St. Remy de Provence, where we stopped for Julia to teach a photo  workshop. Leaving Julia there, I proceeded to Normandy on my own and a visit to the D-day landing beaches and the Bayeux Tapestry. We met back up in Paris for more time there before flying home.

We spent that first day, however, sleeping off a sleepless flight at our loaner apartment in Le Marais, just across the street from the Picasso Museum. Come the evening, we awoke groggily to join friend Brian for a first dinner out on my first trip to Paris.

The next morning, I sent the second of my “Letters from…” to an email list I regaled over the next month with details of our travels and experiences. I reproduce it below, with its original subject line.

Bridge of Arts (just behind : New Bridge)
Image via Wikipedia

Renowned Photographer Saves Obscure Writer’s Life in Parisian Café

August vacation just over, the streets of Paris are full and lively.  The evening is pleasant, the night sky clear, and the beef chewy. The Obscure Writer and the Renowned Photographer have met up with the Photographers’ Assistant, who is just completing his own two months on the continent shooting photographs and studying French.  They walk the tres chic Marais district, including Paris’s gay area (rainbow flags on facades as identifiers) and old Jewish quarter (kosher pizza) and fail to draw a connection.  They stop to gaze at the immense and glowing Hôtel de Ville.

As they cross the Seine, the Obscure Writer marvels at this first sighting.  The water flows darkly luminous with reflected light, the beam atop the distant Tour Eiffel searching in all directions, the quays lonely and, yes, romantic, the city opening up in its middle to suggest its sweeping and historic expanse.  The Obscure Writer grudgingly considers that if New York is the center of the universe, it might not be historically so, for here, near Point Zéro on the Ile de la Cité (from which all distances in France are measured) one can sense armies departing or arriving to conquer, heads rolling in pursuit of, and flight from, liberty, the destiny of nations and a continent determined over several centuries.

Passing the massive Notre-Dame Cathedral (to be explored another day), the three enter the Latin Quarter, near Saint-Germain des Prés.  Hunger and proximity more than any special attraction lead them into Le Be Bop café, where photos of jazz greats clutter the walls of an establishment otherwise uncharacteristically pristine and bright.  A sole piano player keys decorous versions of jazz standards.  Far from be boppy, the air is quiet and sedate.

The meals are in progress, a bottle of St. Emillion well under attack, when the Obscure Writer, as he is sometimes prone to do, and just as the piano player begins his consideration of “Body and Soul,” bites off a bit more than he can chew.  Not, in fact, properly chewed, the less than tender beef slips into the throat prematurely, and the Obscure Writer determines, as he has on countless previous occasions, to muscle this injudiciousness down before proceeding more wisely.  Only this time he can’t, and now the difficult piece is too far down to push back up.  It is stuck, the throat completely blocked.  The Obscure Writer cannot breathe and he is, he quickly realizes, if nothing is done, and done quickly, about to choke to death.

The Renowned Photographer and the Photographers’ Assistant, involved in conversation, suddenly notice the Obscure Writer’s gagging discomfort.  Still unaware of the full seriousness of the situation, the Photographers’ Assistant instructs the Obscure Writer to raise both of his arms.  He does, and the restaurant’s other patrons search in vain for the man with the gun.  But this procedure is futile.  The Obscure Writer, panicked but clear of mind, knows he has about fifteen or twenty seconds of consciousness left.  If no one knows what to do in that time, he is probably lost.  He stands and tries to speak the words “Heimlich maneuver,” but without breath cannot make a sound.  He gags.  He punches with a fist at the “V” of his rib cage.  His head feels about to explode.  The Renowned Photographer is now fully alarmed, looks to the Photographers’ Assistant for action, as she often does.  The Obscure Writer, his desperation at its peak, turns his back to them, trying again to hint at the Heimlich maneuver.  He feels a hand smack him twice on the back.  The Obscure Writer shakes his head no, locks his hands and hugs the air in front of him to show the maneuver.  Only seconds remain.  Now the Renowned Photographer understands, senses there is not enough time to allow the Photographers’ Assistant around her to perform the maneuver she feels uncertain of.  She throws her arms around the Obscure Writer and pulls against his stomach.  The Obscure Writer, bent forward from the force of the hug, feels, suddenly, about to vomit.  But he does not vomit. Up instead comes the sole, large piece of offending, viscous beef, a projectile arcing through the air, remarkably, into the palm the Obscure Writer inexplicably stretches out for the catch.  He spins and dumps the piece of  meat on his plate, gasps painfully and with relief for air.  He gulps down wine.  He gulps down water.  For minutes after he convulses and shakes inside.

