We’re driving straight into the sun on Hwy 50. It was named “The Loneliest Road in America” by someone who came here before everyone who is here now. But how could one be lonely here, with all the ghosts around? Someone made those petroglyphs. Someone built those mining towns. Someone ate food, pooped, had sex, and walked all over this place. I’m suspicious of people who use the word “people,” who use “human nature,” or “natural,” because usually those words are actually obscuring the fact that the speaker means to say “people I’ve heard of,” or “people of a particular culture I know about,” and often “human nature” is a wildly inaccurate idea of human beings in the 20th century under global capitalism. But the notion that there were humans a few thousand years ago who lived in this desert, and who had at least these three functions in common with us: eating, pooping, having sex--is thrilling to me. It makes me respect the writers who focus on those activities more. They aren’t boring, they aren’t low-brow, they are a threads that actually do connect human beings across time and space, and that makes them deeply important.
In Chicago, we stayed with the fabulous Gina Frangello, inspired writer and publisher. Her 5-year old son Giovanni, when prompted to tell us something about himself, said “I think a lot,” and “I’m cute and a lot of girls like me.” Yes! We’ve been saying these phrases for a week now, whenever we feel the need to remind ourselves how to tell the simple truths that have been socially conditioned out of us. We watched Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom on a blanket in Wicker Park, I drooled at Matisse and Cezanne at the Art Institute, and I got handed free Cubs tickets outside Wrigley Field from a man who disappeared so quickly I wouldn’t know him to thank him today. Thumbs up, Chicago.
In Missouri, we took a long detour to Chillicothe, where one of the more important female mentors of my life, Virginia Sillerud, was born. Grandmother, fashionista, incessant teller of grand tales, inventor of “The Mini Breakfast”* and reckless driver, Virginia is mythical figure of the past who still lives somewhere deep inside a thin body and a fogged-over Alzheimer’s brain. I tried to imagine her walking along those small-town streets in her smart 1940s pumps, a young woman with a red lipstick pout and an itch to leave--she fled for St. Louis, eventually for San Francisco, and didn’t talk about her Missouri childhood to us as kids. I grieved the death of her stories--I don’t know enough of them, and she can’t tell them now. I filmed the town for my family, none of whom have been there. It had a one-street downtown with historic early 20th century facades, and then streets and streets of old homes, half of which were in disrepair. We got a beer at a bar that has been family-run for sixty years. On the wall: a big orange poster that said “Hunters Welcome.”
In Kansas, we drove off the highway to Lucas, where a bizarre cement sculpture marvel called The Garden of Eden made me the happiest I’d been in miles of prairie. Built by a Populist oddity named Duinsmoor, the G of E is completed with enormous Chagall-ish art that indicts big business, depicts original sin, and entombes the creator and his first wife. A relative gave the tour, and shined a light on Duinsmoor’s lime-encrusted face in his mausoleum. When asked why he had himself mummified, our affable guide said, “He was a visionary, an eccentric, and an egomaniac.” The town thought him insane, in 1900. They owe much of their revenue to him now.
My sister Lauryl and bro-in-law Sammy have a gorgeous new life in Denver, CO, and they invited us into it for Captain America, a late-night diner discussion of the film, and a superlative and royal experience of cinnamon roll at Breakfast Palace before we took off the next morning.
I forgot my backpack at their house and added over two hours to our driving time. Luckily, we met Bri and Lucas in the town where I discovered my error, and they saved the day! When we returned from Denver the second time back along 70 West, we exited in Silverthorne, crunched along a dark hill, and arrived at a perfect 1980s ski cabin! These astoundingly cute people fed us, housed us, entertained us, and restored our faith in the possibilities for kindness and sharing and lack of suspicion among 20something Americans.
If you are ever in Delta, Utah, I highly recommend room #40 at the Rancher Motel and Cafe. It sleeps between two and twenty people.
I like towns named after objects: Rifle, Parachute, Yellowcat, Rabbit’s Hole, Dead Horse Point. But I love towns named after states of being: Desire, Panic, Defiance, Deference, Tranquility. Naming places after people is so arrogant of us. We’re patently classist when it comes to naming human dwelling places--streets, buildings, neighborhoods are named for the white wealthy, and then occasionally renamed for a black, Latino, or American Indian person. When our hubris extends all the way to naming geographical phenomena after people, we are truly lost in the anthropocentric coil. Thompson hot springs? Thompson thinks he gets to privately own thousands of gallons of healing water flowing from underground?
For the phenomena and landmarks of the landscape, I prefer names that offer extreme practicality. Arches National Park. Filled with naturally occurring stone arches, of course. High Point Trail. Up a steep climb, you see. If not practical, they must be poetic: Black Dragon View Area. Yes.
But how about Eureka? There is a Eureka in every state that’s got a natural resource someone wanted to exploit. Gold. Eureka! Iron ore. Eureka! Cheap labor. Eureka! We went to the Eureka Museum in Nevada and got hypnotized by 1934 newspapers that expressed some concern over Hitler’s rise in popularity. I could have stayed there for a year, reading the papers through the war, looking at old marbles and writing desks and the entire collection of printing presses and lintoype machines from the days of the Sentinel. I have compulsive imagining in the presence of antiques: the hands that touched this, the people who read this, the lives that crossed here.
And this is why I am both ravished and ravaged by cities: I am buffeted around by all the lives: every face a piece of art, every building a history museum, every plant evidence of some geological force. I entered Los Angeles to the sound of the Talking Heads, dancing in my car in the traffic. This trip doesn’t end.