I don’t have Einstein’s brain in the trunk, but I wish I did. Poe’s writing hand or the pinky upon which the guitarist Elmore James wore his metal slide — either or both sloshing around in a Slurpee cup of formaldehyde — would also turn up the volume on a prosaic road trip to 11.
All I have is a jar of peanut butter, a drug store notebook and all the time in the world.
“It’s a long, long road,” sings Johnny Winter of life along the white-lined asphalt. “And it don’t never end …”
I keep moving — driving from one end of the country to the other and back again (and again and again and again as 2008 moves through the seasons) — and try to forget, that I never made these journey when I should have.
Who is the King of Should?
Should – where our lost years coagulate into maps printed on onion skin– is a planet unto itself.
The Carter Administration, when I was young enough to get into the kind of trouble that really sets the pot a boiling.
Age 18, 19, and 20 when I was going steady with the prettiest girl I’d ever met, the kindred “I’m gonna be a writer one day too” Deborah Rudacille of 7872 Harold Road in Dundalk.
By the time we were 22, it was too late — married with one on the way.
And then one more and then – with the birth of our youngest, the playwright Sofia Alvarez – old Flat Top had dropped the middle class hammer, declaring: One and one and one is three.
I wouldn’t begin taking the classic cross-country trips with all the kids in a station wagon until after the 1989 divorce.
One of the last stains on the marital death bed was a summer 1988 blues journey I took through Mississippi – from Baltimore on through Tupelo to Vicksburg and back via the Delta — with friends Tyrone Crawley and Art “The Living Legend” Lien.
It was not a suitable journey for a family vacation.
Absent the body part of a famous person — the most heralded example being the genius brain in the 2001 memoir Driving Mr. Albert, by Michael Paterniti – road trip narratives are enhanced when you have someone to spar with.
The insufferable Neal Cassady – Moriarty to Kerouac’s Paradise, perhaps named as Jack passed through Moriarty, New Mexico –was a champion sparring partner. His rival is surely Sancho Panza.
I am grateful, however, to have my own brain along for the ride – “every voice in my head wants to talk to you, baby” – given the punishment it took from adolescence to early adulthood.
The older I get, savoring a contentment that hovered invisible and beyond my reach during the years of self-inflicted battery, I don’t enjoy talking to people for more than 15 minutes. Or wish to be trapped in a car with them for a thousand miles.
Thus, it’s just me and not a whole lot happens.
Do the other road trip books leave out the boring parts?
Maybe I’m lucky.
Traveling by thumb or Greyhound provides ample flint and friction for narrative.
The Baltimorean Mary Carol Reilly, a hearty wanderer who first went cross country in 1963 – “I’d just come out of the convent,” said the 1960 graduate of Seton High School – travels almost exclusively by bus.
“In 1999 I was on a bus to California for my niece’s graduation. We were in Kansas when I found out my mother had died,” said Reilly, who turns 69 on August 9th. “I rented a car and drove back across the country [for] home.
“I planned my mother’s funeral from a table at McDonald’s.”
In the caballo blanco – a 2006 Tacoma with a mattress in the back — it’s just me, a kneeling figurine of the Blessed Mother super-glued to the dashboard [salvaged from a crèche in the attic of a girlfriend’s mother when her Mom passed away] and enough money for gas and used books at yard sales.
I cruise and daydream, writing ideas for stories on index cards ala Tom Nugent, tossing them in with the dirty laundry in the back as I roll from Sheffield through Ozona and some 40 miles east into Junction, which straddles the Llano River darn near the dead-center of Texas.
In Ozona – first known as Powell Well upon its founding in 1891 and then named for the air itself – I met a couple from Denmark who were canvassing the United States in a rental car and sleeping in a tent. I gave them one of my unopened jars of peanut butter, sent an email to the address they provided and never heard a word in return.
Pulling into Junction after dark, I slept in the back of the truck on the parking lot of a truck stop serviced by a combined Chevron gas station and McDonald’s, close enough to the drive through to hear “How can I help you?” rattle through the squawk box all night.
In the morning, now January 16th, the same things that bedeviled my chilly slumber – bright lights, noise, 24-hour commerce – became the convenient place to brush my teeth, wash my face, use the toilet and get a hot cup of dollar coffee for the ride east.
n Fredericksburg, I decamp at a Main Street coffee and write in the back of the store, deadlines for $75 and $100 a pop stories — two phone calls, an Internet search, and a thousand words — one of the reasons I often cover less than 200 miles on any given day.
I am writing for the Baltimore Examiner, a struggling but slowly catching on free daily. By year’s end, the tough little tabloid will be thrown out on Pratt Street by owner Philip Frederick Anschut and shot in the head.
But now – on deadline in the back of a coffee shop in Fredericksburg, Texas — I don’t yet know this. I’m an out-of-work screenwriter in the third month of a bitter strike with the Writers Guild of America. When I make it back to Baltimore, at least I will be broke among friends.
Sipping coffee, I read recent correspondence from the poet Madeleine Mysko. At first, she makes small talk, asking if I took time to visit the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg.
“It was sort of depressing,” she wrote, “but I looked up stuff about my father, who served on an aircraft carrier.”
Then she mentions a bowl of Texas chili so big she took a photograph of it.
And then addresses the alchemy – perfected by masters such as Borges, Saramago and Bolano — of sprinkling fairy dust [silver gelatin if you’re Gene Smith or Arbus] over mere fact to make magic.
Like taking Mary Carol Reilly’s heartache out from under the Golden Arches and minting the durability at its core.
“Certain stories become opportunities to discovery and that opportunity is there for the storyteller as much as the reader,” said Mysko. “By releasing myself from the worry of remembering exactly how it really was I tend to the story in a way that is somehow more pure … they aren’t really our stories anyway.”