Friday, January 05, 2007

Reading. Steinbeck.

I found myself eating biscuits with gravy and hashbrowns for breakfast, which reminds me of being on road-trips and eating things like biscuits with gravy and hashbrowns in roadside diners, things that do not belong to my ordinary life. It seems only appropriate to continue reading Travels with Charley while eating these things and thinking of the open road. Suddenly all kinds of memories come flooding back as he writes about seeing the language of signs change as he crosses state lines, as I remember being a small child and driving from New York City to Agawam, Massachusetts. I remember gazing out the window at the forests flashing by, the bare trees stripped of foliage or flaming orange in fall, so unlike the endless darkness of our evergreen forests at home.

How strange Steinbeck would have found America now; he writes of how unusual it felt to be able to telephone across distance after the age of the telegram before. I wonder what he would have made of cell phones and lightning-fast internet connections and instant-messenger. In his day already there are the soulless "superhighways" that are meant for trafficking goods across the country but unnerving for the traveler who wants to actually see and experience the land that he is passing through. I wonder what he would have made of the endless billboards advertising casinos and restaurants and the latest films against the landscape, of signs that say "MCDONALD'S NEXT TWO EXITS" or "SUPERMALL 1 MILE."

In the summer of 2001 three generations (I have mentioned this part before) packed themselves into the car that was to be mine and headed east on I-90, that "wide gash of super-highway, multiple-lane carrier of the nation's goods." On that highway Steinbeck (some forty years before I did) found himself driving at a minimum speed greater than any he had ever driven before (as I would forty years later). He comments that these "great roads are wonderful for moving goods but not for inspection of a countryside. You are bound to the wheel and your eyes to the car behind and to the rear-view mirror for the car behind and the side mirror for the car or truck about to pass, and at the same time you must read all the signs for fear you may miss some instructions or orders....When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing."

There is a sense of sadness in the realization that all this has come to pass. My own memories of that trip across the country is a blur of fields and towns flashing by at seventy miles per hour. There would be stretches of scenic detours, getting out of the car and gazing at mountains and rivers and lakes. Of taking two-lane back roads, listening to NPR and enjoying the breeze pouring in through the window. I must confess I slept much of the time, to my uncle's (and grandfather's) disgust. But I would do it all again, and think of Steinbeck's words as I drive across state lines and through mountain gorges.

Steinbeck, John. Travels with Charley. Penguin Books, 1962. p 89-90.

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