Monday, March 3, 2014

The Road

 The Road

(no photographic content here - only ramblings)

When we were kids our parents loaded us into the back of a Pontiac station wagon, told us to quit fighting, and drove hours or days into the wilderness. I use the word ‘wilderness’ loosely here, as for us, even the timbered mountains of our own central Idaho were wilderness; in the sense that we were there alone, with primal fire, surrounded by wildlife, and with only a thin layer of Coleman canvas between our huddled bodies and the demons of the night. A National Park was occasionally set upon by our family and the beagle, but mostly we just went here and there. Perhaps just far enough into the wilds that we were alone, in case our parents decided it was time to abandon us or to really give us something to cry about - which was always an intriguing thing to hear them say.

We had no electronic entertainment back then, other than Operation, which was, at best, not a good option in the back of a moving car. And even if you did unscrew the red light-bulb nose a turn or two so it wouldn’t keep lighting up all the time, you still had that terrible buzzer alarm which would surely lead to a spanking. Somewhere in a junkyard is an old white rusted husk of a Pontiac with a tiny plastic butterfly, a wrench, and a wishbone shoved under the back seat. The wrench I could understand, a previously botched appy or a circus prank gone awry, but a butterfly - what the hell was with that?

Other than getting into trouble, reading was all that was left - and you could only do that if it didn’t make you carsick. Vomiting onto the hound’s-tooth upholstery was always a showstopper, and one that always brought the station wagon to a drifting halt. We learned quickly that they wouldn’t stop for us to pee, “You just went”, but if one of us puked down the side of the car or onto the dog, you were sure to get your pee break. Eventually even the well-acted sick look and the simple statement, “I don’t feel good” would accomplish the goal. Without the trance-like engagement of the modern iPod, we had to entertain ourselves; we secretly tossed things out the window, conjured up wonderful imaginary worlds, made each other punch themselves in the face, and just watched the scenery pass by the window. I imagine this is what the prairie kids did during the months long wagon drives into the western territories during the 1800’s – only they died once in a while.

Once we got ten blocks from our house, the world was a fascinating and foreign place. “Wow, look at the size of those monkey bars! What park is this? Was that a prison? Why is that man camping on the freeway? Is this Oregon? That lady has her shirt up. Are we there yet?” It was a nonstop adventure into the unknown, and the landscape blurring past became our extended edition widescreen movie. The complete lack of seatbelt use also meant freedom to roam the cabin at will - as long as goofing off never interfered with the back of my dads head, which, if accidently whacked with a shoe or a GI Joe fleeing a combat zone, would terminate with a premature stopping of the car and some good old-fashioned roadside spanking. Basically it was another pee break.

This, of course, was the very same era where leaving trash in parks, or on the side of the road, and smoking at meals just didn’t seem like a big deal. Ralph Nader, a surgeon general, and the crying Indian on TV soon changed all of that, but for a time there was a sense of driving safety that was magical – and quite deceiving. As if the rigid hull of cold-rolled steel and chrome would somehow protect the loose assortment of pleat-skirted girls and plaid-panted boys from instant annihilation, like a comfortable trip over Niagara Falls in a wooden barrel.

The point was that we entertained ourselves – we had to, no one else was going to do it for us. However, if for some divine reason, a small flat TV were just dropped into my lap from the future, I would have cherished it like nothing else. I would have stared into its brilliant pixilated face for hours, contemplating the next jump toward spinning golden coins. As the sun slowly slipped over the edge of the earth, and its last golden rays pierced through the front windshield of our car and bore deeply into my dad’s retinas, he would break the silence with,  “Jesus Christ, where’s my Ray Bans”. This sudden disruption of the environmental milieu would shatter my coin-gathering concentration. Having heard the Lords name, I would look up from my hypnotic box, thumbs and hands locked in the Kung Fu grip position and my neck frozen in place like I was sniffing nail polish. I would twist my immobile form sideways, wincing with the pain that only comes from electronic joy, and I would look out onto a great ocean of water, its blue-green waves curling in vast arcs toward the rocky shore. Groves of stunted trees, swept backwards to flee the ocean, rimmed the edge of black cliffs. The setting sun would illuminate the waves as they rose up, making them glow from within like emerald glass tubes. It would have been 600 miles to the coast – an entire day – and I would know nothing of the land between the start and finish, other than when we had to try the McDonalds in Portland just to see if it was the same, which it was. So here, knowing that I should speak to the beauty that stretched before us, the only reason we were on this Grapes of Wrath journey, I suppose I would ask, with the great wisdom of a game-master, “What’s this big blue wet thing?”

