by A. E. Sadler
Last month's Eclectica left me and fellow traveler Allison northbound, heading out of New Orleans, the place of split personality, of mardi gras masks and graves that rest above the ground rather than beneath it. We're about a week and a half into a six week trip that involves traversing the North American subcontinent not once, but twice. To save on expenses, we sleep in the Olds or take turns driving and napping to through twenty-four hour stints of straight highway time. When passing through Texas on our way down into New Orleans, we'd done the same, and hours spent driving hypnotically in the dark rewarded me with a dawn that sent rainbow prisms of light through great arcs of water spouting from sprinklers along neatly white-picketed pastures while the eastern sky glowed orange and pink. It is this treasured moment I hope to recapture when we reach the Atlantic. And so, I press my pedal to the metal all the way to the coast.
White reflective markers spaced along the shoulder lead the way like bread crumbs for the birds. The trees on either side of the road look like huge shadows swallowing us up. And trucks ahead are, with their reflectors, glowing squares of light that float out in the distance. Yellow squares of light.
It's a much different feeling driving through the South than it is driving across the Southwest...even at night when you can't really see it. You know the trees here are closing you in, and there's just wide flat expanses forever when you are in the west. I feel much more closed in here. It can be protective, but it can be confining. Just like anything, I guess. The deep liquid South with its dripping green foliage, swampy. Dripping green foliage and swamps everywhere you turn. Dots of light along the road, unreeling like a spool of ribbon. Just like the road. Flashing lights on radio towers in the distance look like electronic stars out of nowhere. The drippy, droopy South. Liquid, moist, swampy.
We've been shooting east like a bullet. A lit billboard for Days Inn rising up out of a sea of dark shadow forest. Pescaloosa, next three exits.
It's the fifteenth of April. Is it Thursday?
Allison: ...yes. 'After some pause.'1
We're in the Tennessee hills, heading into the "Great"--not magnificent, but "Great"--Smoky Mountains. Tennessee's a lot hillier than the deep South, the part that we've been through anyway, and the trees don't close you in so much, but there's still a lot of them and it's still real, real green.
Radio Announcer: The folks at Valley Feed and Farm Center...your farm supply specialist! Walter Hornbeak and his staff carry the complete Purina horse training program.... While you're there, be sure to see their large selection of exotic birds as well as their exotic birdfeed.
Child singing offkey:
The sky's all clouded up. Lots of color. Orange straw growing up in the green grass. Trees over everything, powder puff things.
We're in the Smoky Mountains right now and these trees by the side of the road, it's like a series of funky katchina dolls. Twisted arms at odd angles. Each one's got a different personality to it. Moss is a deep velvety emerald green. The branches stretch down like hands to grab you.
Spiky. Lots of thin sharp lines. Vertical sharp lines. Hard edges. Sharp edges. A forest of pins, needles. The Tree People.
Allison: Skeleton trees with fur on them. Skeletons with fur.
Thick, thick ancient moss, clinging. Clinging. The mist keeps rolling in. The 'smoke' of the Smoky Mountains.
We've gone from swamps that were reaching and creeping to the smoke, the mountains, sweeping in...misting in.
These mountainous national park areas--not that important to me. Pretty, scenic, pastoral--relevant to the modern condition? Allison says she writes of this stuff because we need the connection to it, so that we don't keep destroying it.
I need the space (and darkness) of Night--for my spirit, thoughts to fully expand. I need Night--or big stretches in daylight--time to be alone. I want to retreat into myself. Can't do it too well in the car.
Forests close me in more than the swamp. Yet, still I open to it. I am open to being here. I want to see Everything. This place makes me think of clothes lines, old country quilting bees, moonshine.
We're heading along these sharp ridges that bear a striking resemblance to the cliff edge that Thelma and Louise3 drove off at the end of their movie. Even though the landscape's completely different. I think it's the drop in altitude they have in common. What do you think, Allison?
Allison: I think it's your fear of heights.
The trees are lining the mountain ridges, they look like crewcuts. The mountaintops have crewcuts.4
All this hoky souvenir stuff reminds me of the places my parents used to take me as a kid. I had a fascination with the pretty smooth polished colored rocks.
Snaking parallel yellow lines in front of me, in my rearview mirror. Barricades lining the road. Am I reaching that point where I and the car become One? One with motion? Moving into the space of time? Timespaces, perpetual motion. Cheesy Americana littering pastoral scenes. That's America. Signs say "No littering" but no one was paying attention when all these little marts went up. Here's a big sign saying, "Smoky's Best View." It's on top of a store.
Everything's so much the same...to the extent that I keep getting the sense that I'm driving down the same stretch of road. Again and again and again. And again.
Going through the orange barrels of Detour Road Work. They've been following us across the country.
More orange barrels. I'm finding out after traveling all these miles that I am "passing with care" as we enter Biltmore city limits.
More orange barrels. It's getting dark and shadowy on the horizon. Dark clouds closing in. Six thirty. PM.