Meanwhile, the restaurant staff and patrons have discretely ignored the entire proceeding.  The piano player has kept on playing, committing body to soul.  And our three diners begin a joking reminiscence of the present quickly become past.  Had the Obscure Writer found French cultural eminence more than he could swallow?  How does he feel about the Renowned Photographer, of whom he is, reportedly, inordinately fond, having saved his life?  He is, he confesses, all choked about it.

***

Nine days later, on a brilliant Prague afternoon, after a morning of ambling and discovery joyous beyond the usual reasons, our waiter at an Old Town Square cafe, using his hands to simulate the planes over our latte and Coke, then sweeping the space clean, told us that the World Trade Center was “no more.”

AJA

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On The Road

Life in Motion

I drove the motor home down to San Diego for servicing yesterday for its final repairs and detailing in preparation for sale. It has been sitting in storage, and after driving it around the country for over a year, I hadn’t been behind the wheel for two months, since we moved out of it into our present digs. It was quietly exhilarating to have my foot on the pedal again, up high above the rest of the traffic, moving through a world that rose up to meet me on the face of a giant windshield like a panoramic movie screen.

The tow plane released, and we dipped and soared again in whispering silence, banking over the mountain sides of New England in the knowledge that only wind currents and geothermal waves prevented the sheer drop back to earth.

On the way south I passed along a stretch of Interstate 5 between San Clemente and San Diego designated the Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone Memorial Highway. Fans of  the HBO series The Pacific will recognize the name as that of “the hero of Guadalcanal,” the Pacific war’s first medal of honor winner, who after more than two years back home chose to return to combat at the head of fresh recruits he had trained himself, and who was killed in the first hours of the Iwo Jima landing leading his charges off the bloody beach. For a few years, Basilone was a famous, honored man in the United States. Today, very few drivers on that stretch of road know he was. I wouldn’t have known two months ago.

The service center is across the road from the Miramar Naval Air Station, which, if you are a Tom Cruise fan, you should know was the location of Top Gun, both the movie and the real thing flight school, until the latter was moved to Nevada. Now it is a Marine Corps Air Base. As I sped along the interstate on my approach, two fighters ascended my panoramic screen, splitting directions on their path out of view. Like most of us, I have flown commercially, of course – large planes, small planes, props. But what could ever have approximated what those fighter pilots experience in their rapid, wrenching loft over the earth? Nothing. Not the speed or the pressure on the body. But the motion, up and across the earth, so that one is able to lose a sense of containment on it, and in one’s life, and imagine instead some mastery over the geography diminishing in size below, and turning, in its relation to you, not because of its movements, but your own. Some people do get to live that grandest of illusions: the transcendence of boundedness by space, in place.

In the years when we took beach vacations along the Pacific in Baja, there was a local Mexican who built and sold ultra light airplanes and flew them along the coast between Rosarito and Ensenada. They are basically oversized tricycles with kite wings. I’d fly with him sometimes after he landed on the beach, maybe a thousand feet up, probably less – once, mistakenly only in my bare beach feet, which ached all the flight from the wind chill. But nothing could diminish the sense of release that the sky and the passing coast below could deliver. Once, over the Green Mountains of Vermont – I was holed up at the Vermont Studio Center on a grant for a month of poetry writing– my oldest friend, Arnie, and I were lifted into the sky by a tow plane, seated behind the pilot of a glider. The tow plane released, and we dipped and soared again in whispering silence, banking over the mountain sides of New England in the knowledge that only wind currents and geothermal waves prevented the sheer drop back to earth. Twenty years earlier my insides floated with fear as I sat pressed against what seemed the tissue-thin fuselage of the small prop plane in which I awaited my first jump. Then I shifted over the floor to the open cargo door and sat at its edge, New Jersey passing below as the wind blew me back. Count, one, two, three (don’t freeze with fear, don’t fail to launch) and push off. Fall. Spread. Tumble. Open shoot. Unwind the tangled lines above. Look around. Float. Why does silence always whisper?

