She was last in my memory and the state I have the least new thoughts about. Warm, sunny, gold colored, optimistic, chock full of beautiful women, just chock full of beauty, responsible for much of the good thought that will keep the country from killing itself, a bit hilly for my taste, too brief. If I could live anywhere along my route, it would be there. I did leave a bit of my heart there along with my electrolyte pills, rice, wrench, two t-shirts, and a pair of worn socks.
It has been brought to my attention that I was unduly harsh to Nevada. At the time, I was suffering from mechanical failure and long days and this might have pickled me some. Now that I have collected my emotion in the tranquility of my kitchen, I must concede that Nevada is probably pleasant by car, and even more so by airplane.
The state seems like an accidental libertarian utopia and, as such, perhaps the clearest living example of the failures of strict Republicanism. Because libertarianism is so stubbornly indefensible and effectively doubles the amount of people you can dislike, I can see how being a card-carryer is a wonderful thing for a comedian, an old man, or the particularly-set-in-their-ways. Those who are still growing — children, teens, the living and curious of all ages — require a little more from their communities and government and are not so naive to think that this is free. Schools are needed. Parks and places to socialize that are not gas stations or casinos floors are needed. Even churches are needed and that’s rare in this country.
There are some common stereotypes about Nevada that I wish to correct. Some think it is a dry place for easy marriage, easier divorce, legalized brothels, gambling, and mining. I wish to add that it is big and uneven. I do not believe Nevada is a case of the egg pulling the chicken, but it is possible to see how the gambling, mining, easy marriage, easy divorce, and sex industries might want to foster the kind of hopelessness that leads pruned men and women to pay for It out of their thin wallets. I happen to think that’s the wrong conclusion. This isn’t a conspiracy. The largest employers in that state just aren’t required to think about their employees outside of their oxygen saturated workplaces, and why would they be?
The change I hope for would require a tax hike — which we all hate — but let’s consider expensive New York for a moment. People pay a premium to live in The City for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is they stand to make a premium. We pay through our noses with the cost of everything and with the hours we spend at work. We give our money and time to landlords, restauranteurs, cinema chains, Trader Joes, the MTA, nightclubs, car services, and tremendously pretentious baristas on a recurring basis. We also give our government a bit, but they give it back slowly and in the nicest way, with trees, parks, bike lanes, free concerts, swimming pools, sponsoring artists, raising the level of education, keeping us safe, and approving fun things like marathons, waterfalls in our rivers, closing streets for bikes, ice skating rinks. We don’t get to keep too much of these things, but I think keeping is overrated when sharing is what we stand to gain.
In my dream Nevada, the government wouldn’t need to take anywhere near as much as Gracie and Albany. Heck, a 0.1% personal income tax or corporate income tax would be an incalculable raise of the current rate. Just plop a couple of trees in the ground, add a community center or two, a new school to combat overcrowding and we’re off. Keep everything that makes Nevada Nevada — I’m all about choice — but add something too. Perhaps, in time, some good thought will arise and what happens in Vegas will spread elsewhere.
Well what of poetry and the lonely desert. The idea of tracing a sparse and lonely line across the state and the broad thoughts that would crop up when freed of all distraction was terribly appealing to me. Consider this a recantation. Firstly, thinking about thinking and how you could think better in different (worse!) circumstances is a waste of thought. You couldda thunk your next meal in that time. Secondly, and much more to the point, this idea and its romance will only keep you going for five miles. I survived the rest of the State because I had come so far and it was in my way. My mind was all warm anger. I did not come up with anything too profound. If anything, the tinny rattling of my bike, the blow out, the mid-level loneliness, and the repetitive scenery left me at my least charitable and pleasant. The broad spaces made me narrow-minded.
But here’s a gambler’s hope. You can grow things in the desert. Salt Lake CIty is a great testament to that. Say what you will about Mormon faith and history, anything that can bloom without water is durable in the least. The Mormons seem so fulfilled and happy I would be inclined to believe that frowning was a mortal sin in their Book. Nevada can bloom too. Pete and Barbara were stunning examples of transplants intent on building community and leading by example. They were frustrated (and they were expert travelers) but I know they were too good to leave it unchanged and move on.
I remember this: while Pete talked to me, Barbara quietly packed away his mayoral campaign signs. He said he wanted to go to some place that wasn’t so opposed to change. The timing might be off, but I believe his ideas —liberalism and neighborliness — will survive because there is real virtue in them and because Pete looked like he was spry and the old cowboy man can only block the doorway for so long.
I believe Brigham Young was a very polite man. You'd have to be to survive a hundred wives. He also cared about his own. If you and your friends were being chased by thousands of wives, and billions of children across a salt desert, it would be good form to lie and move the Pacific Ocean a little closer.
Utah is probably not the most hospitable site to bed down in, especially in the summer, but I found it the most beautiful and surprising state. The bicycle does not move fast enough to beat the standardizations that a mindless Farm Bill and the appeal of franchising can bring upon a landscape; in Utah, however, canyons can shift in color and shape at a great rate. One minute your world is red and sharply vertical, the next it is wide and medium grey. It’s lovely.
Everyone is curious about the Mormon church, and I’ll include myself. I made my thoughts relatively clear on Day 40, but I have seen things and read two documents that have added nuance to them. The morning after my writing, I stumbled across a particularly orthodox string of Mormons in a WallMart. They were buying milk as if stocking up for the Flood with a sick cow. As with all orthodoxies that have proclaimed the arrival of a new messiah and/or The End only to be disappointingly left alive, they marked this sadness by refusing to update their wardrobe. Fine. Western wear in the forties is much more comfortable than the gabardines popular in Ukraine in the 18th century. What bothers me is they have refused to update their ideas on race, women, the purpose of a child (answer: none), and, occasionally, how many mommies make up a family. Polygamy is actually not that interesting and, I think, a punishment in and of itself. The twelve-year-old bride to be, however, is a reprehensible idea and the freedom of the child is certainly greater than that of religion, tangible (too tangible) that she is.
