I’m reading any guest post centering on getting lost on the open road with references to Asheville, NC. A badass haiku is the organic whipped cream on this sundae, screw a maraschino. You know how we feel about preservatives.
Enjoy the flavor,
Texas is huge. It just keeps going. Expanses of highways feel endless, with views that compete only with the lonely experience of wandering through a desert and squinting to see hazy lines on the horizon fuzzily morph into scenery. I think everyone needs this experience in their pocket. It’s highly convenient and beneficial, I believe, to recall the vastness of Texas when you find yourself stuck in a tiny world.
Travelling is the ultimate cure to a stagnant life. I think now of the latest Mad Max film, in which the main plot revolves on a very simple arc, a desert voyage. Furiosa left the daily routine of her wretched existence to do something greater. She went on an epic road trip. A lot happened. It wasn’t all she dreamed of and hardly what she expected. There was a lot of adapting to the environment, many snafus, evolving characters and challenging circumstances. She came back a changed person with a bit more power.
Luckily, I had not seen the movie before my last road trip. I like to drive on the fast side and oftentimes, I can be easily influenced. I am no thrill seeker by any means but who doesn’t love to unwind and let go a bit on an open road? Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, Willie Nelson, Jack Kerouac quickly spring to mind. Oh, and Matthew Wilder, “Break My Stride” 1983. A secret part of me hopes that the director, George Miller, felt the need to channel this one stanza for his movie franchise, which incidentally, began in 1985:
You’re on the road and now you pray it lasts.
The road behind was rocky.
But now you’re feeling cocky.
You look at me and you see your past.
Is that the reason why you’re running so fast?
Naturally, this song graced my radio waves within the first half hour of my two week long road trip. I thought it a good omen.
When it comes to driving, do we not adapt to the road? We rarely pave or create it and perhaps even far less often do we trail blaze it a la Fury Road. I drove to Texas and back with a tentative initial plan: Knoxville, Memphis, Dallas, Marfa, Austin, New Orleans, Savannah, Roanoke, and Washington D.C. It ended up being: Asheville, Robinsonville, Murphy, Marfa, Austin, Houston, Little Rock, Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, and Washington D.C. Adaptability is essential in any long trip; well, that and a working GPS. The first day was pretty magical. The glorious spring green tinged foliage of the Blue Ridge Mountain Parkway was far too enchanting, and I gave in quite often to pulling over along the side of the road for photographic opportunities. There were many perfect “Road Not Taken” scenes, as the Parkway is a ridge between two high passes. With hardly any traffic, I felt the entire park was mine. I was fortunate, as my trip coincided with National Park Week where all park and toll fees were waived.
The first day of driving extended on longer as I let myself get lost in more ways than one. My GPS seemed to be on the same page as my wandering mind, and I struggled to break free of the scenic route. The moment when you know you are not heading the right way is always elastic, like a rubber band yanking you back from whatever trailings your mind was last absorbed in. No one should ever associate a long road trip with the phrase “smooth sailing.” The wondrous backdrops and highlights are always interspersed with trials and speed bumps. Highway patrols and speed limits vary from one place to the next. You must never get too comfortable or rely heavily on luck. A proper odyssey embraces chaos, because there is far too much ground to cover for far too little to happen. I managed to lose four hours in the mountains, not the worst place to waste time. My guardian angel took the form an elderly country gentleman. I stopped in the middle of a winding street to ask him for directions. He replied succinctly with hand signals referencing roads without signs. Like a leap of faith, I took these nameless, yet paved paths, albeit, after two U-turns. It felt nothing short of miraculous to make it to Asheville, quite shy of my intended goal. The local eatery/tavern recommended by the front desk of my hotel was auspiciously playing the Nationals game on the telly. They won. I enjoyed a delicious roast turkey sandwich with a glass of mineral forward white wine and was quite at peace. I slept soundly that night.
“You road I enter upon and look around, I believe you are not all that is here. I believe that much unseen is also here.” -Walt Whitman, Excerpt from “Song of the Open Road”, 1856
I find many statements that readily attach to your particular situation are more often than not able to attach to a broad range of situations. This is due to the universality of experiences and, often, our lack of words to describe the sentiments. “Not unlike” is how one begins to explain their versatility. For example: “He feels disenchanted and chained to his office job, not unlike how I feel about my restaurant job that pays the rent.” Or perhaps: “I stood there awkwardly as this woman broke up with her boyfriend at the crowded bar, not unlike how you felt when you sat through the entire excruciating recital simply because your neighbor’s kid was in it.” Or “I recall loving my first time ever snowboarding. It was exhilarating and the mountain was breathtakingly beautiful, coated in snow. It was pretty chilly out but I felt no discomfort, not unlike that time when my surfboard hit me in the head after I was able to stand and ride the wave for the first time. That was a great day.” It is only surprising to realize the similarities in so many moments when one is far too stuck in a rut or an endless job or marriage or fill in the blank, to reiterate my point.