Heaven.

It wasn’t just the motion in the motor home I loved during our travels. There were the motor scooters we carried along. The test monitor at the Department of Motor Vehicles, for our permits, before we left town, confided to Julia, “Just wait. He’s going to want a motorcycle very soon.” He was right.

A week or so later I’d be eyeing Santa Barbara through the windows of a hearse, which had picked up along the road two teen boys, and a girl who had fallen nude on acid into their laps at the Blind Faith concert the night before.

The last time I had been on a motorized two-wheeled vehicle, I was seventeen years old. Jerry, a friend two years older and twenty more daring, and who led me into many adventures and some trouble, possessor of a fringed suede jacket the likes of which was only otherwise seen on Roger Daltry during his Tommy years, and which was the envy of every freak from the East Village to Rockaway Beach, according to which Jerry became known as Jerry Jacket – Jerry had bought himself a motorcycle, bought it cheap, too, owing to its not having any brakes. Around midnight and the end of a weekday’s partying, everyone else preparing to crash back home, Jerry asked if I wanted to go see Ed Carlin’s new place in the Bronx. Whatever answer but “Sure!” even if it meant traveling ninety minutes over expressways, from the bottom of New York City to the top, riding a motorcycle with no brakes?

Jerry downshifted to slow all along surface streets of Queens, the Van Wyck Expressway, the Grand Central Parkway, and surface streets, again, of the Bronx, both of us dragging our Frye boots against the roadway to assist. We arrived to a sleepy residential neighborhood, our soles worn through, near 2 a.m. and climbed the garage over which Ed’s rental apartment in a private house was located. Jerry jimmied the window and we slipped through. We crouched and stared at Carlin’s gaunt, sleeping John the Baptist visage. Jerry nudged him, nudged him again.

“Carlin. Carlin, wake up.”

Ed opened his eyes.

Jerry smiled. “Got any dope?”

The next morning Jerry went off on some other escapade and I headed home by subway, two hours through Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, over Jamaica Bay to the Rockaway peninsula. The ride across the bay, past wetlands and inlets, over channel islands, in sight of JFK Airport, was always a reflective one for me. Even then I loved the motion of travel, and to think about life by its rhythms, and windows, any windows, car windows, bus windows, motor home, plane, and train windows were like a screen on which to project the footage of my memories, my anticipations, superimposed on the passing scene. Sad young man in search of adventure that I was, I preferred always to sit moving backwards, whichever way I was traveling, with a view of what I was leaving retrospectively, melancholically behind, even as I aimed myself with eagerness ahead.

Who's that barely keeping his head above water?

Some months after that motorcycle ride, still seventeen, I took my first plane flight, with a hundred and fifty dollars in my pocket I had earned over the summer, off on my California adventure with Arnie. A week or so later I’d be eyeing Santa Barbara through the windows of a hearse, which had picked up along the road two teen boys, and a girl who had fallen nude on acid into their laps at the Blind Faith concert the night before. Now, though, it was a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet, a big deal in flight at the time, and when the monster banked over Jamaica Bay, my throat caught with the fear we’d drop like a stone into the water. But we straightened out, and I settled in, and for five plus hours, my headset over my ears, my nose never left the window pane. I gazed at every quilted square of farmland, every coagulation of humanity and cement called a city, every lone car on a lonely road headed straight across a prairie or winding through some hills. Then we reached the Rockies. Months before, love had wounded me for the first time in my life. Three weeks later, I would stare up from the grass of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, a yearning seventeen year-old, and see a vision in the sky of all my decades to come, and how they might deliver me from pain, carry me into some kind of fulfillment it was too early on to know. All those years to live in which I might yet be happy.

But for those minutes in the plane, it was the Rockies in all their majesty and whiteness below , and in my ears it was “The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me.”

Joy rose up. I was in motion. I was going somewhere. And maybe love would.

