Friday, January 15, 2010

Gasoline Zen and the Kaleidoscope Radio Show

It is an oddly misleading feeling of freedom people get from the so-called Open Road. Few things are more constricting than a sleek path of black asphalt: laws tell us we can move only in one direction, within a narrow corridor only a few feet wide; we must obey colored lights and printed impersonal signs, keep between certain speeds, respect flashing beacons and blaring sirens. Painted lines dictate our lives in strict, inflexible terms. And through it all, we are strapped into a dramatically enclosed space in which nothing changes except the succession of tinny pop tunes piped in from outside.

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I once tried to explain American car culture to my Filipino coworkers, and failed miserably. It’s almost a masochistic practice, an exercise in self-flagellation, exposing yourself – as well as others - to a thousand annoyances and risks. It’s an expensive, environmentally damaging, dangerous game of connect-the-dots. I’ve often said that I would be happy to live in a city where I could forgo a car and avail of public transportation. That’s sort of a lie.

I could certainly survive on public means. Here in the Philippines, the jeepney system works, if not efficiently than at least adequately. And I certainly hope public transit will gradually replace the gridlock and waste of millions of private vehicles; transforming, say, Manhattan by banning private cars and developing the buses and subways would be an intriguing experiment. And public transportation is simply more interesting: the display of unpolished humanity on an underground train will always be more watchable than the family of five in the SUV idling next to you at the stoplight.

Yet I’m afraid there will always be an irresistible draw to that limbo between leaving and arriving. I feel it even in the Philippines, in buses and long jeepney rides, the scenery unrolling endlessly beyond an open window or grimy glass: a sense that for the next hour or nine, you’ll be displaced from the real world.To an extent, you can experience everything but are subject to nothing – because you’re moving on, and moving on, and even when you stop it’s only to puff up tires, feed stomachs and gas tanks, and prepare for further velocity.

But riding can’t replace driving. You’re in control, but at the best moments it can seem like you’re not in control and nobody else is either, you’re just moving along – or the road is carrying you along – and every speck of dust on the windshield is perfectly in its place, every fat cow and lazy vulture is living its exact purpose ecstatically and without reserve. Maybe you have nothing and no-one with you, but there isn’t anything you need aside from a flat road and flatter forty-ounce Coke.

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One of the primary reasons I loved living in California was the drive I was privileged to make from Malibu to Los Angeles. It wasn’t a long drive, maybe twenty miles, but it’s something I’ll remember far better and with much deeper fondness than my classes, my professors and just about everyone I knew on the West Coast. US Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, is a dream on the edge of the world: it winds down the rocky coast past famous beaches, scrubby hills and loopy sun-worshippers to the outskirts of Santa Monica, where a little ramp named Moomat Ahiko cradles cars as they take their tentative steps from the sands to the city. One of the greatest pleasures of my time in California was this drive, mountains on my left and ocean on the right, speeding towards nothing for the pure golden joy of the waves crashing yards away while the yowling of Bob Dylan filled the little red car. I sing when I drive, and on those days along PCH, I sang loud.

Going north from Malibu the scenery is ever more spectacular, running along long rocky wave-tossed beaches and climbing up fantastic sheer cliffs. Before the highway hits the Monterey peninsula it rises through the redwooded caverns of Big Sur – where the only thing higher than the trees is the price of gas – and then descends down into Steinbeck’s rusty Cannery Row dreams, shiny and polished but undeniably raffish yet. And onward still, up to San Francisco – the current limit of my own wandering, unfortunately – and beyond.

For sheer knockout beauty, I can’t imagine a better roadway than PCH. And it’s engaging as well – boredom isn’t an issue when your wheels are three feet from a hundred-foot drop. But there’s another kind of driving, one that is in some ways the total opposite: when for twelve hours nothing breaks the blank canvas of the day except hot dry stops at gas stations and the car seems stuck humming through an endless circuit of slow-rolling hills. To the west there’s the ocean, and to the east green fields and forests; but in-between, the more complete desolation of the desert stretches blotchy, dusty and stark in every direction.

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Despite the spare gorgeousness of the American southwest, I could never live there. There’s something intensely claustrophobic about the sheer size of the landscape, a sameness that makes me feel decidedly stuck. It’s younger than the oceans, but it seems much more elderly; when I think of the sea, it’s easy to imagine spry young jellyfish squelching their hopeful way through the shadowy depths, but when I picture the desert all that comes to mind are motionless lizards and evaporation. For hundreds of miles nothing changes, nothing moves, and colors are coordinated in a thousand shades of beige – in contrast to which the rest of the continent, even Kansas, looks resplendent and varied. (I like wearing sepia-tinted sunglasses when I drive, because when I take them off the world looks so suddenly rich and alive with color.) But all that nothingness outside provides an ideal environment for a state of unadulterated driving peace within. If Siddhartha Gautama lived in the modern world, he’d have gained enlightenment in the middle of Arizona rather than under the bodhi tree.

Everything fades: the sand, the other sand, the signs advertising The Thing and other campy roadside tourist traps. Even the radio complies, spinning round its frequencies smoothly, silently and without stopping, the flashing station numbers the only dynamic thing in existence – seeking, always seeking in a calculated, hypnotic orbit, taking on bursting colors and erupting into trippy patterns, breaking free from the confines of the car to dance out among the cacti and steppes; until finally, reluctantly, it picks up a ragged Spanish mariachi wafting over from Mexicali, and the universe snaps back to attention. The driver raises his eyes to find the gas light on, the headlights off despite a decidedly nightlike tint to the earth, and the odometer having added sixty-eight miles in a wink.

In those trances, it’s easy to blur a few thousand miles together, to lose all the little fragments that make a drive or roadtrip memorable: living from Safeway to Safeway, toll roulette, the unavoidable Trip Theme Song. The stops, for one night or several: the Green Tortoise in San Francisco, a deserted and probably condemned Super 8 in Los Angeles, the hostel in Georgetown where I was almost denied a space for not being foreign and ended up sharing a room with a group of very confused Japanese travelers.

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That night I hopped on the metro and rode down to the National Mall, where tourists milled among the pale monuments. The rest of the city was dead and shut up tight, but the empty streets beckoned, and the next day I pulled back onto the Beltway. This was at the tail end of a 5000-mile trip, with many points in-between, but essentially from nowhere to anywhere: just another drive past fireworks stands, a thousand cookie-cutter fast food joints, and a giant hoary peach perched on a golf tee somewhere in the Georgian wilderness.

Through it all the imagination speeds along on 87-grade gasoline and 50¢ plastic-wrapped crumbly glue cakes from some BP station east of Las Cruces, siphoning up the fine dust of the American wasteland. The road is headed nowhere but the mirror ocean on the other side. And that is perfect.

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