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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Back On The Road (PT.1)

I've gone and done it again, dear readers! I have quit all my jobs to live out of my car, and drive around the country... again. Dedicated followers of this fine interweb publication will recall my exploits of last summer when I quit my salaried-with-benefits desk job to drive an epic Alaska Adventure and back. It seems the problem with traveling is that it's addictive. Slap a health hazards warning label on that FDA. The more you travel the more you want to travel more. There's always something around the bend, or an turn-off you didn't take. There's nothing like the liberation of waking up in your car with no obligations or plans for the day. The world is your oyster. Dig out that damn pearl, and all that jazz. Then there's this growing confidence that you could handle any minor problems, and meet all your basic needs on the road with nothing more than your own ingenuity, what would fit in your trunk, and maybe a little kindness from strangers. The more I travel the more I realize how awesome people are. What better way to truly experience humanism that connecting with strangers, and receiving hospitality? As the old saying goes, "to roam the roads of lands unknown, to travel is to live." And, once again I'll be posting updates, revelations, adventures, guides, photos, and such on a semi-regular basic. Ready, steady, set, GO!

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It started on a Thursday. I woke up slowly in my bed, savoring my last golden moments at home, began making various arrangements and packing as my hangover wore off. Got on the road around noon, and slogged through the hellish cluster fuck that is traffic on I-95 throughout the Mid-Atlantic seaboard. Things finally cleared up after Richmond. The sun got lower on my right, the heat was hazy, my windows were down, and I was singing along loudly to a collection of albums circa 2000 that I had grabbed as an afterthought as I ran out the door. Jets To Brazil, Saves The Day, Built To Spill, Wilco, Piebald, The Juliana Theory, The Wrens, and all the other many albums that defined the aural and social landscape of my latter high school years that I rarely listen to anymore. Can you did it? The road was boring, straight, moderately well-paved, perfectly manicured, with the same collection of fast food joints and name brand gas stations at each exit. I reminisced, daydreamed, drank coffee, smoked cigarettes, and did my best to avoid the deathly grogginess that steals over you with such monotony.

I reached my couchsurf host's house in Raleigh around 7pm, and with nothing more than a perfunctory round of handshakes was promptly whisked away to the downtown area for bar hopping and a sampling of local brews. My host, Jordan, was PhD student studying communications and rhetoric. We went to a bar that gave new architectural meaning to modern restoration of derelict buildings, all exposed brick and plate glass, overlooking the city skyline. As the sunset rose-tinted the city, we ordered a round of house seasonals, and he promptly asked me what my favorite social theory was. So commenced my first, and thus far only, evening in Raleigh. We met up with a lady-friend of Jordan's, and together traversed from bar to bar, favoring those with local music and beer, while consistently keeping up a rabid, rapid-fire debate on a range of sociocultural issues until we were all thoroughly drunk and raucous. With much goodnatured jabbing, I passed out on the couch with Jordan's bulldog puppy. The next morning he had to leave early for a long weekend of camping and fishing, so I set off by 9am with a his full approval for my success at grad school, and hangover for remembrance. Apparently all you need to be a good communications student is fearless debating skills, a basic knowledge of Foucault, and a liver made of steal. Success!

Next stop: Savannah. I entered the city via a long, steep, shinning white bridge over southeastern coastal marshes that boded of excitement and ethereal adventure. After a brief stop at the visitor's center where I learned about local jazz legends, I met up with my couchsurf hosts Fin and Isaac in the late afternoon. Isaac is a talented painter, and Fin is an adventurer with a slight Australian accent, though he had been born and raised state-side. They live together in a second floor apparent in a victorian-era brick building with a wrought iron balcony. The kind of old apartment with inexplicable cupboards, sliding doors, and haunted plumbing. Isaac is teaching Fin how to draw with charcoal, Fin cooks for Isaac, and they finish each other's thoughts, best friend and real human roommates. Their apartment was brimming with creativity and possibility. Just being there made me want to take pictures, write books, and sail to Madagascar. They were hosting some other couchsurfers as well, two girls from Germany that were exploring the east coast for a summer before college.

Together we set off with Fin for a tour of the city. Savannah is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen. Warm, layered, ornamented, and velvet shadowed from the magnificently massive magnolia trees hung in spanish moss to the old buildings built upon the foundations of older buildings. There are cobblestone streets, bike taxies, small stores, and many parks with obscure monuments to a history that permeates the streets, but is also somehow forgotten like a dream. Musicians played in the streets, old men challenged each other to games of chess, children played in fountains, and the bars and cafes were buzzing. It was summertime, and everyone was alive. Fin regaled us with stories of parties and exploring the town, and took us to the best local shops, including a speciality honey store. We took it all in, and then went back to the apartment to make dinner. As we were eating on the balcony, Isaac joined us. It took awhile for him to join the conversation, but once he joined in words and ideas began to take off in speedy flocks. We talked about language, artistic processes, the origins of kissing, and how traveling blends cultures until it was late enough to do some urban exploring.

