arkansas//kansas nov 03
this account of my roadtrip to arkansas/kansas
originally appeared in installments in my blog. I've
put the entries in chronological order here and changed
the dates to reflect when the events actually
counterfactual: arkansas//kansas, part 1
just before I got to edgerton a portable highway sign flashed the message "2 hr cons. delay" ... "alt rte Hwy 51 S". the exit came up quickly, but was clearly marked with a route 90 detour sign. the traffic ahead of me slowed, but continued on right past the exit. the truck directly in front of me put on its blinker and exited. I put on my blinker and exited. at the bottom of the ramp, the truck turned right, heading away from edgerton and hwy 51. I sat for a few seconds at the stop sign getting my bearings before I turned left, following the detour signs. no other cars left the highway.
I stopped for gas in edgerton, and I asked the woman who was refilling the windshield washing stations if there really was a 2 hour delay on route 90. yes, she answered, there really is a 2 hour delay. and all those cars that didn't take the detour? they'll be sorry, she said, you want to take 51 S all the way into beloit.
I prefer driving on backroads anyway, and the fall fields were glowing and golden in the thin, slanting afternoon light. I stayed on 51 all the way to the illinois border, even though the detour signs pointed back to the highway in janesville. (making the turn would have required a quick lane change, and I thought 51 might take me past one of the 7 wonders of the midwestern word --- the janesville farm & fleet.)
as the afternoon faded to twilight and my brain fell into the rhythm of the road I became obsessed with the road not taken, with what happened to the people in those other cars headed south on 90, and what would have happened to me if I had just stayed the course. I had taken the road less travelled by, but had it made a difference? and why was my road the road less taken anyway? did I miss the next message on the flashing sign, the one that said "ha-ha. just kidding"?
51 runs parallel to 90, but there's a series of lights in janesville and then a few more in beloit. I figured the alternate route took 15-30 minutes more than the highway would have with no traffic delays. so really, even I was risk neutral (and I'm not) there only needed to be a 12.5 - 25% chance that the 2 hour delay would occur for the detour to make sense.
I'm not sure I could quantify my level of risk aversion in this case, but I know it arose from the fact that any delay I experienced on the highway would be accompanied by the psychological distress of knowing that I could have taken a detour but didn't, of knowing that I had given in to some twisted automotive version of peer pressure and joined a horde of internal combustion powered lemmings that was flinging itself past the clearly marked detour sign into a two hour long traffic jam.
or maybe all those cars just drove straight on into rockford, thinking, I wonder what that sign was going on about? there's no delay at all.
infinite repeat: arkansas//kansas, part 2
the sisters of mercy 'vision thing' was still looping around in the cassette deck when I left route 90. I was headed straight south on 39, an asphalt line bisecting the planar universe of illinois; even in the dark you can sense the flatness extending to the horizon on either side of the highway.
when I drive around town I keep one cd or tape in the car, set on infinite repeat. it picks up where I left off when I start the car, as if every errand I run is part of the same endless trip (*). but on truly endless car trips like this one I bring stacks of cds, and tapes, and lectures, and audio books, along with a few dozen novels I might want to read while stopped at rest areas. with miles of white line in front of me, I swapped in the first cassette of 'the princess diaries.'
'the princess diaries' is about a high school freshman who discovers that she is actually the princess of genovia and heir to the throne of a small european principality. this incredibly hackneyed plot is narrated in breathless over-inflected teenspeak: "OH...MY...GOD...you will NOT believe THIS...HE actually SPOKE to ME!!!!" by the same actress that stars in the wildly successful disney movie with the same name, and presumably, the same hackneyed plot.
okay, so neither the premise nor the presentation pose any threat of great art, but there were a few interesting bits: the would be princess of genovia's best friend makes repeated disparaging remarks about disney and disneyfication, and her imposing grandmere's 'princess lessons' include the key points of marxist theory. and it did keep me driving through the night, right through to to the predictable "the popular boy of her dreams turns out to be an insensitive lout while the sensitive boy who's been lurking by her side through the whole story turns out to be the boy of her dreams" ending. (oops, I just ruined it for everyone who hasn't read the book or seen the movie yet.)
