On a midnight voyage,
Searching for my pleasure;
Reaching with my mind for something I’ve dreamed.
Cam and I hit the road going north and west toward the middle-end of July. Cam’s a victim of the systematic monosyllabification of America’s youth, but facile oversimplification, naturally, is a treasured American pastime. I occasionally have to go by Chap: your pain is my pain, America.
We’re headed for Austin, the long way. As I write, Cam’s working cybersecurity and I’m working on a documentary with my good friend Rob — another victim! The only other campus personality who makes an appearance is Josh. He and Rob don’t start on the road. They first appear on other roads, at other times, and those “adventures,” in the social-media sense, are made for the screen.
More accurately: you could, in theory, reconstruct them from the screen. We don’t appear. That is the nature of our documentary.
So a couple of unregenerates drive out listening to rock ‘n’ roll, Britisher than your standard road-trip fare, on a playlist tellingly entitled, “In Which: Cam and Chapman Find Their Elusive Souls in the Vast American Interior.” Cam, I absolve him, played no part in the entitling: he is a sturdy five-foot-single-digit, and his main distinguishing physical characteristic is a curly hair-beard combo that we, the smooth-faced, think worth celebrating. After a long pubic phase, it’s just starting to come into its own. He and I roomed and road-tripped together freshman year, and now it’s the summer after a once-interminable-but-not-altogether-unpleasant sophomore year. This trip bears, for us, some resemblance to the Concert in Central Park. Whether we like it or not (and we do) our fortunes are married together.
But we’re looking less for America than Austin. It’s a serious, instrumental road trip. Not a pleasure trip. The stops are brief and the drives are long and the stories, if pedestrian, are real. Except for a few names of my own unique invention. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is intentional.
Page-thoughts resemble actual thoughts in content if not in structure.
* * *
Cut to: windscreen shot, Cam in the passenger’s seat with a paperback copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls, me at the wheel, and a small ‘n’ dusty Nevada town (not pictured) in the rearview mirror. Lovelock? We’ll only pass Winnemucca around nightfall when the desert in the making is no longer beautiful. Here, at least, the emptiness feels less oppressive than it did in Reno. Even physics bows down to the golden hour — it’s an electromagnetic miracle.
“You know,” Cam says, “I don’t think there was a better way to do Reno.”
Reno, you may have gathered, didn’t sit well with your favorite singer-songwriter duo.
Taste of India, not my name, stands on the outskirts of the city. Vegas without excess is fatuous Reno, and visions of that tame hell kept us in the way way out there, where we settled, naturally, for the extrarenal.
“You ever had goat?”
“No.” If I have, it wasn’t memorable.
“Fuck it, I’ll get the goat.”
Where the parking lot ends and Taste of India (ToI) begins is unclear. The only customers and cars are us and our own, respectively. Reno’s palette is modest, washed-out shades of grey, blue, and beige, and ToI sets itself apart from the city, tastefully, in a shit-brown shadow all its own. But maybe Reno breeds a strange sort of optimism: the booths run deep at ToI, and if this night is at all like the others, they max out at half empty. The hostess took us down to the backmost. Cam eats his goat and I eat my chicken and we high-tail it out of greater Reno for Winnemucca’s shifting sands.
Some facts about Nevada, as we experienced it: the land is ugly and dead when the sun’s above us, but it reanimates when the sun dips down toward the mountains behind us. I watch them in the rearview mirror as they and my California fade into the parched middle-distance. The road itself follows a so-slight-as-to-be-immeasurable arc that rises and falls and takes us westward in the flats. Along the road, we see cowboys, genuine cowboys, taking their herd into fields unknown. We can’t see fences, only the past, and the occasional sign that reminds us to call the police on hitchhikers.
Nevada, after all, is the one true home of the American supermax. And the prairies unbroken that roll gentle toward the sun are the judiciary’s last guarantee.
Cam and I first discuss this interior’s emptiness in the depth it deserves when we first experience absolute flat, which falls closer to the end of our fling with I-80 East. Still, it’s relevant well before we reach mid-Wyoming. It’ll be even more relevant come the Panhandle. But here it begins, and Cam’s theory goes that topographical simplicity deprives the young mind of much-needed (un)natural stimuli. Chronic visual deprivation shapes the flatlander’s all-American mind. For the better? Who’s to say? Either way it’s compelling pseudoscience, as most pseudoscience is, and we ask: how to reach the mountainless mind? We go back and forth, but I like the flats. Though I don’t know whether I could say the same for my head.
