Crossing Three Thousand Miles in Four Days: A How-To Guide
Two weeks ago, you will have given your notice to your alcoholic boss after having removed 20 or so scratched lotto tickets from the seat cushions of the delivery van. You will also have told your manager.
“How long until you get out?” you ask.
“Two months,” he replies, “My husband and I are escaping to Florida.”
When you break the hug you find he has slipped several gift cards into your back pocket.
Pack the last of your things in the car until you can’t see out the rear window.
Say goodbye to your hosts, Jay and Fran. Jay will be smoking in the garden, his eternal project to carve out an Eden in Troy, NY. He’ll hug you, his wiry beard scratching your face. The smell of cigarettes will remind you of, in order, a childhood spent on a tobacco farm and a red, blinking light in the hallway of your paternal grandparents’ house.
Fran will be on Tumblr or Facebook in the living room. You’ll be crushed in his bear hug. You’ll have to tap out, or Jay will have to break his not-quite-husband’s grip on you.
Bid a mental farewell to the library room and its “reading bed” you’ve been sleeping in. Bye coffee table books of architecture porn. Bye histories of gay liberation. Bye cartoon porn and actual porn.
Get in the car for your last appointment with Albany’s most trustworthy mechanics. Weeks ago, when your stepfather heard that the AC in your car died, he said, “No son of mine is driving across Nevada without AC.” You latched onto ‘son of mine’ like a barnacle on a whale.
Wait for the mechanics to finish in a cafe with your friend Izzy. Be liberal with your love. Chat in your secret language. Get lost in her tall, Norwegian hugs.
Receive prophetic advice during a chance run-in with an old professor of yours. Take notes as he smiles wryly from under his beret.
Drive north in your car north through summer rains. Try to outrun them. Fail. See rainbows instead. In your hunger stop for fast food and wonder what “Probably Non-Dairy Creamer” means. You’ll see it on one of those little, plastic coffee creamers. The mystery will haunt you forever.
As you pass your most remote friend’s home, feel the psychic strain of departure for the first time. Wonder if you’ll see any of them again.
Drive through Seneca country as the sun hangs low. New York’s vineyards will huddle in shadows against the hills. As you pass Lake Erie, the setting sun will color it in fire and electroplated steel. The stars will come out over Pennsylvania but you won’t see them. The road is demanding of attention.
You’ll barely notice when you reach Ohio. Cleveland will roar out of the night in a riot of color-shifting LEDs on the capitol dome. Disappear into the suburbs; fumble for the hidden key at your first roomshare. Scare the dog. Sit awkwardly in the living room as your hosts return from work. Introduce yourself. Have Chinese food. Play with the dogs over a Civil War documentary. Sleep under the gaze of Cherry Garcia in a converted home office.
Laying down you’ll realize you forgot to lock the door. There is no lock. You won’t sleep. You will lie awake waiting for a stranger with blood-shot eyes to come around the corner. You will hear the echoes of your ex’s voice in the walls. Remind yourself… Remind yourself that you’re two states away now. Remind yourself that you’re safe.
In the morning, find a greasy spoon and pay five dollars for a breakfast special. Feign surprise when it’s exactly what you’d expect for five dollars in Cleveland. Drive through rolling farmland. If you’re confused about whether you’re in Indiana or Ohio, look at the roads, listen. If they rumble like a mound of purring kittens and look like they might be made of sadness, it’s Indiana. Most other roads will look normal.
Get to Illinois. Notice the shift in topography as the land gets flat and marshy. Feel the genre of the road shift as industry, giant powerlines grow up around you.
This is noir country.
Stop in Chicago. Your GPS will fail in the tall buildings and layered highway overpasses. You will disappear underground. Find parking. Step outside. Wait for your local friend appear. He will be late. The train will be late. It won’t matter. You need to see each other.