AJA

Categories
On The Road

A Pause in the Journey

A year and and nearly two weeks ago, Julia and I left Los Angeles to travel the country by motorhome and do research for our book on contemporary Native American life. Thursday we returned to L.A., not home quite – because we’ll be setting wheels to road some more, intermittently, throughout the next year – but to a surprising little hideaway on the beach, looking out at the Pacific.

allegro-bay

Fifty-three weeks of travel – unthinkable for some, but for me and for Julia, as our lives have evolved, an almost pressing need. Our travels started uncertainly. They didn’t always go so well. We did not reach all of the destinations on which we had set our sights, but as John Steinbeck said, “A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” Our destinations and our destinies are like a ball bobbing on the ocean, and we kicking behind it. Sometimes we do, in fact, direct it exactly to where we were aiming, and so we are apt to forget that the current might just as well have gone against us.

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine

Among the fascinations about human life shared both by travelers and lovers of literature – so I am doubly blessed in what absorbs me – are the varieties of those human destinies, and the more one travels, the greater number of different kinds of lives one encounters. There are those among us, the larger number, who lead settled lives of varying degree. There are those – players in the great games of power and progress that posts on this blog often address – who are driven in their lives to consequential action. Their purpose is in the work of attempting to direct that water-borne ball over the waves, for themselves and for others, and their lives would feel otherwise aimless.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain

Another kind of life is that of the other travelers making their way over the earth, most from starting points different from your own, some even choosing to remain where one of their journeys has taken them. In cozy mountain villages in Laos, rambling seaside retreats along the South China Sea, in Roman train stations or filling up the tank, one crosses trajectories with so many random destinies, as one randomly happens to others. There is talk of coming and going, places one should see, a beer in a café at sunset. And if nothing else, there is one thing you all have in common: a place exists in the world called home, in whatever language, and none of you are there. You are each held out into the void of what still remains to unfold in your life, as is everyone, only made more palpable because of the newness, at every step, of the ground beneath your feet and the unfamiliarity of every moment. “There are no foreign lands,” said Robert Louis Stevenson. “It is the traveler only who is foreign.”

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese

Of all the elements of travel, the originating impulse is in the elation of setting off. Traveling over land by motorhome, picking up our home (not simply ourselves, and on to some hotel, but our home) and moving on when it suited us – this became a reinvigorating joy. It reminded us each time, having rutted our wheels in a place we had stayed long enough, of the essential freedom of what we were doing. The panoramic screen of our windshield looming before us, Homer and Penelope setting their chins to the floor, Julia would lock us down and I would shift into gear, counting time into Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again”:

Goin’ places that I’ve never been.
Seein’ things that I may never see again

“There is no moment of delight in any pilgrimage like the beginning of it,” said Charles Dudley Warner. In a motorhome, that delight can come every time you draw up your levels and pull in the slides. “I just can’t wait to get on the road again.”

sunset-2

Some of what you can understand through travel is as plain as the West Texas expanse or a Tennessee woodland: how could people living in those places, with their histories and their struggles, possibly see the world in the same way as someone from New York City or Los Angeles or Miami or Seattle? Why should they? It is a wonder they all make up a single country. If one travels for the only profound reason a person should – to come to know the world, and oneself, and not simply dip a toe and shrink back from the cold water of the new and strange – one might reject a little less and abide a little more. Tolerance, rightly understood, is not a PC shibboleth, a guilt-ridden principle of holding no principle dear enough except the one of tolerance – it is essential humility before the immensity of experience. The whale is not greater than the eagle.

“The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.” – Samuel Johnson

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

There are the people, the places, and yourself. There is the world that contains them all. In 1981, I traveled to Greece. I had just left my corporate life and almost certain fortune behind (offered, by the company’s owners, the final promotion on Friday – the last rung on the ladder to the top – I resigned on Monday) and was beginning, not for the first or last time, a different life. I flew first to Rome, later took a taxi to the Roma Termini railway station to catch a train to Brindisi, from where I would travel by ferry across the Adriatic Sea, along the coast of still closed and mysterious Albania, to Greece. At the rail station in Rome, I encountered two young men, one still in his twenties, like me, a slight, long-haired and wispy-bearded Canadian, the other an athletic and red-headed eighteen-year-old Brit. With all three of us headed to Greece, we chose to travel together, and for a week were the fast friends that found traveling companions can become.

