Friday, June 24, 2011

The First Interstate Generation

I got my maps in the mail this morning: road maps from the ‘60s. The AAA map of the entire US from 1964 wasn’t in fact from 1964. The person who sold it to me, online, didn’t read Roman numerals: it clearly said MCMLXIX, which to all of us trained in American schools, before they collapsed in the ‘70s, would have been pretty good evidence. As if to make the point more clearly, the copyright notice included the phrase 1969-70 Edition.

I could probably return it, or get my money back, but I’m not going to. I’m totally entranced by this one. It records America at precisely the moment when I first drove a 1961 VW Beetle from upstate New York to Santa Cruz, California, in the company of two companions: my sister Marty, then just 17 and set free of Barlow, the “free Progressive school” where she’d been dissecting frogs and reading Emerson, and Susan Bell, my girlfriend, a brilliant Sarah Lawrence student who had come to Haverford on an exchange and was destined to be the first woman to graduate from that institution.

Looking at the map confirmed most of what I remembered about the trip. We were the beneficiaries of a decade-long process of frantic national roadbuilding, and we were going to make our way almost entirely along the freeways and turnpikes that had been almost fully assembled by that very year.

For some baffling reason, we thought it would be an easy trip. We should have known better. That ’61 bug had already been through my father’s commutes between Guilford and New Haven, where it had sat, its air-cooled engine unhappily overheating, on the ill-conceived bridge over the Quinnipiac River, morning and night, six days a week, since the Connecticut Turnpike officially opened. I had rolled it on its side, with Paul and Timmy and Deedee in it, on a patch of black ice in North Guilford, and it had put me in the hospital for quite a time. Repaired, its frame never quite straightened nor its steering ever freed of tight spots, it had gone to Vermont, to Bennington College, with my sister, who taught me that you could predict the curves ahead by watching the telephone lines as they paralleled the mountain roads.

I don’t remember if we stopped in Morgantown to see our parents, but I’m pretty sure we did. If that’s true, there was surely a scene as Pa tried to talk us out of it, knowing as he did how perilous was the journey and how inexperienced, brash and full of bluff I was, and how persuasive to women of the rightness of my cause. It was a common theme back then.

But we were adamant. I had read On The Road that year, or maybe the year before, and I’d already been working on a sort of faster, looser form of writing, and I thought this trip would be good material for this new thing I was trying. I think I was already turning from Susan, or she from me, and I think I wanted to see the mountains of Santa Cruz and to travel up Bonny Doon Road before what was between us was shattered.

But now that I think about it, I don’t know that we did stop, because the trip seems one uninterrupted passage, a passage marked most strongly by fear, fear that kept me awake, fear that drove the car forward, fear that only once diminished enough that we slept, the three of us, in our seats, in a rest area, somewhere I think east of Denver.

When we awoke, it was full dark, and we pulled through Denver and began the climb up toward Boulder: in fourth gear, then in third, and at the worst spots, in second, at 30 miles an hour, with my foot all the way to the floor.

They were building that section of I70 west of Denver, and it was a mess. We jockeyed with the semis between construction dump trucks, great big Euclids, like the one my father had driven, at 13, for the family company, telephone books under him and blocks of wood added to the pedals, back in the ‘30s. The banks of construction lights were blinding, especially after perhaps two hours or three of sleep in the bucket seat, awakened by the cold of 1 am. Susan slept in the back, and Marty sat next to me, keeping me company, sharing the rising panic as the engine struggled in the increasing altitude.

Then, suddenly, the roadway stopped; in its place was a chewed-up remnant of the old US6. The dust was choking, and the dim 6-volt headlights only showed more dust directly ahead. Now there were downhills, too, and the big semis, laboring up one side even more slowly than we, barreled down, as close to out of control as you might cut it. Somewhere around Georgetown or Silver Plume, old mining towns about to be sacrificed to the relentless vector of the Interstate, there was a cluster of flashing lights and all traffic stopped for a time. Susan woke up in the back, feeling the non-motion as abruptly as if we’d hit something. After a time, a long string of cars and trucks came past, and then it was our turn. The burned-up hulk of the semi could be seen down the mountain; there was little left of the tractor cab, and I thought I saw the bodies.

