A Trip West

13 January 2017 – Burlington, NC

How many good ‘ol boys does it take to hook up a trailer to a rental truck? The answer, at least at the moment, is four. Our journey west began before breakfast as we loaded boxes and furniture into the rented truck, our covered wagon to the Lone Star State. The first several hours were familiar, passing by cities and traversing highways we have encountered before. But later there will be new sights, scenes these eyes have never beheld. For the moment, we drive westward and somewhat southerly, past Greensboro, my home and intellectual sanctuary for many years, towards Salisbury, Concord and Charlotte, the glittering queen of North Carolina’s cities. Then we will cross the frontier, that unseen line that separates the long leaf pine from the palmetto, the Old North State from the one that, until quite recently, flew the flag of the Confederacy over its capitol building.

13 January 2017 – Interstate 85 South in South Carolina

The exits for Gaffney, Earl, Greenville and Spartanburg have all passed by without incident. The highway here becomes uneven, a jarring series of concrete slabs seemingly unconnected and interrupted only by potholes and detours around construction zones. How much commercial space is rotting away by the side of America’s interstates? How many warehouses stand vacant and dilapidated service stations stand on overgrown lots?

14 January 2017 – Tuscaloosa, AL

I could probably recite the names of every business along this stretch of McFarland Blvd. We have been stranded at the Circle K for nearly two hours as we await assistance. A chance stop for refueling revealed one of the trailer tires had shredded and was endangering the entire enterprise. We have no idea how many miles back this had happened and can only sigh in relief that only one tire was effected. Hopefully the roadside assistance can quickly replace the destroyed tire and we can continue onward.

14 January 2017 – Interstate 20 West in Louisiana (2:42PM CST)

My god Louisiana is dull. Interminable miles of flat farmland interrupted occasionally by a slight rise and dip. The city of Monroe is about 80 miles from the border with Mississippi, now behind us, but the journey there would make all but the most hearty traveler fall asleep at the wheel. We become aware, for a few moments, among the tangle of interchanges and sprawl of grimy shopping centers on the outskirts of that city, but too soon we return to the endless monotony of swampy forests. Between the major population centers there is little evidence of habitation not withstanding the many fire ant mounds, just off the shoulder, that hint at a vast subterranean empire that knows no borders.

14 January 2017 – Interstate 20 West in Texas

In other places, people have gardens; in Texas people have oil derricks. Travelling west from Shreveport, LA we began to see signs that the oil industry in America is still alive and well. The refineries of Louisiana yielded to the methodical action of East Texas oil drills. These are not the endless ranks of prehistoric beasts sucking barrels of black ooze from beneath the deserts of Saudi Arabia. Nor are they the towering floating villages scattered across the North Sea or the Gulf of Mexico. These are small contraptions, solitary and non-threatening. One can almost imagine children riding them, up and down and back and forth, enjoying the motion of the mechanism as if it were a carnival ride or an automated teeter-totter. But these are not playground structures or theme park attractions — these are components of a much larger game of global commerce and politics. Each rig represents a link from here to there, a pipeline from our collective past to our unsure future.

14 January 2017 – Interstate 20 West in Texas (5:47PM CST)

It has occurred to me, while traveling through the deep south along the westbound track I20, why people find solace in religion, comfort in guns and release in heroin. Canton, Monroe, Terrell, towns hidden and ignored by motorists that travel this route. . . what were they like two or three generations ago? How did their residents live before the Eisenhower Interstate System linked the major cities together in a complex web of pavement? I cannot believe they were half so desolate and despairing. They were not, I imagine so thoroughly devoid of commerce and culture, so burdened by abandoned workshops and long vacant warehouses optimistically proclaiming “For Sale or Lease” on moldy and tattered signs.

And what of the hundreds, if not thousands of naked billboards rising like sad giants from the trees? Why are they empty without purpose? Some have messages stating how visible on’s advertisement would be and how effectively it will drive people to one’s business. Why, then? Are there no local business left to advertise? Has the global connective tissue that is the internet made such messaging obsolete? Do we no longer care about the local plumber or the town mechanic? The passing motorist has no need for this information; he need only know where a quick meal and tank of gas can be purchased and his smartphone can provide that in an instant. Maybe, then, instead of blaming China, NAFTA or immigrants for the woes of “real Americans”, maybe we should focus upon the ever-growing network of federal highways that have dissected our towns and rendered irrelevant everything more than a mile from its exits.

 

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