I drove across country, from Massachusetts to California, round-trip, in 1983 and 1984, on my way to and from the University of California, Irvine, where I studied in the Master of Fine Arts Program in Writing. I kept a journal going west and then east the next year. The cross-country trip is a particular rite of passage for an American. At 29, I was a bit older than a lot of people when they set out on this trip. I captured some of the experience in words, wanting to have a record to go back to years later. I can re-inhabit the car when I return to the notes. Some of the journey was spectacular, visually, and long parts of it were mundane highway scenes. As a whole the experience changed my sense of myself as a person in this country. I had been on jet planes to Los Angeles and Denver, but I had not driven farther south than Virginia and west to Vermont if that's even more west than Virginia by the map. The following is from May 1984 on the return trip to New England. Going west, I had a friend for company and shared driving, but on the route east I traveled alone.----PM
Hot pink sun and blue clouds in the Ohio sky at 6:30 in the morning.
I’ve been flashing across the states like a glass bullet, yesterday’s piece of the map being Columbia, Missouri, to Zanesville, birthplace of the author Zane Grey, one of my father’s favorites whose western stories were exotic to a young French-Canadian New Englander in a riverside mill city. “Riders of the Purple Sage.” Imagine the mind-pictures that triggered? Just like the movie serials downtown on Saturdays. Now there is Zanesville with frontier and cowboy bric-a-brac for sale. A lariat hangs over the motel's reception desk. Geronimo's portrait down the hall. In the rooms, framed prints of Tombstone, Dodge City, San Antonio, and Cheyenne.
Rapid travel is dislocating, time and place getting jumbled. I feel the effort on the road, which is so different than plane travel. I’m alone, and paying attention is work of a sort even on smooth interstate lanes. Massive trucks in the rear view mirror keep me alert. These, too, shall pass. They always do.
I had driven through St. Louis close to the large shining silver arch (Gateway to the West), Indianapolis, and Columbus, Ohio, before stopping for the night in Z-ville. The terrain had changed from wide scenes of mid-America to the populated East, landscape greener, grassy, wooded, marked by clearings and buildings, highlands, more middle-sized communities. The Olympics torch run is crossing the country at the same time, but moving opposite my path, east to west.
Today’s route will see me leaving Ohio and pushing ahead to the narrow upper handle of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, then Maryland, another piece of West Virginia in the Allegheny Mountains, and the touchdown in south central Virginia, the piedmont region where one of my brothers teaches at a college.
I don’t think first of Virginia as a Confederate state, but rather as part of the Revolution, the Virginia uprisers in partnership with Massachusetts rebels. It’s Jefferson and Adams first in my mind, not Lee and Grant at Appomattox. I want to visit Monticello, not Richmond. All this national history packed into the eastern seaboard, so much more familiar to me than the roots of California I had been exploring for a year. Mission San Juan Capistrano, founded in 1776, year of the Declaration of Independence by Jefferson and company. Then, slightly north on the freeway, Mission Viejo, essentially a town as a residential project just 13 years old when I got there. Is there any place 13 years old in New England, in Virginia? Out west, America is still becoming itself.