No Radio

There’s a moment in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise I often think of when I’m traveling. It occurs in the middle of the film; Willie and Eddie have just driven from New York City to Cleveland to rescue Willie’s cousin Eva. Crossing a dirty, industrial, snow covered train yard Eddie stops and muses: “You know, it's funny... you come to someplace new, an'... and everything looks just the same.”

As we set off on a road trip to Anywhere USA, flipping coins to determine our direction, we had in mind that we very well may encounter what we had just left behind. Maybe it’s only the mountains and regional color that can stop me in my tracks anymore - vistas so overwhelmingly foreign to my personal American-ness that they ring authentic and true. Open to anything we found a lot of the same thing.

A 68 Pontiac Le Mans Convertible summoned in me that very American obsession with the road. My grandma’s hot rod and she shared its magic with anyone willing to tag along for an afternoon drive on the back country roads. Behind heavy doors made of Detroit muscle, in the leather plated cockpit, she’d allow us the privilege of flicking the switch. A tiny metal lever nestled above the odometer. Suddenly twin motors engaged and sunlight spread across the interior as the soft vinyl roof folded behind the backseat. We’d take the back country roads down as far as we could and then wind up Sterretania all the way to Presque Isle. A summer day joyride to celebrate our freedom. A jukebox, hamburgers, ice cream, and gasoline.

Never having been afforded the luxury of the faraway family vacation, I’ve been relegated to only what four or more wheels and two rails could deliver. No summers abroad, Spring Break getaways, or bargain flights in the off season. It was always a week in Geneva-On-The-Lake, Ohio. The same week each year.

In the late 90’s I was invited by my extended family to Myrtle Beach for a week in August. Six of us crammed into a minivan for an exhausting 10 hour stretch from Pittsburgh to South Carolina. Hurricane Bonnie hit two days later. We evacuated promptly and spent the remainder of the trip in the North Hills of Pittsburgh. We went to the wave pool and watched movies. Appropriate for a kid who traveled through television.

Some ten years later I became obsessed with road movies, in particular Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop. The quintessential road movie. The Driver and The Mechanic bounce from coast to coast, no past, no future. They’re professionals. Racing and winning to keep on going. We have no clue how long they’ve been at it. The Driver doesn’t talk when he drives. The Mechanic doesn’t talk while he works. It spoke to me out of time, a reminder to remain in touch with some semblance of purity. In our satellite age, it’s depiction of disconnect is radical verging on unimaginable.

I tend to make mental maps when traveling. They are landmark based, a mild attempt to orient myself properly. Today specific destinations are generally impossible without GPS or a detailed set of handwritten directions. On the 4th of July, after watching the fireworks in Boone, NC we retreated to our lodging in Todd, NC. Well past dark and on unfamiliar turf we opted for the comfort of our GPS system. Halfway through our drive the GPS rerouted us for efficiency rendering my mental map irrelevant. Thick fog, limited cell service, winding mountain roads, and a gang of local headlights trailing behind us, I began to doubt the satellites as they took us another route. Even a potential failure of technology at this time feels catastrophic. I tensed, gripped the wheel tight, and made every move as instructed. Suddenly, I went from driving to just following directions.

Today we face the ecological dilemma of an excessive carbon footprint. We had a 7 day window. We were in a modern, fuel efficient Japanese car, radio off, refraining from satellite navigation. The romanticism and mysteries of the road are at a lull; the leisurely adventure across or around America a stilted attempt at trying to find oneself. A bygone rite of passage. For a premium we have toll roads - clean, fast, familiar, and safe. The Interstate Superhighway, our answer to efficiency and urgency, cuts the time you would spend on the winding state roads coursing through the individualities of our great states. What you’re passing by doesn’t have to matter much if it all looks the same.