We are in North Carolina, heading towards the coast. Land of the rising sun. We're driving into dawn. Driving into beginnings, not endings.
More orange barrels.
Got behind a caravan of truckers about twenty miles east of Mortonton, North Carolina. There's a tornado warning in effect. Not tornado watch, tornado warning. Much more serious stuff. But it's only supposed to be in effect for another ten minutes so we're probably in the clear. The sky looks like a painting, all different clouds and swirls.
Radio Announcer: --Biologically accommodating big-breasted females.
I guess that's what they've got here in North Carolina, according to the deejay on the radio.
Down the road looks like a mirage, covered in this weird haze. The night sky is purple, purplish rosy red, towards where we're heading. The cars encroaching to pass me seem demonic, sinister somehow. They creep up on me.
Rock Quarry Road. Reminds me of the Flintstones. The mailboxes by the side of the road look like the kind of crosses you find on gravesites. I'm listening to corny love songs and their dedications on the midnight radio program. We're in North Carolina heading towards the coast...and the hurricanes.
It feels like the whole world is sleeping right now. I'm seeing our own headlights reflected in the window of QuikMart. Got REM playing on the radio.
All the light signals very cordially turn green for me. While other people sit and wait at a red. I'll bet this is a real pretty drive in the daytime. More mailbox crosses. The bars here advertise their women. It's very strange. WRDO in North Carolina--I apparently am listening to the station that Rolling Stone Magazine named one of America's best five years in a row. What do you know? I'm getting to hear some Bob Seger right now, it's kind of cool.
WRDU. Pat Benatar. Dud. This trip has gotten me to like truckers. They're your friends on the road.
Greeneville, rosy in the distance, to my left. Its lights going up against the sky. My friendly orange barrels to greet me again. We forgot all about Dollywood. Bummer.
I've got to find out what this Dollhouse of Raleigh is all about. Sounds like a brothel, and they're advertising it on the radio. Funny smell. I wonder if it's the smell of the Atlantic. If it is, it smells a lot different than the Pacific Ocean. Or maybe it's just passing through Grimesland, North Carolina. Which would explain the name. Lights in the distance glitter like diamonds in the night. The lights of a car lot. Driving at night with the brights on, you keep focusing on what's in the distance. Focusing intensely on what's far away. Because that's the point you're going after.
I'm going to Disneyland
Being "Beat" isn't all it's cracked up to be. Rather, it's simply cracking up--like what happens when a spaceship exceeds the velocity it's designed for. Such am I this gray morning that finds me staring into the Atlantic for the first time as an adult, landed here an insane ten days after setting out from San Diego, California. Not quite sure how this has happened to me, or how Allison has happened to me, I watch for even the faintest glimmer of sunlight. But there is none.
It's Friday morning, it's about 6 am. I'm waiting for the sun to come up but it's overcast so maybe I won't even see it. I've been driving all night just to capture this...moment of the sun rising on the Atlantic. And I don't know how the trip's going. It feels so grueling and I feel beat. Allison feels beat. And we're getting bitchy with each other. And...I was pretty much ready to just jump down her throat awhile ago. So...who knows...how it's going to go. You can smell the ocean, though. I think I'm about to get busted for trespassing. At least I'm not being sneaky. The birds are welcoming in the morning. It's so overcast I can't even tell where the sun is. I think the main thing that I'm learning is that the best stuff isn't planned, and the best moments...well, I guess those are the ones that just come....
Good morning, how are you?
Security Guard: How are you today?
Security Guard: Can I help you?
I drove all the way across country to see the sun rise on the Atlantic Ocean and it looks like I didn't work it out right.
Security Guard: Ohhh, you might not see the sun shine this mornin'.
I don't think so. Huh?
Security Guard: No. Pourin' rain today.
Yeah. That's what we hear. Are there any inexpensive motels around nearby?
Security Guard: Eight miles. Take a left on 94, and go back fifteen miles before Fairfield, there's one--just get on 94.... I'll get you a map. I'll get you a map.5
Later, at the Mattamuskett Inn in Fairfield
Tension breaks like ice, then melts, then freezes up. Traveling with somebody you don't know all that well can be an intense experience. You're both on "good" behavior, careful not to offend or intrude or...whatever. And quite frankly, all this politeness is making me cranky (it must be because I'm being too goddamn polite).
Trying to wake up after an all-night drive--Kerouac was crazy--this much we've both decided. And so am I for repeating the experience. I'm a stone bloodless all vital fluids gone statuesque (finally! --but not as I'd pictured) staring at a pine ceiling winds hailing (I thought we'd lost that damned tornado--given it the slip) and my nerves are grating, fingernails-on-chalkboard raw and to roll onto my side takes Everything...
Propped on elbows I contemplate collapse--my body bridge between two worlds dusted, like London's...
