I didn’t think the fog on the east coast would feel the same as the fog on the western one. Everything else has been so different: the land is flatter than the west and yet some places, like Vermont, encapsulate seas of hills that collapse upon one another like tired lovers. The trees are different; the roads are different. Upon arrival in Portland, ME, we stopped at a park overlooking the bay and its necklace of emerald islands strung together with the white sails of wooden boats. I did not expect to hit a wall of humid air when I opened the car door. But within a day we were caught in a summer storm with cold wind and a heavy fog that draped itself over us in veils, the salty smell of the sea and the summer smell of roses following us everywhere we stepped. It felt like home. In this tale of places and people and things, I had forgotten what I missed, though I missed it dearly. Time and distance can do that. We had been to Buffalo the night before, preceded by a long stint in Michigan; before that Chicago, preceded by Nashville. I can’t remember where I left off in the telling of this tale anymore. Going backwards is a strange way to recount a story. It’s been so hard knowing where to start that for weeks now I just haven’t told a story at all. I simply rode along, watching the world unfold and thinking about possibility. But it’s important for me to keep writing and so I will think back…
Montana and Idaho and Wyoming and Montana again: we kept circling within these states as if we’d lost something and were trying to find it again. We had, actually: our senses of humor. We bit at each others’ ankles, turning feral when the need was to turn soft. It took a toll, which is going to happen to two souls traveling together in a Honda Accord. This vortex of inescapable northwestern plains and sharply clashing mountainsides turned me into a pillar of stony silence; turned both of us into unreasonable shitheads with big ideas and small words. A change was needed. The dart hit the map’s dot of Nashville. We were off.
It was in Nashville that I got my first taste of humidity in years, the real kind where you can’t tell the difference between being in or out of the shower; you’re always damp, you’re always warm; you can’t find a dry, cool place to save your life. You dream of stone churches and cellars. But the clouds were especially dazzling, drunk as they were on the humidity themselves. They threw silent, cracked lightning bolts into the distant air like spliced shockwaves frozen momentarily in neon glory. And in the tall grasses of the front yard of a friend, the dancing lights of fireflies sprang delicately from blade to blade.
We spent three days wandering around in the washcloth air. We narrowly missed a country music event that seemed to have taken over the entire city with a vengeance, leaving behind a trail of empty bottles and die-hard, dazed attendees wandering after one another in resigned ennui. We sat in an open-air cafe holding down our fluttering napkins and wobbling decorative vase as a tornado warning flashed continuously on the television over the bar. (It did not accumulate as promised, its frazzled edges swept up by the spring sky and pushed onward, so we took the opportunity to walk the rain soaked streets, recently emptied of patrons, dogs, and heat, and get ourselves lost in a bookstore.)
We went to the Country Music Hall of Fame in the last hour of the last day of the Patsy Cline exhibit. Patsy, my hero of heroes. Somewhere in America there floats a VHS tape of eight-year-old me hollering Patsy’s “Honky Tonk Merry Go ‘Round” on video for my emphysema-stricken grandmother in Washington D.C. After she died, all of her possessions were scattered to the winds, including that one moment in time that captured the bravest, most carefree me. Only Patsy could make me feel that way. I went to the exhibit expecting a grand, multi-room church of Patsy worship. Maybe something to rival Graceland. Something to honor the woman whose contralto pipes would have beaten down the pearly gates. Instead, they had chosen a small room sparsely decorated with some of her belongings, and a projector screen that featured interviews of people who talked more about her producer than of her. I was downright appalled, but I pored over it all anyhow. The handwritten letters, the items found in the wreckage of the crash where she died, three of her performance outfits (including her famous red two-piece cowgirl suit with the white fringe). A collection of salt and pepper shakers. Photos of her family. I sat through the short film with the interviews until I finally got what I came for: Patsy’s voice, totally alone, with no instruments. Crazy, Sweet Dreams, She’s Got You. Every sentence sung with supreme nuance and control, utterly untouchable. My hero, no matter who her producer or her fans or her husband were: the woman who probably held more influence over me than any other musician in the entire world. I left brokenhearted afresh at her death; the death, really, of every artist whose lives ended before they were done.
