Highway 101 #3 Driving Through The American Soul
The Dodge Camper Van, brown inside and out, was the first car I ever bought. But it was perfect for our road trip down Highway 101. It was a beautiful thing in its own right. Most American, a bulky form, a beastlike engine and appeal. When we crossed the Canadian-American Border on the first day of March, the American Border Patrol Guard yelled out, “What is that?! The Beast from the East?!” They loved the car and wished us all the best for our trip down to Mexico. We crossed the border, some time in the early morning and drove through the wilderness of Washington State. The majestic beauty of America began to dawn on us, it was already a sublime experience when you ignored the signs of late-capitalism. But those aren’t just signs, those huge logos that you see all along the major American highways. It would be simpleminded, as all of Freudian lingo is, to think of them as phallus symbols. This is not what they are. The logos of fast food chains and gas stations, every 10 miles, in a place of utter wilderness, are quite disturbing the first time you see them.
But they aren’t instantiations of the phallus. They are signs of despair and loneliness. They are hints at the utter homelessness and vagabond existence of the American who is the most driven by a Faustian Frontier spirit. What is there to hold on to in a society that is predicated on total social and geographical mobility, where everyone is always on the move and where no one really has a home, but where people are just “based out of state X, or town Y” for some time, but always already on the lookout for the next move. It is that drive that took them to the moon, it is that drive, that spirit that has made America the powerhouse that it undeniably is, but it also means a rather rootless existence, an existence that lacks proper direction. And those signs, those homogenous big logos of big chains are what at least signal some sense of belonging to the American vagabond whose morning song is “I’ve been everywhere.”
We were on a major interstate highway, not yet on Highway 101. Tom was driving in the morning hours, I got out my guitar, a Takamine 12-string I had bought on Granville Street in Downtown Vancouver just before we left. And I played whatever country songs I remembered and played the harp. This was the first time I played these songs on American soil and they made a lot more sense there all of a sudden. I had always felt something pulling me to the States, and I had always wanted to drive and see this big country of deserts and glaciers, oceans, lakes, primeval forests, swamps, and prairies. To those who first arrived on her shores, America seemed like the Promised Land. Many felt that this is God’s own country, this place of sublime beauty. It is saddening that America is now is a vessel for the destruction of the earth. America could be the site of a great romanticism, of a reunification with the mystery of nature and an appreciation of its untamable beauty and its inherent dangers, rather than the Silicon Valley fantasies of a plastic bubble future where nature is all “organic,” but only on a label, and its inherent dangers are to be tamed and neatly stored away.
I sang the blues, driving down Interstate 5, a monster of a Highway that stretches from Alaska all the way to Mexico. And for the first time I saw the sadness of the American soul. Or of the American experience, as they call it. I’ve always wondered what America is. Some people have been calling it a failed experiment, which is quite a disgusting thing to say, when you appreciate that we are talking here about a country and people, not a laboratory. Thinking back on it now there is a sadness in America, a deep sense of loss, and at the same time, a ravenous hunger and abundant energy – a place, a region that embodies all geographies, free from metaphysics and thus free for the impossible and the infinite. It might just be that America is the conclusion of metaphysics that extends beyond itself.