9 States, 9 Stories.
Come with me as I take you thru Middle America, a journey into forgotten places & hidden tales. The land of frozen custard, roadside motels, dirt roads & unfortunately-named gas stations…
Somewhere in Middle America, right to the heart of matters
It’s the heart that matters more
I think you better turn your ticket in
And get your money back at the door.
Adam Duritz is singing his song Omaha when I pull into Kansas on a dark, dark, dark night. There aren’t any streetlights out on these country roads; the only light comes from the glow of a frozen-custard stand up ahead. I’ve never had frozen custard, so I’m not sure about it. It’s not quite what I had in mind for dinner, but I’m tired & hungry and decide this will have to do.
I get my cone & sit outside in the parking lot, on the front of my car, because that’s what you do here, there aren’t any tables & chairs. I put in my earphones & listen to Mayer’s version of ‘Free Fallin’. It occurs to me how tough it is for a song to capture the actual experience of life on the road. Most songs get one slice or another, but not the whole pie.
Especially nights like this, when nothing is actually happening. When the journey is introspective & slow, and your only company is the embellished memories of your own mind. That, and frozen custard.
His version nails one thing in particular though, right at the end. When he tells you – not just that he’s free – but that he’s freeEEEE. Like a plane taking off. Because that’s exactly what it feels like, when the freeway’s stretched out in front of me. Knowing I am no longer the passenger; I am the pilot.
I finish up and take off back into the dark. It turns out frozen custard is a pretty good dinner afterall.
What sticks in my mind most about Oklahoma is how many Dollar General stores there are in this state. Like, a ton. One after another after another. Then another. I drive by all of them, thinking: What happens if you live in rural Oklahoma & you don’t want to shop at Dollar General? What are your options?
On a secluded county road, I pass a run-down motel while I slow down for a stoplight. People are sitting outside smoking; they look at me, I look at them. I look at the motel. I look at myself. Options. You don’t always know what you’ve got, until you realize what you have.
I wonder who makes up state slogans. I wonder who decided on this one.
I think about the word ‘happiness’ and what a nonsense word it is. Like the word ‘nice’. A default word used when something is so bland you can’t come up with an actual description for it.
I’ve always seen happiness as just another fleeting thing on the spectrum of human emotions. All feelings arrive & leave on a whim. Minute to minute, we feel boredom, humor, frustration, contentment, jealousy, lust, apathy. How did happiness get singled out as a goal?
I’m in a bad mood when I arrive in Pennsylvania, but I soon settle in & begin to appreciate the surprisingly lush, green hills that surround me. Then a white SUV cuts me off in the merge lane, nearly causing an accident. I go from peaceful contentment to violent rage in under a second. See? Emotions are fleeting.
There was one day I went to a psychic in a strip mall by the airport. It was next to a 7-11; I thought it would be amusing, the crazy things they’d say – or at the very least, I thought it would be a funny story one day. But the minute I sit down, the psychic starts saying some unnerving, eerily accurate things. She warns me of what lies ahead. Things I already know, but don’t want to hear said out loud.
By the end, I’m frantically grabbing bills out of my wallet so I can pay quickly & get out of here before anyone sees the tears in my eyes. I get to the car and drive away, but I don’t make it very far before I have to pull over in a bagel-shop parking lot. I am crying so hard that my contact lenses have fogged over. I clear them as best I can, and across the desert fields, I can half-see a roadside fair being set up. I watch some workers unload big metal strawberries from a truck.
The fair wasn’t here yesterday, and won’t be here next week. I relate to this, and I start to think of myself as a little one-woman traveling carnival. The thought makes me feel a little better.
The psychic’s ominous words would eventually prove very true. But that weekend, I went to the roadside fair. I took pictures, I drank root beer, I ate ice cream. And for a brief moment, I was alright.
Churches are to Arkansas what Dollar Generals are to Oklahoma. There’s a lot of them. So many that I wonder how they fill all the seats. This is a rural, sparse place; it doesn’t seem there would be enough bodies to occupy all these churches.
The GPS directs me down a gravelly dirt road, and it hits me that I am deep, deep, deep in the country now. That I am in a land that has nothing to do with me.
But when you aren’t part of any one economic class, any one tribe, any one anything…people will tell you things that they wouldn’t otherwise. People everywhere sense that I am not one of them. But they also sense that I’m not one of anybody else. I am not “the other”. And so this has provided me an unusual window, as I traverse the land.
”How do you go on so many vacations?” an acquaintance once asked me. I found the question insulting. Very off-target and offensive. I don’t go on vacations. I don’t lounge at tropical resorts or sip mixed drinks by the beach. I don’t even remember the last time I took a vacation. That’s not what I do.
This is my life; this is how I live. Passion and purpose, work and art…these things are not segmented; they blur together in one beautifully fuzzy shape.
I went out for coffee in Austin & found myself in San Antonio. Alright, well….I guess I can see how people might get confused.
Still, let’s just say the acquaintance and I are no longer acquainted.
This gas station declines my credit card for no apparent reason. It also charges me a dollar for the privilege of not letting me pump gas. But for that, it mysteriously accepts my card. Shady.
Frustrated, I drive away anxious and annoyed, because I need gas and there aren’t many choices out here in the middle of nowhere. If there were, I sure wouldn’t have chosen the Kum & Go.
I wonder how the employees feel about working at this finely-named establishment. I wonder what they say when someone asks where they work. Do they say The K&G? Do they even care?
8 miles down the road I fuel up at the much more respectable ‘Pit Stop’ station. It accepts my credit card just fine.
(UPSTATE) NEW YORK
I drive past this motel several times, over several days. There’s something about this place that grabs my attention, and also makes me very uneasy.
I’ve driven by a million dilapidated places like this, so I’m not sure why this one in particular stands out. It’s like somehow I sense there’s a lot going on behind the windows of the ClearView Motel.
One of the times I drive past, there are several police cars in the parking lot, lights flashing. I assume it’s a routine drug bust, so I drive on, I don’t think much of it. It turns out one of the residents was knifed to death in his room.
Violence is nothing out of the ordinary in these parts. Despair looms. People have run out of choices.
In any case, I was right. There was a lot going on at the ClearView Motel.
By noon, the diner is closed. ‘See you tomorrow, 5AM’ says the sign on the door. I take a pic through the window, and tell myself there’s always tomorrow. But when tomorrow arrives, I end up somewhere else.
What I love most about the road is the thing most others go out of their way to avoid. Uncertainty. The unknown.
Seeing plans dashed before your eyes, then seeing them morph into unexpected rewards. Not every experience is a good one. I am not happy, like the sign in Pennsylvania says to be. But I am something greater than happy. I am free.
I may be untethered, unfocused, unstable. But I am free.