Wednesday, August 22, 2007

My Travels with Black Betty: the Epilogue

I'm home.

The car is still not unpacked due to constant rain, but regardless things are slowly falling back into place. I'm registering for classes this fall, taking my dog Bess for walks, and generally settling back into life in New Jersey. During my last week of the trip I was itching for home, now two and a half months don't seem nearly long enough.

I dutifully kept up with the blog in the interest of honing my writing skills, and for my effort I now have a wonderful keepsake of my journey. Some posts are better than others, to be sure. I sometimes barely had the time to edit simple typos, let alone grammar and syntax. But I do believe I achieved my goal of keeping it entertaining and informative.

I can't thank you enough for reading the blog this summer. Yes, you. If you liked what you read, tell me! If you didn't and have constructive criticism, tell me! You can leave a comment on this blog or e-mail me directly at

During my time in Australia a few years ago, I took a nine-day trip from Adelaide to Perth with Nullarbor Traveler. The members of the trip were the usual United Nations gathering of a dozen young people, with the odd addition of a 60-year-old Sydney-sider named John. He was suffering from a degenerative eye disease and was attempting to see what he could of his home country before his eyesight failed him completely. At the end of our journey, Amanda from Holland asked John if he had any words of wisdom for us. He said he was so glad we were taking advantage of traveling while still young, so that we might "get it out of our systems" before starting careers. The problem is, that trip and others only served to get it into my system, and now travel is all I want to do.

I'm going to start sounding like Po Bronson or bloody Oprah any minute now, but it's true that not enough people spend time doing what they truly want to be doing. When I stood in Abigail's kitchen in Butte, Montana at 1:30am and she asked me if I was happy, it was a pleasure to be able to realize that yes, I was happy. I was traveling and writing about it (even if I wasn't getting paid for it yet). That's exactly what I want to do.

I am equal parts amazed and disappointed that I managed to complete the Great American Roadtrip - coast to coast, border to border - and come away completely unscathed. No broken bones, flat tires, muggings or break downs of any sort can be truthfully mentioned.

On a scale of batshit crazy, 10 being a barfight with the cast of "Charles in Charge" and 1 being a quiet night at home with a Leonard Cohen album and a glass of lemonade, I'd say this trip was about a 5. Sleeping in the car and getting woken up by the police, picking up hitchhikers, chasing ghosts in Texas and taking on the Grand Canyon in one day were all pretty crazy. All those hours in Starbucks and libraries were decidedly not. At some points of the trip I felt I would sell my soul for use of the internet.

Regardless of what happened, or what I wish would have happened, the trip is mine. Mine to savor, mine to brag about, to laugh about, to regret, to remember fondly on some dark winter's day while at Rowan in the coming months.

Some people told me I'm lucky to have taken this trip. I'm not lucky. I simply found something I wanted to do and I did it.

"Why, then the world's mine oyster,
Which I with sword will open."

The Merry Wives of Windsor
William Shakespeare

I'll leave you with a final thought, a refrain, if you will, first visited in the prologue: what is it you want from this world, and when are you going to take it?

Monday, August 20, 2007

Sunset in Ocean City, New Jersey

After two and a half months, some 10,000 miles, 24 states, 3 oil changes, over a thousand pictures and probably too much beer, my travels with Black Betty concluded where they began: Ocean City, New Jersey.

The trip began with a sunrise, so it seems fitting that I'd pull into town last night in time for the sunset. I planned to sit on the beach and stare wistfully out at the Atlantic, ruminating on the events of the summer, but it was raining. A cold, relentless, heartless rainy day in August on the coast of the Atlantic. Whenever rain is concerned, I can't get the song "Raining in Baltimore" by the Counting Crows out of my head.

Instead I watched "Superbad" at the Strand 5 Theater on the boardwalk. The movie stood in heavy juxtaposition to how I was feeling.

After the movie I walked back to Black Betty parked on 7th street and climbed into the back for the last time of this trip. I lay down amidst the rope and jumper cables that I never had to use, the ginger beer I picked up in Toronto, the dirty towel, my several Nalgenes and the general mess representing life on the road.

I stared up at the ceiling, listened to the rain falling, and fell asleep. In the morning, for the first time all summer, I had nowhere to go but home.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

On language

The thing I like about the English language is the versatility it allows. The Anglosphere stretches all the way around the globe, and with such diverse speakers, the total number of words in the English language soars beyond word totals of all other languages.

The number of words in the English language is difficult to pin down, given the number of medical and technical terms, as well as word derivatives (run, ran, running, etc.). That said, scholars tend to put the total count between 500,000 and 1.5 million.

Combine such a vast vocabulary with such diverse speakers coining new words everyday, and you have expressive power.

For instance, one doesn’t have to drink beer. One can chug it, pound it, imbibe it, swill it, or, should one find oneself in the company of ruddy faced Bavarians, quaff it. But these can all be found easily in a thesaurus. If one truly masters language, one can balk at such infantile insults as ‘asshole,’ and upgrade to the wonderfully graphic “gall-faced twat.”

To truly savor the expressive power of the English language, however, one must consider the word "intoxicated." Off the top of my head, I can think of 20 synonyms:
  1. wasted
  2. blind
  3. pissed
  4. smashed
  5. blitzed
  6. blattoed
  7. hammered
  8. shitfaced
  9. plastered
  10. obliterated
  11. gone
  12. shitwrecked
  13. sloshed
  14. soused
  15. drunk
  16. inebriated
  17. lit
  18. tanked
  19. fucked up
  20. bent off one's face

Last night at Paul's going away party in Trout Run, Pennsylvania, I do believe I achieved all 20 states of intoxication.

