Roots

“Perhaps we have overrated roots as a psychic need.  Maybe the greater the urge, the deeper and more ancient is the need, the will, the hunger to be somewhere else.”

As a nation of immigrants, Steinbeck thought we were drifters by nature. Maybe that is more true of some of us than others. People often tell us they wish they could travel like we do, but then they always ask questions about roots, security, financial stability. Perhaps these are vocalizations of their own fears, and the “roots” metanarrative is a myth society propagates so it can profit from taxes and promote ownership.

All over the world, governments are trying to stamp out rootlessness. It’s increasingly about counting, controlling, pinning people down. Bedouin, Roma, Indonesian boat people – the states whose boundaries they traverse are trying to force them to settle down. Maybe Steinbeck was right and travelers are not iconoclasts; we’re just doing what’s natural in spite of the myths. In some cases, as Steinbeck notes elsewhere, myth becomes reality through the familiarity of long usage. Will the myth of roots do the same? Maybe not. Maybe the reality is too strong. And in fairness, we have to acknowledge that for rootless, mobile people like us, one motivation is the fear of being tied down, the fear of permanence. For some people change is a way of reviving their vitality; for others, it’s a threat to the life they’ve spent so much time and effort building. But Steinbeck wondered whether the deeper, more ancient need is “the will, the hunger to be somewhere else.” Fifty years on, it’s still hard to know whether he was right.

From Belgrade to Amsterdam via Yellowstone

Many of the places we pass on the road are reminiscent of somewhere else. Glasgow, Oregon; Amsterdam, Montana; Aberdeen, Wyoming; Greenland, Colorado. The adventurers and nonconformists who settled these towns in search of something new still seemed unable to cut the roots completely.

There is still something about identity that is tied to where we come from, even if it’s nothing more than a name.

On the road we saw license plates from nearly every state: Alabama, Indiana, California, Texas, Oklahoma, Maine, North Carolina, Michigan, New York, Vermont, Virginia, Alaska, and even other Washington plates in New Mexico. The number of out-of-state license plates is impressive when you consider that seeing a Maine license plate in Arizona is equivalent to seeing Turkish plates in England. These, too, are a sign of place, a way of establishing connections between people who are otherwise just strangers in a parking lot. “Oh, you’re from Washington! Whereabouts? I got a cousin that lives in Walla Walla. Nice place.”

Even here, though, there is a need to assert some prior socialization, the independence of an identity that is rooted elsewhere. Many of the people we met accomplished this through the medium of license plate frames and bumper stickers. These are identity markers; you may have a Colorado license plate, but your license plate frame identifies you as a fan of a particular football team, which indicates where you’re originally from, or the place you identify with most strongly, or the place you consider home. So if you meet a guy with Colorado plates and a New England Patriots license plate frame, you can safely utter the phrase, “You’re not from around here, are you?”

In all our travels, we saw very few hitchhikers; only four in 5,000 miles. As children on long family road trips, we were constantly on the lookout for those interesting individuals by the sides of the highway, many covered in dust from the road and in varying degrees of disarray, all with their thumbs stuck up hopefully into that big sky. Our parents, of course, always warned us that it was not a good idea to pick up hitchhikers and we should never do it, even if they occasionally did it, because those times were exceptions and you could tell those people were trustworthy but still it wasn’t safe and we shouldn’t ever do it ourselves.

Now the government has taken over the parental role. There were “No Hitchhiking” signs everywhere, symbolized by a picture of an upraised thumb surrounded by a red circle with a line through it. Hitchhiking is now illegal in many states, and pedestrians are no longer allowed on the Interstates at all. This is all part of a greater effort to link safety and sterility. No littering, no hitchhiking; the two are often equated. The idea that this sort of mobility is a blight on the landscape and a threat to the safety of the average motorist is a different aspect of the roots myth. It’s a whole traveler culture gone.

On a clear night as we sailed across the flat desert there was a line of cars coming from the opposite direction, stretching miles into the distance. Headlights in a steady stream curved towards us from the right, and as we crossed the Arizona state line, the lights of a prison lit a hole in the black night sky for miles around. The headlights twinkled and pulsed as they advanced, like stars; the prison lights were steady and penetrating, immobile and permanent. A sheriff flew past us in the inside lane, lights flashing, throwing all the cars around us into momentary panic as they wondered who he was going to pull over for speeding, but he kept right on going. As we passed the exit for the prison we saw him parked on the overpass, facing the compound, highbeams on. Something was up. Again, signs by the side of the highway advised, “Do not pick up hitchhikers.” This time we nodded in silent agreement.

