Monday, January 19, 2009

Ain't that America

This May I am planning to go on my first overseas, passport-required journey.

I have flown over an ocean to get to that island in the Pacific we like to call a state. That was quite exotic, but everyone spoke English.

I have been to Middle-of-nowhere, Mexico and even lived for a time in Canada. Neither of those places are very exotic (at least not near the borders), and neither required passports at the time.

I spoke enough French to buy some roller skates in Montreal, and to tell the country store owner I didn't want gravy on my poutine (or on my gâteau for that matter). Let's say I spoke enough Spanish to get whatever I wanted in Sonora.

That was the most out of my element I've ever been, drinking a warm Tecate by a dirt highway where eighteen wheelers, outfitted with less than eighteen wheels, went racing and lurching by.

And now I'm bound for an entirely new continent, over a ne'er traversed ocean, to land in Luxembourg, a country where everyone and their mother speaks French. I can only make embarrassing small talk (and buy patins à roulettes) in that language. A fluent friend of mine asked me if I'd seen any films and I replied indignantly, "Je ne fume pas!" So I will probably not even be able to ask where the bathroom is without insulting someone's mother.

As exciting and monumental as this trip will be for me, I want to remind the reader and myself of a thought I've had many times. We Americans have practically a whole world of vacation destinations in our backyard, and lack of exposure to Luxembourgian museums or exotic islanders is nothing to be ashamed of if you've ever taken a road trip across our very own patchwork of culture and beauty.

I'm not about to launch into a prose rendition of "O beautiful for spacious skies..." -- I do believe and appreciate that we have just about every imaginable climate, landscape, ecosystem, whatever-have-you, worth visiting nestled here or there across this wide continent. That glittering fact is apparent to anyone who looks at our big ass political territory with regard to latitude and longitude.

What isn't so apparent from looking at a map is the startling variety of houses, of roads, of dialects, of smells, of doughnuts, of human beings, that can be found in our diverse states and counties.

Henrietta, Oklahoma: The Super 8 motel is booked. Pink neon beckons you across the street to the Rockin' R motel. You part the cloud of smoke wafting from two doors down and unlock the door. Exploration. The first motel you've been in where someone's borrowed pages from the bible. The bathroom has a drain smack in the middle -- toilet, sink, showerhead in a tiled-to-the-ceiling closet. Putting your suitcase away, you find an empty tuna can under the bed. You remember dinner. There's a bar-b-que joint back across the street by the Super 8. Dad recommended it on the phone, but you think twice about weaving through the black mass of Harleys to get to the door. You lay on top of the sheets, and drift off to the sounds and smells of the deals and steel drums in room 5.

Patagonia, Arizona: Art fairs are nice. Terra cotta ladies with dangly turquoise everything crowd the dusty aisles. You've just come from the campsite and had bacon and toast down the street. The bathroom there looked like home. Shell soaps, basket of fake flowers, breeze fluttering at the crank-out window. You drag your greasy ass and your flat Dr. pepper into a gallery by the street. The dark, youngish owner explicates his paintings of cows. One of his teeth is a slightly different color. His black strands are pulled in a tight sticky pony tail. Who would do this guy? His wife walks in with coffee, leather, and fringes. Not bad.

Labyrinth at the Tree of Life Center, Patagonia, AZ

Marion, Virginia: You shouldn't be able to hear the sermon for the noise of the fans, but the preacher speaks loud. So far he hasn't actually banged any bibles, but he looks the type. Why do they have to tie those plastic strands to the fans? Don't you know it's turned on from looking at it, from the breeze it blows? Maybe it's like bike streamers, just one of those accessories no one questions. You fan yourself with the Bristol Shopper paper. There's an ad for a bluegrass festival on page 4, but that's all the way in town. The motley assortment of hats and hair buns in the pews keeps your eyes occupied and awake. You want to get out of there and traipse around in that flat sparkly creek just out the window. You have soft baby feet but you've never minded the dull pain of a cold creek bed. You look up the hill at the graveyard. You took grandma's picture there yesterday, while she sat on her headstone: 1926 -- . Maybe after the creek Dad will let you head back to the motel and get one of those 35 cent sodas. They still have Mello Yello down here.