All I’ll know in the morning is that Battle Mountain, Nevada, looks much the same in the day as it does in the dark though it does have the topographical asset of … a mountain. It’s physically and metaphysically a cold, cold night, and we pull into a truck stop somewhere around the town — close enough to call it Battle Mountain — and off into a heat-baked dirt expanse that might be a quarter-aborted construction site that’s hollerin’ I don’t look like much now, but golly I could have been somebody! There’s a short discussion of whether or not we’ll cave and get a cheap motel room. But here we are, committed, and there’s no leaving the truck turnaround until each of us feels the other has had sufficient time to sleep. We pretend to sleep early — it’s that or an empty night.
That is: there’s fuck-all to do.
So we feign sleep and, on a Nevada night (characteristically) devoid of stimuli, my silent thoughts return.
And it’s this that strikes me, or would have struck me: that Cam has it wrong, that the sacrifice required for a life in this world without terrain isn’t developmental. It’s mental. I look up and see myself instead of billboards as my thoughts project themselves out into that vast American interior I so tenderly mythologized. While it’s not inconceivable that I could fill that black starred space with happy memories, it’s an easy-access non-narcotic trip that begins where my mind ends, and this night these plains confront me with demons and my anxious want. They tend, politely, to keep a respectful distance — they’re skirmishers, not shock troops — and I return the favor. I tend to let them be. But they pass through Nevada now to have a chat I can’t take and I start looking to the crack between window and roof for a place to vomit. Dry heaves unconsummated prove counter-productive but I can still bring myself to piss, and I open and close the door with a quiet considerate affection for Cam whose eyes, it happens, are as white and wide as mine. Nightmares, for once, don’t come when I call.
I sleep a total of two hours and find out in the morning that Cam scores a whopping four. We “wake” with the sunrise and push up to make Salt Lake City by noon. Bonneville lies somewhere between. So, we hope, does a redemptive greasy spoon.
The loneliness of the plains and the desert isn’t hollow — it has substance. Dark, terrestrial angst reaches out from under the brush. And it burns.
* * *
We look for more life in Laramie and have some success.
Joe’s Prairie Surf Rockers take the stage at 8, the stage being a carpeted floor, and they’re shockingly ready to rip. In the back is Little Dave, and as the little one — it’s in the name — he’s on the drums, and the two fat guys shred guitar and bass in the front. Steve Wonderbeard’s the guitarist. The bass (what else?) resides with Joe himself. The boys tear into a gutting classic rock ‘n’ roll that fills the mead bar with riffs so heavy they get Cam drunk on dehydration and a single glass. These riffs blister, so out-of-time-and-step with the Wyoming prairie that even the wind on Main Street doesn’t bother blowing in through the open door. And we sit still in an effort to get transfixed, out of-time-and-step ourselves in two wooden chairs we pulled over while the rest of our Laramie-ites just sit on the floor. Even Wonderbeard’s dad’s at home in the audience, we are told, and his mother, too — it’s a family affair — and the boys play two-minute banger after banger that warm the north summer night: all twenty-four-odd watchers over– and underage made ghoul-radiant by the cosmetic glow of skingrease nacre on three rockin’ foreheads.
Don’t be caught off-guard: Joe and Wonderbeard have the filthy collective mind of a twenty-first century Chaucer, and Mom and Dad eat ‘em up, from the merely flatulent to the grossly cunnilingual.
For all its charmlessness, what better to do when the road’s over there and you’re over here? The need for sleep steps in but it lands us in dives instead of beds. And even sleep takes a backseat to the need for some external stimuli other than “For What It’s Worth” on an infinite loop. But the time between drives is naturally empty and we overcompensate with landlock surf rock. Joe and the five girls on the floor try to make a night out of groovy anachronism—their heads bobbing in off-beat unison—but even the dirtiest surf rock can’t compete with narcotics, and what they’re digging comes with a better high than three mid-life crises in a mead bar.
The University of Wyoming, it turns out, supplies superlungs.
Stoners aside, the band has pop, even “pizazz.” They’ve put a clean hole through the summer night with practice or passion and Cam leans in even as I lean out. He finds a home in the music. But I’m still outside, my teetotaling working hand in hand with conspicuous self-perception, and overstimulation itself creates a sense of stimulation more omni– than over– even if I bear some of the blame. I wear my Clark Kent glasses when I drive cross-country because fiddling with contacts is against code. I hope they make me into a scrawny little Superman, but they do more to call attention to the gulf between us. It’s this unfortunate structural-statural disparity that draws the imagined eye.
