Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Crossing the Continent in a Small Car

I have crossed the continent, or most of it, several times. One trip was in my Yugo, with a student who had never seen a real ocean, in 1990, a round trip from Louisiana to Oregon mostly via I-10 and I-5. The others were alone. I may be too old to do it now, but I love being in the middle of nowhere, driving, alone. The first time was when I drove in a 1967 VW Beetle to NYC to become a postulant in the Community of the Holy Spirit in the summer of 1973, which I shall try to recount now. The second was when I drove a newly acquired 1975(?) VW Rabbit from Oregon to Louisiana. I had been cross-continent before, on Canadian Pacific across Canada to meet the Empress of England to cross the Atlantic and, in the opposite direction, on the train to Chicago to take the Union Pacific train to San Francisco, and also had flown in a DC 6, which was anything but non-stop, from Oregon to Chicago, whence a DC 3 took me to Urbana, Illinois, to be interviewed for a position. That short flight was wonderfully close to the ground, so one could see houses and even count cattle, a mercy since these WW II planes were not pressurized and later, when Olympic Airlines took us over real mountains in one, it made me quite sick. The essential thing before I make basic errors is to remember which route I took on which trip. What I do not remember I shall omit.
I remember stopping at what may have been a truck stop on the freeway at Reno. I had never been to Reno and did not go into town then. It did have lots of slot machines on the premises, which I had never seen in California, let alone Oregon. I mention this and other dull facts to show how very little I knew the USA. I mean, one knows the Grand Canyon but not the states it passes through, the reputation of Reno for divorces and gambling but not the place as such, New Orleans but only for Mardi Gras in Holiday magazine, the Carolinas but only, in the same magazine, for photos of belles in flounces posing at plantation homes. I remember driving across the Salt Lake desert and hoping, trusting, that nothing would go wrong, such as a flat tire. I remember very heavy wind and seeing a tornado on the horizon in Nebraska, which was (and remains) all I wanted to know of them, since the opening of The Wizard of Oz was indelibly in my memory. I can't remember live footage of a tornado in any March of Time or Movietone News, but, of course, my movie attendance had been rationed and I still had never owned a television set. On the other hand, the first time the skirt of a serious hurricane affected my part of Louisiana, until I actually experienced it, hurricanes too were something in Life magazine photos, silent and still. And dry! And no one had mentioned six days without fans or AC or lights in the heat of late August, even when you were about 70 miles up the Mississippi.
As I drove east on I-80 I began to remember where I'd first heard of the places I was driving through, in popular songs or in movies or in fiction. In Wyoming I thought of "My Friend Flicka" and its sequels, and saw that the light was different from what I'd imagined. Not imagined, exactly. But Hollywood films don't bother to go all the way to Wyoming for filming; one of the reasons for the industry's taking root in California, after all, is that it possesses reasonable facsimiles of so many landscapes. I saw an exit for a town called Green River for fuel and a late lunch. I remembered where I was going and why and stopped to go into a church, RC, in Green River. I understood the piety of votive candles but had never ventured to engage in it. For a child raised Presbyterian, they were in the category of holy water and genuflection, and maybe more so. But no one would know if I said a prayer and bought a candle in Green River, Wyoming. I only prayed that I might travel safely and left to deity whether it was right to leave a prayer behind me as I drove on. That night I stopped at a motel on the outskirts of Laramie. I chose motels for economy, and that one was typcial. Clean and safe. Period. But the next morning I drove through town, and, I must say, Laramie in 1973 looked as perfectly a western town as one could have imagined.
This was not a museum trip, or even an urban trip. That came later. A couple of decades ago I'd have been embarrassed to admit to the free associations that I made with only my own fancies as company as I made my way to New York City. By now I was following I-70, but I didn't go into Indianapolis. I stopped at an old motel, one with separate cabins, at a small town and thought of the only idea of Indiana I ever had had, from my grandfather's pleasure in the verse of James Whitcomb Riley and from some old movie in which someone sang "On the banks of the Wabash". It was not only that US geography had been taught no further than memorizing the names of all the state capitols; it was a state of mind induced by the idea of renouncing everything I'd identified with. I could not think of Greece, for example, without complex anguish, so I wasn't thinking of Athens or Berkeley or even Eugene. But this was no being stripped bare, only being reduced not to childishness, exactly, but to things simple enough for a child to deal with, perhaps. Here and now is the first time I've stopped to consider the fortnight I took between saying goodbye to my 87-year-old grandfather, beyond words or tears, because he cried, which I'd never seen before. In fact, in mundane terms, I really had burned all my bridges; I no longer had a way to support myself or savings sufficient to live for six months. I thought I had a vocation to religion, but it was entangled with nihilistic stuff, too.
I stopped for a night also in Zanesville, Ohio, which looked exactly as I had imagined. A town of dark red brick. It has remained my key idea of the midwest of America, though I might have chosen a more eminent city in Ohio. But I stopped there because, when I was in art school, the teacher of the course in creative writing that helped to keep the College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland fully accredited, and for Veterans, too, not only had introduced us to Dreigroschenoper but to Sherwood Anderson. I must admit that today I regard Sherwood Anderson with the greatest disapprobation one can have for an author, and that not for his politics but as a writer. Even then, I hadn't read him since the early 1950s but I wanted to get an idea of, literally, where he came from. Better I had taken the southern route through New Mexico and recalled To a God Unknown by Willa Cather! I stopped in Maryland at Frederick, for no other reason (though it was near sunset) than to stay where John Greenleaf Whittier had celebrated Barbara Frietchie: "Shoot if you must this old gray head, ...". In one of my last years in grade school, I had memorized it for recital in class. It is doggerel, which is always hard to forget. But, one more thing I didn't know about America at that time, I was on the wrong side of the tracks, racially. The African-Americans who ran the motel had no objection to my staying, but when I located an Episcopal church for Sunday service the next morning before leaving town and finding my Berkeley friend, M., by then in Fairfax County, the people at the church were visibly appalled by where I'd stayed.
I think it was while I stayed, for several days, I think, with M. and her family that on the occasion of a birthday party she sat the children around the dining room table, provided them with beans and embroidery floss and squares of felt and had them all, girls and boys together, making decorated beanbags to take home as favors, having first played a tossing game with them. It was on that occasion that I learned how to use chain stitch to fill in embroidered outline, a small skill that I put to use in the convent, when the annual bazaar was approaching and during Recreation we were doing every sort of salable handwork that we knew.
And so in a few days I drove into the parking area at the convent school. I am not sure whether my friends from Eugene, Sam and Betsy, were already at George School; if they were, I certainly stopped to see them, too. It is at Newtown, Pennsylvania. But I saw them once, too, at Leesburg, Virginia, where Betsy's family had lived, and it might have been in 1973 that I visited there. It is appalling that I recall so badly particulars concerning some of the finest and dearest persons I have known.
Indeed, having to write this post truthfully is the most difficult effort I have made so far in this blog.