Now, condemning Mormonism based on a few outliers is something for the stupid and bigoted. The main strain is somewhat modern, quick to ‘revelations’ correcting its worst ideas, and not too different from other forms of Christianity in practice (dogma is different, but dogma shouldn’t be interesting because the average person isn’t interested in it). I’m inclined to agree with Mark Twain that the elders were unreasonable, anti-American (how could they be pro?), and fully responsible for the Mountain Meadows Massacre, which nobody remembers in any case. I am also inclined to agree with myself that the Mormons I met were really, really nice people who were lucky enough to find a purpose in life and slighlty-annoyingly eager to share it. And I am inclined to agree with both Twain and myself that, upon reading, the Book of Mormon is unreadable and, surviving that, the least believable religious text I have ever read. So what.
How does one judge a religion and should one judge a religion? (I worry that I will repeat myself here). I don’t believe in faith for faith’s sake or, better put, faith in faith. I do think it says something about a person that he or she could believe something unbelievable, but I find it all unbelievable. For me, it only varies in degrees.
And yet, for me, I am completely uninterested in my lack of belief when thinking about religion at large. That I am on the outside does not make me hostile to it — curious actually. I am most interested in what belief gives to others, or what I cannot see. In the one example of the LDS, I saw people getting together in the middle of the week and chatting about how best to meet targets on how many people they’ve saved. I think there’s something a bit unromantic there, but I can think of a thousand lesser things for a person to do in his limited time and I’ve done them all.
I like almost everything about religion, especially the food and the singing. About the only thing I didn’t like on the trip was biblical literalism; I hate, hate biblical literalism and I urge you to avoid it. The Mormons are blessed here because their book is so ridiculous I think they throw away the bad parts and keep the new. I think. I remember a man in Utah trying to impress me by reciting a verse from the Book of Mormon and unknowingly butchering it to make Joseph Smith’s words read better. Now, the Baptists and evangelicals I met — any church that chose to mark itself with that flag of hellfire and a cross — really took things too literally. The teenager who had just converted to Islam (and was still excited by belief) really, really took things too literally. People who read the Bible and believe in its every word are either going to be disappointed with its contradictions or, more likely, they are going to pick and choose which parts to take more truthfully — or have someone pick for them.
Being thoughtlessly religious does scare me because, even in the Protestant tradition, the blind believer will be led around by those who want to lead, and those who want to lead are often unpleasant. How do you get someone’s attention? Can you scare someone into listening? How do you drive traffic? How do you keep yourself between God and the believer? Can you simplify America into primary colors, coasts, quick thoughts on complex issues (abortion, marriage)? How do you keep power? The answers aren’t great here.
Do be concerned about these things because even the lovely, kind, and generous preachers I met — and every one was lovely, kind, and generous — were quick to bring Jesus to their defense when talking about social change. You can’t argue around Jesus. He’s omnipotent and it’s really rude. Heaven and earth are best kept separate unless each cheapens the other.
Phil was a nice man who often asserted his atheism because it set him apart from people (not so bad in parts of the country, but I might note that spandex also does the trick). It also made him seem pretty smart. He did this with me and he did this at the church he stayed at the day before we met. An imagined dialogue:
“You’ve got a lovely house. I like what you’ve done with your refrigerator. I should mention that I’m a vegetarian and an atheist, so I’ll have none of your meat and none of your God. Actually — could you pass the ranch dressing, cool cucumber — I’m probably the first atheist you’ve ever met, we’re a tremendously new sort of educated type, and I’d love to convince you how shambolic your life is and how vile the mechanism which put food on my plate here really is, but that’s going to have to wait as I’m shitting on your carpet now.”
I didn’t see too much comfort in his absolute belief in non-belief. I guess it all depends on where you think the burden of proof lies. Ok. A lot of religious people refuse to see the other side of things and so I guess Phil and they are even. If you really want to be an enlightened man of reason and inquiry, you’d do well not to jump onto something you can only reasonably be 50 percent on. Additionally, and this is just a matter of good argument, I wouldn’t underestimate your opponent’s intelligence as they have just as many books and sources to cite from that you’ll never get to reading.
How about this: you both think about the Hereafter and the invisible (a lot), you’ve come to completely opposite conclusions, but neither of you can say with the kind of surety you’d bet your child on that there is or is not a God. I think the smart man keeps both ideas in his mind but goes with the warmer world. At the very least, he can believe this one thing:
You will never convince someone to change a fundamental belief over a two-course meal.
What a lovely place. The perfect midway point, a true peak, with readily available beauty, healthy food, kindnesses, places to stay, and enough diversity to go from rodeo country to a new kind of American city (Pueblo) to small mountain towns to dry canyons without boring of the spaces between. I remember having drivers slow down to cheer me on, honking to give me the thumbs up, waving me up and up the salmon colored rock of Monarch Pass. It was a good water year and everything was green. I slept in a teepee. I remember being rained and hailed upon, but I have forgotten how cold it was.
It’s probably best to think of this slippery stuff here because Colorado was the only place I was forbidden to fill up in a gas station toilet on account of all the water drying up.
Water was tremendously important to me on the trip. I would do anything for it. If you wish to understand your body better, spend one day outside in an arid basin and you will quickly see just how it cools you and how much water you need to pump into it to keep things working. If you want to remind yourself of the simplest pleasures in life in light of larger crises, stick yourself under a shower-head for a minute. Many times, I felt like crying under a hard earned shower; I might have let slip once. I have tasted water from a variety of rotting (lead? mercury lined?) pipes, drank straight from the surface of a lake, and know where the country’s best water is — Utah, cold spring water from a surprising forest. I paid for water once in the entire trip and I just wanted the bottle. I expect to remember this most as I age because I can’t imagine the age of free water will be a permanent one.
