…just your average everyday ghostwriter/land steward/deckhand traveling cross-country in a car called the Black Squirrel with a wooden ship, a clay dragon, a jade dagger, and a copy of The Three Musketeers riding shotgun.
OK, yes, I am a little pleased with myself. The journey has been a whirlwind of emotions, snacks, podcasts, vistas, and freeway hypnosis so far, which I’m going to do my best to distill for you here.
I set out from Stockton on Friday, and joined the great mother road of I-80, which will take me almost the entire way to New England. For those who don’t know, I have a job with Orleans Conservation Trust taking care of their new properties, a job for which I need my own vehicle. So, since I can’t take the Black Squirrel on a plane, the only option was to load it up and drive overland. It’s a simple, beautiful objective: eight days to get across America.
Day 1: Stockton, CA, to Winnemucca, NV
I left California through the Donner Pass, where I learned firsthand about the hardships of our pioneer ancestors: there were no good restaurants, so I had to eat trail mix for lunch. It was basically The Revenant. Here’s a shot of the carnage:
Truly horrifying. I also got to see Lake Tahoe for the first time. On the advice of A.’s father I was on the lookout for giant letters carved into hills spelling the initials of towns below, and found them at both Winnemucca and Elko the next day. As it turns out, there are more than 500 of these “Hillside Letters” in America, and they were originally built to vent the aggression from class rivalries in local high schools and colleges.
Day 2: Winnemucca to Coalville, UT
Today’s big sight was the Bonneville Salt Flats, a truly expansive ancient seafloor famous for helping break landspeed records by being, as the name suggests, really really flat. Here pictured:
Today’s lesser sights included a herd of elk grazing beside the interstate, a random Thai restaurant in the middle of the desert, and a billboard about chemtrails. I didn’t know the specifics of that theory, but apparently proponents are convinced a jet’s vapor trail should dissipate immediately–meaning ones that linger must be full of sinister chemicals that cause anything from global warming to government-sponsored population culling. The contrails that linger do so because of low temperature and pressure at the altitude those planes are flying, but it’s always fun to know the details of a conspiracy theory.
(Speaking of which: I haven’t had a chance to bring this up yet, but did you think the Sovereign Citizen movement was a Bundy-esque libertarian clique? So did I! And we were both wrong. It’s so much crazier than I ever imagined. Just call me :Sam-Chapman:)
Day 3: Coalville to Sidney, NE
Today started out well, with this particular vista that was so pretty I was compelled to do something that isn’t usually in my nature at all: take a selfie.
That’s not the selfie. Although: on the off-chance anybody is reading this who doesn’t know me IRL, I realize I have yet to indicate what I look like. For all you know I could actually be a sage shrub.
Anyhow, this is me, scruffier even than usual. Also, some would say it’s cute that I can’t aim a camera without sticking my tongue out. Let’s go with that.
I spent most of the rest of today being disappointed by Wyoming, which I guess is a state you just can’t appreciate from the highway. The best part of the morning was running into the convoy known as Kiwis on Route 66: seven cars total, emblazoned with hashtags and filled with elderly New Zealanders. Them being way too far north for Route 66 was, I think, intentional.
Things picked up when I reached the highest point on the Lincoln Highway and beheld this frightening visage, Wyoming’s answer to Mt. Rushmore:
GAZE UPON THE TERRIFYING STONE IDOL OF FREEDOM! ABE DEMANDS SACRIFICE!
Notice the threatening skies. I collided with a storm belt on the fringes of the Great Plains, and didn’t manage to slip deftly underneath it. There is a certain beauty in traveling toward a sky filled with thunderheads flashing with sheets of lightning the size of golf courses. Rather I should say it’s sublime than beautiful: a very Environmental Humanities distinction coined by Edmund Burke refers to things we appreciate because they scare us, rather than please us aesthetically. It’s like a positive foreboding.
The lightning storm on the edge of Nebraska got a bit too sublime for me when I realized the Black Squirrel was the tallest thing on the ground. I hightailed it back to Sydney and stayed the night.
Day 4: Sidney to Omaha, NE
The day I learned that Nebraska just refuses to end. The Onion was on the money when they called it America’s Roadblock, down to the interminable distances between off-ramps. It was really pretty, though, and my thoughts about the countryside were far more ecstatic Willa Cather than mopey John Steinbeck. Trees and shining ponds dotted the landscape, and all the rest stops were too pleasant to leave:
The photo doesn’t convey how perfect the weather was, but I could have slept all day under that tree.
Sam Jr., my broadsword-wielding bearded dragon, takes some time out of his busy adventure schedule to pose for the camera. For those who don’t remember my companion, he was crafted by Grace Pyles, Whitman College’s own queen of dragons.
Tonight’s lodgings: a patch of grass owned by Kampgrounds of America (KOA) which, seriously, are they owned by the Klan or something? It’s not even alliterative. I’m really confused.
Day 5: Omaha to Portage, IN
Also known as the day that is today. Flush with success after finally escaping Nebraska, I set foot in four states in one day for the first time in my life, even though I ran into Chicago rush hour in much the same way seven or eight suicidal insects have “run into” my windshield so far. I’m typing these words at a Days Inn in this little gateway town for Indiana’s Lake Michigan sand dunes. A poster in the lobby calls this beach the eighth wonder of the world. I’m willing to believe it, although I’m not sure which set of seven they’re using. Possibly the seven natural wonders?
And that’s it! Two more nights before I arrive at Orleans and move into the Audobon Society dorms at Wellfleet Bay. I plan to spend Night 7 at Lake George, NY, but tomorrow night is up in the air. Which I like. I’m not exactly used to not knowing where I’m going to sleep any given night, though I recognize I’m privileged to be reasonably sure it’ll be warm and legal.
Other miscellaneous observations:
–As expected, I’m eating like a damn 5-year-old, though I haven’t yet made good on my threat to A. to use peanut butter as a utensil to consume M&Ms.
–Podcasts are great. I’m too lazy to link to all of these, but The History of Rome, The Adventure Zone, Lore, and Writing Excuses are my current anti-drugs.
–I’ve been recording some videos of me busking beside the interstate, but they’re currently too large to upload. When I get to Orleans, I plan to compress them.
–I mentioned The Three Musketeers, which I’m ripping through again after a short break. I’m learning a lot, mostly about characterization, and how an interesting character doesn’t have to be likable. Look at the four heroes: Athos is moody and impulsive, Porthos is manipulative and vain, Aramis is a pseudo-intellectual drama queen, and d’Artagnan is the 17th-century equivalent of a frat boy with a Goldman Sachs internship–and yet they’re all still fantastic fun to read about. Is it their exciting lives? Their undying loyalty to one another? I firmly believe the Venn circles of likable character and likable human mostly overlap, but exploring the edges is important too.
–The life of a rambler is exciting, but lonely, and there isn’t enough tea. I’m looking forward to being rooted again.