Tucson, Arizona: You came back for a visit and its dusty as hell. It hurts as much as it did before, to walk in the street in the sun. You set out for Fourth Ave, the Haight-Ashbury of Tucson. The Jesus sandals start to chafe. You can see the moles on your arm taking on sinister shapes. You imagine they spell out "melanoma" in little brown dots. Ten blocks later there's definitely a blister. Ball of the foot, size of a silver dollar. Saved by the thrift store. You buy some socks, a pair of european sandals, and some designer shoes and everything is half off. $8 later you are wearing those socks with those new sandals and dont care who notices, and you reek of consignment. At the food co-op you're welcome in that getup, and the check out kid, a curly, fuzzy, red-haired man-child, starts telling you about his marathon training. All you wanted was an organic vegan popsicle and some weird hippie beer for later. You eat your popsicle on the sidewalk at the co-op's cafe table and catch a lot of glances. Must be the cut-offs. You feel like Lolita. You cross to the other side of the street, still working on the popsicle, balancing the beer bag on a hip. Two college boys in Greek letters call you a lesbian.

Mercersburg Pennsylvania: You run and jump face-first onto the wet black plastic. They've made a mountain-size slip n' slide down the side of the capture-the-flag hill. Three green garden hoses running from God knows where (it's a Christian camp) spill their trickles down the vast sheet of 3-mil. A pool is forming at the bottom. It gets deeper, muddier, and for some reason, sudsier. You slide an eternity, as the smoke blue mountain tops disappear and the army green trees get bigger. Your head goes in and then your red-white-and-blue bottom goes up. You pop up into the humidity that's as dirty and wet as the mud pool. Run up the hill, slipping on long grass, stepping on thistles now and again, to take another dive.

I could write these forever. I'm going to work on some for the weekend. And do a few more French lessons.

I just looked outside and was shocked to see snow. Where are blue valleys when you need them?


  1. I liked these. Not that I don't usually like your postings, but these had a different...flavor that I found interesting.

    Poutine freaks me out. I didn't believe a friend of mine when he told me about it. I still don't really believe it. I guess Eegee's ranch fries aren't too far off...

    Patagonia sounds more interesting than I remember it. If my truck didn't shake above 45 mph I might have to take a drive. The picture makes it look both intriguing and hokey. I wonder if they're as big on vortexes in Patagonia as they are in Sedona.

    Ahh 4th Ave. I can almost see my house in that picture. I don't think anyone's ever called me a lesbian while walking on 4th. People don't usually interact with me on the ave though, they don't even try to sell me illicit substances anymore (not that I ever bought them). I can't decide if that's because they've cleaned up the street some, or if I look more respectable now (doubtful). Maybe I need some cut-offs.

  2. Thanks, Henry.

    I just realized that I probably haven't shred any of my fiction with you. I always enjoy your comments on my more conversational posts, and your "contrarian" stances make me watch my rhetoric. But it's nice to get some feedback on my creative stuff from a guy -- my writer's group (and all my writer friends) are all women!

    Normally I poo-poo writing in the present tense and I gag when I read the 2nd person ("you") point of view, but for some reason it feels right for these little snapshots.

  3. "Shred" was supposed to read "shared." As you know I shredded some poems last month, but it wasn't nearly as nihilistic an experience as I made it sound.

  4. Finally found some free time to comment : ) This linguistics subject is hard (I never knew talking was so complicated). Anyway, I hope you can forgive how addled my comments will undoubtedly be. I'm running on fumes.

    I love this essay, though I'm still green with envy that you get to go overseas : ( I've got serious wanderlust. I envy all travelers. Before Kauai, the most exotic place that I had been was probably New Orleans.

    It's frightening to learn a new language. I probably should, but I'm just afraid of the time needed. Of course, after the Miami experience when I almost passed out from dehydration because I didn't speak a word of Cuban and the damn park rangers (I think that's what they were) thought the phrase "I'm lost, please help me" translated into "I don't have a map", perhaps I should rethink becoming bilingual

    This essay reminds me of a short story. The imagery you invoke is simply amazing. Every word has a purpose and there is no "filler".

    Michael and his French. He once wrote me an e-mail entirely in French just to screw with me. All I could write back was "Huh?". But I can gloat that I know what ennui means :-D

    I just finished reading "Take the Cannoli" by Sarah Vowell. In almost all of her books, she often comments on the history that we miss out on in our backyard. One of the saddest essays she wrote is about her and her twin traveling along the trail of tears in the footsteps of their ancestors. The trick is that you have to know where to look and most people just don't bother.

    I'd love to visit the places you've described. I think I was only at one. My problem is the fact that I have no one to go with me. This wouldn't be a problem, if I had some form of transportation. Vowell doesn't drive either, but she knows a number of people who also enjoy traveling and so can normally get transportation without any trouble.

    Well, thank you for that mini vacation. You really make the places come alive with your words. And my kudos to being able to write in second person. That's a narrative that most writers won't touch.

    *Sigh* Where is the warm weather when you need it?


I publish all the comments, the good, the bad and the ugly. Unless I have no idea what you're saying. If you want to email me (with only good I hope), I'm at rbyrd [at] niu [dot] edu.