In Ordway, Colorado, we spent a night in all that was left behind by a fire. The plain was at the end of a 10-year drought when some cretin decided to burn his trash away with a liter of gasoline. Not much survived, although, sadly, he did. The area used to be a lot less dry but the fast growing city of Aurora bought the water rights above it and has slowly turned off the tap to feed its swelling suburbs.
The town (motel really) of Baker, Nevada was engaged in a fight with Nevada’s government over its plans to redirect their puny amount of water to Las Vegas. I don’t really know the specifics of their fight, or much about water rights really. Here is my loose understanding: states that share a river decide amongst each other just who can remove x percent of water from it to drink, water crops, run water parks, etc. Within those states, counties and cities agree to smaller contracts for smaller amounts of water. These can be bought and sold. If you sign a contract it is legally binding and you, citizens of y town, are stuck living out its clauses. That’s not as fair as free water for all, but it is the prevailing system this country has been used for a good amount of time. Who is ignored in this system? The animals, the small farmer, the late comers: its greatest shortcoming is that it is geared towards those who are most able to buy water, not those most in need. I am sure there are better places to read about this and that we will all become experts in good time.
What I can speak to is how Americans use water. We water our lawns at noon in the summer so that it’ll turn to gas before it hits the dirt. We can’t pronounce the word xeriscaping. We wash our trucks constantly when people in some cities have to resort to spray on mud to give their SUVs authenticity. We shower olympic. We — fine, I — am completely unaware of the amount of water it takes to grow a hamburger. We pay money for tap water in bottles when we decide groceries are too expensive. We don’t know where it comes from. We don’t know where it goes to when it’s grey and used. We don’t have a great relationship with it.
I do have some questions. Why is Tuscon? Why is Phoenix? Why is Los Angeles? What is the purpose of living in a place incapable of providing the thing we need the most to live? Surely there is a more compelling answer than simply being a hub on a wagon trail that ended up with a low tax rate and some very canny real estate agents.
I loved reporting on Kansas because I didn’t feel I was letting anyone down. It is flat. People are salt of the earth. It was awfully windy. And some combination of these three will probably always be the true of the place. I do remember some rolling hills or moments without wind, and I am willing to listen to someone say there are mean people from the plains (I won’t believe him), but those are tremendous exceptions.
The buildings in Kansas fascinated me. They were made from stone and quite permanent. Like the rings of a tree, the architecture in towns like Larned show you how it aged and what it was fed all those years ago: the well-off general’s stately manor, now an inn; his less well-off friends’ homes, all with space between them; the upstart homes built in the cracks of what were once the lawns of those friends; the rare home built in the Depression, smaller; the house the GI bill provided; the house the veteran bought for his favorite daughter; the trailer she may have moved into; the trailer she may have avoided.
I want to speak to the generosity of the towns. I’ve tried to thank individuals for housing me when possible, but in Kansas I was housed by entire towns. A gazebo might seem inferior to a living room, but a roof is a roof and all that I needed. I was invited to a fourteen year old’s birthday, something of a celebrity at the pool, given food, water, and a Diet Dr. Pepper along the way, and just generally treated as one might be in heaven. I fully understand why Dorothy kept going on and on about not being at home, because even the Emerald City lacks luster next to serious friendliness.
The population was aged in Kansas. I blame Butz. “Get Big or Get Out” actually got a lot of people out. We now have a system where we grow one crop (or face bankruptcy, or having to learn something new) and all the tough labor is done by machine and by a traveling crew. Nixon and Ford’s Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz was a mean piece of work, an utterly myopic racist and complete tit who changed the world’s diet to stave off political defeat. In his dotage, he was found guilty of tax evasion which, when you think about it, is a particularly stupid thing for a politician to be guilty of — after all, he was basically paying himself.
When in the breadbasket, talk about bread.
After people, food was my great joy. Occasionally, I combined the two at meals (does that read like I ate people? best clarify). Nothing could lift my spirits so easily. I needed it like gasoline, but gasoline that went down smooth and comforting.
A Quick List of My Favorite Foods
Fresh strawberries near Napa. My 10lb burrito and champagne in San Francisco. Pastor John’s biscuits and homemade preserves. Everything on the menu at Cooky’s cafe in Golden City, Missouri, especially their blueberry pie. Kitao’s ramen on the train ride home. The doublebaconcheeseburger in Middlegate, Nevada, population 17. In-N-Out’s vanilla milkshake. Buford’s Dairy Bar in Buckhorn, Kentucky. Barbara’s quinoa and cheese stuffed bell pepper in Carson City. BBQ pork and baked pasta at Fat Alley in Telluride. Chocolate milk at any drug store. Chocwalla Odwalla bars and the Double Chocolate Cliff Bar. Strong drip coffee with half-and-half at the small commune and organic farm west of Hanksville, Utah. Sonic’s breakfast burrito with bacon. The nitrate free salami I got from Trader Joes and stretched as long as it would last. The sourdough bagels of Kansas.
Back to Food
If any part of this blog has made you want to travel but you are a very busy bee, condescend to buying yourself a Happy Meal. That's Kansas in your Coke. A little bit of Kentucky in your margarine. A dash of salt from the thumb of Michigan to enhance flavor. And a slim hunk of Colorado right between your patties. The toy is from China. I know McDonalds makes a concerted effort to have everything taste the same, but I promise you can spot things if you squint.
I am not a big Grace sayer at the dinner table. I think I made the mistake of assuming that thanks saying was religious. One needn't thank the baby Jesus; it is enough to be impressed with the wealth of food we have before us, fit for a king just twenty years ago, and to pause and thank a whole variety of invisible forces -- the creator, market economics, the farmer -- before settling down to thank yourself, the demanding consumer, with a nice meal and a glass of cold milk.
Not all the invisible forces are good and not all our food is good. If you asked a European on a bad day to draw a picture of a Yank, he might end up asking for an extra sheet of A4 so fat we loom in the mind of the onlooker. Sadly, he'd be right some of the time.
I saw a lot of fatties. I saw more skinnies. (Skinnies get very little press). In large part (hey!), this is simply an aesthetic issue. It is just as easy to be trim and brimming with evil cholesterol as it is to be larger and healthier. And yet, in larger part, science is against the big.