I stopped for gas at a truck stop just outside of east saint louis about 11:30 PM. the fast food counters had already shut down for the night but the restaurant and convenience store were open 24 hours. there were three or four people who worked at the truckstop in the store, and a guy who was missing one of his canine teeth and seemed to know everyone there, and a few truck drivers passing through, talking on cell phones.
and they were all obese.
not fat, obese.
everyone except me, the man working behind the counter, and a man who walked in later with his 10 year old son. deep in my gut it seemed like there was something very wrong with the world, the lights were too bright, the sounds too loud, and the people too large --- all my usual reference points had warped into something unrecognizable. I felt disoriented, almost disturbed.
I know it was a small sample of people, maybe a dozen in all, but under the fierce glare of the fluorescent lights it seemed that they were all victims of some huge metabolic catastrophe and my mere presence qualified as a form of morbid rubber-necking. I quickly picked up a bottle of water and headed for the register. the man with the missing canine tooth joked with the people near the register, pointing out the non-regulation uniform of a young black man working there and detailing the specials being served in the restaurant that night. if this was a catastrophe, I was the only one aware of it --- I had pulled over at a truckstop on another planet, planet large. it's populated by a humanoid species similar to our own, but super-sized. the darkness and clean white lines of the road seemed safe and welcoming in comparison. I escaped from the convenience store, from the light spilling out of the glass front of the truckstop, and got back in my car.
I'm writing this (the scrawled notebook version) in john's countryside cafe in st. james, missouri. when I opened the door to the cafe a sudden wave of light and warmth, the sound of people talking, eating, living, washed over me, and I felt alone, disconnected from existence. I feel conspicuous now, writing at the counter with a weak acidic cup of diner coffee and my check waiting, my french toast long since consumed. the st. james police force, three officers, a man and two women wearing blue polyester uniforms a size too small, finish their coffee and get up to leave. the waitresses shuttle food and dirty dishes back and forth from the kitchen. it's time to go.
. . .
I had driven about 3 miles west on 44 when it occurred to me that I was getting sick. I could feel the weight of congestion and inflammation low in my right sinus, and it was creeping out to make my throat sore on the right hand side as well. I wanted to climb back into bed and take a nap. I decided to settle for a trip to the drugstore, a cup of tea and some quality time with my notebook in rolla, missouri, the next town along the way. bill & I had stopped in rolla on our way back from fayetteville a few summers ago. because it has a branch of the university of missouri we hoped it would have the usual positive externalities of academia: bookstores and coffeeshops. after driving through miles of uber-ugly strip malls we found the remnants of downtown rolla, which featured one attempt at a coffeeshop/ice cream store. it was closed at the time.
after stopping to get lozenges at kroger's, I drove through miles of strip malls looking for the remaining two blocks of downtown, which in my recall, were parallel to the main road somewhere off to the left after the university. instead I found the edge of town and the on ramp to 44 west, which propelled me back onto the highway two exits east of where I had exited. I was sure that rolla must be the ugliest little town in missouri, but I hadn't been to neosho yet.
I put hunter s. thompson's 'fear and loathing in las vegas' into the player: a one cd long radio play with hectic sound effects and a chorus of two voices screaming about bats and carnivorous reptiles. any lingering aftertaste of the saccharine sweet 'princess diaries' was replaced with the metallic edge of drug abuse. (and the menthol bite of cough drops.) next up was 'refuge,' a cd of buddhist chanting set to music by gabrielle roth and boris grebenshikov (**). the lingering aftertaste of 'fear and loathing' was replaced by the slowly repeating mantras of chenrezig, guru padmasambhava and tara.
I needed gas in neosho and I thought I would try again for a cup of tea and notebook time. the first gas was an outpost of the new walmart supercenter -- which meant that the bathrooms were located somewhere across a vast expanse of featureless asphalt and inside the looming facade of walmart. not a chance. I circumnavigated the depressed and depressing commercial streets of neosho in search of a hospitable stopping place, but ended up just getting gas, using the bathhroom, and heading back past the walmart supercenter onto the highway. neosho must be the ugliest small town in missouri.
at least that's what I think now, until the next time I drive through missouri and have to stop somewhere else.
(*) in the 3 years I have owned my current car, a black subaru impreza named hermione, I have had only 3 different cds/tapes in permanent residence in the player: 'american beauty' by the grateful dead; 'release vol 1' by the afro-celt sound system; and now 'vision thing' by the sisters of mercy. back to text
(**) 'refuge' has been on near infinite repeat on my laptop for about 2 years, and heads up my "most played" list on iTunes, and is followed these days by trance tara (more chanting), wilco, billy bragg, and gillian welch. btw boris grebenshikov, who sings on 'refuge,' is russia's number 1 celebrity buddhist, but he cheats at checkers. back to text
chez pam: arkansas//kansas, part 3
the top ten things about visiting chez pam.
boring: arkansas//kansas, part 4
what can I say about the drive from fayetteville to lawrence?
