I wonder aloud to my companion and in a sense once removed from the present, you, dear reader. I imagine stories for the storefronts we pass and the people we see. The only thing more imaginative than the combination of jewelry and ammo is the clientele. Everyone does the same. I hope everyone does the same.
Road trips in the South are a curious genus of creature. Roads are flat and plain. The people are neither. Me and my companion exchange few words but many gestures because in that car we are a nation of two. Only two. I can mentally collect quite a large number of individuals whom I am fond of but they would form a very disparate and discordant group if gathered in real life, on a real island. Few things are as comfortable as our silences.
What few words pass between us are questions and answers. Thoughts? Not many I reply. An hour passes. Thoughts? One day I will collect all the surviving copies—of what I do not remember. Other times I respond with my own questions. Do you see that? Sometimes. What if…? We laugh and live and die all at once. An hour passes and we leave behind pieces of ourselves. Perhaps to be picked up later—remember when we stopped here?–or perhaps to be forgotten. Another layer in a country whose past is not even dead.
At night the bot dots become drops of honey eaten by shadow before being regrown whole. Time slows and stops and jumps. Like teeth of a gin, some are worn away and then—occasionally—the driver will hit a dozen all in a row. Time jumps and then it smoothes out. Jagged and then normal. It is inexplicable and inexcusable.
There is something other wordily about being trapped in a steel container for hours of your life. How can this be your life, I ask myself. It must be your life, I tell myself, not mine.
The woods that surround the freeway crowd around. In other states, in other countries, freeway’s borders are meant to keep noise and cars inside. In the South it is to keep the leaves and plants and life out. It produces a clausterphobic effect or perhaps, on second consideration, it produces a feeling of being a simple, solitary creature. Trees do not make sense if you consider them for too long.
Humans are still herd animals. Cars group around each other in cadres. When a car drives off onto an exit salutes from the other drivers follow. Driving at a constant speed will guarantee that within a few minutes you will be stuck between two groups of cars on a stretch of freeway devoid of cars. Police are the predators. No commentary is needed on them.
The United States has produced very few truly authentic pieces of American culture. One of those pieces is the gas station. I’m reminded of Nabokov’s Humphrey and his movement in order to keep the nymphet alive, literally, but also metaphorically in order to keep the myth of the nymphet alive: “We had been everywhere, we had really seen nothing” (175). During the “yearlong travels,” the motels, the tourist attractions and the landscapes are condensed in more or less fugitive remarks, eloquent vignettes that capture the essence of the scene. These vignettes are what I think about.
A book I recently devoured: Vonnegut’s Night Mother. I abused the book, there is no other description for what I did. There was no satisfactory pause, no repose. I started the book at the beginning of the trip and I ended it three hours and change later. Umberto Eco says at a certain point in Postscript to The Name of the Rose that there are novels that breathe like elephants and novels that breathe like gazelles (Eco 50-51). In the pages devoted to the “year long travels” Lolita (nymphet and text) breathes like a chased gazelle. Vonnegut’s book breathed like a gazelle. Yet I chased her down consumed her. I was impressed with my hunting.
One of the best parts of a long car trip is the pleasure of impressing yourself. Dear reader, do not underestimate the pleasure of impressing yourself. Sitting down and reading a book through and through in one, extended bite is one of the most conceited and simultaneously sublime activities you can do. A book swallowed whole to be digested later or perhaps to be forgotten about completely is the height of arrogance and joy.
Hannah Arendt, after publishing Eichmann in Jerusalem, was cautioned by her friend Karl Jaspers that the price she would pay for attacking some of the “life-sustaining lies” on which so many people depend would be steep–he was right. I notice that when I cross from Georgia to South Carolina the depiction of the Civil War changes dramatically. In Georgia, on rest stops and monuments, there are references to the Civil War and those who died. Yet there is always a humble, post-modern clutter surrounding these monuments and depictions. Men who died in WWI, WWII and so on. In South Carolina, however, there is one list: those who died in the War Between the States. The men who Lincoln killed. Such is life in South Carolina. I suppose there are still some life-sustaining lies left about the Civil War in the South.
I remember what I mean and meant to collect. Gore Vidal’s Dark Green, Bright Red; Robert Stone’s A Flag for Sunrise; Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian have one character in common, William Walker. He invaded Nicuragua and he failed but only after becoming a dictator. He may have been a woman. Imagine a slight, wispy woman who managed to be the pointed spear of American imperialism in Central America before being shot to death by a Costa Rican firing squad. He produced a weekly that was distributed in the States.