I don't think this can be explained away with three causes, but that won't stop me from trying.
[NOTE: SKIP THIS SECTION FOR ACTION. HEREIN LIE DEEP THOUGHTS AND ABSTRACTS]
Food and the Country’s Health
1. We don't eat anywhere near enough fresh food. Many people I met do their big grocery shop at gas stations where most of the food is built to withstand a nuclear holocaust. You don't want that in your colon.
Solution: Mine is a two-pronged attack from WallMart and the Co-Op. Both cases require us to relearn how to cook, but that should be a joy (we want the purposeful life, right). They also require us to sacrifice the idea that we can have strawberries in winter, not out of any hippie nonsense about living with nature's cycles, but out of an understanding that the winter strawberry has to be adulterated into living longer and that that hurts us in the pocketbook and heart (mine overlap greatly).
The small co-op should bring the farmer into town and onto the shelf without refining his product, trying to preserve it, or adding any unnecessary cost because the Co-Op is also the consumer and let's not fuck ourselves just yet. WallMart should use their superior size and logistics software to map out just how many almonds they sell a day, give that metrical information back to their sellers, who can respond in turn by forgoing the added debit of preservatives and pesticides for the gained credit of selling their product as organic.
2. We do eat some strange things. Before the trip, were I about to be executed and given free reign on my last meal, I would have chosen the hamburger. There is no more complete food. After a couple of states, the relentless onslaught of Sysco patty, fructose-bread, and 'special sauce' (spoler alert: it's ketchup and mayo) left me feeling pretty awful. I wouldn't settle for a restaurant that only served spinach, say, and yet it was flat and round beef all the way across the country. I once had to order a 'cheeseburger, hold the beef' to get a grilled cheese! It broke a proud man.
I don't quite understand the horrible force that took the largest mixture of people and foods in history and boiled that down into a national cuisine that can honestly be described as the dollar menu with some regional exceptions, but that is what we have done to ourselves.
I remember reading the recipe book at the Lutheran church outside Walnut, Kansas. It was wonderful. It was a diverse mix of Swedish, German, and Norwegian cooking, a hundred pages thick, well used but less so recently. Almost everything called for Crisco or Jell-O, but the bones of good cooking were there and alive. These were meals and they required forks. There were recipes for a hundred people, double all measurements for two. That seems sensible.
3. We have a funny business of food.
Initially I had a lot of ideas about this, but I am in the park and watching a man and woman make out. The man is bald and the woman keeps running her hand over the top of his head as if checking for possible growth (or lice). They'll be here for a while so, agribusiness.
Wow. It really, really looks like he's kissing her nose. Stop!
The American food business is not evil. They aren't willingly poisoning the world. They have no will. They are (sort of) trying to feed the world and (definitely) get paid for it. All they have to do is convince the farmer and the bulk food purchaser that they can do a better job than nature and keep things cheap. To do this, they have to convince themselves that they are helping and here we enter a strange area in scientific testing wherein one can find whatever one wants to if he interprets the data willy-nilly.
There are many different kinds of food business. The farmer -- almost always now a massive affair, not the kind of individual John Mellencamp cries for in his sleep -- has got to make nature predictable. Luckily, he has numerous Farm Bills on his side that basically reduce the kinds of crops he needs to focus on to corn, soy, wheat, and a couple of others.
The farmer will spend a lot of time on his laptop now. There are tickers in small towns with a steady trickle of commodities prices. A farmer will commit to deliver a large amount of distorted corn at a distorted and subsidized price. Lucky him. To have his corn grow predictably, the farmer could resort to buying his seeds from a company like Monsanto (the new big baddy) or, if he is wise enough to read data, he would discover that harvesting his own seeds is more profitable (and often more bountiful) than getting stuck in a subscription model. When corn harvest is upon him, he'll hire a travelling crew of combine harvesters to do the heavy work and keep his overhead low. He plants soy where the corn was and rotates everything annually.
This is all hard work, but it keeps his wife in a new SUV every other year and gets her front row seats at Wicked when she visits New York with her galpals.
Monsanto and other companies like it are in the business of improving upon nature. This is a tough job and they make little friends amongst college students and Europeans. Their most appealing product is a genetically modified seed that grows a plant that can survive all the poisons of their market leading pesticide, RoundUp. They also make a hormone that keeps cows lactating at a fast rate. I didn't meet too many farmers with kind words for them: the dairy farmer knows that the hormone kills the cow and makes mucusy, inferior milk (the FDA would disagree); the soy farmer harvests his own seeds and is concerned that, if the wind takes his neighbor's GM seeds, he'll be found liable of copyright infringement.
(God must be cringing here at the lost opportunity. "Think of the revenue lost," He says, "what I could have done to heaven -- a plasma here, a second garage...")
Obviously, the people I met are in the minority. Monsanto is doing very well. All the more reason for people to dislike them (I wouldn’t go that far; I just think they’re crass). They have caused numerous public health crises and aren't terribly contrite. Think about how unsatisfactory "I was just doing my job" sounds to the mother of an entire family of cancer patients. Settlement money is meaningless. Companies can be rebranded or change their focus, fine, but we should not forget how unaccountable they believe they are.
Well, two things to mention before we get too angry. One is that we need to remember that the US makes food for the whole world and that the starving aren’t too fussy about how organic their pap is. And two is that, in the good old days before gene-splicing, we modified the genetics of our harvests with selective breeding. If you want to eat a plant that has remained unmolested, I recommend the Amazon.
Niceties out of the way, I’ll harp on the seed manufacturer because I believe they are the weak link what could be a devastating chain.
A Tangent: The Coming Cropocalypse and the Plot for the Next Twelve Tom Clancy Novels
The United States is the Saudi Arabia of food. It is our most essential business. We could lose our financial industry to London, our films to Toronto, our eccentrics to Alaska: the food is in our land.