I drove north. having learned my lesson in rolla and neosho, I did not attempt to stop in any small towns along the way. I drove right through carthage, past the turnoff for the precious moments inspiration park, even though they've added a new princess diana exhibit (one of the world's largest private Princess Diana collections! now at the Precious Moment's Inspiration Park! on display through December 2004!) since bill & I went last april. I wouldn't have been able to resist if the fountain of angels show had been going on, but it's closed for the season.
I tried to listen to another young adult novel on tape: "love me, love my broccoli" is about an idealistic animal rights junior high outcast who ends up going out with the cutest football player at school ... I guess I hadn't fully recovered from "the princess diaries" because even though I really really like broccoli I turned it off after 4 minutes. (fortunately, the sisters of mercy 'vision thing' tape was close at hand.) vegetarian/animal rights activist has become the default cliche for 'other,' at least for girls, in young adult fiction, the same way that dropping things is the default cliche for 'loser' in movies.
I merged onto a different highway and drove west. a twilight mist lay on the fields and a pale pink winter sunset washed across the sky. then it got dark. I arrived in lawrence.
poodles are cool: arkansas//kansas, part 4
donna and rodger have two really cool poodles. the poodles are called geordi and dylan, but their real names are Greenwyn Geordi LaForge and Greenwyn Bard of Wales. when I was in kansas donna and I went for a walk with geordi and dylan everyday. they like to go for walks and are very well behaved. in fact, dylan is way better at following poodle commands than I am at giving them. rodger couldn't go for any walks with the poodles because he was in seattle. when donna went off to be an economist I got to stay home and play with the poodles and my computer.
poodles don't shed because they have hair, not fur. their legs look like they are made out of pipe cleaners, especially right after they have been brushed. they need to get brushed a lot or they turn into rasta-poodles. dylan and geordi also go to the poodle salon once a month.
poodles are bigger than you think. geordi and dylan are standard poodles. they run really fast and like to chase rabbits in the yard. but they still make good lapdogs. here is a picture of geordi and dylan sitting in donna's lap. they look extra big in the picture because donna is smaller than you think.
last christmas geordi and dylan came to visit me in wisconsin. donna and rodger came too. I took this picture. the picture used to show all of the messy stuff in my room but now it doesn't because I used a computer program called photoshop to make the stuff go away. I wish I had a computer program that would make all my messy stuff go away in real life, not just in pictures.
and I wish I had a poodle. because poodles are cool.
gray skies: arkansas//kansas, part 5
bill was sick just before I left for my roadtrip, and on tuesday it seemed like I was about to get sick as well. I was exhausted and distracted, and my body felt weird and remote, my face slightly numb as if I had too much to drink and was just about to really start feeling it. I didn't go to yoga or improv; I stayed home in bed, staring into the blank space of my mind.
the cloudy dark distracted state of my brain bothers me even more than the physical symptoms of being sick. the lack of focus makes me feel like some key part of myself is absent, inaccessible. I'd be resentful, but that takes too much energy; all I'm left with is a bored peevishness to keep me company. (resentful kicks in later, when I'm starting to feel better.)
I felt better on wednesday, and I was able to finish everything in time to leave on thursday afternoon. unfortunately, my immune system started to melt down again in the car. by the time I got to pam's house I was fighting off a small infection in my right sinus, not the same disease that bill and jamie and some of my other housemates did battle with, but my old familiar winter-in-wisconsin post-nasal-drip sore-throat sinus fun-fest.
sudafed & mentholated cough drops are my choice of drugs in the day, zyrtec (a prescription antithistamine) at night; speedy counteracts sleepy in the morning and vice versa when I go to bed at night, but the net effect is always an energy drain. I mucked along, glad to see my friends, but not really getting up to speed.
each leg of my trip proceeded under low hanging gray skies, the dull light blanching color, shadow, direction, and time from my perception, the road and the sky converging into a featureless metaphor for my mental state. by the time I left lawrence for the final installment I felt like my consciousness was submerged in a sea of white noise. I had trouble making it from one end of a sentence to another and all my facts on file seemed misfiled, or simply nonexistent. the chattering information monkeys that normally scramble and swing through the dense undergrowth of my mind were strangely silent. it was kind of lonely.