Consciousness, unfortunately, makes us sidekicks take center stage, and distance from home has nothing to do with it.
We leave when Wonderbeard says “it’s gonna get weird” because it’s exhausting, this chairborne performance: “It’s getting to be that part of the night, folks!” Laramie-ite laughter follows us on our way out. So we were being watched, at least on the backend — and paranoia, you Heller fans, doesn’t mean you’re wrong.
But on a moonless night in the interstate’s shadow, no one can see.
Press “1” to get a hassle-free assessment.
* * *
The comedown is brutal and Aspen helps, topography helps, but we’re near the corner of New Mexico waiting for a spire or a drug bust that’ll never come — just something to break it up. And who knew Colorado was in the Confederacy? The owners and operators of this meth-den-turned-barbecue in Trinidad seem to know. Colorado’s Deep South is more punk-rock than America’s. Still, it shares a similar enthusiasm for political reaction and the so-called Lost Cause. While some of the mystery has been stripped out of the road trip by the smartphone, we console ourselves with the fact that our meth den scores a solid four-out-of-five on Yelp.
How do the junkies at the barbeque joint fill the time? Anything distracts. We walk in through an entryway still under construction after all this time and find more dust inside than the desert has outside. Now Rob is with us, too, after a stop in Colorado, and the Three Musketeers are reunited for the final push south to our typically Stanford summers of self-justification. Long-lost Johnny Reb runs the BBQ joint and stocks it with as many guns as ribs, and he’s joined by this zeffish woman (Yolandi?) who’s just as addicted but full of surprises. She listens to Sublime, I assume, but maybe she just likes the cover art for Badfish—it doesn’t come up when she brings the ribs ‘n’ brisket back to the table. The ‘60s (18) collide head-on with the ‘90s (19) and leave us with good food and discomfort, mental and GI, that keep us wide-awake all the way to Rob’s home in the Panhandle: the jewel of the Canadian River.
And I think back, as it’ll be another night in Austin someday with the advertisements collapsing in on the highway after a crass commercial film I saw alone on a different kind of drive. I’ll sink into the lights and cars and music, my own music, and try to cry though I’ll find myself unable, but the car’s the place to give it a go where from time to time I will. Maybe heartbreak or betrayal will cut through that cross-country tug-of-war between noise and its absence and the existential’ll go on background, deep background. In this battle between my head’s dark dojo and the excess outside, the car plays an ambiguous (if vital) role, but it’s Sehnsucht — finally — that does most of the work, and Sehnsucht by nature works alone. It’ll take me down the highway with psychic speed as I drive by home (not home) for the summer and gun it south as long as I can. Little-known fact: demons can be physically located, placed on a map, and mine lie due south of wherever I am if they’re not passing through my head. But they’ll have to fight for headspace with amelodic sight & sound, and now I fight with IHOP, Whataburger, and 1-800-JESUS-SAVES, something like that, to hold on to what I hate — at least it’s mine.
And Rob falls asleep as we cut across New Mexico uncharacteristically blasting The Pretty Reckless, God forbid, and Cam and I continue to grapple with false definitions of “mesa” and “butte” that this landscape foists upon us: Cam ‘n’ the Internet get it right and I get it wrong. But I’m so desperate to latch on to anything, anyone, any idea on the road — the real road, the Beat mythic road — where I’ll want something I know.
But we’re not Beats because there’s nothing beatific about us, and the Lost Generation didn’t have GPS. Maybe the Looking Generation, postmodern Searchers, wanting something meaningful without knowing what that something is, late-night driving for authenticity’s sake when no one’s heard from God in decades and we already traded in our emotional literacy for techno-literacy. We’re Google autodidacts from software to sex, and apparently we’re getting less wild as we get more lonely — less violence, more couchlock, less love affair, more one-night stand. But even as we medicate with our Marvel and our Molly, we more-than-anything want to feel what’s been lost. Until we do. And the tragedy from the driver’s seat is that it’s empty this side o’ the window and overfull the other, and meaning manufactured according to books we’ve read and films we’ve watched still feels empty as it is.
And the salted engine mocks me:
Hey kid: ya wannit from the inside-out or the outside-in?
Turn the television set down, please. And turn the air conditioning off.
Contact Chapman Caddell at jcaddell ‘at’ stanford.edu.