Sunday, March 4, 2012

In, Out, Up and Up

In Valencia, the air is sweet from groves of orange circles on green blurs as I drive the curves of one California highway. In Arkansas, gnarly balls of thicket tumble across faded gray concrete highways while cows stand in dark dirt, munching on feed and cud. In New Mexico, distant mountain ranges conjure country pride through the belting of "purple mountains majesty" out unwound windows. Primary colors painted on gas pumps in Oklahoma. The way my pulse pounds in Santa Fe, unaccustomed to the high altitude. My tall brown leather boots in a vegan restaurant in Santa Barbara, California where a small town rally about undisclosed monosodium glutamate (MSG) in packaged food travels between the lips of wealthy hippies while packs of posters are distributed for hanging. I feel the eyes of a nurse in blue scrubs land on my zippered cowhide. "I bought these boots last year, before I went vegan." I prepare to say and, "Most people are eating the meat so I'm just making sure the cow's skin isn't wasted." But no fight progresses past her fleeting glance and my soft tacos arrive to distract me with juicy jackfruit, guacamole, black beans and salsa. We climb copper boulders at a rest stop in Arizona. I photograph Scott's silhouette, capturing his rolled shirt sleeves, angular chin, reflective rimmed glasses and the digits of his long curved fingers. I photograph a fat black crow on a telephone line. I photograph toilets: rest stop toilets, restaurant toilets, hotel toilets. But a toilet is a toilet is a toilet, I learn. I don't know why I thought they would change state by state. In Crossville, Tennessee, the battery light on the dashboard shines. Southern hospitality saves us on this Sunday morning in holy Tennessee where rain is turning into snow. A mechanic drives to his shop, replaces our alternator and charges just $55 for an hour and a half of labor. In Oklahoma City, we find a restaurant oasis, Matthew Kenney, where an eager red headed waiter tells us about his favorite menu items. Scott and I share a smoothie of raw chocolate, almond milk and banana. I order a butternut squash soup and for my main course, a dish of curried kelp noodles with vegetables. For dessert, we share a delectable chocolate chai sampler. Two hours east of Amarillo, 60 mile-an-hour winds push the driver's side window to sink slightly, causing an irritating whistle. Scott cranks the manual lever again and again, creating brief moments of quiet. However, the cranking eventually causes cracking and the disappearance of the window into the door. Gusts of cold roar in. We pull off the highway. It's nearly 4PM on Presidents' Day and all the auto shops who answer our calls can't help until the next morning. So we bundle up. I get into the driver's seat, pull back onto the highway and grip the wheel with my gloved hands. The car wavers in the wind and I imagine we are picked up and tossed into the spinning blades of the wind farm fans. Chopped into tiny pieces, our wet remains sprinkle over the mile long cow ranch we pass and into the vents of the many mysterious metallic barns we see. In Oakland, California, we meet Scott's brother and his wife, the new owners of this car we've been driving for 3,600 miles. We meet at their city's Saturday farmers' market where a middle aged man sings Jamaican songs and beneath tents are piles of citrus, herbs, and strawberry samples. In San Francisco, they buy us burritos and beer and we sit in a park on a pink and orange sheet while a middle aged man with a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon under his tattooed arm hollers "cold beer". A little later, a twenty-something stoner with a queer smile and a black backpack crouches beside me and offers to sell us some drugs using lingo we are unfamiliar with. Shrooms and weed baked into brownies, he translates. "No thanks." Another dealer quietly carries brass hot pots of drug infused chocolate truffles. He is the classiest dealer around, wearing a straw pointy hat, a button down shirt and sun kissed skin. The park is packed. Gathered groups sit in rows, all facing downhill away from the sun. It looks as if we are watching a show. And we are, I suppose, watching and simultaneously performing the show of strangers. A frisbee flies for a fast pup. An amateur tightrope made of yellow car straps wraps two trees. Someone's bottle cap pops behind us and lands at the center of our sheet, causing us to look around and receive a jolly apology. A baby in pink overalls waddles by alone before flopping her diapered bottom beside two snuggling lady lovers. After a brief chat, we watch the baby stand and begin retracing her uphill steps when three drunk girls bend low to ask for her momma in high pitched voices. The baby walks on. The drunk girls follow. The baby's mother stands with a wide smile to the right of us and when the drunk girls see her, they laugh. They thought the baby was alone, they say before collapsing back onto their blankets, all secretly sad for babies of their own. Guitars, bean bag football, an old Asian woman collecting cans, miniature canines, and toe nail dirt. This is my new knowledge of sunny Saturdays in San Francisco. In Knoxville, Tennessee, we drink local beer from pint glasses and go swimming in the hotel's indoor pool. At a gas station in Montville, New Jersey we fill the Geo Prism's gas tank and empty our pee tanks in the convenience store restroom. The small car is fun to drive, but "We're dead if we get into an accident." I say, my shifty eyes bouncing from blue tooth talking drivers to a guy with an orange kitten on his lap to the sunlight splashing the scaffolding of the bridge in New York and to riverbank hills covered in houses. The car's four wheels drift with my eyes into sleep strips, lane lines and steering wheel jerks. "You might want to stay in your lane." Scott says before "Break lights. Breaaaaak lights!" Scott and I perform a firm hand shake at every state line. I drive 80 miles an hour when the speed limit marks 75. It feels like flying. We pass cargo trains, eighteen wheeler trucks and trailers towing trailers. We see black bulls, brown horses and hundreds of billboards for burgers and Cracker Barrels. The car shop in Amarillo, where we get the window wedged shut, is a dealership and while we wait we chat with the waiting room hostess. A sweet old woman adorned with big shiny jewelry and a southern drawl, she owns a jewelry business and a window cleaning company. She works at the dealership for fun. I can tell she wants to chat so when the sun starts to rise behind the buildings across the street, I stand up and initiate conversation with "pretty sunrise." My obvious remark is all she needs to get chatting. A widow of a "real cowboy" she lived in New Mexico for twenty years, she says after my mention of our next destination. She used to go to the rodeos, sip whiskey sours and watch her man down in the ring. Somehow the conversation turns to restaurants. "Can't get a bad meal at Cracker Barrel." she says, "they have everything." and "You don't have Olive Gardens in Massachusetts, do you?" and "Oh you probably don't like cat fish, but we love it down here." When it's time to leave, she wishes us luck and I tell her it was nice talking to her because it was. We listen to an entire book on tape. We listen to Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Patsy Cline in Tennessee. We listen to the wind and we hardly talk or think about the future.  