In Cincinnati we visited the home of a philosophy professor with a penchant for collecting typewriters. His home office was a veritable homage to a machine so cleverly created and so completely unnecessary in modern times, having the unique feature of being both clunky and delicate. All kinds of typewriters from every typewriter age rested side by side like small buildings along mantel, shelf, and desk. You could imagine your favorite author slouched over an era-appropriate machine, cigarette in mouth, frowning over the plunk of the key and the slide of the carriage. Miles purchased a travel-sized piece with a leatherette carrier and we exited the professor’s Writing Wonderland, hungry after all of that literary machination. We ate at a grungy, narrow diner in downtown Cincinnati, talking with the employees and owner about the city and its possibilities. We learned about the city’s high artist employment rate and I suddenly began considering what my life would be like in Cincinnati. (A respect and appreciation for artists prevails in many midwestern cities, a notable aspect of life outside of California that grows more appealing as news reaches us of San Francisco’s shameless Silicon Valley-pandering housing ethics, booting the not-rich out one by one.)
Chicago was large and fast. We had been meandering through small towns and city outskirts for so long that I forgot what it meant to be engulfed in the worlds of city block neighborhoods and intersections and mountainous buildings. We stayed at the home of Miles’ college friend, a high school science teacher and the owner of Lily, a gray Great Dane with a penchant for roses and a fear of small dogs. We went to loud bars and to quiet Thai restaurants, and felt like city people again. After the weekend came to an exhausted close, we headed to Ann Arbor for a night, and then sat down to sort out finances. That was when I realized I had finally hit the money wall. I had enough for two weeks of fuel and groceries and maybe some wiggle room for coffee and a couple of beers. But we had not yet reached the East Coast. I felt the floor open under me and all of the places I had intended to see flying past without a glance at me. We had been on our way to Miles’ friend’s farm in the flat, lush greens of southern rural Michigan and I had been looking forward to escaping the cities and suburbs. Now I was eying westward paths in a panic, racking my brain for ways to make money quickly on the road and trying not spiral into a depression, visions of a less than triumphant return bombarding my thought process.
After a spell of money worry-induced catatonia, Miles suggested we just go to Michigan and figure it out after we’d sat with the shock for a bit. I reluctantly agreed while pushing away terrifying thoughts of becoming a last-minute nanny, weighed down by diaper bags and rich parents’ egos. We arrived there under a heavy gray sky that never opened, wading into the mugginess and followed by a flotilla of chickens. We camped in the yard and woke to the sounds of birds and a particularly mirthful duck. Our brief encounter with farm life was a snapshot of everything romantic that city slickers dream of; we didn’t have to deal with the economic struggles or everyday hardships, we only had to appreciate eating food from a garden and watching moonlight on a lake twinkling with fireflies. I didn’t want to leave.
The morning of our departure we lay in our tent thinking about the intricate network of paths we had before us. Limited, narrow paths that would always be difficult due to lack of money or places to rest our weary heads, but many paths all the same. This trip across the United States has taught me a thing or two about lives and the notion of fate, and how one wrong turn can lead to the right things, and vice versa. I have met people who have nothing who have made something extraordinary. I have met people who had everything and did very little. I have met children of well-to-do parents, given the best educations money and intent can buy, who are still unhappy and lost. People whose goals and life-plans were great, all-encompassing sagas bent unexpectedly by as much and sometimes more ignorance as the poor, undereducated store clerk who hasn’t been farther than the edge of her town. I worry all the time about how far I am going to make in on the small amount of cash I have when I should be wondering why I think I am limited in the very place I stand. As I stared up at the dome of our tent, pensive and somewhat scared of where the next step would lead, I knew only that I was glad to be on a farm in Michigan. A place I had never wanted to go to, a place I never imagined I would be. I’m waiting to see what unexpected place will surprise me next.