I took the non-pythagorean route back to madison, heading straight east across missouri on 70, then north on 55, 51 and 39 back towards wisconsin. (road trips are not about efficiency.) I listened to another book on tape, and then music, as I drove. the muted sepia tones of the oak leaves and fallow fields along the highway were comfort food for my weary brain, for me, nostalgia always wears the faded colors of autumn.
but the gray sky continued to bear down on me. by the time I reached the flat lands of illinois, after having sat in construction traffic all around st. louis, I felt like I was sinking into a pit as vast and featureless as the sky.
I pulled over to get gas and call bill. I tried to explain what was going on, but instead of information all I managed to send across the phone lines was little packets of inchoate misery. bill absorbed it all and did his best to send back some positive energy, with a gentle reminder that I'd almost surely feel different later, maybe tomorrow, and his trademark humor: feeling bad about not being able to remember things? why don't you think of all the things that you can't remember as you drive?
bloomington is centrally located in the middle of illinois, which puts it solidly in the middle of nowhere. it is however, on the way from madison to fayetteville, offering me the opportunity to meet two of my instant friends, scott reynen and jessica montgomerie, in person. like fayetteville, bloomington has tree-lined streets with beautiful old houses hidden just blocks away from the floodlit strip mall nightmare of anywhere, usa. unfortunately, it was about 2 hours later than planned and long past dark when I got there, due to the construction around st. louis and my lackadaisical driving style. (I'm one of those annoying people who sets the cruise control exactly 2 miles above the speed limit and just leaves it on. at least I drive in the right hand lane.)
scott and jessica live in one of those great old houses that's been carved up into apartments, leaving winding corridors of rooms that are taller than they're wide. they were really gracious at my late arrival, and fed me the only real food I ate all day. I think I managed to do a passable imitation of a functioning human being, obscuring the more obvious similarities between my mental state and a bowl of pudding. because I had to eat and run, I wasn't able to bombard scott with the arsenal of technical questions I've amassed since I finished reading "the complete idiot's guide to creating an (html 4) webpage."
I felt better after real food and real people, and the darkness seemed much smaller and safer than the gray sky it replaced. I started thinking about california, about my officemate-in-crime steve, meandering through the underbrush of memory, until I came to a place where the foliage withered into a vacant dusty lot.
steve's friend dan, not dan curley, the other dan, with the long brown hair and the pheromone cologne, who lives on that ranch with his wife lauren, who used to be a dialysis nurse, who steve used to talk about all the time --- what the hell is his last name? steve used to call him by his last name most of the time, how could I not remember his last name? maybe it'll come to me, if I just don't think about it, I'll probably wake in the middle of the night and go, oh! that's it! except that I'm still waiting for all that other stuff I've forgotten this week to come back to me, like the name of that guy who got tenure at vanderbilt and the trail that mal and I hiked down at the grand canyon this spring and my latest cholesterol count. dang, what is it with my brain? I'll bet I can figure it out. what letter does his last name start with? a, no, b, no, c, no ... xyz, no, mmmm, m, maybe it was m. yeah, I can almost hear steve's voice saying the name, it begins with m. malarkey? no, that's dan's behavior, not his name. mahoney? no, dan mahoney works with my father. mcmahon? that's my housemate jason's last name. m, m, m and then what a? e? i? o? u? probably not y. m-a and then what? b, no, not b, maybe c? ...
I pulled into a truck stop and called steve.
you mean dan cisco...how long have you been driving?...no, cisco does not start with m...no, you're not going crazy, you're just getting senile, that's all... I hadn't spoken to steve since I left california at the end of the summer, but it felt like we just picked up where we left off. the best thing about old friends is that they're glad to hear your voice when you call on friday night from a truckstop in illinois, even if it's just to let them know you're going senile.
I ate the last twizzler in the dark heading north on route 51. I bought a whole bag of twizzlers at the gas station in edgerton, on my first stop after leaving madison. I meant to get a regular candy bar sized packet, really I did, but the extra large bags were on sale for $1.04 right in front of the register. buying the extra large bag meant that somewhere along the miles of asphalt, between the truck stops and gas stations and non-existent coffeeshops and books on tape and infinite replay cds and oldies radio stations, I consumed a pound and a half of sugar, glue, and artifical coloring all by myself.
I think I'm done with twizzlers for now. and with driving too.