I was on a two-lane highway in the California desert, somewhere between the Arizona border and Joshua Tree, when I finally broke down and cried.
I say “finally” because some part of me had been waiting to cry for the last 2,600 miles, though I didn’t realize I’d been waiting to cry until I actually started crying, and I couldn’t say—can’t say, even now—exactly what the crying was about.
They were big, dumb tears. I had to pull the car over. It was embarrassing.
I’d agreed to drive a friend’s Subaru across the country, from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, where he’d taken a job writing for a television show.
“You don’t even like television,” I'd said, the night he first told me. “Do you even own a television?”
It’s possible I was jealous. Not that I necessarily wanted to write for television. Not that I necessarily wanted to move to California. But I didn’t not want those things.
I didn’t know what I wanted. My first night on the road, in a Super 8 Motel just outside Knoxville, I drank a Bud tallboy and made a pro/con list for staying with my current job. I made a pro/con list for staying with my current girlfriend. I made a pro/con list for staying in Philadelphia.
On day two I almost stopped in Nashville but didn’t. I almost stopped in Memphis but didn’t. I was antsy to get west, and keeping my fingers crossed about the weather. The first week of January might seem like an odd time to drive across America, but my friend needed his car and I had ten days until the new semester started. He'd agreed to pay for gas, and my flight back.
I was aiming for Little Rock by afternoon, because it’s important to have goals, but also because the internet promised a good place for hot chicken. I wanted a cigarette but was resisting temptation. They were cheap in Tennessee and even cheaper in Arkansas. Just west of the Mississippi, half a dozen men were using a truck stop parking lot to make major repairs to their cars. Inside, hand-lettered fliers advertised a special on coffee and Sponge Bob cakes, but I didn’t see any Sponge Bob cakes, and the woman behind the counter apologized and told me they were out of coffee. Also the men’s room was closed, but I could use the family restroom, the line for which stretched all the way down the candy aisle. “I swear it’s not usually like this,” she said.
Back on the road, I heard two consecutive radio ads for shotgun manufacturers, which struck me as odd until I realized I’d landed on a program called The Gun Show. It was sort of like Car Talk for firearms.
“This might be an unpopular opinion,” the host told one of his callers, “but I don’t think you want a hair trigger on your carry weapon.”
His concern, it turned out, wasn’t that the man might accidentally shoot someone, or himself, but that a hair trigger could be used against him in court. “If you’re up there on the witness stand in a self-defense case, trust me, you don’t even want to be having that conversation.”
According to the show’s website, in the second hour things get political.
I can’t really complain about my job. On the other hand, when you answer every question about your job by saying, “I can’t really complain about my job,” you could choose to see that as a problem. Especially if you find yourself saying this in response to questions that aren’t even about your job, or questions which aren’t, technically speaking, even questions.
“I can’t really complain about my job,” you say, apropos of nothing, and watch the people around you inch away.
It started to rain, and then it started to rain harder. It started to sleet. Traffic slowed to a crawl. When the sleet and rain stopped they were replaced by a ground fog so thick I couldn’t see anything beyond the taillights ahead of me.
I was so busy concentrating on those taillights I didn’t even notice the Check Engine light flash on.
The girlfriend: She’s smart. Pretty. Successful. Which only makes it more frustrating to feel as if there’s something missing, something I can’t seem to name. There’s a distance between us, but it’s been there so long it’s begun to feel like its own kind of intimacy.
In one version of this story we're in love with each other, and each of us is only waiting for the other to say the words. In another version we haven't said the words because they aren't true, but each of us is holding out hope they might become true, sooner rather than later, if we just keep plugging away.
By the time I got to Little Rock my fingers hurt from white-knuckling the wheel. The Check Engine light had gone out on its own. I was choosing to write it off as an electrical glitch. The hot chicken was good, if not life-altering. In my hotel room, every single drawer had been pulled open, as if the cleaning staff, or management, believed I might not otherwise understand how drawers worked.
After an early dinner I walked along Little Rock’s rehabbed riverfront and tried very hard to find it interesting. There was a jogging trail. A semi-permanent farmer’s market. An outdoor climbing wall. The fog had reconstituted itself as a steady drizzle. I could feel a familiar loneliness descending.
I crossed the river on a pedestrian bridge, snapped a photo and then immediately crossed back. I shrugged, though no one was around to see me. I went looking for a bar.
The one I settled on had a faded-Western motif and an absurd number of IPAs on tap. I could’ve been back in my own Philadelphia neighborhood, or in the gentrified, just-past-hip section of any American city. I drank an IPA and pretended not to eavesdrop on the conversation of the couple next to me.
