by Raju Peddada
Dedicated to our God of Car Trips -- my Audacious father
(Swans - August 27, 2012) Our trip commenced on the 7th of July 2012, in ominous overtones. At about 5:40 am we came to screeching standstill. Our black car was shrouded by the white-walled semi-trailers on I-90W, by the exit to route 47. I opened the sunroof and made eye contact with a cement truck driver. "Accident?", I asked. He nodded in affirmation. We inched along, merging into one lane. A few yards down he shouts over the diesels, "...there's a body ahead... keep your kids away from it..." Everyone slows down to see the remains: a crumpled white S-class Mercedes, as if Kraken had chewed it up and spat it out. Then, on the grassy easement a few yards away, lay the body under a white shroud. The white cover actually revealed more than I cared for. There was only a four-foot long disfigured lump under the sheet; no discernible head or feet. I didn't share this detail with the boys, even as we saw it at the same moment. Mani, my younger one, asks, "Daddy... why do they cover dead bodies with a white cloth?" Busy contemplating the accident, I had no answer.
Our superstitious Brahmin culture drummed in the fear that seeing a corpse when embarking on a journey portended something dreadfully identical for the viewer, in which case, we were in great company with all the truckers that morning. Then, Ah haa! -- any author would die to provide such a hook into his book. This morning tragedy was the hook. It prodded us to keep our eyes peeled throughout our journey in this vast gallery.
It took forty-five minutes to swallow the platitude of Illinois. Wisconsin did not come soon enough. The first major town was Janesville, home of the famous Parker Pen company. Wisconsin, past Janesville, turns into a sea of green swells with its carved, corrugated topography as a result of glacial withdrawal ten millennia ago. Meandering country routes, snaking under the trees alongside the Black River, the white farms -- coyly, like pigtailed girls -- revealed themselves from under the copses of emerald blobs, and the Holstein herds as pieces of a puzzle make the meadow: pure poetry, in that diffident morning light.
Butch, our ten-year-old, deduces that traveling by car here is veritable torture, and I happen to concur with his rationale. You simply cannot park your car on the shoulder, like in Morocco or India, and explore the patches of violet and yellow in a nearby meadow, or a challenging promontory jutting over the river, or simply saunter over to an old oak and sit there for a picnic. The highway is actually an incarceration, confining all travelers with barbed wire fences on either side, ten yards off, after the easement -- private and federal lands, I suppose. And, even if you stop, the flashing lights of a state trooper are less than five minutes behind you. It's like you take the kids to FAO Schwarz, and shout "...only see, do not touch!" Butch, exasperated, exhorts "... if it wasn't for that infernal fence... and those infernal fence makers!" It is indeed, a gallery of colorful, distressed, and shot-up "No Trespassing!" signs.
The entertainment value increased after Wisconsin Dells, straddling the Wisconsin River. We passed an area of eroded limestone formations by a small settlement called Camp Douglas, with a population of 592. Subsequently, we descended into the Mississippi Valley, and into a low-density roller coaster over the ridges and the valleys leading up to the quaint town of Hudson and the big crossing at the Mississippi. A breathtaking confluence of green bluffs, perched with obscured vacation homes, forest valleys, the river, and its bright traffic. After the majestic waterway, Minnesota: The Land of Ten Thousand Lakes -- the right moniker, as we spotted many shimmering patches of aqua blue through the blurring green streaks and settlements. We diagonally sliced through Minnesota on 94W, and since Hudson, I had kept my eyes on the fuel gauge, which looked stuck, as the miles rose on the odometer. Early in the afternoon we approached Fargo, North Dakota, almost 621 miles from O'Hare, still with about a quarter tank left -- I guess due to the incredibly efficient variable fuel injection. Fargo reminded me of the dogged as well as bumbling characters played to perfection by Francis McDormand and William H. Macy in that classic Coen brothers film, Fargo.
It would be remiss of me, would it not, if I did not reveal at least some aspects of our car for this journey, without sounding like a commercial. Well, it's a powerful German autobahn cruiser, with a logo that portrays the movement of an aircraft propeller with white blades cutting through a blue sky. My brother had once referred to it as a "battleship." The engine at 80 mph nonchalantly turned over at only 2250 rpm, almost goading me to step on it: "Hey... I'm meant for better than this piddly 80 mph... I'm the ultimate... don't drive me like an old fart!" But I stayed mostly at 75 mph throughout the drive. It felt like we were on magnetic levitation, as the asphalt dissolved without an effort.
On our drive, we entered this atmospheric-metaphoric bubble, and stayed within its confines for a fortnight. The collusion between a smooth car and the asphalt injected an anesthetic, with a hypnotic effect on the mind, inducing dangerous distractions that sometimes pulled the car in involuntary directions, like on a vigie board. The drive from Fargo to Bismarck became one vast canvas of reflection, contemplation, and blurring settlements... like a Gerhard Richter painting. Thoughts darted helter-skelter, like rabbits in the gray brush, affected by slight changes: from the alluring meadows, through spanking new towns near gas fields, to the bristling junk yards.
The blonde plains of North Dakota with the huge grain elevators were serviced by what seemed like toy BNSF engines and ADM hopper cars from Lionel. We felt as if being at a standstill in such landscape, even at that speed. Coal trains pulled and pushed by the multicolored engines, crisscrossed each other like long centipedes. Mani, our seven-year-old train fiend, asks: "Daddy... why there are two engines in the front... and one engine in the back on all coal trains... and where is all the coal going?" I respond: "Well, the front ones pull... the back one pushes, and the coal is being delivered to factories that make our electricity...." This banter ensues till I am exhausted. Then, to escape their prickly testosteroned curiosity, I turn on the music.
