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Road Trip: A Core Sample of Ye Olde America Taken in the Spring of 2006

Tonight in my sleep I’ll go for another ride on the star-lit Ferris Wheel on the Santa Monica Pier. I once lived, briefly, in an apartment above the Merry-Go-Round at the end of that pier and made moonlight love on the damp sand beneath the boardwalk. But that was in another time and in another world with a girl whose name has long faded into the smoke of the world.

The Ferris Wheel lit in long stripes of searing red and gold neon like some whirling sketch of an earth-bound star, pirouettes into the night sky above the slate waters of the Pacific at the end of the Santa Monica pier. Below it, the old seafood restaurant now serves Mexican food where gang-bangers herd their Saturday night dates around the bar, and the loud murmur of Angelino-accented Spanish rises above the waves that lap the pilings driven deep through the slow Pacific swell and into the sands below.

In a dark hollow somewhere in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, the first winds of winter hiss around an old dance hall where hundreds of white people and one black man stomp the boards in a contra dance. Dressed as vampires, wolfmen, fairies, cowboys, and a host of other laughing fantasies, the dancers welcome the day of the dead to fiddles, guitars, pianos and drums as the caller makes the long lines of whirling people into stars and boxes, and a new girl is spun into your arms, flirting and bobbing, with every change in the ancient pattern of the dance, only to roll away with a half-sashay.

Outside the lights from the hall catch the flying drifts of gold and red leaves, the wind is tearing from the trees, pushing them across the stars, and rolling them up in long drifts of crisp shadows against the wheels of Willys jeeps, old bangers, and brand new SUVs of every make and model. After the dance, Waffle Houses along Route 26 will fill up with costumed, exhausted dancers, their endorphins convincing them that, for this night at least, they are probably immortal.

The long wave laved beaches of the Isle of Palms outside of Charleston reinforce the new rule that no poor — or even middle class — people are now allowed to live by the ocean in America. The lots on which the endlessly elaborate houses that look out on the sea stand now cost between three and four million dollars each. If you bought one and immediately burned down the four to six-bedroom three-story house, the cost of the lot would still be three to four million dollars. The house is, in essence, free.

Offshore, even on a dank day with large winds pushing in from the Atlantic, the bright scoops of kite surfers soar and pull their riders up off the crest of the waves high into air before gliding down to slide on the surface of the long breaking waves, and into the sands where the plastic pails of the nation’s fortunate children are abandoned just above the reach of the waters.

In the Detroit airport, visitors to the United States stand in line to check into the country via a networked series of touch-screen computers. Above them, those too weak, too obese, or too lazy to walk a block or so can ride the glossy red new monorail from gate to gate, or rather from food court to food court.

Las Vegas, “What? Can’t hear you!,” Las Vegas is still not finished. After all, it still has a vast waste of desert all around it in which to ooze, even if it is bumping up against the Red Rock on one side. Road rubble and fenced off tracks of hard pack frame the Eiffel and other towers of pure fantasy blotching the night with a collection of illuminated signs that form their own Louvre of lighting.

Inside the outside-of-time casinos, the lights and the beeping clang of the slots still form their own eternal soundtracks as the glamorous and the ugly, the meth-skinny and the morbidly obese all take their turns on the wheel of misfortune. The only sound missing in the Hard Rock Casino these days is the clatter of coins dropping from the slots. Instead, there’s the faint staccato as the machine prints your ticket when you “cash out.” The barely clad money girl is only too happy to turn your winnings into money and see you on your way with the now-standard secular blessing of the United States, “Have a nice day,” at the stroke of midnight.

The Strip is like New York’s Fifth Avenue at Christmas. There are so many people shuffling between fantasies that you can’t walk down the wide sidewalks without getting stuck behind pedlock and fleets of electric Rascals moving those who have been far too long at the $5.00 Buffet. A nice new touch is that, should you require one, you can rent your Rascal at the airport, and all the big buffets have portable defibrillators.

After the casual and lightly populated Carolinas where everyone is slow and polite and easy, there are far too many people happening in the Happy World of Las Vegas. So you rent a car that rides like taking your sofa out for a drive and comes complete with 300 radio stations and move out to where there will be, surely, not very many people at all, ever: Death Valley.