Two blocks from Fin and Isaac's house was an abandoned hospital that they offered to show us. After midnight we snuck in by monkey climbing a staircase to a second floor fire escape that led to the roof. Fin had a flashlight, I had a bandana around my face, and Isaac was barefoot. I thought for sure the Germans must have believed we were insane. We worked our way downward through each room and floor, mostly empty and musty, but some filled with trash and the wrecked bones of 2x4s and drywall. Lights flickered through the windows, the sound of dripping water echoed down tiled halls, and we held our breaths. We were headed for the cellar, but as we reached the end of the second floor, suddenly an alarm from an adjacent building blared through the quite night. We killed the flashlight and dashed back to the roof where we could see a cop car circling the block. From the roof you could see the river, downtown, and the bridge lit up against the night sky. We decided to wait with the view for awhile until the cops left. Lying on our back under sparse city stars, Fin, Isaac, and I talked more. Like we were each synapses firing in the same brain, topics sparked and truths were transmitted. The German girls with their limited English tried to follow along, but mostly they seemed to find it mildly amusing.

In the morning, I helped Fin make breakfast. Isaac was already avidly involved in a drawing of his hand and a swamp rat skull. I watched him for awhile, smoothing out charcoal dust as diligently and lovingly as if the paper was the skin of his lover. After he did the dishes, Fin started drawing too. I just watched them for awhile, wandered through the apartment, drank it all in, and tried to capture such a delicious moment with my camera. Finally, I had to wrench myself away, so I could make Miami at a decent hour. I said my goodbyes, but I think Isaac was already too absorbed in his work to notice. Fin invited me back, and I might have to take up the offer.

The interstate from Savannah to Miami was terribly strange to me. Most of my travels make me love America and Americans all the more, but there are a few kinds of places I still just don't get. Scattered suburbs mechanically carved out of the swamps to make room for big box stores that large complacent people drive to in big box cars to buy things they don't really need, a life and land defined by sprawling expansion, unlimited consumption, and strictly defined property. It scares me. In those towns I feel more alone than a wilderness mountain top. In between the towns, were jungles burnt okra from recent forest fires. Ominous thunderstorms built on the horizon in terrific proportions, dying the sky in livid colors, and making the smell of smoke hang heavy in the air. My mother told me that when she was child and her parents took road trips across the country they would pack their own lunches and stop at family owned roadside attractions like South Of The Border in South Carolina, or Drive-Thru Tree in California. I stopped at South Of The Border earlier on this trip, but found it a poor thing, the last dinosaur, a relic from a nearly forgotten American past when roadside attractions were novel entertainment, and interstates had less lanes.

I was relieved to reach Miami, that striking southern city, an island of Latin culture, all palm trees and tall shiny buildings, bright colors and mixed race people, like me. I was in a hurry. I was on a mission to help my friend Carlos celebrate his 23rd birthday. I met him at his college, and proof read a paper he was writing on Marxism and browsed his well-stocked bookshelves for a bit while we caught up. Around 10pm a couple of his friends arrived, and we took off for a party in city. An adorable little lady named Francis had by a random string of events with her parents come into occupancy of nearly empty apartment on the 14th floor of a building overlooking the bay for a few days. She had excellent taste in music, and a few friends were coming over, so we picked up a jug of wine. The get together started slow, subdued conversation on a balcony far above dark waters circled by an endless blanket of bright lights and exotic trees. In a nearby neighborhood a large, loud, party was in full swing in the backyard of a family house. Spanish lyrics and plucked guitar sounds drifted up to us on a breeze. We watched as a late evening thunderstorm drifted to us, finally bursting rain that sent everyone inside except me. I stood out in the downpour, still sipping my wine, still letting my gaze dance along the skyline, just letting everything be mad glorious. By the time I went back in, a small group of dedicated partygoers were throwing down in ernest. We turned off all the lights, letting the lightning be our strobe light, and danced for hours. Finally dry, I went back outside for a cigarette an one last glimpse of city before driving everyone back where they belonged. I only meant to be out for a moment, but somehow ended up in a very heartfelt conversation about film with Pablo, one of Carlos' friends. Again, I had to tear myself away. The hour was almost 3am, and the gang was rather exhausted, but it was good. Oh almighty, it was good.

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