The Farm Bill severly limits the diversity of crops we can grow for a profit. You could try to grow sugar, but nobody's going to buy it for their sodas if corn syrup is kept cheaper. GMO seed producers further limit the diversity of those crops to one, one individual stalk of corn, made in a lab, sewn into infinity, that we can call Chet. GMO producers aren't entirely to blame. Companies like Archer Daniels Midland do a great job of lobbying Congress with bundled contributions in the hopes of keeping their massive grain refining and processing businesses up. And We, happily, keep buying corn.
Now we have entire states of Chets. People outside the country rely upon Chets because it doesn't make economic sense for them to learn how to grow their own corn and we exert economic pressure on them to remain hungry and ignorant. These are the people go starve when we decide to use corn to power our tanks. We make corn tanks against all economic sense because politicians have to be elected, because farmers are overrepresented in government (important to our national character that they are), and because no politician has stood up to them since the Civil War.
This is what we should be concerned with above all because it affects our security, health, and wallets. What happens when a bug takes to Chet and he dies? What happens when that well-fed bug kills all our Chets with ease because they are all weak in the same spot? What happens when countries that have purchased our Chets come to collect? Then, in my wonderful hypothetical future, regardless of whether you eat Chet or not, you will find the cost of your dinner skyrocket. You might even find the cost of You skyrocket for your employer who can only afford to buy small sheets of pink paper. At that moment, how unsatisfactory would "I was just doing my job" sound?
Nobody’s being wicked here, just short-sighted. Traditional farmers measured the health of their crops and soil in centuries. Modern farmers are measured with each harvest. The hardworking businessman gets his bonus annually. If the poor guy has the choice between pushing an idea that will yield a quick gain at the expense of the unimaginable future or one that will take time to develop, he knows which choice will keep him jet skiing. The politician could be honest about ethanol and the farm bill, but he isn’t measured in total votes and he can’t get anywhere if he doesn’t win the farm states. This last one is a shame, because if our politician stopped to measure the cost of massaging the unhealthily obese, diabetic, hypertense, and artery clogged as a result of the food we eat, he might stand a chance of balancing the budget.
How do we reward ourselves in the country? The recent economic crises is, in part, a direct result of a deal culture that is rewarded with an annual bonus and the expense of the health of the system. The over-stretched farmer is rewarded annually at the expense of the health of his land. The Hungryman is rewarded with burritos at the expense of his belly and health. What are better rewards?
[Ok. Come back now.]
Missouri smells great. It’s all nice red trees. I took a tremendous nap on the day that I crossed the Ozarks. I ended up meeting Connor and having the fun of riding with another person. It was nowhere near as steep as everyone made it out to be. I lumbered across it, the slim gateway between dense green woods and Kansas’ fields of grass. I can’t really remember much.
The whole point of documentary is to stave off forgetting and, I think, to brighten the spots that fade quickly. It's not journalism, nor is it history. It's different and special. It's a machine to remember the daily, the small moments, and the thoughts and emotions that slip through the facts. It keeps life on paper or screen.
I can't pretend I did a great job documenting the trip. There's far too much Me in it for starters. There were not enough stories, odd scraps of paper (I wish I had a scanner), facts, history, photographs to accompany text (why not), cartoons that I had drawn. Consistency was an issue, as was length, but here I would blame America and the odd trickle of stuff She threw at me. Yes, yes, yes I made mistakes, but I think B+ for a kind of improvement.
I think I found more interesting things more interesting. A series of events drove me from thinking about the geology and mileage and into people, modern American, and some of the things mentioned here. I obviously have some opinions about abstracts like religion and food policy, but people, people, people are what kept me interested and going West. It is how I rediscovered the world even when it seemed like corn ad infinitum.
I hope I did a good job of freezing some nice moments. My photos of Telluride all have corresponding sound files of the Bridal Falls as I got closer and closer. I used writing to fill in conversations and emotions, although you probably missed the most electric conversations as I was too busy participating.
Note this moment as there won't be any like it: a bike messenger to the left of me is contemplating leaving New York for Europe. The people running his trust got wise to the fact that he was using it all on drugs. The man he's talking to is Turkish and has a world band radio. We are listening to Turkey now. In front of me are three people singing America The Beautiful as they dance in an Indonesian style. One of them has kept everything in his life green -- green clothes, green bike, green stereo. The three Ukrainian septegenarians next to me are talking. The woman has small feet, a head scarf, a mousy voice. It is 68 degrees in the shade. A holy oak of the Hare Krishnas is 5 feet away. In the distance the sound, always, of construction and sirens. A child floats by on a scooter.
I remember now. I remember the Horse Creek Inn. One owner was a Native American horse whisperer and restauranteur; the other, his wife, was from Philadelphia. They flew Amarosa rolls in and yellow cheese to recreate a Philadelphia cheese steak in Missouri. I loved that. My pasta dish, less so.
I was only in Illinois for two nights. One was spent in a men's room after the storm of my life flooded everything. The other was spent in Chester.
Chester is the home of Popeye. It was also just brimming with nice people. It's on the top of a hill with a lovely view of the Mississippi, modest friendly homes, and a tremendous park and swimming pool. Twain skims over it in Life on the Mississippi and I can't blame him. It's tough to be witty about a place so pleasant.
I hate Popeye. I got excited about him because it seemed like a neat bit of American kitsch, concrete statues and whatnot. No! I’ve got to remember what a destructive force he was on the whole rhythm of Saturday morning cartoons.
Saturday morning cartoons built like symphonies. They’d always start slow with something simple and educational for the very young. These washed over you. Then over the course of the next four and half hours it built in a tottering crescendo up to the Thudercats, then The Hulk, Voltron, then this neat French anime, and then the X-Men. And somewhere, right in the middle of this trance-inducing build, Popeye and his tawdry little show cropped up, destroying any rhythm and really testing the patience of a child who’d already spent too much time indoors.
Still, Chester was lovely.
