14 October 2015

Bridge Freezes Before Road

Some of us are sedentary by nature, some of us footloose. It might very possibly be a function of age, and certainly of temperament, A body at rest tends to stay at rest - even if calling it inertia is a polite way of saying our momentum has left us up on blocks - but there comes a day when we turn mother's picture to the wall and light out for parts unknown,

Steinbeck said about the pioneers heading West toward the far horizons that eventually they bumped up against the Pacific, and he imagined all these old people, sitting on porches, gazing toward the setting sun, longing to voyage a further distance. (This, as I remember, from "The Red Pony.") And the West is a journey of imagination, Manifest Destiny, looking past the edge of the earth.

I made the trip in reverse this time, West to East, from Santa Fe to Baltimore. The road itself seemed familiar, if not the route - but the mileage, and the pavement, the changing landscape and the culture of travel (although I'm sorry to report that the spaghetti with chile and cheese, at the Skyline in Dayton, Ohio, isn't one of those peculiar local delicacies that's worth going out of your way for, like Frito pies or poutine). It's funny, and kind of comforting, to find yourself back in America. A lot of the old rules still apply, and some of the same courtesies.

Ten states - New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland - 1800 miles, give or take. An odometer of the mind, not so much the physical distance covered. Different time zones, but an interior geography.

"Don't you get stale around here, Bill?" Garrett asks the Kid, who's hanging around Ft. Sumner, shooting chickens, and I have to admit Santa Fe was getting more than a little claustrophobic on me. People, it's been remarked, come to Santa Fe for repair, or reinvention, or recovery. Which suggests of course that they might be damaged in some way, but that's a judgment call. One guy I know was headed West in a VW bus, and Santa Fe's where it broke down, so he got a job scooping ice cream and stayed to raise a family. You can't make one size fit all.

And truth be told, New Mexico's done good by me. Surely there's been no dearth of material. Seriously? Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project, the Anasazi and the cliff dwellings, the land grant struggles and the Tierra Amarilla courthouse siege, Zozobra, the Japanese internment camps, the penitentiary riot, the corrupting influence of the Mexican cartels - drugs, guns, money laundering and human traffic - along with old trailhands Tony Hillerman and Marc Simmons, just for openers, who let me draw from the well.

Thoreau advises us to beware of enterprises requiring new clothes, but deciding to set up shop in a place of underappreciated virtues, aside from Camden Yards, could be considered a wardrobe opportunity, and not for protective coloration, either. Baltimore doesn't seem to mind an edge. You can profile some pretty mean shoes, you got legs to match.

I kept seeing the same sign on the highway, every time I approached an overpass. Bridge Ices Before Road. My first thought was that somebody had to be making a killing, like getting the U.S. Coast Guard contract for wool socks, if every state highway department in the country's buying that same black-and-yellow sign. But your mind wanders, on the road, and I began reading between the lines, looking for hidden meanings, or surface tension, decoding the text, as if it were some kind of Zen mystery message. In the end, I decided it wasn't.

Still, it's a metaphor. Don't leave skid marks.


  1. Somehow that kind of journey feels different when you're young than it does when it stands up and just happens at the other end of things. Your description is powerful and evocative. Thanks for sharing, and for the heads-up on those bridges.

  2. David, I know people still working the streets of Baltimore. It's a rough town. No doubt you'll get new material for your stories.

  3. So you're now a Ballmer guy? That's a change, for sure. Here is a true story from the alleys of that town: http://www.sleuthsayers.org/search/label/Saint%20Patrick's%20Day

    In Ken Kesey's SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION (surely the best novel ever written about strikebreakers) the family of the main character just keep going west until they reach Oregon and one day, unable to tolerate the constant rain, one of them walks straight into the Pacific... That's not a spoiler, by the way.

  4. Lovely article!

    Welcome (back) to the east (he says from 38 miles south).

    For five years I taught a graduate course at the University of Denver on the history of transportation in the United State. The impetus of the cross country rail system, and to a certain extent the Eisenhower highway system one hundred years later, was that we needed to develop easy access to populate the hinterlands. How well did we do? As I remember it, 80% of the U.S. population currently lives within 200 miles of a coast (and that does NOT include the Great Lakes). And 50% is within 50 miles.

  5. David, I wonder if you might have known Susan Slater, one of our colleagues originally from Albuquerque. She moved to St. Augustine, Florida.

    Speaking of Skyline chili, I found myself disappointed when I visited one of the Sloppy Joes (there’re more than one) in Key West. The current version of the famous sandwich was below high school cafeteria standards.

  6. Sorry not to have you as a guide to the seamier side (as I suppose there is one) to your former haunt, on what may be my sole visit to the state. But look forward to a meet way down East.


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