Today, with the dense drape of lavish electronic gizomotory that envelops us - the trip, the adventure, and the landscape - all passes by un-noticed. Our kids are strapped into climate controlled cabins with NASCAR precision; Skullcandy headphones block out the world with Dub step and Acid Techno; unblinking eyes focus on spastic phone games with the ADD responsiveness of an air traffic controller - fingers and eyes interpreting color and movement at a blinding pace, knowing that so many virtual lives are in their chapped little hands. No plastic wishbones under the seat these days – only spent AA batteries.

Car trips then were somewhat uncommon, and they were carefully planned out - like Cousteau’s deep-sea expeditions. Tires had to be double-checked, oil topped off, spares strapped to the roof with rope; shiny metal thermoses were filled with vile Folgers coffee; toolboxes bursting with wrenches and sockets were carefully stowed; tire irons, jacks, and flares had to be accounted for, and jerry cans of Premium sloshed next to hapless children peering out the back windows of Ramblers.

Today, however, we drive great distances without any fear of the impromptu campout. It is not uncommon to own a car with hundreds of thousands of miles on the odometer. In the 60’s the best you could hope for was about 60,000 before the rings gave out, the transmission lost a gear, and the blue haze of the crop-duster marked the untimely death of another of Detroit’s finest. Every dad worth his suicide knob knew how to fix these problems. Blown radiator hose – no problem, re-jet your carburetor in the Rockies – no sweat, fix a sticky lifter in the parking lot of the Safeway – easy, throw a rod in Fallon– just walk away. It was all so easy back then.

No one knows how to work on a car now days, not even the automotive professionals. “I am sorry friend, computer, it say car – is dead, no good. Like old country, is shit.” Cars are disposable. And yet – they are more reliable. It seems that they run forever, and then just up and die, like that damn stinky cat that you got on a whim - but lived to be eighteen. Now, with this newfound reliability, the adventure of the road trip has mostly vanished. No one thinks twice about going to the ocean, Disneyland, or even Disneyworld for that matter – not even a shred of concern that they might not make it.

The last hope for vintage adventure is to own a VW Campervan from the 1980’s. This gigantic metal cube, obviously designed prior to the wind tunnel, has the same horsepower as a burly John Deere riding mower, and enough poorly designed parts to keep even the most mechanically-inclined improve prodigy locked in mortal combat with unexpected restorations for years. Top speed on the freeway, in southern Utah, with a headwind – is 35mph. This was the vehicle I tortured my own children with. Once seasoned, they never asked “how long” or “when” again. They knew that time was based on the sequence of failing parts, and my ability to repair it with bailing wire and duct tape. It was more like, “What day is it?” or “When is winter again?”

When we were kids, and horsing around in the backseat of the Pontiac, my dad would just reach back with one arm and do a blind sweeping slap motion, connecting with whatever kid and body part he could. Often times the innocent kid would be the one to get smacked, leaving the other to quietly snicker, grateful that those tears he was seeing weren’t his own. And when the wrong kid did take one for the team, the parental answer was always the same, “You were both to blame”, which no kid knows was ever true. If nothing else, it taught us that life is random - and unfair.

