The third place my 2001 Mitsubishi Eclipse was towed last December was the town of Luray, Virginia, in the picturesque valley below the Stony Man Mountain Overlook on Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park, where I had blown out a wheel against a curb. While planning this trip I had read in the guidebook that the 105-mile Skyline Drive along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains was one of the world’s most beautiful, and that the views down from the mountains to the west and the east were so entrancing you had to take care not to take your eyes off the winding road and crash, and I remember thinking, that sounds like something I would do. “Beauty,” Rilke reminds us, “is nothing but the beginning of terror.”
The tow-truck driver, who was a kind, white male, in his twenties, told me not to worry because lots of people had suffered foolish, self-inflicted accidents up there on the Skyline. He also told me that he believed in the Sasquatch and one day he would like to shoot it. I told him that, the day before, I had passed a giant wooden carving of a Sasquatch and a sign for the “Bigfoot Trails” while driving through the low clouds on the way into Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but he said it lived far away in the Northwest, closer to Seattle. One of the reasons he had not visited the Northwest and killed the Sasquatch was because he couldn’t take time off work.
Of the three drivers that towed me, the second hadn’t seen much of the country because he didn’t make enough money. The first wished to see London but was convinced that if he left America he would come back in a body bag; he told me that this was a stupid feeling to have but he could not shake it. I told him he might die in London, however it was unlikely. None of these young men had left the hometowns of their childhood.
When I returned to Los Angeles my roommate, who worked in a juice bar and is into a particularly uncompassionate form of New Age spirituality, asked me if I had learnt anything and I mentioned all these tow-truck drivers that seemed trapped in their hometowns. She told me that any of them could easily leave, if they could only see that their bodies were not real and their consciousness an illusion, but then that’s what she says about everything so …
In the waiting room of the mechanics in Luray, below the Stony Man Mountain, a middle-aged woman burst in with her mother and shouted out to the manager, happily, “I want my car but I don’t have any money! I left my wallet at home!”
They seemed to be friends. It was a small town. A little over two weeks had passed since the election
“Hey,” said the manager, and then, almost whispering, “who did you vote for?
“Well, I don’t really want to say,” said the woman with no money slowly, “I mean, I didn’t want to vote for either of them!”
“But who did you vote for?”
“Well … I’m a democrat.”
“That’s why you don’t have any money!” said the manager, “You want a handout!” and everyone laughed. They gave her the car as well.
Earlier that week at the front desk of Pep Boys in Little Rock, Arkansas, where I spent four nights and five days after, in a cuck twist of fate, my Mitsubishi broke down in the car park of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library, I overheard a conversation between two customers waiting in line. One, a rotund woman, was explaining how frightened she was of the president-elect because he was orange. The other, a cheerful old bearded fellow, was explaining how, “Every time I see Donald, he makes me laugh.” I wasn’t sure whether he supported the man or just found him funny. He also mentioned that he never watched the news and only watched reality TV, and at first this struck me as completely insane; but on reflection it seemed sort of normal, and reasonable, and come to think of it a lot of my friends are like this. I don’t have a television so don’t watch either, although every month I do read ten free articles in the New York Times and five in the New Yorker and, crossing America, I had a dream about Kylie Jenner in one of the motels along the Interstate 40. It came after years of not remembering any dreams.
Anyway, the purpose of my journey was not to discover the heartland of America but merely to move my possessions from one ivory tower to another. Some of the poverty I encountered along the way was sort of shocking but no worse than I see on my doorstep in Los Angeles, or inside the White Castle in Yonkers where I enjoyed a meal that was both mouthwatering and bleak at one in the morning at the end of my journey. It struck me that being out of touch with the cruelties of ordinary life is not really a geographical issue.
Before setting off on the three-thousand mile drive, I went to the mechanic adjacent to my apartment in Koreatown, Los Angeles. When I paid the cashier there, who was a Latino male in his twenties, he was having his lunch at his desk and watching a video on YouTube called “#pizzagate has happened before,” which he recommended to me. I told him I had lost the thread of the Pizzagate conspiracy and he told me (as we both laughed awkwardly) that if you really looked into this, it was grim, and John Podesta was clearly a child molester. Like everyone I would meet on my odyssey he was welcoming and polite and interesting to talk to, although really we had nothing in common with one another; except, perhaps, a general disenchantment with the ruling class.
Along the way I saw many billboards: in California, on a rolling green hill, a glossy cutout of a good-looking, smiling man and woman standing next to one another advertised a family law firm specializing in divorce. In Nevada was a large billboard with the words “Honor thy life by connecting with your family” and a picture of a young woman stroking a horse on the nose, and this turned out to be publicity for a suicide prevention hotline. In New Mexico was a billboard telling passersby not to abuse their children. In Oklahoma, a billboard quoting the Bible: “Use the rod on thy child and save his life.” The religious messages, like the political ones, were complicated.
At Nashville, Tennessee, I left the 40 and climbed the illuminated steps of the city’s impressive replica of the Parthenon. I had come to see the model of Athena that stands 42 feet tall and glows in a dress gilded with gold leaf, but it was after dark and the huge wooden doors, like the gates of Troy, were closed. The country was divided. The old gods had abandoned us.