In the midst of an arid nothing on which 95 North is drawn like some temporary hash-mark on the land, your own personal communicator beeps. It’s a friend calling from somewhere far away over the mountains and the vast land-sea of the plains. He’s driving at high speeds through savannahs. You’re driving at high speeds over the desert where not even Joshua Trees make the effort to live. His voice is as crisp as if he was sitting beside you on this mobile sofa: “Death Valley? I went there once. It isn’t really there. Not as a destination. It’s not a place, it’s a region. Gas up and keep going once you get there. You want to see nobody, that’s the place to be.”

Hours later I swoop down the long descending road to the spot on the map that is the lowest part of the country. Hundreds of feet below the level of the sea, which was once here, and, in time, will be again. At the crossroads at Furnace Creek, cars are being blocked by a Highway Patrol SUV and over the road come hundreds of people on horseback out of the desert to mill around in the parking lot by Furnace Creek Inn. After this mob of cowboys and cowgirls clears the road I drive on about a half a mile to where several thousand people have set out lawn chairs, umbrellas, and coolers by the side of the road waiting, it turns out, for the parade.

It’s 49ers weekend in Death Valley and the RV culture has shown up in their multitudes. Across the road and on up the slope of the rise, thousands of RVs bake in the sun as their occupants – mostly all older and “retired but not tired” make for the parade and the barbeque and the beer. In the main, it looks a lot like the streets of the Las Vegas strip but without the neon and Elton John. In the store at Stovepipe Wells, the hottest place in America, I get my choice of popsicles and Dove Bars and at least twenty different kinds of beer, all, of course, ice-cold. This is, after all, America and nothing, but nothing, is going to roil our very Happy World.

Until further notice.

Clear, calm dawn in Bishop, California at the top of the vast Owens valley. The Sierras rise to the West with Mt. Whitney white at the top beyond the brindle hills. There’s gold and rose in the meadows and trees here just as there were in the trees around the barn dance in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Yesterday, at a fishing retreat at around 10,000 feet in the bright sun small snowflakes blew into my face for a minute or so, spun down from the mountains high above as fly fishermen cast off into impossibly clear and bone-biting cold streams. It’s been a long autumn and now winter is falling down from the mountains toward this town.

Later today, I’ll drive south through the Mojave and into the wedged and irritated environs of Los Angeles. I’ll probably take a room somewhere near the beach in Santa Monica.

Tonight I’ll go for another ride on the star-lit Ferris Wheel on the Santa Monica Pier. I once lived, briefly, above the Merry-Go-Round at the end of that pier and made moonlight love on the damp sand beneath the boardwalk. But that was in another time and in another world with a girl whose name has faded into the smoke of the world.

Ferris Wheels and Merry-Go-Rounds. Lots of circles in life. It clears the mind to ride our metaphors in the real world from time to time. It lets us see where we stand and where we’ve been and where we might be going. Even if it is only to “arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”

For some weeks now, and mostly without meaning to, I’ve been taking a core sample of the United States. Over the decades I’ve done this from time to time. The first time was a college trip in the early Sixties when some friends and I went 9,000 miles in 9 days in a Volkswagen. The last time before this was when I fled New York and went west with marriage on my mind. This time was less intentioned and worked out better. This time there wasn’t a plan or a destination, only a route that emerged as I went.

It’s a commonplace to say that the states of our nation are now so diverse that we are a deeply divided country. I’ve come to see that that old saw is a dull old saw, useful for pundits and prognosticators, but much more false than true. It’s the view that arises when people are pent up in the cities far too long, and fall far too much in love with their own voice and views; their own set and setting; their own media-mirrored visage.

What all our media mouthpieces assert is happening in America, is happening — it turns out — almost completely within their sealed and secular Happy World. It is not what’s happening in the core of our states where the whirr and the buzz and the blather of the coasts come through only faintly like screams heard through walls and quickly fading.