A timezone splits Kentucky apart. A lot splits Kentucky apart. Everything west of Berea is rolling, broad-skied, light green and friendly; everything east is coal, thick green, humid grease, smoky, and so jungly you can’t see the sky. I liked both versions, although biking in the west was much easier.
The Hindman Historical Society was lovely. It was my first bit of comfort since leaving New York (actually, leaving was kinda stressful). People should always greet you with a beverage. It’s great manners.
I also really enjoyed talking with David. He’d gone to great lengths to trace his roots backwards to the beginning of time as he saw it, on the Mayflower (best keep mum on the Arabella). Imagining how his roots would spread forwards was something we avoided. We talked about how discovering coal in his backyard has caused irreparable harm to his part of the world. And he talked about parity and the need for a second Carnegie Hall, deep in Appalachia, where he could stage reviews. I can’t imagine Yitzak Perelman killing down there, but I’m always wrong about these things.
People often talk about the adverse affects of colonialism, the gift of roads in exchange for natural resources. It might be useful to apply that same rubric here.
I put down Gatorade and picked up milk here in the sheepfields of Kentucky.
I keep on about milk because it comforts me to think that we were onto something thousands of years ago and that Gatorade, colorful that it is, is a misguided blip in the long history of sports nutrition.
Hercules kept his energy levels up throughout the day with a strenuous diet of milk, honey, boar, and the occasional glass of ambrosia. Ambrosia sounds a bit sweet for my liking, but it is a relief to find you share something in common with a great man. Other greats: Aristotle, Boethius, Shakespeare (a complete milk lush), Washington, Hamilton (when dreaming fiscal policy), Jefferson (often), Fitzgerald, Vonnegut, 92 Nobel Prize winners, and Groucho Marx. Samuel Johnson had this to say: “A cow is of bovine ilk, one end moo, the other milk.”
Notably abstemious: Nero, the chief architects of the Spanish Inquisition, Andrew Johnson (bastard), Lenin, Stalin, the guy who butchered The Magnificent Ambersons, Moby.
Remembering and Understanding
Part of my motive for my travel was to understand the hardships that faced my family as they Go-ed Westward to seek their fortunes. I think I missed their exact route and went a bit further than they did. I also made it farther than I did on the Oregon Trail 2, but that is neither here nor there.
I do have a greater sense of how the country unfolds. I can point to the exact spot where the timber fields of Missouri stopped and lowered into the plains. I have photographic proof of the spot where the canyons in Utah open up. I have a less-vague understanding of the challenges involved in crossing a mountain pass. I am still in awe at the strength it took to cross the Atlantic and keep on going. I know what it’s like to fundamentally want to stop.
I started here because the country started here. The maps began with Yorktown because that’s where Cornwallis signed the surrender and that’s as fine a case you could make the for the start of the country as any on the Atlantic. The first twenty miles or so were on gold brick and I liked to imagine all the people who passed me in the other direction and the great victory marches they’d have leading up to the sea.
On my first day, I encountered an elder gentleman who biked me over to Jamestown. He was the first person to ride with me and was a little bit incredulous about the whole thing. To be fair, I didn’t really have many answers for him. Still, I liked the way he wished me good luck with an even mixture of doubt and certainty, in my story and in my complete failure. If I knew then what I know now I would tell him this: It’s not that hard. Patience can be learned, the body can go numb, people help you out, like yourself, and it’s getting increasingly hard to off yourself in modern America.
Getting Hit By Cars
Not once on the road. I was, however, plowed over by a taxi here in New York on my second day back. No real harm came of my person, or of my Rocinante, and I managed to take down his side-view mirror as collateral. I’m glad to have gotten that out of the way.
Some stick out, but of course this is severely biased in favor of states that had towns. San Francisco. Telluride. Salida. Chester. Berea. Lexington. Charlottesville.
The Golden Gate Bridge. Napa. The American River. Bryce. Hite at night. Lizard Head Pass. Bridal Veil Falls. The Flint Hills. On Top of the Blue Mountains, looking down at the Shemnandoah Valley.
A tie. Sunrise out of Hite. Napa in the Late Afternoon.
Small town life is pretty important to America’s national identity. I just wasted my Friday night watching the debate (if you’re undecided by now, how?) and was struck by the repeated trope of ‘Main Street’ versus ‘Wall Street’ despite neither candidate spending too much time on either. Clearly, it’s important.
I loved the small towns I went through. They’re fading. A few had second winds as antiques meccas, some would have one popular store or restaurant, but for the most part they were hollowed out and emptied. Meth took over some in Kentucky and Missouri (three pharmacies in one town is a good sign of something seriously wrong), but the cause for the decay was rarely that dramatic. We just don’t live that way anymore.
I can understand Sarah Palin’s popularity as a figment of a candidate. She makes a good show of all small town life should signify. It warms my heart to know that some towns band together to watch their home team, even as it bothers me to know that somewhere, someone is shooting at moose from a helicopter. (I could stress here the difference between a pageant/popularity contest and electing a leader, but I won’t). I just got done watching Disney’s Lady and the Tramp and it made me feel great, in spite of its odd subtext, because I identified and wanted to be a lapdog in a lovely tree-lined town. If you pluck a WWII film from the video library shelf you’ll probably find a monologue buried in there about how lovely Springfield is and how all they wanna do is get back there when this mess is done. We dream it.
Let’s discuss early Chevy Chase. I promise I won’t go off and tell you how he is one of America’s greatest comedic talents (he is, or he was), but he did make some great films in the late 80’s and early 90’s that are often overlooked. One of them is Funny Farm. Ok, fuck it: when he was functioning, he had the ability to insult you to your face and have everyone in the room pick up on it except you and that was pretty special at a time when Dorf was popular.
In Funny Farm, a city slicker heads to the country to write in the silence and serenity of small town life. These people have values, they are colorful and charming, and they conspire to drive Chevy nuts because he’s an outsider and mildly-irritating in that way only Chevy Chase can be. It’s a pretty good movie. In the end, the whole town bands together to create a Norman Rockwell-esque pastiche of good life so that the Chases can sell off their house and move back to the city; predictably, they learn an important lesson in the process, stay, and Mrs. Chase makes an honest living writing about mice named Mousey like E.B. White before her.