Actually, conversation was the wrong word. He was holding forth, at length, about the perils and pleasures of homebrewing. I began to suspect couple, too, was wrong. If I had to guess—and guessing about the lives of strangers while drinking alone in bars is something of a pastime—I’d say this was a second date, one she’d agreed to reluctantly, having been counseled by more than one friend that she’s too picky, that she never gives nice guys a chance.
Eventually he switched gears and started talking about golf. I walked back to my hotel, where instead of cracking open the doorstop-sized academic book on nostalgia I’d brought along as a writing-related research project, I watched back-to-back episodes of Friends, a show I hadn’t liked all that much the first time around, but which in reruns I found oddly comforting.
Philadelphia is fine. As a city, I mean. It’s a perfectly reasonable place for a person to live.
In the morning the Check Engine light came on again. I turned the radio down and listened for unusual noises. I kept both hands on the wheel. I waited for the light to turn itself off.
Thirty minutes later, in the parking lot of a Shell station, I popped the hood and made a series of worried faces at the engine. I thought about calling my friend, but it was 5:30 in Los Angeles and according to both the manual and the internet it was probably just an emissions issue. In an actual emergency the light would start flashing.
The union minimum for a staff writer on a scripted television series is just under $4,000 a week. I won’t tell you how much I make as a non-tenure-track writing instructor at a large public university, but suffice to say it is nowhere in the neighborhood of $4,000 a week.
Not that money is the only thing, or even the main thing, but after years of convincing myself I didn’t care about money I was finally, in my late thirties, ready to admit that I did, at least a little. I’d accumulated very few of the trappings of an American middle-class adulthood—on purpose for a while, but then for a much longer while only by force of habit.
Oklahoma is very, very flat. It is occasionally pretty, depending on your definition of pretty. There’s a starkness which, perhaps aided by the late-afternoon light, caused a warmth to rise up in my chest. And maybe this feeling had something to do with those tears in the desert, several days later: an accumulation of beauty.
I stopped just short of Oklahoma City for gas and saw that cigarettes were under $4.00 a pack. My addict brain started making idiot calculations. I forced myself back into the car, and I didn’t stop again until Texas.
It wasn't just the money, but the lack of a narrative arc. Each spring I had to reapply for my teaching job, sign another one-year contract, keep my fingers crossed that budget cuts wouldn't eliminate the position entirely. An anxious, holding-pattern way to live.
My friend had been hired to write for TV by a former grad-school classmate of his, who after several years of working his way up had landed his own show. I’d gone to the same grad program, though a couple years later, and since then I'd tallied up some small successes. I published stories in well-respected literary magazines, the kind I suspected few people actually read. I wrote a novel. I got an agent. The agent tried for several months to sell the novel and then quit being an agent altogether. Maybe she got fired; I was never entirely clear on the details. I started another book, one I couldn’t seem to finish, and then another.
Would it be unforgivable, in an essay about driving across the country, to employ a car metaphor? Because the phrase "turning his wheels" keeps coming to mind.
It was dark by the time I reached Amarillo. It had snowed the night before, and no one had bothered to plow the access roads or parking lots. I’d chosen a hotel online, based chiefly on its atrium design, which brought back fond memories of a favorite childhood hotel, just outside Atlanta, where we stopped sometimes on the way to visit my grandmother.
But here, instead of exotic, the design felt tired, sad, a holdover from another era, one that had ended badly. The lighting was suspiciously dim, the indoor pool murky. The only remaining trace of the atrium restaurant was a circular bar being used as a staging area by the cleaning staff. Even by the standards of fake plants, the ferns looked ghastly.
I ate dinner at an Outback Steakhouse because it was close enough to walk. The prime rib special was better than expected, but the bartender was so aggressively friendly it got exhausting. At one point, the male half of a turtlenecked couple down the bar called out to him: “Hey, help us settle a bet. Which one’s harder to learn, golf or tennis?”
The bartender made a faux-thoughtful face. He looked up at the ceiling. “Wow, guys, that’s a tough one,” he said. “That’s a real head-scratcher.” Then he smiled, and he shot them with finger pistols.
On the walk back to the hotel, I slipped on a patch of ice and landed on my back. I wondered, not for the first time, why I’d signed up for this trip. I should be back in Philadelphia, I thought, getting ready for the new semester. I should be writing. I should be patching up the leaks in the little boat of my relationship, or else giving it a dignified ocean burial. My girlfriend and I talked that night on the phone, and her voice was a comfort, but the conversation itself felt halting, strained. I told myself it was just lousy reception.