Music is evocation, especially while driving. The combination of motion and music enables the emotive rhythms of music to seep in, evoking distant memories in mawkish immediacy, sometimes inducing tears of longing over that lingering vapor of what I once was -- young. Specific songs ignited specific memories: Santana's psychedelic "Black Magic Woman" triggered the holographic image of my father swinging by our Telefunken radio in 1970, with us watching in fascination. On Fridays in New Delhi in the late sixties, we lived for a program called "A Date With You" where they released the newest Beatles songs. It also reminded me of the drives back and forth from Wisconsin with my precocious daughter, Lizzy. As a boy of ten, I was sucked in by certain songs, like "Downtown" by Petula Clark, and "Strawberries, cherries, and an angel's kiss in spring" or "These boots are made for walkin" by Nancy Sinatra, that holographed up my friend Ashim, from 1967, in vivid detail, with his feminine tendencies, when the word "gay" rang up differently. I enjoyed my sweet melancholy, drinking in the music.
After considerable lolling all day, the boys came alive with ice cream after that DQ stop in Valley City, North Dakota, engaging in a garrulous repartee on film characters. It crested to another level, when they engaged in a fart war that forced me to keep the windows open at that speed. Material exhausted, they fell into silence. Moments later, Butch opens up again, mimicking a cowboy in western drawl: "I got bandages on my penis... and don't you point that magnum on me, 'cause I'm gonna blow yo nutes with maa Smith-Wesson 45!" Mani explodes in giggles, followed by loud cackles. Butch follows this up with his own concoction of Capt. Haddock from Tintin comics: "You sniveling salamander of the seven sewers... how dare you talk to me like a putrid profiteer!... I shall have you hanged on my front porch... and shake your nutes to nullity!" Mani and Butch rolled in guffaws, and in their laughter, I found my theater. Moments later, it's all quiet again. Butch's alliteration, courtesy of our daily word games.
Black Angus herds milled around on fields of hay bales that appeared like blonde marshmallows in the late afternoon sun. And, speaking of blonde -- small towns, where we had stopped for ice cream, gas, and groceries were mostly serviced by strawberry blondes, with freckles -- mesmerizing dulcet Lolitas... rural buds of unfathomable potential, wet with innocence, yet with a hint of salty mischief reserved for those passing through, men just lingered to strike up small talk. Here was the antipodean reality: as convenient as the great Eisenhower Interstate System was, it was viscerally inconvenient in getting anything that resembled healthful, other than the processed/packaged obesity sold at the fast-food outlets. At the convenience stores, it was simply inconvenient to be confronted with Twinkies and turd-shaped dried meats masquerading as snacks at the point of purchase. "Conveniences" insidiously accrue on the unwary, making them rather inconvenient to others.
As the car purred along, thoughts roamed, like the vast herds of bison that once thundered across these plains that had once belonged to the Sioux Nation. Today, rolling farmland and hills, occasionally taking the form of distant breasts or buttocks, spoiled by penis-like silos miles apart, incite a query from Butch: "Daddy... how do they get electricity in the middle of nowhere?" "Cables, Baba," I respond. Then a flash thought, nurtured by this sea of land. Why not give Israel the equivalent amount of land here on this tundra, convince them to leave behind what they believe to be theirs in that bloody region, halfway across the world? Would it do away the wars there, once and for all?
The hues of the soil and rocks change, from beige to golden brown, to red and orange, and to black and dark brown, triggering geology-induced migration of memories. Reddish soil evoked India; black soil conjured up the Caribbean. How the wonders lie beyond the car window in India! As opposed to the internal journeys we are cajoled to undertake here as a result of vast spaces devoid of human presence. The banality, as well as the profundity of nothingness, the distant and slight curve of the horizon, and that lone tree anchoring the nothingness drips in melancholy and mood migrations that become irritating squirms. The northern plains are destitute of trees, and the horizon, occasionally pierced by a steeple, beams in mysteries as to what is unfolding with the folks this afternoon. Lives unfold and unravel in the dirt as fodder for the implacable and the eternally grinding collusion of time and space.
At about 8 pm, after thirteen hours of driving, we surfaced in Bismarck with the sun riding high over the horizon. Involuntary blurring and the vibration persisted, legs were numb, and it felt like I had no ass left. After getting $50 of gas, I asked the cashier if Dickenson, the next town about ninety minutes away, had any motels. His jerky response: "... no sir, there's only one motel there, and that's all sold out... and nothin' in between..." Translation: we had to bed down for the night, and I was too worn out to look for a cheap motel. Luckily, a Motel 6 was right by the exit! I soon discovered that this wasn't your Motel 6 from northwest Indiana for $36.99 a night. This one was the Ritz version for $75 a night. With my ass tingling, and destitute of any protest, I took the room.
We settled in, took our showers, and went walking for dinner in that Bismarck dusk. The boys had that wolfish look in their eyes. They were well rested, and they were licking their chops to jump the meat: me. I negotiated myself out of wrestling with them, and settled on a scary story. At about 9:00 pm I began: "... Butch and Mani saw this abandoned, dark and creaky house on the outskirts; none of their friends ventured with them. They walked the perimeter, and saw their opening. It was through the basement door, half eaten away, as if something had chewed it from the inside. Their hearts thumping, they kicked the door, which exploded on impact and turn to dust. Then abruptly, as they moved, they heard half-choking (I made the sounds here as they clutched at me) scratching and scurrying noises. They tip-toed to the head of the stairs and crouched behind the door, steeling themselves, they pushed the door slowly... and, heard this..." Prrrrr-futtter-prrrr-pfatt! It was an aptly timed fart by Butch, like a deliberate edit... we broke out laughing, and didn't stop laughing. I figured there couldn't be a better sign-off to that long day on our irritated butts. Goodnight, boys!
[Continue to Part II of this travelogue.]
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)