In 90% of the small towns I passed through, you wouldn’t have enough extras to make your farce come alive. In the real version, the paper boy would be played by an 80 year old man, the school teacher convincing at 70, her pupils less so at 60. They’re aging, they’re far from the new centers of population (the mid-sized city), and they have no need for people so they can’t draw people. Most jobs are done by machine. You could move there as a writer, blogger, internet professional, or someone not bound to a specific speck of the globe, but you’d have to bring your wife, espresso machine, and forget things like 24 hour pizza, sushi, or locking your door. Everything would be more expensive, but I don’t think much is lost in transition. I hate sushi. It’s just a way to feel superior about eating something of questionable edibility in the face of those who don’t get it (morons!). Pizza, there is a real sacrifice.
It all seems a little hard. I don’t think I could do it. I don’t place a premium on space. I’m content to live cramped in New York and pretend to know my neighbors. I like seeing a hundred people a day even if, in my small town alternate universe, the ten I’d see would all stop and talk with me. Certainly, New Yorkers often pretend to be unfriendlier than they are in the hopes of seeming sophisticated and urbane; small towners wouldn’t dream of messing around with something as great as that and that’s probably why John Mellencamp has such a hardon for these people. It’s our dream of how people should live with one another. It is how people should live with one another, and there is no reason why we can’t bring that to wherever we happen to be.
This was a gift. Very few people get to do what I did. I was blessed with time and not much going on elsewhere. I hope writing about it was one way of expressing my gratitude and the best way I could think of sharing the trip with you.
A lot of people do this, but that didn’t cheapen it for me. Flaubert and a friend travelled Egypt in the late 1800s. Flaub, as he was undoubtably never know, paid a local Egyptian a small amount of money to run up to the top of a pyramid with a business card bearing his name. When his friend made it to the top of the old spikey thing, he found the card as Flaub hoped. The friend left Egypt that very day in anger and disappointment. The moral is: avoid writers as they have terrible senses of humor.
If anything, it was those people who insist on doing something ‘new’ that come across a little poorly. If you ride across America backwards, which someone did, you will miss much of it. If you do it on a zany contraption your trip will be, in large part, about your zany contraption. I say, keep it accessible, know full well that it’s about intangibles like friendliness and the perfect glass of milk, and people will at least find something to latch onto.
I hope I latched some of you. Writing to You was what made my trip different and gave it value. It was a million trees falling in a million forests and, bless modern telecommunications, we were all there to hear them crash. I was also convinced that some of you would notify the police should I stop writing for some time.
You will fall off. I fell off the bike twice on the trip. I never fell off at high speeds or when I was alone and high flying. I reserved my crashes for blundered starts at intersections with small audiences. Now, of course I’m being metaphorical here. The trip itself was metaphorical. There is no point in riding across country if the struggle and achievement can’t apply to other aspects of life (slow biking not being the most lucrative profession).
I fell off when I finished. I returned tired from wretched veggie burgers on the train, tired from the train itself, from sitting, from the awkward celebrations upon arrival, from repeating my story over and in brief until I came to hate it, from having to paint over the penises (penii?) that I am quite certain were not drawn on my bedroom walls before I left for Virginia, thank you chums. I was tired and I wanted to rest and I did just that until I lost all the dizzying traces of forward motion and my bones only remembered resting. I wrote my last thoughts on the trip but put them aside until I forgot about them. I forgot about the whole thing.
You get back on. This is obvious and yet there is a logistical paradox to work out. Getting on is much easier to do when you are halfway across a desert — it’s basically necessary. It is harder to get up when you are wrapped snug in the comforts of Home and the City — of sleep or reading the newspaper or good TV or just about anything you can trick yourself into believing is enriching or healthy or helping you move forward. The brain and body fidget when they are fallen and looking for excuses and they don’t look too far.
So you start. You must start to finish. To start and to restart and to start again when you stop and to stop only for sleep and only where restarting is easiest is to get closer to finishing. You need to move forwards every day and you need to go far enough away from home that retreating isn’t much of an option or at least a terrible inconvenience.
Start at the beginning. Do the middle next. Hit the end at the end. This helps with continuity and with (a false) understanding that there is no turning back. If a blank page is what you fear, begin with “It was a dark and stormy night” and leave a note to go back later and destroy the first couple of pages.
Don’t stop. Don’t stop in the middle of a hill, yes, but also don’t stop when you reach the Pacific. An oeuvre is bigger than a novel, isn’t it? Work on the next one when you’re done as chances are America is not ready for your script about killer hummingbirds.
Figure it out along the way. You have, you always will. If your big thing is a book that doesn’t have to be written out in longhand, you can go back and edit out all your earliest naivetys. If it’s raising a child, there make the second one better.
It is my experience that most hardships were really the result of poor planning and honest, personal stupidity. Bearing this — and knowing who is to blame — one can move forwards with confidence.
You remind yourself that you are particularly brilliant and that letting yourself down would be a loss to mankind and yourself as an exemplary member of the species. If you have to lie to yourself here, do so convincingly. I don’t.
You can’t worry about sleep. You can’t worry about where you’re going to sleep. If the thing isn’t five minutes down the road and nuclear, then there is no point in getting chuffed about it. You know you can solve any problem or dial-a-friend because you’re swell.
You finish. This is extremely important. I could easily have taken the ferry to Vallejo and floated into San Francisco; I can look back on my trip without regret because I decided to take an extra day and a humiliating meal at PF Chang’s so that I could end it as I had dreamed.
The rotten man could dismiss much of this as cliché or common sense. He’s probably right, although it was my hope that the yuks would keep this from discovery. Either which way, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s true (so far as I know). Remember it deeply as you begin your next adventure.