The young Brit was exploring Europe on a parent-financed escape from grief. His twin brother had died, and he was seeking whatever there was of recovery in the distraction and education of travel. The still hippieish Canadian had been living overseas for ten years. At about the Brit’s age, his girlfriend had left him, and left him devastated. He took off for Europe and had returned to Canada only once: some years of living in North Africa had created havoc with his intestines, and he had returned to Canada for surgery. Now he was living in Greece on tourist visas, which he renewed every ninety days by traveling to Italy and then reentering the country. He had bowel problems that the Brit and I patiently accommodated while we remained a threesome.

“The open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself.” – William Least Heat Moon

The Brit, of course, considered the Canadian and me vastly more experienced older fellows, and was duly impressed to learn the Canadian had been at Woodstock. I missed Woodstock because my closest friend and I had flown to California on the first independent travel of my life, while still in high school: we were ticketed for vagrancy on the Sunset Strip, hitchhiked up the Pacific Coast Highway to camp illegally in Big Sur, and made our way to Golden Gate Park and Berkeley, where our acid connection awaited us. The “promised land of my people” I called the golden state of our travels in my senior-year creative writing class.

Well, I was even younger then than the Brit.

winter-snow

The Brit, Canadian and I explored Brindisi together, rode the Adriatic waves to Patras, and traveled from there by bus to Athens. We hunted cheap hotels, cheap food, and toured the ruins. Then our destinations led us apart as I took another ferry from Piraeus, the port of Athens, to Crete. We exchanged addresses, determined to write, and never communicated again.

“When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.” – William Least Heat Moon

On Crete, I walked for miles. I visited the Minoan ruins. I traveled by bus over the central mountains to the southern coast – mountains Julia would traverse twenty-five years later, though without the bus driver who crossed himself at every mountain’s-edge, unrailed switchback. At last, I landed in Matala, a former 60s hippie haven (the fossils still remained from when they shat in the caves) where the residents lived in cliffside shacks, the Greek Orthodox women black-robed from the head down in the still strong, late September sun. I set out to sit with my own long-mending heart. I checked into a pension for two dollars a night, and proceeded to shave, for the first and last time, the beard I’d sprouted on my return home from Berkeley at seventeen. I stared hard in the mirror at the man I had become since I’d grown it.

“All the pathos and irony of leaving one’s youth behind is thus implicit in every joyous moment of travel: one knows that the first joy can never be recovered, and the wise traveler learns not to repeat successes but tries new places all the time.” – Paul Fussell

On the beach each day, I lay staring out at the wide Mediterranean sky and the sun-speckled sea beneath it, saw under sail on an imaginary horizon the ship of Odysseus, he tied to the heaving foremast by his men that he might hear and withstand the sirens’ song. In the evenings I sat on the porch of the beach taverna indulging the short-lived taste for Retsina I had acquired in Athens, smoking cigarettes end to end and contemplating my life. The sky was star-shot and beating with an elemental pulse. Once, from the tavern sound system, “Light My Fire” vibrated in the ancient night around me.

The time to hesitate is through
No time to wallow in the mire

“Try to set the night on fire.”

The next morning, curious for news of the world, I walked the half mile up a dirt road to the kiosk for an International Herald Tribune. On the front page the images spread before me, the headline was bold: Anwar Sadat assassinated in Cairo.

I headed home to New York.

over

Most obviously, maybe most simply and surprisingly too, travel is about movement. It can be disorienting. A question for the traveler becomes how well he can accommodate, even welcome, that loss of bearings. In a motorhome, you maintain a constant living environment – you are taking your home along with you. So for a year, no matter where we were, at night particularly, the shades drawn, when we ate at the same table and slept in the same bed, wrote and backed up images and interviews – watched TV from our satellite – everything was the same. Outside might be the high Apache desert, suburban Atlanta, a Wal-Mart parking lot in Oxford Mississippi, a Virginia woodland, but inside – more than once, for a moment, I didn’t recall where I was.