Sigh... You can take the kid out of college...

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The strange case of Centralia, Pennsylvania

Drive north along Rt. 61 in central Pennsylvania, and you'll zigzag in a slightly maddening fashion through small, blue collar towns built on the coal business.

Just north of Ashland, the road makes an abrubt turn to the right, making a half mile detour around an older section of Rt. 61 that now looks like this:

Follow the detour, and you soon find yourself in Centralia, Pennsylvania. Or what remains of it.

I first read about Centralia - where else? - in a book by Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods) and have since been fascinated. It turns out that in 1962, one of several veins of anthracite coal common in the area caught fire, and has been burning underground ever since. Having failed to contain the fire early on, the town went about its business for nearly two decades, until 1981 when a 150 foot deep sink hole opened up under a presumably alarmed 12 year old boy (he miraculously survived). National attention came Centralia's way, a government buyout was voted on and approved, and most of the town was razed.

Today Centralia is less a ghost town and more a collection of oddly configured houses situated on a large grid. Most of the streets look like this:

Roads with weeds growing in through the cracks, roads that border empty lots. The majority of residents heeded the state and federal warnings and moved out in the 80's. There are a few who remain, though...

I was half hoping to stumble upon a crazed man in his nineties living in a ramshackle tin house, defending his territory with a shot gun and a homemade doomsday button. On the contrary, I found about seven houses, each in good condition. A pool sat behind one of them. Several had satellite dishes. According to the 2000 census, there were 21 people living in Centralia at the time. The towns are so close together here in Pennsylvania that the remaining residents aren't terribly inconvenienced. Supplies can be obtained in several nearby towns only a few miles away.

There are of course the matters of unstable ground and high levels of carbon monoxide to contend with. But hey, at least it's a quiet neighborhood. And the crime rate must be pretty low to boot.

Driving across America, glimpsing into the habits and lives of my fellow Americans, the notion of home is forced upon me. There is a sense of home here that I have never felt in my own life, one that the remaining citizens of Centralia are willing to risk their health to uphold. Some stay for economic reasons, unable to afford a move elsewhere despite a government payoff, but most feel a sense of duty to a home where their parents and grandparents grew up.

I can't imagine what it must feel like to be so attached to a place that survived for over a century, and now only exists as a slight curiosity to the passing tourist.

There is barely anything left of Centralia, but somehow it holds on. And to think, Tombstone insists it's the one that's too tough to die.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

New York (State)

Went hiking in the Catskills yesterday.

It was nice.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

On Walmart

I drove through New York State yesterday with the hopes of sleeping somewhere near the Catskills so that I might get up early and go on a hike. Instead I'm at a Barnes and Noble updating the blog, but I digress.

Normally the way it works is I look on my U.S. atlas for a town in bold letters that looks like it may support a Walmart. Then I drive there and usually manage to find it right away, usually on the edge of the type of sprawl mentioned in the Hot Springs, Arkansas post. I park, hang various clothes and towels by the window to block out the light, and try to sleep.

But last night I found myself on all sides of the tracks in Binghamton, New York, looking for that familiar blue and yellow sign. I was positively all over the map, cruising through some interesting neighborhoods, eventually landing in a K-Mart parking lot where a woman kindly directed me to the Walmart eight miles out of town. I found it and was relieved. Elated even. Then just disgusted.

It's a sad day when I'm excited to be at a Walmart.

As a young 'un with liberal leanings and a fancy pants edumacation, I've almost been trained to detest Walmart. But the problem is that to many Americans, Walmart is as American as apple pie and baseball. Defame Walmart and you may as well boo Nascar, spit on the Bible and piss on Old Glory itself.

There is the usual litany of objections to Walmart's practices, such as attempting to move into towns whether the town approves or not, trying to take over the world just like McDonald's and Starbucks, and the most popular - "it's ruining the mom and pop stores of Small Town, America!"

Unfortunately, these things aren't exactly top on people's priorities. Many people don't have the luxury to stress over China's emerging economy, but instead can only worry about what is in their daily lives. Ignorance is bliss, and in our society especially, money talks. As long as Walmart continues to sell cheap plastic crap, people will buy it when "competitively priced."

The Great American Roadtrip can be an intimidating endeavor when undertaken alone, so it's odd this shift in perception that has occured. I've slept in Walmart parking lots all across America this summer, and it will never cease to be the evil face of capitalist greed in my mind, but for this trip at least, it has come to be something more. It's a symbol of safety. It's continuity through a vast landcape, it's comfort from familiarity in uncharted territory.

Funny how that works.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Niagara Falls

Until 1885, the two water falls that make up Niagara Falls - American Falls and Horshoe Falls - were privately owned, a fact that should belong in the nearby Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum. For decades a fence blocked visitors' views, that is until they paid the admission.

In 1885 the government of Ontario stepped in and stopped the madness, but the tradition continues today in the form of parking fees. If one wishes to park within a five mile radius of the Falls, one must part with $18, $20 Canadian.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Falls, though, is the sheer lunacy it inspires in ordinary people. Take the case of 63-year-old school teacher Annie Edson Taylor. In 1901 ol' Annie became the first person to go over the Falls in a barrel. Since that time, 14 people have followed her lead, five of them dying in the act.