America is incomprehensible from the air. Leaving LaGuardia at dawn on an autumn day for a connecting flight in Dallas and ultimately landing in San Jose conveys nothing of the weird incestuous lineages forever embedded in the eldritch neo-mythic spiritual topography of this madhouse of a country. You miss the connections. There’s just one way to truly apprehend America: drive it. All of it. It must be perceived directly, eye-to-eye, face-to-face, smelled and tasted, touched; fucked, preferably bareback. Embraced with the full sensorium, at ground level, up close and personal. The only way out is through. There’s an element of risk in this that goes far beyond the relatively minor danger of some sort of aircraft disaster. Death is ever-present on the interstate highway system, and serial murderers are the least of concerns, unless you’re hitchhiking.
The cops in this country are out of control. If there actually were any “good” cops, they’d be doing something about the “bad” cops. The cops investigate themselves, inevitably finding no wrongdoing in the vicious beating death of an innocent schizophrenic named Kelly Thomas in Fullerton, California, the apparent open season on black Americans, or the ongoing gratuitous slaughter of animal companions by what are clearly closet leather queens on steroids in cop uniforms. The prosecutors are colluding with them all. Kill a citizen, take a two-week paid vacation, retire with full benefits, and let the taxpayers take the hit when the family sues. Over 1000 American citizens have been murdered by cops since May, 2013, as of this writing. They’re murdering an average of one black kid per week. No official agency keeps track. They are to be feared, and smart homo sapiens know what to do with that which they fear: kill it.
I hadn’t planned on leaving California on Richard Wagner’s 201st birthday. It just happened that way. Ascending to the summit of the Donner Pass to the strains of Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic’s 1987 Salzburg Festival performance of the Tannhauser Overture, knowing that I would never pass that way again, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the strange serendipity that periodically caresses the dark fecund jungle of my heart like a soft summer rain. I was also a bit worried about the car, which I had clearly overloaded. The steepest approach is from the east, but the western approach is steep enough that my transmission was pushed to the limit.
I’d also pulled out of Oakland without hitting a cash machine. I had five dollars in my pocket. Caitlin had a few bucks, but I really like to have some cash at hand on the road. As soon as we got over the 7240 foot Donner Summit, I pulled into the first little casino we encountered: Sierra Sid’s. Mainly, I needed to stretch my legs and have a beer after the long climb from Oakland to Nevada, but when I saw the collection of Elvis Presley’s guns in the cases on the wall beside the bar, I knew what I had to do.
When I’m travelling, I always carry an Elvis Zippo that I bought at Graceland during my first visit there back in 2000. It’s a fetish object related to my own personal mythology, in which Elvis roughly corresponds to the Hindu god Ganesh, the Breaker Of Obstacles. In Beirut, Lebanon, and Manama, Bahrain, I drank for free in the bars owing to my overall charm and capacity to tell Elvis stories to the locals all night long. Elvis defuses potential conflict situations and promotes a general air of conviviality. People who might otherwise despise America and Americans are fascinated by Elvis, an anomalous American avatar of grace, generosity and madness. His career arc mirrors the rise and fall of the American Empire perfectly.
At Sierra Sid’s, I ordered a beer and put the change on my five dollars into a slot machine directly across from Elvis’ guns. I hit for $47 and change: cash problem solved. Thank you, E.
We thought briefly about spending the night in Reno, but that town is uglier than Harry Reid’s soul and knee-deep in methamphetamine, so we pressed on to Winnemucca, as close to the Utah border as I could manage in one day’s drive. There was some kind of motorcycle rally going on there, and we counted ourselves lucky to get a cheap clean room for the night. I shipped a couple of the heavier parcels in the trunk to my cousin in New Jersey, lightening the load for the next ascent. We stocked up on beer, ate a green cap each, and settled in to watch the Weather Channel.
The green caps were essential. Manufactured in California by a company called Organicares, they contain 30 mg. of THC and a fair amount of CBD. They are the finest medication ever conceived by the mind of man, good for everything from pain relief to glaucoma to anger management. It seems that cannabis cures everything but death and taxes, which is probably why it’s illegal. I had 60 of them in a vitamin bottle, along with a dozen Hummingbirds (50mg. THC). On the road, as at home, I’d take one in the morning with a couple of beers, and one in the evening with my nightly ration of Pabst Blue Ribbon. I wouldn’t dream of crossing the country with loose weed these days, but these capsules don’t smell like anything.
Neither of us wanted to spend the night in Utah. Despite its vivid scenic beauty, the place gives me the creeps, and Caitlin felt the same way. The separation of church and state in Utah is about three blocks, and the cops in that state are killing citizens at a rate that exceeds all criminal-related activities combined. They’re out to set some kind of record—maybe there’s some covert national contest that only cops know about. It’s only 197 miles through Utah on Route 80, so we figured we had it knocked. We figured wrong.
The weather turned against us just west of Salt Lake City, or Slit Lick City, as I call it. Violent squalls with raindrops the size of NATO rounds drove us off the interstate and into the Oquirrh Motor Inn in Toele County, where I’d stayed a night back in 2000 during my first drive across America, watching American Beauty on cable and closely monitoring the recount on the 2000 presidential race.
