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.

Re-Learning American

“At Custer we made a side trip south to pay our respects to General Custer and Sitting Bull on the battlefield of Little Big Horn…I removed my hat in memory of brave men, and Charley saluted in his own manner but I thought with great respect.”

As we flew down the highway in Wyoming between Billings and Casper we kept shouting out the names of the restaurants we passed: Dairy Queen! Arby’s! Wendy’s! Junk food we can’t get abroad. Things we associate with childhood road trips, comfort food, cheap fare for college students who spend most of their money on books and beer. It was the same in the supermarket. We walked up and down the aisles pointing and shouting like crazy people: Cheez-Its! Beef jerky! Barnum’s animal crackers! Junior mints! Barq’s root beer! The list is endless. Every road trip requires a bag of emergency snacks, little things for munching between rest stops, late night provisions to help you stay awake, something to eat should you get stranded in the middle of nowhere. Our bag of emergency snacks grew bigger and bigger, then surreptitiously multiplied into two bags, then three.

We passed the Cracker Barrel, the Pickle Barrel—you’d think our food still comes in barrels. Maybe the names are meant to lend an air of authenticity, of home cooking, fresh-from-the-root-cellar kind of food. For some reason it evokes apple pie. It worked—we stopped.

The Perkins in Sheridan (home of the historic Mill Inn—once a flour mill, now “The Best Rest out West”) still has glass partitions from the old days of smoking/non-smoking sections. Breakfast was country-fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, waffles, bacon, and eggs.

The waitress took our drink orders and expected us to be ready to order food 30 seconds later when she reappeared with two glasses of milk and two cups of coffee. But the menu was 12 x 24 inches and 14 pages long. It took us awhile to choose.

Every time she put something down on the table we said “Thank you,” and she responded with “You’re welcome,” which sounds nice and polite but very quickly turned into a farce in which we said “Thank you” six times in 20 seconds and she felt obliged to say “You’re welcome” each time, and we all realized this was getting ridiculous but didn’t want to stop saying “Thank you” for fear of seeming rude, so we kept up our Laurel and Hardy routine until she walked away and we breathed a sigh of relief. We’re sure she did, too.

Once we ordered, the food arrived in less than six minutes, and she asked us if we wanted anything else. How would we know? We hadn’t had a bite yet! When our silence stretched beyond ten seconds, she dropped our check on the table and said, “Thanks for visiting.”

We left the smooth highway and tested Kit’s off-road capabilities (don’t tell Dad!) to get to the battlefield at Little Big Horn. The land itself has absorbed the memories of that dismal battle as it had absorbed the blood of brave warriors, and it seemed to exude that melancholy back to us as visitors. Under a steel-grey sky, we paid tribute to those whose lives were lost. The sculptures of Native warriors seemed to infuse that lowering sky with their lingering spirits.

As I-90 met I-25 in Buffalo, the temperature plummeted rapidly through the 50s and the 40s to the high 30s. Rain drummed steadily on the car roof and the road began to swim as we moved south. Our hopes of outrunning the weather proved to be in vain.

Just north of Casper Matt asked, “Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve seen a tree?” Central Wyoming is known colloquially as moonscape, and although it has a beauty of its own, it is indeed very, very flat. All along the highway at intervals are huge, 12-foot high sections of wood, and from a distance they look like bleachers at high school sporting events. They’re snowdrift fences. Apparently you can fence in the snow. The fences are set up at intervals along the windswept highway in this open country where the snow blows fiercely across the flat plains and forms huge drifts. They capture the snow around them and prevent drifts from blocking the roads. There are also red-and-white striped barriers at intervals along the highway. They look like the barriers at railroad crossings. It never occurred to us that you could close a whole interstate, but apparently you can. Or “They” can. “They” can also fine you $750 or put you in jail if you ignore the barrier. It’s serious business. It’s a reminder of what winters up here are like.

And then, as if to prove the point, it began to snow. As we drove east out of Casper we both tried to ignore the snowflakes stealthily infiltrating the ranks of raindrops. Over the next two hours our progress was measured in tens rather than hundreds of miles. The snow got heavier until we were experiencing a mini-blizzard. Three to four inches of snow accumulated, with larger drifts accumulating around the snow fences, and visibility was down to 100 yards at times.

When we turned south toward Cheyenne, the snow stopped as if on command. We needed sustenance after the snowstorm, so we stopped at Wendy’s, where we encountered a Texan in the parking lot. The first thing we noticed was his twang. The first thing he noticed was the car.

“Is that the model with the rotary engine?”

“Sure is.”

His boot heels rang against the asphalt as he walked beside us. “That’s a nice car. My buddy down in Dallas used to have one. Couldn’t get it serviced. No one worked on the rotary engine. Had to give it up. Shame, too. It was a nice car.”

We smiled our way across the parking lot, but once inside the restaurant we let the conversation die. We just went quiet. He let us join the line ahead of him, and we gradually turned our backs to him and started analyzing the menu. We could have asked what he was doing in Colorado, whether he lived in Dallas, anything, but we didn’t. Britain has infected our social mores. You don’t probe, don’t ask questions; you passively receive information and once it stops being freely and gratuitously offered, the interaction is over. The only acceptable way to keep a conversation alive with a stranger is to discuss the weather in grim, soul-crushing detail. The first step in re-learning American turns out to be re-learning how to connect with strangers.

The next step is re-learning how to speak American. We always forget how much our speech patterns have changed. For the most part our accents are as they ever were; that will never change. But speaking to Americans in America, we still use Scottish lingo. So Matt tells a confused Shell station attendant that he was “phaffing about” with something; Alissa says weekend with the emphasis on the second syllable. This morning Alissa was queuing at Starbucks when she gave Matt a fiver to pay while she went to the loo. No she wasn’t. She was standing in line at Starbucks when she gave Matt five bucks to pay while she went to the restroom. The little differences are endless.

And we have definitely adopted a British speech volume. No one in America can hear what we say. Alissa asked for a chai latte at a perfectly normal British conversational volume, and the woman at the till (Wait, it’s not a till, it’s a cash register) shouted back, “A what kinda latte?” Yesterday Matt was speaking to the cashier at the supermarket and she kept interrupting him mid-sentence and talking over him. At the time we thought she was just being rude, but now we get it: she couldn’t hear him.

One thing you notice as an American abroad is how loud we are. Maybe it’s something to do with that friendly openness we’re famous for. Maybe it’s something to do with (over)confidence ,the idea that what we have to say is something everybody within earshot really needs to hear. Maybe it’s just that our voices have to carry across America’s wide-open spaces. But apparently it affects our hearing too.

We’re not only going to have to re-learn words and expressions, we’re going to have to re-learn volume.