road trip notes i: surface

In Utah I start reading Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, even though we’re in a completely different part of the state.

“It will be objected that the book deals too much with mere appearances,” Abbey writes in the introduction: “with the surface of things, and fails to engage and reveal the patterns of unifying relationships which form the true underlying reality of existence. Here I must confess that I know nothing whatever about true underlying reality, having never met any. There are many people who say they have, I know, but they’ve been luckier than I. For my own part I am pleased enough with surfaces - in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child’s hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of a friend or lover, the silk of a girl’s thigh, the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear water into a pool, the face of the wind – what else is there? What else do we need?”

This is a surface trip; for ten days I am on the surface, just rolling along. One night we exhaust all other options and sleep in the car, seats reclined and windows cracked for air, and when I close my eyes I see the road stretching out before me, feel myself moving along its humming surface. On Route 6 – endless, empty Route 6, lonelier, they say, than its brother to the north, the loneliest highway in America, which has become something of a tourist attraction – I use cruise control for the first time in twelve years of driving. At first it disturbs me, and I’m glad there is no one else on the road, glad that I can see literally for miles and that there is nothing ahead or behind me. For as long as I can remember I’ve had a recurring dream that I’m in the passenger seat of a car that, I gradually come to understand, is driving itself. It’s not an alarming dream except for the realization of powerlessness – nothing bad happens, I just glide along, being driven – but cruise control is the closest I’ve ever come to a waking experience of that dream. “I hate this!” I say to my husband, and my heart beats faster in panic, and Jenny Lewis sings through the tinny speakers, and then after awhile I start to tap my now-idle right foot to the beat of the music.

“I love this!” I say, feeling the effortlessness of it.

So it goes. He drives, I drive, he drives, I drive.

I take us up to Cape Royal at sunset. We’re hurried, racing the sun. The road is long and winding and narrow. I take it quickly but not too quickly: roads like this are ingrained in me, make me deeply homesick for the coast-hugging ranch on which I grew up. We are 8500 feet above sea level and yet with every twist in the road I expect the sea to be revealed. Instead there is canyon, sudden glimpses of it: a rift in the landscape, a pause, a mark on the surface. I let the wheel do the work mostly, and I turn the music up. We make it just in time to see the sun go down over the Grand Canyon, which is no bad thing to see in a lifetime. We share a beer, semi-chilled, from the cooler in the back of our car. There’s a French couple cooking dinner at their camping stove on a picnic table, and another couple sharing a joint, sitting hip-to-hip on the stairs down to the overlook. We stand at the edge of the overlook, leaning on the railings, with our beer, nonchalant, just having a beer while the sun sets over the Grand Canyon, no big deal.

Here in this high, dry country I think about the surface in relation to water: the frontier, the moment of entry, of submersion. “To enter water is, of course, to cross a border. You pass the lake’s edge, the sea’s shore, the river’s brink - and in so doing, you arrive at a different realm, in which you are differently minded because differently bodied,” writes Robert Macfarlane, echoing his friend Roger Deakin, who writes of crossing that border: “leaving behind the land, you go through the looking-glass surface and enter a new world, in which survival, not ambition or desire, is the dominant aim.” I’ve been obsessed with this particular surface, and its various meanings, for so long that I no longer know what to make of it. So for ten days on the road I don’t take a single stroke. In Yosemite we see some pretty fine lakes and I wade out to my hips, glad for the cold water on my hiking-damaged toes, but I’m not tempted to flop in, as we see one enthusiastic boy do, boots and all, and wallow; nor do I want to get in and do any kind of actual swimming, turning the lake into a stage for the performance of a daily ritual that only makes sense, I suddenly think, in the context of my day-to-day suburban existence. I only want to dip my toes in; that’s as much as I can bear to be in that different realm, that new world. Even in Las Vegas, where I wake and go to the window and am greeted with dawn in the desert and the sumptuous view of three massive, empty turquoise pools, I don’t go in.

He drives. I drive. He drives. I drive.

Back in California, we speed up and down the 395, trying to find somewhere, anywhere at all, to stay. There are no motels, no hotels, no hostels, no campsites with a vacancy. In Mammoth Lakes I’m laughed at by a girl at a Quality Inn; you won’t find anything here, she says, smugly. “I’m glad they don’t have a room,” I say too loudly as I exit, “it feels like the Bates Motel in there.” But it’s 8pm and she’s right. Who are these people, I rail? These people who plan so far ahead, who are sitting there all superior in the burger joints and bars of Lee Vining, June Lake, Mammoth Lakes, these people with rooms? We don’t even know how desperate it is then: all we know is that we’ve exhausted the options in the area and that we need gas. That gas station in Mammoth is a low point. I wonder if anyone would notice if we just slept there, in the car, next to the mini-mart. I think of the other couples I have known who have had extravagantly long honeymoons: they go to places like the Cayman Islands or Dubai; they travel first class and stay at all-inclusive resorts and lie on a beach with trashy novels and sugary cocktails, slowly turning a dark, even shade of smug. Whereas I am sitting in a dirty rented Chevy on a Saturday night in Mammoth, wearing a down vest I have owned since I was fifteen years old and trying to remember if sleeping in your car is illegal or just discouraged. Why can’t we just do what normal people do? I say to my husband. I realize that the people I am thinking of, the normal people, are people I don’t actually know: people I follow on Twitter or Instagram, of whose lives I get glimpses from which I extrapolate entire lives. I realize that if you looked at the Instagram version of our trip you would think that we were those kinds of people.