In the van, however, the Germans placed the back seats almost a tennis court away from the driver. Perhaps their kids are more old world; well-mannered, passive, polite and fair. Not in America. Reaching back for the blind arm swing would get you nothing but air, and possibly a torn rotator cuff. Nope, it was a big production of escalating threats and finally a drifting halt to the side of the road. This open space did provide some entertainment though. While you were driving you couldn’t just hand snacks or juice boxes to the kids in the back seat – they had to be thrown. It was like feeding monkeys, their little arms all outstretched, straining against their seatbelts, grunting, hoping to snag a cookie from mid-air. Sometimes you hit the mark, and sometimes you were short – and that’s when the show started.

They would work for hours - quietly, as a team, combining their mental powers of mechanical engineering and physics, creating a complex robotic arm from Lego’s, K’nex girders, hair scrunchies, pencils, rubber bands, and shoelaces. Together they would slowly work the arm out onto the van floor, toward the errant Oreo, modifying the contraption as needed.  It was as if I had my very own Spielberg production in my rearview mirror. Of course eventually they would get the cookie - and fight over it. Someone would cry, someone would laugh in triumph, and the van would come to a drifting halt.

They, of course, weren’t quite as inundated with technology as the kids of today, but they had their fair share. However, the unreliable grace of the vehicle (or what we called the brick) gave them a good balance between their Gameboys, reading Captain Underpants books, and hearing the Lords name while I used wood screws and a drill to re-attach the fiberglass campertop back to the metal body. It was a solid ride, don’t get me wrong - the curb weight alone allowed it to float like a magic carpet over any surface, and steering – it was a tight, with the turning radius of a Fiat. It was often times a little unnerving to know that your feet and legs were actually in front of the wheels, and that the only thing between you and the four-point muley was a grill of German plastic, but after a few near misses it didn’t seem to be a big deal.

I think the generation being raised now, on a diet of electronic gluttony - without the Lewis and Clark style camp outs of yore, ensconced in Tyvek homes and sealed within transportation containers of humidity controlled safety - are becoming uncoupled from the Earth. Gone are the days of starring out the window at the slowly changing countryside, wondering why a goat was standing on a cow. Gone are the frequent camps made alongside nameless dirt roads in the desert, waiting for the sun to go down so that you could drive the van again in the cool of the evening. Kids are no longer subjected to the music of their parents, or to the ‘grown up’ conversations that were meant to be whispers  (didn’t the whole family know that our neighbor dressed like a girl anyway?).  No one needs to be mechanical anymore – because no amount of MIT training is ever going to help you with a modern vehicle. I have raised the hood on a 2013 Taurus – and as far as I can tell, it’s just miles and miles of tubing and hoses – not an engine to be seen, let alone a distributer cap or a nice Holly carb.

It seems that with each passing year, with each leap forward in technology, we are separating ourselves from the very world we inhabit. We are safe, secure, clean, and healthy. The natural world, on the other hand, is dangerous, unpredictable, filthy, and – also healthy. Experiencing the wild world around us should not be a yearly novelty, but a wondrous opportunity that we seek out as often as we can; the faint slice of midnight air as a bat changes direction in front of you; a majestic bald eagle just sitting on a fence post along a wintery road in Wyoming, looking for mice and twitching his tail; sitting on a rock, snuggled with a friend, hypnotized, listening to a campfire crackle and spark from the pitch pockets of fresh-cut wood; watching clouds become pregnant with water - heavy and purple, and then birthing a white curtain of hail over the desert. These are the things that we should never miss out on; these experiences are what formed our sense of wonder, beauty, and awe.

I don’t regret the past for its lack of safety or environmental conscious, because we learned a great deal from those years and made changes for the better. However, I do pity a future generation that may be so disengaged that they lose sight of what is important on this planet; that fame and GoPro fortunes will never replace patience and wonder; that there are more colors in the ocean than on any flat screen monitor; and that with only a little bit of hard work, a sprinkling of unknown, and some filth and hope, their lives will be that much richer, their memories greater, and the world a better place.

Rob Hart