After I hung up I looked at the thick book I'd set out on the nightstand, before dinner, fully intending to get to it before bed. I flipped on the TV and watched an episode of Law & Order.
My girlfriend and I, we dated once before, three years ago, and that time she was the one with doubts. “I just can’t picture myself ever marrying you,” she said once, which struck me as odd, since I hadn’t asked.
But then last summer we started spending time together again, first by accident and then on purpose. We played tennis. We took a long bike ride out to Valley Forge. When I told her I was considering a cat she came with me to the shelter. She kept telling me how much I’d changed, and each time she said so I thought: You’re wrong, I haven’t, just wait.
In one version of this story I’m a fool, and in another version I’m a different sort of fool.
In the morning, in the depressing atrium, one of the housekeepers pointed me to a pot of coffee set off from the others and marked “strong.” I read her smile as conspiratorial, though probably I just looked like someone in need of strong coffee.
After breakfast I drove over to Sixth Street. There was an old art-deco theater. Several antique stores. A tattoo parlor. Frequent signs to remind you this was the original Route 66, in case for even a few seconds you forgot, in case you allowed yourself to start wondering how in the world you’d ended up here. I could imagine the sidewalk cafés being popular in warmer months.
Just outside of town I stopped again, to take pictures of the Cadillac Ranch, an art installation that exists, one suspects, primarily to be photographed. Even as I snapped pictures from various distances and angles, I was aware the internet must be full of such pictures, and of higher quality than I could produce with my little point-and-shoot camera. Still, the snow was a nice touch.
A college writing teacher once asked if I’d ever considered screenplays. At the time, due to my own temperament and my reading of his, I took this to be a passive-aggressive jab: I wasn’t good enough for literature. But it occurs to me now it may have been well-intentioned advice. On several occasions he’d praised my ear for dialogue, even while noting in my stories a troubling streak of sentimentality.
A few days before leaving on this trip, I met a writer-friend for happy hour at our usual neighborhood spot. “You’d really consider writing for TV?” he said.
“There’s a lot of good stuff on TV,” I said.
We were standing by the bar’s large chalkboard, arms crossed, each of us trying to decide which IPA to order.
“It’s all ephemeral,” my friend said. “In fifty years, no one’s going to be watching Breaking Bad. In twenty years.”
“But books disappear, too,” I said. “Most books disappear. At least you’d have an audience.”
My friend only shrugged. Lately he’d been admirably Zen about his own writing. Maybe because after several years of post-grad-school struggle he’d recently published two books with small presses. Or maybe it was that he’d gotten married, bought a house, had a kid.
“I guess it depends what you’re writing for,” he said. “Yourself? Money? Validation? Tenure?”
I couldn’t tell whether this was a rhetorical question, but since I didn’t have a ready answer I decided to treat it as one.
The landscape changed gradually and then suddenly. There were trees, and then there were no trees. It was flat, and then there were hills, and then in the distance bigger hills that looked like mesas. Maybe they were mesas. It occurred to me I didn’t really know what a mesa was.
I ate lunch in Tucumcari, at a diner that billed itself as Mexican-American, which turned out to mean Mexican food prepared and served exclusively by white people. It was okay, in the way that about eighty-five percent of life is okay.
After, I walked for a while down Main Street, past frequent markers reminding me I was on Route 66, in case I’d managed to forget. I took pictures of old hotel signs. The Bluebird. The Apache. The Palomino. Before Route 66 these little towns were farming communities. Some of them were nothing at all. Now, thanks to I-40, to the convenience of truck stops and fast food and chain hotels, they’d mostly reverted to their original states of being. The lucky ones could at least claim an exit, put up billboards pleading with travelers to stop. In fact I’d stopped in Tucumcari largely because of its aggressive marketing campaign, which had gone on for so many miles I’d been won over by its sheer desperation.
Driving through these little towns, you could start to see their post-interstate plight as a metaphor for America itself. Then again, after enough hours alone in a car, everything starts to look like a metaphor. The rubbery eggs at a hotel's breakfast bar are a metaphor for the half-finished manuscript on your laptop. The ruined husk of a motor lodge is a metaphor for the human heart. That you landed in Tucumcari on the one day a week when its dinosaur museum is closed: a metaphor for your entire goddamn life.
Back in the car, I listened to two evangelical pastors debate the relative merits of Heaven Is For Real, a movie based on a book based on a young child’s near-death experience.