Out here, there’s a different drum sound and different dances danced. And, if you could, as I did yesterday, look out over the Owens valley and coast down into the small town of Bishop and watch the men come out at dusk to furl the American flags that line the sidewalks by the hundreds, you’d know, beyond a shred of a doubt, that the states of our union are still strong, and will survive, no matter what happens in the Happy World of our coastal cities, our capitols of culture and corruption, into which, in the course of the decades, everything cheap and corrupt and loose has rolled and congealed.

What happens in those cities may matter in the news of the day, but out here it is the news of the decade that matters. Here is where what we were — and are — and will become —  is finally and irrevocably decided. Everyone who thinks they know what the country is and where it is going needs to take some time out every so often and take their own personal core sample. This, for now, was mine.

Gerard Van der Leun // 1692 Mangrove Ave Apt: 379
Chico, CA 95926

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  • John Venlet November 24, 2019, 6:48 AM

    What all our media mouthpieces assert is happening in America, is happening — it turns out — almost completely within in their sealed and secular Happy World. It is not what’s happening in the core of our states where the whirr and the buzz and the blather of the coasts come through only faintly like screams heard through walls and quickly fading.

    All that “sealed and secular Happy World” noise, is, as you note, simply alot of noise, a cacophony of crying children, to which many ears are becoming immune.

    Thanks for the sample.

  • OneGuy November 24, 2019, 7:24 AM

    IN the Summer of 72 I drove through Death Valley in July on my way to Mt Whitney. The place was deserted. Even the ranger station was closed. No one visited Death Valley in July back then and few even drove through it. I literally had Death Valley to myself.

  • Auntie Analogue November 24, 2019, 11:21 AM

    In September 1972 I drove my brand new car, which lacked a radio because a dealer-installed radio in it would have made the monthly payments unaffordable, clear across I-80 from New Jersey to California and then down to Monterey. Transcontinental drive, six days, no radio, and no 8-track deck either: try it sometime.

  • James ONeil November 24, 2019, 11:39 AM

    The Ferris Wheel; For some reason the ones across the Pacific, looking across Sydney Harbor at the one in Luna Park, or walking, at night in Yamashinta Park in Yokahama and catching sight of Cosmo Clock 21 changing colors and slowly rotating against the night sky, for me, evoke more magical memories than Santa Monica’s or the Wonder Wheel on Coney Island.

    In a dark hollow: Brings back good memories; growing up in the northern most of the southerns states, Florida, barbecues and barn dances, squares and Virginia Reels.

    The long wave laved beaches of the Isle of Palms: Brings back not so good memories; remembering with we first arrived in Florida, driving the coast from Fort Lauderdale to Miami seeing endless beaches and miles and miles of the Atlantic ocean, taking the same route not many years later and seeing nothing except miles and miles of hotels, etc.

    In the Detroit airport : In ’64 flew in from NYC to meet up with a friend to drive a new car up to Alaska. A guy started chatting with me; where you from, what’s yer doin’, where you goin’, etc. I told him I was looking for a friend I was meeting at the airport. He said the guy was right over there around the corner, he’d just talked to him, and then he told me he was a customs and immigration agent (don’t think anybody called then ICE back then) and he was checking to be sure I wasn’t an illegal alien sneaking in from Canada.

    Las Vegas, “What? Can’t hear you!,” Las Vegas: Last time I was there I stayed in the MGM Grand before it burn down. It was grand.

    In the midst of an arid nothing: Never been to Death Valley, but drove miles of sand and baked clay and weathers rock and sandstone through New Mexico and Arizona to fine delight in Canyon de Chelly.

    A clear, calm dawn in Bishop, California: Never been there either, but I saw a lot of it when I paid my fifteen cents, as a kid, to catch the Saturday matinee cowboys and westerns picture shows.

    “Ferris Wheels and Merry-Go-Rounds. Lots of circles in life. It clears the mind to ride our metaphors in the real world from time to time. It lets us see where we stand and where we’ve been and where we might be going. Even if it is only to ‘arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.’ ”

    Yep, and looking back and looking down, it all looks good from up here on top of the world.

  • Jane Mataczynski November 24, 2019, 7:04 PM

    Your description of a Death Valley experience and my living such an experience are at odds. Nothing tops playing on the sand dunes in late afternoon…climbing and sliding…writing messages in the sand…and then waiting for moonrise….seeing the full moon rise and glorify with cool light the space you are in.