Winds is the impatient knock at the door-- this ain't heaven and I'm not letting you in, like some Jehovah's Witness
Don't mess with me (I'll be like Texas)
All my tricks are tested and dreams
Later, at Dolly's Lakeside Cafe
Kerouac says "Southerners do not like madness the least bit." Tennesseans, esp. The truck stop where, when I walked in, everyone dropped what they were doing so that they could gawk at me more obviously (I felt like I had green antennae growing out of my head--what else could merit such attention?), where the woman running the place didn't accept traveler's checks ("Don't you have any money?" "This is my money") and in frustration or disgust or something finally resolved to just give me the coffee for free instead of hassling with such complications. Tennessee, where the woman who ran the souvenir shop smirked ironically when I asked her if it was the Cherokee Indians who made the mandalas she sold (this was the town of Cherokee, after all, either on or next to the reservation).
I need to leave here soon--this restaurant window, waters below with treetops sprouting above them. I feel rushed--I'm watching the clock, because there's only one motel key.6
A mohawk curve of trees lines the rest of the road in a semicircle. We're in North Carolina. It's Saturday, April 17th. Been on the road eleven days now.
Had a breakfast of blueberry pancake and biscuits and coffee. At Santel's, a restaurant recommended to us by a man we passed on the road. Our waitress warned us about the size of their pancakes so I ordered just one. And she was right: it was bigger than the plate and twice as thick. Wanda the waitress. "Y'all from California, aren'tcha?" she asked us when we were sitting at the table. "How'd you know that?" Allison and I responded in unison. "Ah saw it on your plates...license plates." She turned out to be one of the friendliest people we met. She kind of froze up, though, when Allison tried to interview her. Maybe that big microphone Allison's got made it seem like too much of an EVENT. She's the second person Allison's attempted to interview so far [Kathy Simmons, proprietor of the Mattamuskett Inn (which is really more of a kind-of-run-down motel--great rates, tho') in Fairfield where we stayed last night was the first. And she kept coming up with excuses until finally Allison just gave up]. Seems like North Carolinians don't like to go public. "Don't ask me nothing personal," say the eyes when Allison interviews. I like their down home hospitality, their unpretentious ways. Wanda the waitress, giving us a free piece of pie, strawberry pie, to take with us along on our way.
We just crossed the state line and we're on our way into Dismal Swamp, Virginia.
Allison: Muddy water. Oh, my lower back is feeling all cramped up again.
We're crossing the Atlantic Ocean.7
Allison: It's just a bay, you know.
It certainly is brown, and just gets browner like mud. It's like the Mississippi. It's browner than the Mississippi.
The freeways are sculpural shapes, interweaving overhead. Pastel green and concrete grey. Mountains of coal to the west of us. The shacks the coal miners live in to the right of us, or what looks like them. Cross the freeway in the morning to get to work each day. We have entered the industrial landscape of Virginia.
We're stuck sitting here on this bridge. Bumper to bumper traffic. Taking time from racking up mileage. Here comes the fifteenth ambulance. I can't hear it any more.
Allison: It'll be coming up.
Here it comes. So, it must be a twenty-five car pile-up. What do you think? Lots of people getting out of their cars to admire the view. It's really weird watching the sun sink into the west when you're in the east. It feels so faraway. But there it is, a bright orange glowing ball dropping behind the clouds...and now swallowed up by them.
No longer rural, soon to be ensconced in neon bright city and turnpikes and tunnels galore--the "East," DC, "Balty-more," as my uncle says. Cruise control at 75 mph not fast enough to discourage hyperactive motorists passing on the right and deathwish-driven motorcycles cruising the dotted white between lanes. Consciousness is contracting as it accelerates...nothing compares to the Southwest--that place of magic expansion.
Color splashes everywhere, descending from gray above.
To be continued....
1) Self-referential--for the benefit of my dictaphone-- toward a reaction of extreme delay.
2) These are the actual lyrics being sung; the kid pauses every once in a while, creating an image in my mind of a nervous adult trying desperately to prompt him or her (?) into remembering the actual words, if not the melody.
3) Refer to July installment.
4) I realize this might sound silly, but those mountains really did look like gigantic U.S. Marines Corps scalps.
5) Security Guard sees my face grow increasingly blank with each word he utters and realizes that speaking to me is futile. Something much more rudimentary is in order. Having been always more visual than audio, it doesn't take much for me to find his local dialect indecipherable. Driving the entire night while Allison slept in the back seat--the reason I am so irritated with her--didn't do much to help my cognition either.
6) Allison and I have just had a huge fight over maps and her not breaking me for cat naps during the all night drive to the coast. Fuming and eager to get away from her, I took the car and found Dolly's Lakeside Cafe, where I enjoy the "Casual Lakeside Dining in a Warm, Friendly Atmosphere" they advertise on their business cards.
7) The highway bridges over the James inlet, a waterway just south of Chesapeake Bay that lies between the towns of Norfolk (to the south) and Newport News.
Previous sections of "In Search of Jack Kerouac":