The night before our road trip's departure, my family gathers at a Chinese restaurant for Mom's birthday. My little sister, who is amidst a graduate school course about race and equality, speaks of her shock. She's learning about the harsh truths of current racial inequality in this country. Man created racism. She tells us. We are all exactly the same on the inside. I tell her that I actually watched Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s I Have a Dream speech on my computer that afternoon. I had been watching one lecture and it inspired me to look for more inspiration. I wasn't planning to watch the entire speech, but I couldn't help myself. When King begins his famous August 28, 1963 address at the March on Washington, his eyes carefully follow his written word, his nervous tongue tripping a little and echoing through the huddled group of microphones at his mouth. Soon, he becomes more comfortable at his familiar place behind the podium, referring less to the pages at his fingertips. He rallies listeners for his dreams to be fulfilled. The camera goes to the gray statue of our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. Stoically, he sits as a massive reminder of his abolition of slavery one hundred years before at the conclusion of the American Civil War. Where will America be in 2063?  I wonder. And will we ever all be "free at last"?  

What if Scott and I were black? What if we were lesbians or gay men? What if we were of Mexican, Iranian or Kenyan descent? Would we have taken this trip from our liberal city in the Northeast, down through the southern states and up through California? What would have happened when Scott walked into that gas station where that group of middle aged white men sat drinking coffee and telling jokes that started with "those black boys"? Would we have felt unsafe in Knoxville, Little Rock or Amarillo? We have friendly faces, kind smiles and innocent eyes, but is our peach colored skin all strangers see? Is our skin the reason why the persons we pass return our smiles and gentle speech? Is our skin color the reason why so many go out of their way to help us when we have car trouble? Is our skin color the reason why those three hicks with individual facial ticks in that Arizona car shop charged us $40 for an oil change?

In Santa Barbara, I have never seen such flaunting wealth. This is probably where celebrities shop, I imagine, looking around for rock stars, basketball players and famous film actors. We pass four old-fashioned movie theaters with bright bulbed marquees on our way to dinner. We see gold and crystal chandeliers glowing in arched entrances and beneath outdoor staircases. We see stores, restaurants, and ice cream shops equipped with high fashion window displays where gravity is redefined, color is reexamined and money is of no object. Yet across from these shiny windows, leather skinned homeless men and women sit on wrought iron sidewalk benches beneath oval antiqued streetlights holding cardboard signs for food. The next morning, I go for a jog. I pass a church lawn where, behind its high hedge, tents are being shoved into hitchhiker sacks and stolen shopping carts.   

In Oakland, before our red eye flight back to Boston, we attend my brother-in-law, Jonathan's planetarium show. We sit in the front row on reclined cushioned chairs and learn how scientifically miraculous our planet is. At the end of the half hour show, curious children raise their little hands and inadvertently trick Jonathan into articulating the speed of light by way of Einstein's Theory of Relativity. A little while later, he sets up a telescope and points it to our cratered gray moon. We are so small, aren't we? An idea which can be very hard to grasp. It's like when you're in high school and your boyfriend breaks up with you or your mother sends you to baseball practice with the wrong kind of pants and all the senior baseball jackass jocks relentlessly tease you. It is nearly impossible to look past one's awkward teenage ecosystem of broken naivety, savage rumors and spiking hormones to see flat empty highways, fog ringed mountain ranges and strangers. And yet, even after graduating crowded cafeterias, American History classes, and Algebra graphs, it seems we still struggle to see past our picket fences, car doors and country lines to comprehend really how alike we all are. We are all souls stuffed into bodies made of livers, lungs, joints and hearts. We all walk this planet in search of acceptance, sex and survival. We are all born of mothers, begin as babbling babies and waddle around as defenseless children. We all suffer heart ache and growing pains. And we all must choose between slowly dying and constantly growing. Personally, I want to learn the past; expand upon my present perspective and develop an extraordinary future. Because I only have this one chance with this body, with this family, with these friends and I know that I can only do it here, on this one spectacular and extremely exhausted Earth. 

I'm not going to waste any time dying.  

At a rest stop in Shenandoah National Park, I take a picture of Scott and he takes a picture of me. In my picture, I am laughing because I am farting and the thunder of my toot echos through the valley below. In Lexington, Virgina, we find a coffee shop and walk circles around a neighborhood, stretching our car cramped legs. At the Grand Canyon at sun rise, I sit on a rock at Mather Point willing the rising sun to pink my purple lips and soothe my quivering muscles. We drive the coastal highway, Interstate 1, up and up California where the views of the Pacific Ocean give us new images for which to judge future landscape beauty contests upon.