I was lucky on Amtrak. My train was so late they let me catch an earlier direct connection to New York. Traveling with the understanding that you are magically arriving five hours earlier -- even as you chug through timezones -- pleasants things.
My neighbor on our full train was a nurse practitioner who was in Chicago to move her daughter into nurse practitioner school. She was busy reading a pamphlet that digested next week's soap operas for her. I left her for the snack car and she left me for Cleveland. Still, I remember this: early in the morning she offered me her blanket and we huddled away all the cold Ohio and Amtrak could throw at us. A nurse even in sleep, she left at dawn.
I ordered my 25th Gardenburger in the snack car and celebrated with a 26th. I sat down with a family of mom plus two happy little girls, and a young woman moving herself to Vermont. We talked bears and the environment and stayed up way later than everyone's bedtime.
I had a new neighbor when I woke up after Cleveland. Kitao is a New Yorker like me, or I should say better than me. The guy is just cool. He studied upstate with the photographer Joel Sternfeld (whose book on failed American utopias is perfect, as is American Pastoral (?)) and is interested in bike touring. We talked some, I put my contacts in, talked some more, probably slept, and then Kitao invited me to half of the ramen he was going to cook.
I love ramen and here's how to make it right.
Kitao's Ramen Recipe:
Bonito dashi powdery stuffy
Fresh ramen noodles
Simple enough, cut anything that needs to be, mix all the soy, sake, and bonito according to taste, boil water and add noodles. When they're soft, strain and add to sauce.
We were joined by Bob from a Bay Area pharma shop who was retiring whether he liked it or not it. We talked body mechanics, overnight parties on islands in Argentina, the world's worst museums, about the trapeze institute Kitao studies at in NY, great American documentary filmmakers, monastery life, and how a human being twists when he dives or trampolines.
Here's the trick. Everyone can do a half twist with their feet. While the body moves around, the hands and head are already gone and into the next turn.
My hands and head were still very much in my last turn, my turn west. The train ride back was not a very concrete bookend to my trip. It was more movement.
Fortunately, an awful woman got on in Albany and reminded me of all things bad on the east coast. She spoke loud enough for the entire train to hear, although I still can't figure out to whom. She was impossibly pregnant. I use this adjective doubly. She was impossibly large and it was impossible that someone willingly made her so.
Here are my notes on her:
Awful woman getting a tattoo of her babies footprints on her breasts. She laughed like thunder. Believes her child is a 'schizophranay' because she is moody. 'All my babies have different scents, scents; see, I'm Victoria Secret, but she [her 8 month old] is different, Poison or Clinique, I don't know. Repeated this nine times on her cellphone: "Going to see me at Auntie Asia house! Going to..." before she moved on to complaining about something else like how long the train ride was, the air temperature, or the Chinese ticket taker ("A Chinese...") she didn't like ("...gonna get dropped."). To be fair, Chinese man did ask her if she was 2 people. Couple with matching t-shirts scared of her. Everyone is. She has the ability to loudly embarrass anyone who asks her to be quiet. Convinced she thinks I'm a racist. Only hope is for a sudden diabetic coma to wash over her. Look at those arms...
We lived. We pulled into Penn Station. I walked off. My friends were there waiting for me. It was late. I ate a lamb burger. I went home. I lingered in the living room to see how long I could stretch their excitement before going into my room, feigning surprise, and then finally sleeping in my room, surrounded by my new pink walls and the tasteful array of penises they printed on them. I'm actually quite impressed by the level of detail in the prank, if not the new level of immaturity. And I am glad to have my dear, dear brother painting.
It is odd being back, my room included. There is so much sound. I spent an entire day walking around and listening to people whinge about small matters (not getting into clubs, not getting weekend off, not getting...). I heard a new jingle on the ice cream truck -- The Entertainer. I went to an unpopular bar and heard great song after great song. I heard powerlines getting fixed directly outside my window at midnight. I heard some kind of music at the art museum I went to. There was an Olafur Eliason piece that reminded me of the mist at the base of Bridal Veil Falls in Telluride. I bought and heard Baby, Let Me Follow You Down a thousand times until it stopped reminding me of that morning in Kansas. And I heard myself putting off this post (and the next and final one) until I got sick of listening, biked around town, and settled here in Tompkins with the same Blackberry I wrote everything on.
So, that brings us to now and east. I have yet to have my movie day or my last hamburger. I kind of don't want either. All I have done, when not with friends, is sit down and write. And wasn't that what I wanted more than anything? Time to write, a room of my own, a stiller mind, space to make things for the people I care about.
My final (written) thoughts on the trip are fast coming. I'm going to see the waterfall they've added to the east river and to venture to my first ever yoga session. I figure it's cheaper than a massage.
Still, let's pretend we're back in simpler times. Poetry still rhymes and I'm wearing polyester. My wife, Flan, has kindly prepared deviled eggs as a canape, and since cholesterol has yet to be invented, I'm six in the hole. After some shots of me in dangerously short shorts and Flan's near fatal sunburn, we come to my experimental phase which I have kindly streamlined for you. So, lean back, have a seven and seven, and keep your grain elevated.
A. Farm Equipment of Kansas.
B. Cars of Bazine.
Note, one tends to not to pause and photograph when things are going badly, when hail is coming down in frosted clusters, when one is hailing down a mountain, or when one is surrounded by trees. Kentucky and Missouri could seem non-existent to those incapable of reading boring, boring text. Let me do them quick justice here.
Kentucky was hard to photograph because the smoke and trees wrapped around me and never really left any open vistas to shoot from. That said, one of my fondest memories was coming out of that into wide open western Kentucky, east of Berea, and having an early afternoon ride past sharp brown cliffs covered in thick green trees.
Missouri was a challenge because my camera was in the bottom of one of my bags and I'd honestly thought I'd lost it. It's a fine looking state -- much more so than Nevada -- and so I apologize. It was also the first subtle break in continuity from oaky green forest to red piney trees that burned holes in your nose with saw dust.