There And Back Again

     You go so long without seeing a tree you forget that you don’t see any trees.
     For centuries of Americans the great romantic tale has been the trip West. For me it was heading back East.
     I drove 3,200 miles from New England to California to reclaim my house from criminal tenants that a sleazy property manager let in. The manager is gone, and so are the thieves – but not until they stole my furniture, tried to sell my refrigerator, and unstrapped the water heater from the wall to try to sell it too.
      I fixed up the house in two weeks of 14-hour days – painting, patching, hauling junk, buying stuff, throwing money around like confetti. I hired someone to try to rent it or sell it, loaded up a U-Haul trailer with a ton of books, staggered back to my pickup and headed East at 4 a.m.
     The California and Arizona deserts are impressive, in the way that the Ebola virus or an atomic blast are impressive. Thank you, but no.
     After climbing out of Albuquerque on I-40 the high plains begin and go on and on – 330 miles count without a tree, without topsoil, without crops, without a flowing river. I loved this landscape once. Now I just want to get through it.
     I don’t see a plowed field until a few miles before the Texas Panhandle. Smaller than a football field, and not plowed deep, the soil is so red it’s almost magenta. What can you plant in soil so full of iron? Magnets?
     On my second night on the road, in Oklahoma, the wind is blowing hard across the plains. It’s still blowing in the morning. It’s been blowing for centuries, for generations. I know because Ernie Pyle wrote about it back in the 1930s, before he became America’s favorite, and greatest, war correspondent. Ernie called it a lonely wind. I don’t know if wind can be lonely, but I know America has changed since Ernie wrote about it.
     People loved Ernie Pyle because he wrote about common people, poor people. I can’t recall a story he wrote about a rich man, except a few lame dispatches from Hollywood, where he felt uncomfortable. Now our newspapers, TV and the movies we watch are all about rich people. The bosses we elect are rich too. Filthy rich. Ernie Pyle’s generation had the sense to treat such people with honest contempt. Now we are taught to aspire to be like them.
     Finally, in the Panhandle, the plowed fields begin. In Oklahoma the furrow-lined fields are so big they disappear over the endless horizon. After nearly 1,000 barren miles, it becomes clear: topsoil is beautiful. This land is well cared for and fertile. It’s honest wealth. But still no trees, still no flowing water.
     The first real river is the Arkansas, just outside of Tulsa. Then at last, blessed trees. I didn’t know I was missing them. It’s spring down here and the trees are full of blossoms – intense purple crabapple flowers, and bigger trees with great explosions of white.
     Missouri is a cornucopia. Limestone outcroppings by real rivers, farms on rolling hills, ponds in the bottomlands, horses standing around and cows munching grass that needs no irrigation. It makes me wonder why thousands of Forty-Niners would have gathered at Independence to leave this. The air is soft with spring and crops are coming up all over, a green skin on the earth.
     Crossing the Mississippi River is always exciting, but then I’m in Illinois, and I don’t like it. It’s because I grew up here. I recognize the sticker bushes clawing up the trees, the corn stubble in the fields waiting to be plowed under, the rows of houses. The highways have turned from blacktop to concrete because concrete is more expensive, and there’s more money to be made from graft on the state contracts.
     Illinois is too close to home for me. We all want to believe we’re unique, that we have made ourselves what we are. Illinois reminds me that it ain’t so – that I came from a place and from people that determined who I am – strangers who helped determine it – people and things and places that have nothing to do with me and don’t know I exist, and won’t care when I’m gone. I can’t get away from it soon enough.
     The weather turns cold in Indiana and colder still as I angle to the northeast across Ohio on I-71. In the afternoon of the long fourth day, Lake Erie appears – frozen, white and immense.
     Crossing the little crook of Pennsylvania, finally, a jazz station on the radio. Aside from Memphis, which has the best radio music in the nation, it’s hard to find a jazz station anywhere between the coasts. What a shame. Jazz is the greatest art America has given the world, and most Americans don’t know a thing about it. It’s ignored in our schools and by our foundations. Our educational system could – and should – at least teach children to distinguish good jazz from bad. That’s a far more important task than making kids mouth words like little robots, without teaching them what “pledge” or “allegiance” or “forwichistans” means.
     On the last night of my trip I splurge on a good hotel off the New York Throughway, in the Finger Lakes region. I dump my bags and as night falls I walk the empty streets of downtown Geneva. It’s about 25 degrees.
     Everything is closed but a few bars and two pizza joints. Inside a bare storefront with a For Rent sign, three actors are sitting around reading parts in the Headless Theater. In one block downtown I count seven empty store fronts. But the buildings are beautiful – immense, century-old brick and stone things – gorgeous even abandoned and empty with nothing but a few upside down chairs in the lobbies. There are no chain stores, no ugliness, nothing modern except my hotel at the edge of downtown, set back from the street.
     I walk back to my rented room, shivering in a cotton shirt in the wind off the frozen lake. It feels like home.

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