Wander the gardens for two hours, get caught by sudden rain. Take shelter in an art deco, public meditation center. Meet your friend. Get bratwurst. Discover that knowing someone online is different than in person. Body language, physicality, voice and eyes won’t conform to expectations. Online he is the hammer of justice, calling the parents of wayward, racist, teenage harassers. You are a scary editor. Here. Now. You’ll be two weirdos, standing at the tip of the Chicago skyline, the city in miniature.
Get in your car and get stuck in rush hour. Chicago rush hour never ends. When you escape the clog, you’ll drive through the darkness, over flat plains. Note the distant thunderstorms. Feel a tinge of dread. Wonder if the lightning strikes are omens.
Cross the Mississippi at night. It will be anticlimactic. Pull into Iowa City at 9 pm. Scare your roomshare with your sudden, disheveled appearance. Your phone will be dead. You will be dead. You two will not connect over your shared research careers. She will disappear to her boyfriend’s house. You will not blame her.
In the darkness of the finished basement, surrounded by decorative throws, you will feel exposed. The internet will not work. There will be nothing to distract you from your thoughts. You watch as your phone blinks. Charging. Charging. You hope nobody knows where you are.
In the morning, have a languid breakfast at a cafe. Spear fresh fruit with your fork. Find Kurt Vonnegut’s old house. Forget that it’s not a landmark, that it is someone’s home, until an old man emerges, confused, as you take a selfie. Get back in the car to get lost among the rolling hills.
You’ll know you hit Nebraska because of Omaha. Barring that, you’ll know because of the flatness. It will go on forever. Accelerate to 80 miles an hour, then 90. Pass through invisible clouds of stench wafting from factory farms. Try not to look at the forlorn pigs. Stop at a gas station.
The attendant will be in charge of the tchotchke store, selling Virgin Mary’s and doilies, selling fried chicken, managing the Dairy Queen. They will be out of fried chicken. You will know by the hand-written napkin signs over each menu item. The attendant will look at you and say, “Keep driving, New York.”
She will say, “Nebraska is where the idiots run free.” She will point to a man in the corner and tell you he tried to rob her with an empty gun. You will fill your tank and go, with a toothpaste-flavored Blizzard in your hands. An old man will stare at you as you leave. He will glare until you pull away, until he disappears in a dumpster, only to re-emerge to feed a pack of dogs handfuls of rancid chicken.
You will drive into the night. Turn off the highway and get into Colorado. You will have an appointment to keep with Lupe. She is a former ESL teacher who moved to a tiny, nowhere town of less than 150 to build her dream bed and breakfast. She had nothing but her savings, and access to a hoarder’s stash of grandma-floral furniture. She will greet you and tell you all of this, unprompted along with information about the pot dispensary, about free towels, about the old bank vault she’s turning into a lover’s suite and the bar.
You’ll walk across the street to the bar. It will be filled with Bronco’s paraphernalia. There will be Coors and Coors Lite. You will drink 40 ounces of Coors, with salt, for 3 dollars. For an extra dollar you could have mixed in tomato juice. While you drink you will be the only non-local. You will stick out, disheveled, pony-tailed, tired-eyed. A local will ask you why you are here. You will say you’re passing through to CA, to help with drought. She will give you a look, “There is no helping drought.” You don’t know this yet but in time her words will become prophetic.
You’ll cross the street, unnerved, under a full moon. There are no street lights. Everything is lit in silver. You’ll thank the God you don’t believe in that there are no cars here.
In the morning two kids, the only two kids, will tell you conspiratorially that they and Lupe are trying to get the BnB on Hotel Hell. “We need reality-show money,” they will say. “It’s the only way to fix up this dump.”
You’ll enter Wyoming. It is at once exotic and nostalgic. Your grandfather’s westerns were shot here. You recognize the outcroppings, the hills. Elk Mountain will loom over you, a giant thumb’s up over the plains. Medicine Bow Ridge clutches the only trees for hundreds of miles. You get to Cheyenne. You will eat at a Benjamin Franklin-themed steakhouse during old-person hour. You will get the “Poor Richard Special” from a waitress who knows you’re not from here. At this point you will feel like you’re not from anywhere.