To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.” – Freya Stark

But for all I love of travel, I think I have come to appreciate nothing more than the actual motion of it. At just the right convergence of movement and what surrounds it, travel achieves a meeting of adventure and architecture. The adventure might be in sitting at the edge of the open cargo door of a small plane, a chute on your back, preparing to push yourself out on your first jump. It might be skimming the Baja coast in an ultra light or getting launched into the whispering sky in a glider, to soar and bank above the Green Mountains of Vermont. Pilots experience this all the time, ship’s captains in a different way, mountain climbers. It isn’t just the thrill of the risky challenge; it’s the motion on or over the earth. Architects do not, of course, just design constructs: they conceive spaces in which to be and move, and part of the success of the design is in the experience of moving in that space, in relation to what contains or abuts the moving body.

scotch-rocks

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

To stay confined to the grid of one’s town or at the bottom of high metropolitan canyons is to lose the sense of one’s bodily relation to the sphere one so remarkably lives upon. Climb above it all, withdraw from a part of it, as from a continent, speed over it with little or nothing of the human in your way, as the sphere itself turns, without regard to you, and you perceive your relation to the earth, the universe, in a different way. I recall the night lights of Brindisi fading in the distance, as they would have for Virgil almost two thousand years before, one land receding, a far one waiting, and all our lives, on all the ships, bobbing on the water. I can still recover to my senses the worldly stillness and silence of the upper Mekong River, in Laos, as we motored beneath the high banks, the lone fisherman on a skiff oblivious to us as we passed. The clouds that revolved around the peak of Machu Picchu as we climbed. The mesas that loomed and receded as our home on wheels moved on.

“Wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe”……Anatole France

The explorers and builders of civilizations who follow such routes of travel may feel emboldened by the enormity of the nature they reach to conquer; if they are wise beyond the norm they understand that the measure of their achievement is in the smallness of the conqueror.

“A child on a farm sees a plane fly overhead and dreams of a faraway place. A traveler on the plane sees the farmhouse… and thinks of home.” – Carl Burns.

Before we continue our travels here at home next year, we will fly in January to Buenos Aires and Uruguay. Julia will be teaching a photo workshop there. (It is a fun and seasoned group of travelers going, by the way, lovers of photography all, and there are still spaces open, if you are a photographer at any level who would like to learn from the teacher PhotoMedia Magazine named its 2008 “Photo Person of the Year.”)  We were last in Buenos Aires in 2005, and though we had hoped to make it to Montevideo then, we didn’t manage it. This time Carnival Week there is part of the itinerary. The most scenic way to travel from Buenos Aires to Montevideo is by boat, an hour or three, all depending, across the Río de la Plata, as it opens onto the Atlantic. I anticipate it even now, the sense of great waters beneath me, and of an ocean ahead, our boat breaking the waves as the wind tears up my eyes, and I squinting for the first sight of a new destination, standing, for all my life, in the utter joy of moving in its direction.

“The map is not the territory.” – Alfred Korzybski

AJA

Photography by Julia Dean

Categories
On The Road

Know Them by their Limping

Reader Naomi, clearly the kindest of spirits, invoked in comment, in response to yesterday’s span of unproductive hours (even in leisure) this Hebrew prayer, Tefilat Haderech, for the traveler:

May it be Your will, LORD, our God and the God of our ancestors, that You lead us toward peace, guide our footsteps toward peace, and make us reach our desired destination for life, gladness, and peace. May You rescue us from the hand of every foe, ambush along the way, and from all manner of punishments that assemble to come to earth. May You send blessing in our handiwork, and grant us grace, kindness, and mercy in Your eyes and in the eyes of all who see us. May You hear the sound of our humble request because You are God Who hears prayer requests. Blessed are You, Adonai, Who hears prayer

She offered as an alternative, St. Chrisotopher, patron Saint of travel.

I confess that I am betimes of more mordant and practical bent in my wishes, for there does hang on my office wall, in a land (state) far, far away, this blessing, said to be of the Irish:

May those who love us love us.
And those that don’t love us,
May God turn their hearts.
And if He doesn’t turn their hearts,
May he turn their ankles,
So we’ll know them by their limping.

AJA