“My position,” one of the men said, “is that at least it starts a conversation about Jesus.”
“But to even call that a Christian movie,” the other man said. “To even suggest it’s got any basis in Scripture.”
Their problem, I eventually figured out—or at least one of their problems—was the movie's suggestion that non-Christians might get into heaven.
“Well, we’ve got to remember we’re talking about a four-year-old here,” the first man said. “Maybe God did give him a vision, but it’s being filtered through the consciousness of a four-year-old.”
It’s the journey, not the destination: One of those warmed-over clichés which is true enough, I guess, though it’s also true that without a destination there’s no journey in the first place. And this, I think, is the chief pleasure of a road trip: it gives you somewhere to go. It provides a concrete goal, and a timetable, and a bunch of smaller goals along the way. You find restaurants, and points of interest, and hotels and bars. You plan routes and choose playlists and buy snacks and fill up the tank with gas. Every day, several times a day, the road gives you another chance to prove your competence.
From Santa Fe I texted my girlfriend: “New life plan. Get a job at St. John’s. Teach the great books. Live in an adorable adobe house in the desert.”
A few seconds later her reply vibrated in: “At least I’ll know where to send your Christmas cards.”
I was kidding, mostly. I think she knew I was kidding, mostly, and was herself mostly kidding. Though we’d gotten to a place where it was difficult to tell. Every interaction felt freighted with meaning.
And I did sort of fall in love with Santa Fe. Maybe I was only looking to fall in love. I splurged, relatively speaking, on a cutesy inn downtown, and that first afternoon I walked the streets taking pictures of adobe houses. Lots of pictures. An absurd number of pictures. Some part of me knew I’d look back, later, and wonder why in the world I’d taken so many pictures of adobe houses, but I couldn’t seem to stop.
That night, drinking Jack Daniels at a cash-only dive bar, I found myself talking to a pretty, twenty-something woman who’d moved to Santa Fe a year before, from Boston. “I was the same way about the adobe houses,” she said. “My boyfriend made fun of me for it.”
“I don’t even know which ones are nice,” I said. “I can’t tell a nice adobe house from a regular adobe house. It’s a totally foreign language.”
She was drinking a gin and tonic and tapping absently at her phone. She had one of those studs in her nose that’s so tiny you find yourself staring at it, leaning in, trying to decide if it’s a jewel or just a trick of the light.
“Rich people put adobe walls around their property,” she said. “That’s what I eventually figured out. It’s one way to tell, at least.”
Her boyfriend had grown up in Santa Fe, she said, and something had happened with his family that necessitated his coming back. I didn’t push for details. Instead I asked how New Mexico compared to the east coast. “It seems relaxing,” I said. “I mean that’s just a first impression, based on nothing, but it seems like it might be a relaxing place to live.”
“Well, there are a lot of retirees,” she said.
She knew the bartender, a heavily tattooed guy who drifted in and out of our conversation. The place was nearly empty, a slow off-season Tuesday. We talked about nothing of any real consequence, but it was nice to talk. It was nice to be with people, and not just in their general vicinity. Later, walking back to the hotel, I saw a guy smoking on a street corner and thought about bumming one, but I took several deep breaths instead. In my room, a tiny chocolate had been left on each pillow, along with a handwritten note about the local artisans who'd made them. A reward, I thought, for good behavior.
On my second day in Santa Fe I walked up Canyon Road, past the art galleries, and I took more pictures of adobe houses. I took pictures of bare trees, and the surrounding hills. I knew the pictures wouldn’t capture what I wanted them to capture, but perhaps by their sheer volume they might remind me of the impulse that was pushing me to take so many pictures in the first place. The strength of that impulse, if nothing else. It had to do with the light, and the air, with how clean everything smelled.
It had to do with the idea of living in an adobe house, which was like imagining an entirely different life, an entirely different way to live. What would my life look like from the inside of an adobe house? What would my life look like surrounded by desert?
That night I meant to go back to the bar, but the Mexican food I ate for lunch made me sick. Confined to my room, I kept opening and closing the thick book on nostalgia, the one I’d hoped to finish by the end of this trip. I watched a PBS documentary on the Alaskan gold rush, and another on Robert Ripley, both of which were at least thematically appropriate.
Ripley had gone east, actually, to New York, after growing up in San Francisco, but the principle was the same. He was a sports cartoonist, at a time when a sports cartoonist was something you could be, and he stumbled upon his whole Believe It Or Not shtick largely by accident. One day he couldn’t think of anything to draw, and so he put together a collection of odd sports facts.