Sanitizing the highways is partly about cleaning things up, and partly about making life safer, more predictable. The impulse is discouraging for rootless travelers, but perhaps understandable.

Adventures in Banking

“Americans are a restless people, a mobile people, never satisfied with where they are as a matter of selection.”

After our excitement about food and our dismay over gas, the next important thing was to find a bank that would let us withdraw money from our account in the UK. This turned out to be surprisingly difficult. ATMs in the States didn’t recognize our card as a debit card; apparently the chip-and-pin system was too much for them, and they would spit the card out with instructions to contact our card provider. After a few panicky attempts at different ATMs and one nervous phone call to our bank in Scotland, we realized the problem was not that all our money had mysteriously disappeared, but that the machines themselves were unable to access our account information overseas. We didn’t want to carry around one big wad of cash, because that plus the car plus our general air of good-natured confusion was likely to make us an obvious target. We needed to find a bank that could accommodate our strange foreign card.

That bank was Wells Fargo, which got its start 150 years ago transferring mail from the civilized East to the wild West, and later offering banking services to the gold miners of California. Their heavily armed stagecoaches predated the famous Pony Express and were one of the first links between America’s geographical and cultural extremes. At the time, they were considered more reliable than the US Postal Service and prided themselves on the courtesy and honesty of their employees. This turned out to be true of their modern incarnation as well.

Once we figured out that this particular bank could handle the strangeness of our little blue debit card, we learned to pull off the highway every time we saw one. The sight of one of their red and yellow signs, with the iconic stagecoach and team of horses, became as welcome as the sight of an old friend. We still weren’t able to use the ATMs outside the bank; we had to go in and talk to an actual human being. Strange for us in this age of digital everything. But it turned out to be both a pleasant chance to chat and a good source of information about the local area.

The tellers we encountered were the financial world’s counterpart to TJ, genuinely friendly people who actually seemed to enjoy talking to their customers. This was a far cry from many of our experiences in European banks, where the customer is an annoyance to be disposed of as quickly as possible, with as few words as possible, and preferably given as little money as possible. The system required us to make a cash advance off of our card, and this strange transaction always elicited a series of questions from the teller: “So where are you from? What brings you here? Where are you going?” There was always a sense of fascination in encountering two Americans who chose to live elsewhere. “Wow! Scotland? What’s that like? Don’t you miss America?” There was also, as Steinbeck discovered on his trip, a sense of envy mixed in with the questions. “Wow! I wish I could just pick up and travel like that.” “I’ve never been outside of the country; I’d like to go. Maybe someday.”

Driving and more driving

At the outset of our trip, we wondered whether Americans still felt this desire to be elsewhere. The wanderlust Steinbeck knew so well in himself was something he also encountered in others as he began to prepare for his journey. His neighbors, his son’s friends, strangers he met along the way, all demonstrated a sense of longing for the unknown, the open road, the mystery over the next horizon. But these phrases had become clichés, stereotypes of an American past, and we were no longer sure if they were an accurate reflection of the American present. We wondered whether people had become more wedded to place, to home, to a job and a role and a set of material goods, the combination of which would kill that spirit of adventure and wanderlust that has characterized America from the Pilgrims to the pioneers, from the cowboys in the American West to the beatniks of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s. Is it as prevalent in 2012 as it was in 1960?

Steinbeck wondered whether it was genetic, something inherited from the spirit of the restless immigrants whose progeny we are. In the words of one of Steinbeck’s interlocutors, “Lord, I wish I could go.” And Steinbeck replied, “You don’t even know where I’m going.” The rejoinder: “I don’t care. I’d like to go anywhere.” (21-22)

That spirit of adventure still infects the descendents of people who crossed unknown wildernesses in covered wagons, who hopped freight trains without knowing their destinations, or hitchhiked across the continent, trusting in the kindness of strangers. Fifty years later, it is true of us and many others.