I just finished driving from Seattle to Washington, DC, which explains my neglect of the blog. I’ve been more concerned with straightening out last-minute snafus via cell phone, than with posting here. And sadly, I was traveling alone, so I couldn’t spare the time to pull over at each tempting vista and take photos, and I have no pictures.
Before Monday, I had never driven past Idaho. So as I left on my journey, I was naively hoping to “see the country” in some sort of enlightening, trans-generational, road-trip-through-Americana way. That didn’t happen. Cruising I-90 might allow one to view the panoramic vistas of the West, but those vistas look pretty identical until Minnesota. And in the Midwest, the tollways become downright boring. I could hardly see anything, even in Chicago. Chicago was two horrific hours of my life that I will never have back, for which I paid some $13 in tolls. Gah.
Certain trends were apparent: there is a strong linear relationship between progress eastward and the square footage of Wal-Marts. Meanwhile, any relationship between posted speed limit and actual speed collapses. People drove about 75-80 mph the entire way, but in Montana the speed limit was a realistic 75; from Illinois it was frequently 55. Call me provincial, but it was odd going 30 mph over the speed limit. Not to mention paying tolls every 30 miles or so.
In the West, driving is mostly toll-free. And it’s an entertaining experience, complete with gratuitous roadside attractions and bizarre signage. Idaho’s highway department wedges enthusiastic adjectives in everywhere: “Now Leaving Wild and Scenic Lochsa River.” Montana has a creative, rather touching collection of homemade anti-meth warnings. Roadside signage reaches its apogee in South Dakota, where there are literally hundreds of billboards advertising a rural Disneyland-cum-curiosity-cabinet called Wall Drug. I did not stop at Wall Drug, although it was mighty tempting; they promised 5-cent coffee (free to vets and honeymooners), a shooting gallery, and a 40-foot tall dinosaur! If I’d known how desolate the highways would be for the rest of my trip, I would not have passed up the Wall Drug experience.
Overall, the thing I noticed most was the physical change in the landscape. It got softer and lusher and progressively more claustrophobic, as the humid vegetation and remarkably low clouds closed in around the road. I have never seen so many deciduous trees in my life – rolling mounds of them, like green cotton candy. Lovely at first, sure, but then unsettling. By the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I had goosebumps, recalling the sinister vegetation of Lovecraft and Hawthorne. I have no fear whatsoever of forests at home – I’ve been camping in pitch dark and feeling my way tent-to-tent trunk-by-trunk since I was seven years old. But the trees in Pennsylvania were creepy. They felt off. Their shapes seemed feverishly primordial, in a way the much older conifers of the West do not. Which makes no phylogenetic sense at all.
Obviously the trees of Pennsylvania weren’t out to get me. So why did I feel as if they were? Was it too much Mountain Dew? Too little sleep? Or does our local version of “Nature” imprint itself upon us so strongly that foreign vegetation seems a little bit unnatural? I once took a road trip with a Wisconsin native who absolutely refused to leave the car in a patch of scrubby, burned-over Idaho wilderness. I thought he was a wuss, but who knows? Maybe he was tapping into some visceral, biological aversion to the unknown.
Anyway, tomorrow I’ll become a resident of Washington, DC, and will most likely be on the East coast for the next several years – plenty of time to adjust to crazy Lovecraftian trees. In the next few days I’ll resume the account of my trip to London. I have good stuff to share, but just haven’t had the time to write and upload photos. More to come – as soon as I’m moved in and have internet access, that is. . .