Note: this episode was the seed for a more-developed treatment published at Piker Press.
I have mentioned a couple of times when I have been in one place too long that I am pining for the road. Some of my favorite moments on this trip so far have behind the wheel – just me, my machine, and my thoughts. And that’s what it comes down to. I think better when I’m alone.
The definition of alone can be squirrely. The old cliché ‘alone in a crowd’ certainly applies – I can wrap myself up in a little introspective ball in a raucous bar and pound away, while if I’m in someone’s house and they’re tiptoeing around trying not to disturb me I find that very distracting.
So here’s a theory – ‘alone’ is a synonym for ‘free’. In a crowded bar, the only time I’m distracted is if all the tables are full and people are waiting to eat dinner. I feel bad for hurting the bar’s and (more important) my server’s income. When I’m in someone’s house, it’s their house, dammit, and they should be able to act however they want in it.
That brings me to the road. It’s the thing I’m looking for out here, and sometimes I feel like I might just find it. The road has always represented freedom, but not, I have come to believe, because it takes you wherever you want to go but because when you’re on it you are nowhere. Lately I have been using the phrase “American Road Myth” to describe the romance our nation holds for the road, from Kerouac to Thelma and Louise to riding off into the sunset. We love the road, we love the freedom, but nowhere in the road myth is the idea of a destination. The road is about self-sufficiency and the unknown. It’s about finding stories, meeting people, but always moving on.
I take back what I just said: there is a destination in the road myth, it’s just not on a map. Paul Simon and an unnamed friend went to look for America, and never left the United States. As far as I know they never found what they were looking for. There is an implied quest for wholeness, for some kind meaning that is at the end of the yellow brick road. To find it, you have to be nowhere. You have to be on the road.
We Americans have created a new religion, an introspective and wistful belief system that few practice but all believe in. Freedom, solitude, the road. Independence and resourcefulness, hardship and thought. Hoppin’ a freight, sleeping under the stars, hitchhiking. Disconnecting. Escaping. For all our collective brashness and bravado, we yearn for the peace of the road and a glimpse of what’s over the rainbow.
If America has a heaven, it’s an all-night truck stop, with Mac in back cooking burgers and passing them up to Sal (you know by the embroidered patch over her respectable breast), who sets it in front of you, fries steaming and glistening, saying “Here ya go, Hon.” You haven’t eaten in 400 miles and the burger is perfect. There’s a trucker two stools down, and he’s flirting with Sal while the jukebox plays an old Hank Williams song you never heard before. Unlike any other heaven, though, this heaven is perfect because you are just passing through. You have a slice of pie, leave your money on the counter, and saddle up to move on to the next town. Sal says goodbye and tells you to come back in next time you’re passing through.
You just might do that.