We probably should have gone up US40 to Boulder, then through the Rabbit Ears Pass and crossed into Utah at Vernal, but we didn’t. We took US6 all the way to Salt Lake City, passing through Spanish Fork and Springville and Provo, towns Pa's side, the Mormon side of the family, had founded so long ago. By then it was late afternoon and we stopped at Saltair, thinking to swim in the Great Salt Lake. But the smell was overwhelming, and the water brackish. I80 hadn’t been run through there; it was back and forth between US40 and the wide reaches of I70 most of the way to Reno. I remember Emigrant Pass, as tough as they come, hot and dry in the early afternoon. Then there was the Sierra Nevada Range, and then the wide green mass production farms with their irrigation channels and their great swinging sprinklers and the Mexican farm workers bent over.

Santa Cruz was cool, with a scent intense and piercing, part eucalyptus, part ocean, part pine forest. We drove up Bonny Doon Road, fighting big rigs again, this time the forest trucks, back wheels lashed to the tree trunks of giant redwoods. And then we were there.

We had delivered Susan to her family, but we were not welcome, exactly. Not I, for I could sense that this was a family that shared its secrets, and I was already known to them, known in a way that charm and enthusiasm and a guitar could not erase, no matter how well-played. Not Marty, for she was my accomplice, my supporter; she was a distant presence, to be acknowledged with the politeness of the well-bred academic family. Susan’s father was a famous economist and the founding provost of Merrill College, the so-called Third World College at UC Santa Cruz. Next door to their place on Bonny Doon Road was the spaceship-mansion of the eccentric science fiction writer Robert Heinlein. Heinlein had published Stranger in a Strange Land in 1962, and its arguments for sexual freedom and communal living, and its indictment of American life, had made it a fixture of the freak world at whose edges I was living in 1969. I was far out of my league, a brash provincial, cruel to the woman they loved, my internal anguish hidden from everyone, even from me. We turned east, Marty and I, not a week later. The trip back was quieter, slower, and in my sister’s genuine caring, her antic humor and her long conversational monologues, I found some measure of solace.

That trip of ours was a common one, in 1969. Tens of thousands were descending on Haight-Ashbury, having read or heard of the Summer of Love and the great Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out promises there. Or they were crowding the communes, from New Mexico to Oregon, interfering in the delicate work of making some entirely new social, economic, and ecological system, and ensuring the failure of the counterculture’s utopian arm.

We didn’t see much of America on that trip. We drove its length— 3,268 miles, give or take a hundred—but there was no pleasure in it. Every detour, every impediment to speed, every distraction from the pavement markings and the exit signs, was a frustration to be endured. We were among the very first of a new generation of Americans in motion. Our greatgrandparents had traveled by horse, by wagon, and by handcart to the promised lands of the West. They feared the small things that could kill so easily: a cactus needle stuck in a foot that soon swelled and turned black; a snake poised in the shadows; a ruthless guide, an empty canteen. Our parents had traveled back and forth, sometimes for pleasure, often with the urgency of wartime passes for a few days to see the one whose letters they had read and reread over the months, or to arrive just in time for the funeral of aunt, grandfather, father. They had felt the hot wind of the flatlands and the gusts, threatening snow or worse, down the mountain passes. They remembered the cockroaches, big as children, swarming the streetlights in Enid, Oklahoma. At night, they had told us the stories of their travels, as the fireflies lit the cornfield and the cicadas buzzed.

What had we learned from them? We had raced to our destinations, heedless, and impatient, our eyes shut and our ears numbed by the rush of highway wind, the noisy equivalent of the cool silence of the air conditioned cabins of those who came after us. And when we got where we were going, there was nothing there for us, nothing but the waiting until it was unbearable, and we would turn, and go, leaving behind us what we should have given everything to hold.

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