  • Vanderleun November 25, 2019, 6:53 AM

    I feel that Jane and I too love moments like that. So did Pat Boone if not in Death Valley.

  • Walter Sobchak August 26, 2022, 8:31 AM

    “But that was in another time and in another world”
    Sent me here:

    • Vanderleun August 26, 2022, 10:23 AM

      That gives me an idea for an item.

  • LadyBikki August 26, 2022, 9:09 AM

    We have our own little tv news station up here in northern Maine, WAGM.
    The locals joke it stands for “we ain’t got much” and as far as news goes, that’s true.
    And it’s wonderful.
    Oh we do have the national propaganda FBIden and Chynee cootie numbers and the like, but for local news ?
    Not really.
    No murders, no theft, no carjacking…nope. Not up here.
    And the people are hardworking and generous.
    Lots of veterans.
    Lots of farmers.
    We are the average Americans, millions of us, that never make the news.
    We are still here.
    And if the civil war hasn’t started it’s because the civilized side hasn’t started shooting.

    • Jack August 27, 2022, 7:42 AM

      That sounds like a little piece of Paradise. And if you can keep the n’s and the illegals out it will remain that way. God bless you for being able to live in that environment.

  • Anne August 26, 2022, 11:08 AM

    Good to remember this book: https://www.thoughtco.com/nine-nations-of-north-america-1434511
    A little more information about the book and ideas: https://www.thoughtco.com/nine-nations-of-north-america-1434511

    With regard to the Lowest point in America in Death Valley. In 1958 my mom decided our first road trip in her newly purchased second-hand 1956 Cadillac should be to Death Valley. She had closed up her shop for the 4th of July weekend and we drove out from Glendale, CA. The Caddy had this new thing called “air conditioning”. It worked great. Kept me, a bored 14-year-old girl sitting quietly in the back seat for 4 or 5 hours.

    We sat in air conditioning cool all the way to the marker that read: “Lowest point in the nation”. Mom stopped in front of the marker and told me, “jump out so I can take your picture.” In that universally recognizable style of a bored 14-year-old, I pushed open the door and stepped from the air-conditioned interior (71 degrees +/-) directly into the sun at 117 degrees. As my knees buckled and I was falling into the sand, I could hear my mom laughing–” oh just get back in the car!”

  • PA Cat August 26, 2022, 11:26 AM

    Gerard left out the joys of a minor league baseball game, where you can drive a short distance to sit in a human-sized stadium in a small town, see the players without binoculars, enjoy reasonably priced ballpark classic food, and not have to mortgage your house to afford tickets. The teams I know best not only have mascots to mingle with the kids in the stands, but have kid-sized events (sack races, water balloon pitching, etc.) between innings at several points during the game to let the younger fans blow off steam. One team I know invites all the kids in the stadium to run the bases after the final out, which the parents enjoy as much as the kids.

    The minor league team in my home town in Pennsylvania goes back to the Civil War, when returning Union veterans played baseball games among themselves informally. In 1884, the players formed a team called the Lancaster Ironsides, which became the Lancaster Red Roses in 1906 (this name change did not go over well with the rival White Roses across the Susquehanna in York). The team is now called the Lancaster Barnstormers and still plays an annual “War of the Roses” game with the York team, now called the York Revolution. The defeated team has to plant a rose bush in the winner’s color in the winner’s ballpark and sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Yeah, it’s corny, but it’s the kind of down-home thing that LadyBikki understands.

  • jiminalaska August 26, 2022, 11:31 AM

    It was great while it lasted.

  • Jim August 26, 2022, 3:12 PM

    Seems like a long long time ago. Pacific Ocean park. Pop. Roller coaster, wooden. Carny vibes that fit with the small town feel of Santa Monica , Manhattan beach etc. dog town skaters, Venice canals with rubbish, old cars, and drug deals. Often the start for a midnight run up to Big Sur and the city. Thursday night was Easlen was open for public, sitting in a natural hot tub 100 feet above Big Sur surf.
    Most of us are still here, and younger versions too. Remembering freedom. And waiting for a spark