The next morning, we narrowly escaped death in a white-knuckled passage through the “Spaghetti Bowl”, an incredibly ill-designed convergence of various roads and Interstate 80 just north of Salt Lake. This thing is designed like one of those monstrous new pinball machines, with ramps and slides coming out of nowhere, left-exits sprinkled among right-exits with very little warning, a deadly high-speed fractal of machines guided by meatbags balancing Starbucks cups between their legs and texting meaningless gibberish into the empty stupid sky. There were three fatal accidents just minutes behind us in the unavoidable torrential downpour that pursued us into Wyoming.
The weather turned unspeakably ugly in Wyoming. The mountains of Wyoming form a natural bowl, and some freak event in the jet stream caused a hailstorm of Biblical proportions to rotate slowly through that bowl in a counterclockwise fashion. It hit us twice, with astounding ferocity, visibility maybe five feet, three inches of ice on the highway in minutes, and hailstones the size of marbles threatening to break the windshield. The general rule when driving across America is to avoid spending more than one night in the same state, unless it’s Texas. We spent two nights in Wyoming.
I’ve never so looked forward to the mundane landscape of Nebraska. Descending from the 8000-foot summit of the highest point on Route 80 to the flat straight prairie was like exhaling after a particularly tense encounter with a large rabid animal. The sky cleared, and our night in Lincoln was calming and uneventful, the Weather Channel making generally soothing noises at our THC and beer-laden brains. Weather porn can be as relaxing as a warm bath, when the weather is calm. We made excellent time moving through Nebraska and Iowa, and the only traffic event of note was a bizarre moment just outside Des Moines. A clearly homicidal trucker had very nearly smashed into us and seemed to be going berserk on traffic in general, tailgating and pursuing unnecessary and perilous lane changes when a guy on a Harley started weaving through the traffic, nearly naked, wearing flip-flops and no helmet, riding east on Route 80 in thick traffic with this maniac trucker using no hands. His hands were in the air. We surged past this unlikely and certainly doomed convergence of madmen. Things seen cannot be unseen, and neither one of us cared to witness the inevitable consequences of the mayhem at hand.
I headed for Oglesby, Illinois, hoping to show Caitlin the weirdest motel in America, the Starved Rock Inn. I’d stopped in this place on my way west after the election back in 2000. It was like a motel designed by David Lynch: a one-story motel log cabin with log furniture and truly weird art, perverse and obscure statuary scattered around the grounds and a strangely unsettling version of a country general store on the premises replete with darkly suggestive Native American artworks, maple sugar candy, and hand-carved vaguely pagan Christmas decorations year-round. Alas, like so many things unique and full of character in this country, it was closed, destined no doubt to be replaced by a Best Western or a Motel 6, or some other homogenized corporate cookie-cutter lodging that looks like every other franchise in America. Authenticity is dead in this country.
The weather favored us, but the landscape deteriorates rapidly once you pass east across the Mississippi River. It all becomes some variation on New Jersey if you took away the beaches and the Pine Barrens. We both had to be in New York City by June 1st. She’d booked a private sleeper compartment on Amtrak back to Oakland, a spectacular ride that I’d like to take myself. I had a reading to do at the KGB Bar in Manhattan with a bunch of other New York Press alumni, a tribute to Ned Vizzini, a really gifted young writer who’d committed suicide just prior to last Christmas. We were making good time. I hadn’t killed any cops. We hadn’t even encountered one. It’s the Elvis Zippo, and Caitlin, of course. I’ve driven it alone, that’s like taking ayahuasca. Alone, driving for roughly 3000 miles, your head can go into some very strange places. I’ve done it three times. I’m an American shaman. I could not exist as anything other than an American. I am America.
We dropped south off of 80 to avoid the whole Chicago nightmare. Caitlin wanted to visit some online acquaintances in Dayton, Ohio, and we were sufficiently ahead of schedule to fuck around. It also worked to get us more efficiently to the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the last highway feed to our destination, my cousin’s house in New Jersey.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike is one of the most beautiful highways in America. It’s elegantly designed, and it runs through some of the prettiest country in this land. The Pennsylvania State Police, responsible for law enforcement on that road, have had a reputation for truly ugly criminal behavior since I was a child in the 1950s. It’s not surprising that some loose cannon would go off and kill a few of them. What’s surprising is how long it took to happen.
We crossed Pennsylvania with ease, encountering only a few light showers. It was coming up on rush hour as we approached Philadelphia, and we wanted no part of that. We took a room in the Motel 6 in King of Prussia, just west of Philly. I wanted to be clean and well-rested to meet my cousin and aunt.
We were tired of the highway, but not tired of each other. We’d been on the road together for seven days. Our interaction was good, and I’m keeping it private. We planned to offload the car at my cousin’s house and do some exploring in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, hit the Shore, and then head up to Manhattan. I fully intended to settle into a cabin in the Pines, and Caitlin has an abiding interest in botany and geology. The New Jersey Pine Barrens are unique, and very peculiar. Thoroughly haunted, as well.
The next morning, we rose at dawn and skirted around the edge of Philadelphia and over the Walt Whitman Bridge into New Jersey. I avoid Camden, and haven’t set foot there or driven through since 2000, when I buried my mom. Through the intervention of Caitlin and the miracle of medical marijuana, I’d avoided becoming a serial killer of puppy-killing cops. I’m far too old for that anyway. It’s a younger man’s job. It was my sixth and final drive across America, a crumbling land inhabited by a fearful and impoverished people who live in terror of the cops and have no real say in their governance. I was home, looking for a cabin in the woods. Something isolated, within driving distance of the Shore and New York. Something very Lovecraft.