Thursday, July 28, 2011

Oh Sweet Nothing: Chicago to Reno and the Loneliest Road

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.


  1. Thanks L! You are love! I forgot to follow up on my asterisk: The Mini Breakfast was Virginia's Saturday morning ritual for me and Erica when we were little. First, we'd wrap up in blankets in front of cartoons. Then Virginia would bring us a menu, with eggs, toast, waffles, french toast, etc., and Erica would read out the options, checking boxes next to the things we wanted. There was always a TOTALLY GROSS option at the bottom: worms in blood sauce, for example, which we would of course always order, and it would turn out to be some great candy delicacy Virginia had made up. All the food came on tiny plates, in tiny portions. We drank cranberry juice from tiny brandy glasses, drank tea from demitasse tea cups, used shrimp forks for our eggs. It was AWESOME. She was a genius.

  2. Thanks for making me think about names. I think about them quite a bit, but I needed some new diagrams with which to interact with them. In Riverside I used to think about how none of the hills or valleys except the largest had names. To me that meant they didn't have history. Except like that lonliest road they DID have history. Someone almost certainly named them and knew them. Just not someone we listened to. In Scotland I learned EVERY tiny hill and valley and often trees and certainly streams had a name and a long remembered history. Tree at the possible birthplace of Pontius Pilate? Check. I very much would like to read very old newspapers at that museum until I fell asleep on them and woke up smelling like them.

  3. 10,000 years of human shit! From the deserts to the oceans! From the churches to the jails! I'd like to see a map of the US with a little turn sign over every place you shat on your trip.

  4. From my friend Roger:
    there are no lonely roads, only sojouners who cannot 'see...'

    glad, and good for you that your senses are open...

  5. The "Mini Breakfast" is possibly one of the most amazing things! And I want to do it every Saturday Morning!!!

    From Chicago to California, what a road trip. It's been very cute and exciting to hear about these musuems and people, I can't wait to venture cross country! And I'm really happy you've only hit bugs. BUG! Thank you for writing and being inspirational!

  6. I Love names! There is a town in the foothills named Cool. There is a Cool Animal Hospital, bike club, coffee shop, and saloon.

  7. how about some of these names that we're used to: Killer Whale, Hermit Crab, Honeybee and Whites Tree Frog? Sorry, all of those tree frogs belong to White. In the spirit of the Macintosh company, I like to change the names of everything by putting "my" in front of it. MyBunny, MyDome, MyNess.