Friday, February 18, 2011

Lost in Middle America, Day Two

Lately, I have felt that my life was turning into an endless series of dead ends. Each day I would get up - listen to my son argue about going to school on time; go to work - listen to everyone complain about this or that, it really didn't matter what the argument was about, it was just to complain; then go work out - only to find that my old injury, a bad hip caused by years of running, was not getting any better - I tell anyone now that my leg hurts so bad, that if I was a horse they would shoot me. So it is no surprise that I am beginning to feel and sound like a cranky old man even to myself.

This feeling of a death spiral into a miasma of sameness is a big part of why I took this car trip to Asheville, North Carolina. Sure, there is an Arts and Crafts fair at the end of the trip, located at the Grove Park Inn that provides the raison d'etre for leaving Wichita. But surely there is more to it than mica lamps, copper house numbers, and pottery. There is universal need to get away, to recharge the batteries, to reflect a little, and look at life through a different set of eyes.

Traveling by car provides that means of self-examination. A lot of writers have done it. Famously, in Travels with Charley: In Search of America,  John Steinbeck, with death literally knocking on his door, traveled with his dog Charlie in a motor home looking one last time for America and not liking what he found.

Then there was that great series of reports by Charles Kuralt whose On the Road segments for CBS News Sunday Morning show always struck a heartwarming chord. Kuralt hit the road in a motor home for 15 years before parking pen and home for the last time. Sadly neither Steinbeck nor Kuralt are with us any more, and so it is hard to know where to turn to when one wants to find real stories of real Americans in small towns.

I find that the first thing you discover when you travel is serenity. There sitting in the car with over a thousand miles of road ahead of you, you take a deep breath and count to ten before you exhale. The car wasn't a motor home, but it was a GMC Yukon with a front seat like a barcolounger, and a back that in a pinch was big enough to nap. Seated comfortably in my Yukon, all those petty squabbles pop and disappear like soap bubbles. And the routine of life's boredom is broken - drive where you want, stop when you are tired, get up when you want. This reminds me of Rousseau's famous saying, "Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains." Travelling breaks those chains and frees the traveller from any responsibilities. Of course Rousseau was speaking of class distinctions and social conventions, but the idea is the same.

Of course life is not perfect on the road. If it was everyone would hop in a cars and hit the road. No the reality of life creeps back in as you travel. John Steinbeck observed that the isolation of travel is the greatest burden to bear. Charles Kerault was lucky enough to get paid for travelling and every Sunday, he put all of his thoughts together in a broadcast to an audience that only wished that it could do for a living what Charles did.

The other great rediscovery that one makes travelling is that life is not an endless highway of beauty. Mixed into the scenic mountains, lakes, towns, and forrests are the blemishes that like real life remind one that you have to take the bad with the good.

This is day two of my trip and I am following my presumably inerrant Garmin dirrection finder. I plugged in the destination Grove Park Inn in Asheville, and off I go across eastern Missouri. The trip across Missouri is roughly 6 hours in a straight line using I-70, but driving the southern route on Missouri Highway 60 is a different story. Muntains and stop lights, twists and turns make for a much longer trip. I keep looking at my Garmin and wonder if all the twists and turns can possibly be right. We have to trust the big computer in the sky don't we? After all didn't Watson the computer just beat Ken Jennings and that othe guy who doesn't like to talk much on Jeopardy. I have alsways loved the comfort of having a map in hand and I still stop at each Welcome Center to get a new state map. But is Garmin a sign that Welcome Centers are a thing of the past. Google and iphones after all, like Watson, possess more information than all of the humans manning the collective Welcome Centers of all 50 states.

The Mississippi River beckons me and Garmin points me on, directing me to follow Route 60. Strangely though, at Charleston Missouri, I find that I am down to a two lane road. Off in the distance though I see the tall iron towers of the bridge that spans the Mississippi, and so I drive on, trusting Garmin, and ignoring all the signs that disaster looms.  These signs include one small reference to a detour that I didn't fully read speeding by at 75 miles an hour. Only after I recognize my error do I recall that the houses on this last few miles to the bridge have all become dilapidated, the gas stations all shuttered and closed, the road less travelled and less cared for. No, we are all blinded by our pursuit of success. We single mindedly drive on and ignore all the warnings that, only later, were so apparent.

Image from Wikipedia.

I will bring this story to a quick end. The bridge on Route 60 crossing the Mississippi from Missouri to Cairo, Illinois was closed and shuttered. Garmin the computer in the sky is not infallible after all. Funny, I was travelling to get away from all those dead ends at home and still I find one. The moral, I guess, is that you deal with life as it comes at you. You can't escape life by traveling, you just see it from a different perspective. If I had Garmin to yell at, or a highway worker to complain to I would about the misdirection or lack of signs. No, the only person I have to complain to is myself. And that gets one nowhere, like the place I am at.

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