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.
It always felt like stealing to watch another town’s fireworks—on accident, in passing, on the long, dark drive home from my grandparents’ house. The rural Pennsylvania sky asserted itself for miles. Between staggered Fourth of July celebrations, fairground programming, and back-woods exercises of freedom, fireworks seasoned and seared the sky all summer long.
As soon as the weather turned, Phantom Fireworks would pitch retail tents on the Ohio state line and prey on the patriotism of Pennsylvanians. Beaver County heads-of-household made the forty minute drive to spend a couple hundred dollars on novelty aerial packs. They make a day out of it: stopping in Rogers for the seasonal flea market, bringing home a sick puppy or a pocket knife for each of the kids. Carton cigarettes in East Liverpool.
Every year my mom would load a couple packs of sparklers into her cart at the Big Lots for us to launder our signatures and bad words in their smoke trails at dusk. It was enough to tide us over until the show put on by the Rochester Borough.
The evening of the fireworks, families slowly got drawn out of their homes. Overcome by some shared American sentimentality, we made like moths toward the light. Uncle Sam puppeted mothers and fathers through their homes, gathering bug spray, the soiled afghan that was kept around for moments like these, and a light jacket for everyone. It was never a rush. Everyone left home at dusk to wait another forty minutes in place. The atmosphere of the evening inextricably characterized by a sweater that you’d slip your arms through without pulling it over your head. Nothing to do but make the acquaintance of the lightning bugs. I know the smell of hands that have been catching bugs in the summer so well that I cannot brush the hair out from my face after working outside without being struck by the distinct, antagonistic boredom of waiting for the fireworks to begin.
All of the adults came back into their human condition from the lesser species they were when they left home. Their irritability and impatience always caught up to them, but nobody ever moved. The long, polite monosyllables shared between neighbors who hadn’t seen another since ‘this time last year’ created a buzz enough to make you think the cicadas came out--if it weren’t for the silence that came with the first plume in the sky. Just a test. It was always another twenty minutes before the next. A period of time fertile unlike any other for a child to ask a parent the largest, most difficult questions of their life. Questions about God, race, or infinite spans of time and space. If you didn’t stay to enjoy it, you’d still have to hear it, so you might as well have seen what the racket was all about. It’s a liberating cacophony, like pouring twenty pounds of LEGOs onto the floor and not the broken starter on your dad’s car.
Fireworks drug our senses. The incongruous speeds of light and sound take you out of time. There was always a peripheral knowledge of men and women setting them off from the river, when the show started late or there was a misfire. But once the spectacle built like a glacier that was calving, and you became overwhelmed by the particular way a firework travels through your esophagus before revealing itself in front of your eyes, it felt truer to say that fireworks materialize out of the stars than from off a barge. You can look for people and patterns in fireworks much like you can with clouds, but I always chose to be bewildered by them.
We always watched the fireworks from the end of our street that was closed to traffic because it wasn’t worth it to the town to maintain. My mother speculated that there were pretty good views from the Giant Eagle lot, or at the old Saint Cecelia’s. When a house up the block got condemned and demolished, the empty lot like a missing tooth in the sneer of Rochester’s borough over the Ohio River, she said, “That would have been such a good place to watch the fireworks.”
Rochester stopped being able to afford fireworks celebrations of its own, and the town over didn’t have a show nearly as good--not least of all because it was a hassle. We would have to get into the car and find a vantage point on the other side of the river, in some place that we’d pass through everyday without ever thinking whether here or there would be a good spot for watching the sky spit fire. A good, democratic fireworks display is one where nobody has to leave their neighborhood.
When the fireworks are not your own, they’re no more than heat lightning. The phenomenon depends on pretense, a dedication to superstition, and the narrative arc of the performance itself. A firework not meant for you is no more than the surface ripples of a stone somebody else skipped across the sky.
Fireworks from afar do not fill the whole sky. A firework is anemic without the accompanying, dangerous illusion of fire raining down onto your family and neighbors, without the taste of ash in your gasp.
When the fireworks were over, I would stand—trusting that my feet were making contact with the pavement—though my whole body was numb from how I’ve been sitting, and the fireworks stopped telling my heart how to beat. At home, I’d talk my dogs off the ledge, who would remain there for hours, because I raised my voice just like anyone whose ears were ringing.
Neighbors would set off their loot for weeks to come, having learned that fireworks don’t keep well in unfinished basements. Unlike those on the long, dark drives home from my grandparents’ house, I would be able to hear but not see them. They sounded like the broken starter on my dad’s car. Nothing to do but grit my teeth and make some noise of my own. It would be my first lesson in how the most ecstatic of things can be so tedious.