Though it would take several more years for his Believe It Or Not columns to gradually work their way into existence. In 1922 he took a trip around the world and wrote daily dispatches for the New York Globe. After that, William Randolph Hearst syndicated his columns, and everything just snowballed.
Apparently Ripley hated when people referred to his human subjects as “freaks.” Everyone was strange, he believed, if you just looked at them long enough.
Arizona was uncharted territory. Actually it was heavily charted territory—there's a website that provides turn-by-turn instructions for navigating what's left of Route 66—but I'd yet to chart it myself. I stopped every twenty minutes to take pictures of the landscape, even though I knew I could find pictures of the landscape on the internet, and that my own pictures of the landscape would never capture what I wanted them to capture, which was less about the actual landscape than about my desire to disappear inside it.
I'd been on the road for six days. My back hurt a little. I'd developed a complicated relationship with the Check Engine light. I hadn't smoked a cigarette in more than two months, and the absence of chemicals in my body had left me feeling raw, vulnerable, exposed. Maybe this, too, had something to do with those tears in the desert, now only two days away. It felt as if everything inside me was happening just a little too close to the skin.
Eventually you forget all about the Check Engine light, or rather you forget that a time existed before the Check Engine light. You’ve revised your sense of self to accommodate the Check Engine light, the same way you revised your sense of self, several years ago, to accommodate a daily anxiety that sat in your stomach like a delicate, vibrating egg. Every so often you think: This probably isn’t normal. I should probably get this checked out by a professional.
The Grand Canyon is beautiful and awe-inspiring. You know this already. There’s no reason to talk about it.
Instead let’s talk about Lake Havasu City, 230 miles southwest of the Grand Canyon, and about its founder, Robert McCullough, a chainsaw manufacturer. In 1971 McCullough purchased the decommissioned London Bridge at auction—for around $2.5 million—and reassembled it as a tourist attraction in the lakeside town he was hoping to develop. The bridge spans a narrow stretch of water. It’s functional, not just decorational. Actually, if it weren’t for the signs announcing its presence, and the alternating British and American flags, you might drive right over it without noticing.
In other ways, too, Lake Havasu City struck me as an interesting idea that hadn’t quite panned out. The lake itself is pretty, but it’s surrounded by strip malls and heavily irrigated golf courses. There’s a kitschy British village at the base of the bridge, but most of the shops are closed. Old men drive around shirtless in dune buggies.
On the plus side, about twenty minutes outside of town, America gets beautiful again. There are mountains, and high desert, and then California, where I lied to the border agent rather than digging through my luggage for the apples I’d been hoarding all week, collecting them from complimentary hotel breakfasts.
Like Chekhov famously said: If the Check Engine light comes on in Act I, at some point in Act III it should turn itself back off, in the middle of the desert, for no apparent reason.
My last night on the road, I stayed in a little town called Twentynine Palms. In the motel where U2 stayed, apparently, to shoot photos for the Joshua Tree album, though I wouldn’t find this out until the next morning, when I noticed a newspaper clipping tacked up in the shared kitchen.
After dinner I drank a glass of wine, alone, in the motel’s outdoor hot tub. I thought about all the things I’d seen on this trip. I thought about the semester that would start in three days, and about the snow currently falling on Philadelphia. I thought about my girlfriend, and I thought about other girlfriends, the ghosts of girlfriends past, and I thought about which of them I missed. I thought about my upcoming birthday: in a week I’d be thirty-eight.
I still wasn’t sure what to make of that crying jag, just a couple hours before, driving through a rather anonymous patch of desert. It hadn’t felt like sadness. If anything, I’d been vaguely sad this entire trip, and the tears had felt like something else finally breaking through.
It's not as if I'd suddenly figured out my life. Though I was ready to admit that my life needed some figuring. I was ready to admit I'd been unhappy, an admission which at least opened the door to the possibility of happiness.
For a long time I'd felt stuck in my circumstances. But I wasn't, really. I'd only convinced myself I was stuck, because believing yourself to be stuck is its own kind of comfort.
That night in Twentynine Palms I didn’t feel happy, precisely, but I felt good. Better than I had in a long time. It was January, and I was sitting in a hot tub in the California desert. I could see all sorts of stars. In the morning I’d go for a hike and then I’d drive to Los Angeles, where I’d see friends, and the ocean. The day after that I’d fly back to Philadelphia. If I wanted to change my life, all I had to do was start changing it.