He kindly doesn’t point this out. “Because we’d be bored,” he says. He goes to the bathroom and I peel a banana and realize that we haven’t eaten for hours. The last meal we had was a whole state ago, back in Tonopah, Nevada, at a microbrewery with a giant smoker out back. After lunch I’d bought a beaten-up copy of Adrienne Rich’s selected poems from an unexpectedly well-stocked second hand bookshop. It was so hot outside that it felt like the street was burning through the soles of my shoes. Now it’s northern California cool, all trees and mountains. When he comes back we decide to drive south, to Bishop, which I remember from my childhood; an Autumn weekend spent there with my parents, hiking long loops, the dog running circles around us the whole time. It’s big-ish, I say, and hope I’m remembering it right. I am: there are plenty of motels. But there is not a single vacancy, and we follow other cars doing the same dance, pulling in to a Super 8 or a Comfort Inn or a La Quinta, spying the hastily handwritten “no vacancy” signs on the office windows, pulling back out. We are simultaneously competitors – god how pissed I’d be if one of them got the last room somewhere! – and comrades, sympathetically giving way even when it isn’t our turn to give way, inclining our heads at each other as we glide by: sooner or later we’ll all disperse into the nights and crank back our seats and nap fitfully until dawn.

The morning after – after we have found a spot on a dirt road just outside of Big Pine, under the relative protection of an oak tree, a hundred yards or so from another car – I drive us back up to Bishop, and we have the most magical huevos rancheros I have ever eaten at a vast diner full of keen outdoorsy types and weekending southern Californians. “Just have to go and have my morning bowel movement!” a large man at the table opposite us declares before ambling towards the toilets; he is gone a full fifteen minutes. From our table I go online and book the first room in the first motel I can find that’s anywhere near Yosemite, a victory which colors the rest of the morning, as we sail all the way back up towards Lee Vining. He falls asleep as I drive and I set the speed at 70 and tap my foot to Neko Case until we turn off onto the 120, at which point I suddenly need a level of alertness that surprises me, as the road curves and dips and climbs, climbs, climbs towards the park entrance. The car ahead of me is tentative, which gives me an excuse to go slower than I normally would, to actually look and exclaim, even though no one is listening: wow! wow! I keep saying.

Surface: beauty is surface. Skin deep on the earth. I don’t know but if I had to guess I’d say the word I use most often on this trip is wow! At first I think: how shallow. I may as well be on a beach in the Cayman Islands, sipping my daiquiri, staring at my raisin toes. All this beauty, and what? How many canyons can you possibly look at? Zion. Grand. Bryce. By the last one we both thought we were all canyon-ed out. We were grouchy from driving too much. We got there and we shouted and parked and shouted some more and then sulked and got on a shuttle bus, sullenly, and defiantly did our chosen hike in half the time the guidebook recommended because we knew we had to get back on the road and drive another god-knows-how-many hours to Ely, Nevada - and still, still, we were stopped in our tracks: wow, we said. Not an exclamation but a sigh. Isn’t it amazing, we said. We elbowed past droves of hikers, sprawling Mormon families, foot-dragging teenagers, and still felt like we were the only people on the planet who knew this place, who could feel its particular magic. How many times can you say wow, look at that! How amazing. How incredible. How beautiful. Wow. Look at that. Wow. I think of what Robert Macfarlane writes about language and the way it shapes our perception of place, our relationship to landscape. Even a book which takes this place-making power of words as its central theme acknowledges that words are not always enough. “Language is always late for its subject,” Macfarlane writes. “Sometimes on the top of a mountain I just say, ‘Wow.’”

I think too of another thing he writes in that same book – a note about the question, ever-present in writing about place, of “how to represent perception in language” when perception and place are so intimately linked; when, in other words, our bodies are the main instrument with which we have both to experience and to express place. “Our bodies archive experience,” writes the geographer J.D. Dewsbury. They are, he says, “fleshy machinic entities that grapple constantly with the matter and thought of the world.” The most intimate connection there is: between the surface of the skin and the surface of a place. What does the body know? How do we express it in words?

He drives. I drive. He drives. I drive.

We punctuate the driving with hikes: a sudden, severe change of speed. I like hikes with hills, hikes that make you really work for the reward, so that you feel the landscape not just in your legs but also in your lungs. Switchbacks become a kind of ritual: like a pilgrimage, he says, as we back-and-forth our way towards Angel’s Landing. Or like swimming laps, I say. Like any repetitive, meditative action: a kind of communion with place. What does my body know – climbing this hill, treading this path? My trail running shoes, purchased almost a decade ago, soles worn thin, give me close contact with rock and soil, and I prefer them to my hiking boots, even if I’m less protected, ankles occasionally twisting, giving out: somehow not a sign of precarity but an underline, an emphasis. This is the terrain, this is the topography. You feel it most keenly when you misjudge it, when the surface interferes with your inertia. Wow. So shallow. My raisin toes encased in these shoes, these sweaty socks, but I’m still staring down at them after all. “What else is there? What else do we need?”