I digress. Apparently, back at home there was a pretty rough belt of storms pushing through the eastern seaboard and eagerly heading west. I had managed to nonchalantly drive ahead of this weather until my last stop before Marfa. I left my cousin’s home in Murphy, Texas, early in the morning, driving into a green-grey sky of eerie fog. Within minutes, curtains revealing themselves in heavy sheeting rains mercilessly pelted the highways of Dallas and Ft. Worth. It felt supernatural. No real wind, thankfully, just the heavens pouring down giant buckets of water. Hydroplaning here and there, most of us on the highway of 85 MPH drove fairly gingerly for a bit. “Too bad the sky couldn’t share some of this downpour for drought ridden California,” I thought. Only when you drive for 10-12 hours per day do you casually imagine that California isn’t very far from Dallas. Needless to say, the rain did not follow me out west. Rather, it outran me. One must never challenge Mother Nature in a race. A fast car is just a euphemism for the rabbit when racing the turtle. I will have to remind myself of this when next my foot gets on the pedal. When road tripping, there are always many lessons to take in.
I was elated to finally see and talk to people I actually knew when I arrived in Marfa. (I should mention that I drove here for a 40th birthday party.) The last non-vehicularly encased living human I encountered had been a less than charming man with a bit of leer to his gaze at the gas pump. I skipped window washing to get out of there quickly. Marfa is roughly an 8 to 9 hour drive from Dallas, and the road there has long passes of flat earth that transform hours into days. Carrying the identity of a small town that just feels big, Marfa is essentially an outback cousin to Austin: quirky, arid, with food trucks, breakfast tacos and art museums. It has a nice laid-back tourist destination vibe as of late for its unique art scene. The highlight is an all day tour of the Chinati Foundation’s indoor/outdoor art space.
Quick background: one of the associated founders of Minimalism in contemporary art was a man named Donald Judd who found solace in Marfa in the 1970’s. His vision had quite an impact on the town and its community. He entered the art world by way of New York City post WWII in the 1940’s after having served in the military for a year. After making a prominent dent in the art scene, he and his family found themselves quite enamored by the Southwest, and Judd decided on an additional home away from everything with space for his larger art pieces. Marfa was perfect. Along with the aid of the Dia Art Foundation, he purchased 340 acres of land with a former military base consisting of several long bunkers, which he kept intact to house art installations including those of his colleagues and friends: Dan Flavin and John Chamberlain. In 1986, the Chinati Foundation was created and opened to the public as a contemporary art museum. Today, the museum has two renovated artillery sheds dedicated to Judd as well as 15 of his larger cement outdoor structures and continues the tradition he started of bringing together art, architecture and nature. In addition, other indoor/outdoor artists’ works on display currently include those by Ilya Kabakov, Richard Long, David Rabinowitch, John Wesley, Ingolfur Arnarrson, Roni Horn, Claes Oldenborg, Coosje Van Bruggen and Carl Andre.
The entire tour corresponds to a lax work day, where you stroll in at 10am, break for an extra-long lunch and finish a little sleepy on the early side of 5pm. We had a guide who led us around a walking tour of each military converted art space shed and bunker. I don’t have a Fitbit, but I am fairly certain we covered a few miles in total. The sun was quite potent. The character of the terrain is somewhere between expansive plains and desert. I recall there were wildflowers that had painted stretches of newly patched grasses. The rains from the day before had left their healthy mark on the land. Our first stop of the day brought us into two separate complexes housing a total of 100 aluminum cube structures which were identical in dimension but all uniquely crafted with differences. Their reflective surfaces allowed your perception to change as you walked by them. Some sides would even transform from opaque to crystal by way of optical illusion. The large sheds had been restructured with stretching windows on both long sides, which attributed naturally changing degrees of sunlight as the day passed. These were only some of the details that made each cube so unique. Others required a more meditative investigation and a good walk about to determine their idiosyncrasies. It took further than a minute to accept and absorb the greater lessons of the experience. I recall one of my friends had his own epiphany as he began to appreciate the subtlety of it all. I think it should always take at least a minute to appreciate one’s inimitable character, inanimate or otherwise.
“All life is a foreign country.” –Jack Kerouac, Letter, June 24th 1949.
And thus, the day wore on with restored bunker galleries that from the outside looked like their original forms but each a different planet on the inside. My brain took in visual data in the changing forms of neon, concrete, copper, parchment, plywood, sheet metal, bronze, aluminum, peeling paint and Icelandic rocks. The passing duration of the day beside me, like Pan’s shadow, offering his own take on each piece keeping my mind full, critical, weary and in awe. Every door into each world safely accompanied by another portal leading back to grassy, gravelly, comforting earth. Each breather was in actuality a breath of fresh air. We finished outside by touring Judd’s concrete block structures, his first permanent installation and the founding of the outside art space. Woozy from the sun and still mid-processing of all we had taken in, our guide let us wander the track freely by ourselves. I felt dehydrated and happy, an odd pairing of sensations, yet familiar. It was like the end of a solid day of tennis on a scorching DC summer afternoon; which strangely, is not unlike the feeling you get after spending an entire day reading a scintillating novel and finishing, exhausted but jittery.
How glorious would it be if every long road trip could include one of these kinds of days?
I took away many things from this trip, as well as picked up some new habits, both good and bad. Mostly, I remember more things about all my chapters a bit better, which is nice if you ever find yourself getting stuck in one paragraph for too long. I also write an obsessive amount of haiku now. Although, that really began during my previous trip to Andalucia last March. I invite you to check out my Instagram page for more photos and also to see that I am not exaggerating about the haiku.
Breeds all the more connection
When driving away
Not all of us like
Just keep it simple
You cannot expect
To keep coloring in lines
Gotta let it bleed
In addition to taking road trips, Chantal Tseng owns and operates Mockingbird Hill, a sherry bar in Washington, DC.