End of the Road—for now
July 7, 2001
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And there it is, the end of another season. We have mixed feelings about that schedule we get every year for the upcoming autumn through spring and into the next July. You look at the last date first, a large outdoor pavilion somewhere, and then backtrack through; check the New York stretch, the long good-weather tour, the couple of shorter winter tours, the home stands. It's a non-optional menu of your adventures for the entire next cycle. (It does have options but they're like the sign in our home kitchen that says Today's Menu -- Choice of Two: Take It Or Leave It.)
Our time is measured off in these annual increments, the seasons followed by rests, a lot like farming; different from previous jobs, where the seasons were not so sharply cut and things were allowed to blur together, and you could drift through your life like most people drive the freeway, which is to say without reading the mile markers. Hardly noticing New Year's or your birthday, battling bouts of guilt through the winter holidays but otherwise fairly oblivious to the passage of the weeks. But with the show there's a beginning and an end, and any finish line has a natural pull to it, and when you finally get there you find it less satisfying than you expected; you are another year older and once again wondering how all that could have disappeared so quickly in the truck mirrors.
Since I'm the only one actually on the ground for the whole thing, my own view of the season is more linear than the others'; I look at the schedule and a map of the country at the same time and see a series of lines snaking out left, right, down and all over and eventually bucking back to the upper center. They do the same and see a starburst pattern, with the top part mostly unused. Their lines go straight out and straight back, then out again and back from a different place, like an overhead diagram of people shooting baskets. Mostly set shots and jumpers, with a few from downtown.
I admire them for it; it takes toughness to do that commercial flying every week. One of the crew has simplified it a little. When he comes home from a road show he dumps his laundry directly from the suitcase into the washer and then straight into the dryer and then, when the buzzer buzzes, it goes right back into the suitcase. He looks just like the rest of us and if you looked at our whole gang together you wouldn't be able to pick him out as the guy in wrinkled clothes, so the method is working. If I was flying every week there'd be two of us using that procedure.
It was a heck of a year. Revisited some favorite places like Laramie, Memphis and especially Washington, where I have relatives. Got to spend some time there and it truly is marvelous. When archeologists dig up the ancient wonders, the Mayan and Greek great centers, they are digging in that era's Washington. Fans of New York don't like to hear this (all the more reason to say it I guess) but Washington is the place that really feels like America. The other stunning places out there are all a part of it -- Hollywood, San Francisco, New Orleans, Yellowstone, Chicago, and all of Montana-- but in D.C. you feel like you have seen the essence of what we are about. In spite of all the politicians whom you felt didn't deserve to set foot on any part of it, in spite of all the rancor and inefficiency and the wasting of your own money on trying to run your life for you; just walking the mall, tacky food tents on one end and the Lincoln Memorial on the other, you feel like this is what we are. The good and the bad, the misguided and the oddly dressed, all mixed together.
You cruise the great museums and see the giant stone buildings and you walk yourself footsore and say that next time you'll have to spend more time here, that there's much more than you expected. There is a great feeling of tolerance that permeates the place; it's written in stone above your head, everywhere, and it's at sidewalk level. You tour the White House and the Capitol Building, they let you and all the rest of the riffraff just walk in and gawk, right there in the same rooms where state banquets are held and senate decisions are handed down. You see the Tomb of the Unknowns and the awed silence of a mismatched crowd, young and old, sitting on the great curved steps, watching a solitary guard march a solitary post amid thousands of bone-white tombstones lined over the green hills of Arlington. You can hear his every footstep. What a place.
And you of course see the most American of all places, the Vietnam Wall; the flowers, the photos set beneath the names, the messages, the families with a piece of paper making a rubbing, seeing the letters come through the page. You see a veteran looking for a comrade and you turn away, overwhelmed, and you tell yourself that these are not ten percent of the dead of the Civil War and that your own father fought at Monte Cassino where the casualties were this great in only a few months, but it's not about the number, it's about the names and it's about the closeness of it, and the country's awful callousness at the time. The angled black stone slices the sidehill like a bayonet. You cannot ignore the wound.
And then you do a show and head back Sunday afternoon with the powerful sound of Ralph Stanley's voice still ringing in your ears halfway across the continent, the accent sometimes vaguely echoed in the truckers' voices you hear on the CB radio.
You rise and fall with the soft carpeted mountains of the Blue Ridge and Allegheny, over high canyons on the Pennsylvania turnpike and then through the foothills on the other side in the tip of West Virginia at Wheeling, and you drive deep into the night, passing signs advertising 50,000 Hub Caps and Eighth Wonder of the World Fireworks, and Tom Raper RVs, until the darkness begins to lift and you drop out of morning traffic into a bad truck stop with potholes in the parking lot big enough to fish in and you order the Terminator T-bone and she says "Well done? Medium well?" and by then you are grumpy and say I want it rare, really rare, and if you bring it well done it's goin' back. And it comes just right and you wolf it down and go out to sleep in the truck without even brushing your teeth.
You are taking the southern route home, I-70, to avoid the cop-infested toll roads and the blithering insanity of Chicago traffic, on through Indianapolis, take a right in Illinois at Bloomington-Normal and head north. Where I-39 joins I-90 there is a pair of unmanned toll buckets and just over the fence on the left a giant water slide, taller than a church, and right there in the gate, about ten cars in front, a pickup truck pulling a boat trailer suddenly goes dead in it's tracks. It causes confusion up there, somehow disabling both stop and go lights, and traffic sits unmoving in the afternoon heat and humidity while truckers curse the damn fools over the CB. Other truckers see the bright side of things: a lot of women in bikinis standing in line at the water slide. An animated, if politically incorrect, discussion follows. The girls are probably lucky not to hear it. Finally they begin to do the obvious thing up there, channeling into the left lane and just blowing through, even though the sign said something to the effect that video cameras were in use and there was a $500 fine. I roll up there and toss my five dimes in the chute and the light stays red, same as it did for the guy ahead of me who threw nothing in. And from then on it's easy sailing, all through Wisconsin. A gorgeous day.
You roll wide-open through backlit forest, the shadows from the tree-lined wide median dappling the left lane, side-by-side real tight with a Peterbilt out of Bourbonnais, Illinois, the driver in sunglasses and a large mustache. The lanes are narrowed by orange pylons and you set the trailer tires just on the bright yellow edge line, traffic close ahead and behind, and you slowly gain and with hardly six inches clearance between the mirrors it occurs to you that you'll never get tired of anything this much fun and he grins as you begin to pull away.
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