December 21st, 2010

Away From Home

Even though I knew I'd be making this second cross-country drive with the same time pressures as the first, I still had visions of myself darting off the interstates periodically to experience life away from their regimented sameness. I was going to force myself to eat at local places. I was going to try to rekindle my passion for photography by seeking out shots of rural Americana. I was going to be the sort of tourist I've always wanted to be.

And now I am feeling guilty for not doing these things. Part of it the reason has been timing. Because I had grades to file on Sunday and Monday, I had to spend valuable daylight hours sitting in a café. By opting to see an old friend in Raleigh for lunch, I sacrificed even more of the time I could have used for aesthetically satisfying detours. When I stumbled upon an "alternative" strip mall outside of Greenville, South Carolina, with a comic book shop, tattoo parlor and large used record store, it was already nearing midnight. I looked in the windows, but that was all I could do.

So I do have legitimate excuses for my failure. The thing is, though, I've also come to realize that getting off the beaten track just isn't as easy as it used to be. Right now I'm outside of Montgomery, Alabama. I wish I could say the experience was characteristically Southern in some way. Aside from the accents, though, I could be in any American suburb.

I wouldn't even be posting this if I were sitting in a classic diner or hole-in-the-wall café. But since the exit I got off at to get gas had a mall with a Panera Bread Company, I figured I might as well have a breakfast bagel and fire up the laptop. Although it certainly isn't a way to get in touch with the romance of travel, I do find comfort in being able to simulate the home-away-from-home when I'm truly away from home.

Mind you, to use the word "home" in that way risks draining the world of all semantic value. It only works if one's home is already rather unheimlich. Since mine currently is, though, I'm able to conjure most of its comforts remotely. And I can also distance myself from the discomfort that has made me happy to be on the road.

Part of the reason that I was willing to make this trip so close to the holidays is that I have mixed feelings about them as never before. Historically, I've had a hard time understanding the haters who emerge this time of year. I can understand the need people have to relax instead of running around on holiday errands. And I know that those who are already lonely are likely to feel lonelier at times of forced communal cheer. But that never stopped me from participating in the festivities.

This year, however, with my mother's worsening condition causing her to be admitted to a rehab hospital and other family relationships in a state of crisis, I'm feeling the heavy burden of memory that the holidays impose upon us. Every song, every ceremonial object, every timeworn ritual reminds me both of how things used to be and that they will never be that way again.

Things change, I realize. Yet I can't help wondering why they never seem to change for the better in my life. The last decade has been a blur of badness, from the political to the personal. Even though my innate personality inclines towards optimism and a gift for taking pleasure in the moment, I find it harder and harder to ward off the weight of the past and worries about the future.

Maybe that's why I'm actually not that upset about my failure to make this trip what I'd imagined it could be. To get off the interstate in a meaningful way involves engaging with history. Normally, I'd be able to cordon off that kind of time travel from the sort that memories compel. In recent months, though, I've found it increasingly difficult to maintain the boundary between self and non-self.

Movies and songs make my eyes tear up, even when they invoke the worst clichés. Photographs of historical landmarks ineluctably direct me to the contemplation of my own "archives". And word and images about abandoned places lead me to indulge my allegorical bent, pondering the ruins of so much that had seemed crucial to my existence.

The more I think about it, the more that the kind of traveling I've actually ended up doing on this trip -- stopping as little as possible, stretching my legs in places like Target rather than locations with personality -- seems to be a mode of denial. Everyone who participates in that aspect of American consumer society, heading from one Starbucks or Borders or Best Buy to another, is participating in a reality that is specifically constructed to conceal the past and block thoughts of the future. The landscape, if you can still call it that, is reconfigured either to refuse local color outright or to repackage it like another flavor of vodka. You can have your currant or your citron or your raspberry, but the spirit underneath is identical.

That's a sobering thought and one that is making me regret what I've been doing at a deeper level. Nevertheless, because I have many miles to go and promises to keep, I don't see myself being able to switch over from this anti-touristic traveling to a richly layered engagement with the places I pass through. Part of me fears that, were I to make the effort, I wouldn't want to return to my old life. Maybe what I need is not a home-away-from-home but a place that doesn't remind me of how I've been living.