You will pass the burned-out carcass of a semi-trailer on the highway.
You will pass The American Inn, a truck stop chain advertising marble bathrooms and apple pie a-la-mode. Suburbia, airlifted into the blonde, high plains.
You will hit the mountains, Utah. The highway will fly through the air like a Mormon prayer. You’ll weave through the pass and understand why the pioneers stopped here. Salt Lake City will sit, welcoming you. Billboards will try to save your soul. You will make your way to your next roomshare and crash with a pair of hippies raising a kid. She wants to be an audio engineer. He wants to be an ecologist. They will point you to the only brewpub in the city where you will feast on poutine and have an awkward conversation with a stoic German woman.
Toss restlessly on the synthetic, purple comforter. There will be scratching at the door. In your half awake state the noise is loud, like untrimmed fingernails scrabbling in the walls. You get up, put pants on and open the door. You’ll discover a kitten with moonlit eyes and a criminal mask, her tail twitching furiously in the night.
While you’re here, make sure to explore the Mormon Temple Square. Wear your gayest tank top and stride through the open wrought-iron gates covered in cross motif. Wander the Temple Square Gardens as giant tour groups led by polyglottal guides introduce international converts to the faith of Joseph Smith. Notice that the Temple itself is set above the flag of Utah, the American flag. Here, church trumps state.
Eat artisanal porridge.
Drive to the Great Salt Lake. Notice that it’s retreated a mile from the shore. The attendant will explain that it hasn’t rained for twelve years. In this moment she will be 16. She was four the last time it rained.
On the Salt Flats you should accelerate to 100 miles an hour. Your Civic will complain. Slow down and stop at a rest stop. An island in the salt fields. Try to imagine the terror of this place. No grass, no water, just heat and sun for miles.
Nevada will announce itself with hookers and blackjack. It perches on the border, luring the religious, converting them into holy rollers. Nevada will be a mystery to you. Towns will pass by, hunched over the Humboldt River. Prisons will pass by, built into the desert hills. Your eyes will sting as you head west, smoke from the California wildfires. There will be rain in the desert and small birds bathing in the puddles.
When you reach Reno you will remember the gift cards, Olive Garden. You’ll navigate to the nearest one, eyes still stinging from wildfire smoke drifting over the Sierras, and take a seat at the bar. The bartending waitress will be friendly. You’ll joke about family. You’ll order something that would make grandfather Mario rise from his grave like a marabbecca from a well. There will be a special cheesecake in honor of Thanksgiving that you will take to go. Blow the remaining balance on a 50% tip and smile as you depart.
Arrive in Tahoe to a barking dog, redwood trees and the dark of night. The stars will be invisible under the canopy. Enlist the help of a friendly neighbor to wrangle the dog. Sneak upstairs to your room and crash between the attic eaves.
When you close your eyes you’ll see him.
In the morning you’ll discover that you’re homeless, that your erstwhile roommates wrote you off the lease.
Drive to a parking lot on the lake and hike two miles to a nude beach. Throw yourself into the cold water. Baptise your frustration. Wash yourself clean of your past. Miss a few spots.
Climb back into the mountains and smoke. The traffic will get worse the closer you get to Sacramento. The highway will braid and cloverleaf, like a mad boatswain’s experiment in knots. When you reach the Bay, you’ll discover that there is no relief, the traffic only gets worse.
Roar into the golden hills of Marin. Dodge the black BMWs that don’t signal, the Teslas that sneak on silent engines. Hide out with your cousins in San Rafael for a week. Hide in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains for a month. Hide in the congestion. Hide in your work.
In time you will realize that you never escaped the East Coast. In a way, you never will. You will learn that you are your memories. You will discover that work, a new social scene don’t stop flashbacks. No matter how many symbolic, pseudo-baptismal gestures you make, throwing yourself into the Pacific, throwing yourself into Lake Tahoe, throwing yourself into creeks and swimming holes in the mountains, that you can’t wash away memory. Eventually, it won’t matter. Eventually, your wounds will merely ache.
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