A year ago today, at around this time, I was getting ready to pack my stuff in a rental car and drive across the country from Tennessee to Oregon. Along the way, I was going to stay with family in Missouri and Colorado, but beyond that, I had no real plan. This, by the way, has been a recurring theme in my life. I like going through things without too much a plan—honestly. No, seriously. Just ask people who I’ve traveled with. There’s something to be said for a bit of controlled chaos, and, certainly, driving across the country to make a home in another state with no job or housing prospects is pretty much a stupid idea.
That day, I remember hanging out on the couch drinking coffee and playing with my dog—LOOK AT MY DOG. LOOK AT HOW CUTE SHE IS:
and thinking that it was kind of messed up, but that dog would be the thing I missed most about Nashville. See, it’s not that I wouldn’t miss my friends and family there, but that’s a simple Skype call. And, I thought, it’d be easy to find a job in Portland. I’d roll up and with my Master’s degree, record of employment, publications, international scholarship record, and, yknow, Simon charm (HAH), be offered something right off the bat. But that dog, I knew, I wouldn’t be able to talk to on Skype. (It should also be noted that the Simons—at least in my odd little branch of that gigantic tree—have very strong, almost troubling connections to dogs. We’re dog people.)
So, as I backed the car out of the space at my mom’s condo, I saw her and Chloe in the rearview. Mom looked tired. I’m sure she was sad, but she was also tired and, if there’s anything I inherit from her, it’s the strong desire at any time to just go back to bed. The dog, of course, looked confused, as this was not a car she’d ridden in before, and thus, I had no business getting in it and driving off anywhere.
The sad feelings, however, didn’t last too long. I took 65 North and got out of Nashville, and as I saw the skyline recede behind me on the way to Clarksville, I said a string of obscenities that I’d rather not reprint here. Life in Tennessee had not been easy for a multitude of reasons, and while I’m very glad for those experiences, because they made me what I am right now, I’m also very, very glad that they’re over. There isn’t a whole lot that I’m sure of about my life, but I definitely think that getting out of that state was a wise choice. I’d say that it’s something everyone should do at some point, since it really forces you to look at what’s important in your life, and what you can live without, what really makes you keep going on, and what keeps you from being happy. Of course, that’s not quite possible if you’ve already got that whole family-and-kids thing going on, but, well. Dunno.
Anyway, In a couple days’ time, I was driving across Kansas. Kansas was flat. That’s all there is to say about Kansas. Flat and fields. Here. Look.
As far as the eye can see. At some point, as I was fueling up in some town off the interstate, I think I saw a tornado. At that point, I thought, “Well, it’s about time to start driving thirty over the speed limit and get out of this state.”
So, with that in my mind, I hit Colorado at sundown, and I remember the local NPR station finally crackling to life. (Yes, I was in an area that did not have an NPR station. That is how bad parts of Kansas are.) As I got within range of the station, to the point where I could hear the broadcast without it being in bursts, I heard Borodin’s “In the Steppes of Central Asia.” Listen to it below, but if you can’t, then know that it’s an almost Mahlerian exploration of a landscape. Not Copland, mind you, because Copland’s very, very American at his core. He wrote to be a populist, which is great, and Copland’s amazing. But Mahler wrote more to express what he viewed in the world. “In the Steppes of Central Asia” may be only nine and a half minutes, but, with the tone in the background, humming along like cicadas in summer, you’re not necessarily thinking of how beautiful the picture could be, but how staggering the expanse is. And that’s something about Kansas that’s striking. I wouldn’t exactly call it “beautiful,” but I would call it “staggering.” It’s the first taste you get of just how big the United States is. You don’t get a grasp of that on the East side of the Mississippi, really, because it’s a relatively highly-populated area. There’s a lot of land, yeah, but there are a lot of towns, roads, railroads, interstates, and signs of habitation. Kansas, and the Plains, and the Rockies, in large parts of it, it’s just you and the land. (And the other drivers, but allow me my Romanticism, please.)
So, with Borodin on the radio as I crossed the state line, and even with the Rockies fading in the distance thanks to the setting sun, I knew that the worst of it had passed. The bleak neverending expanse of Kansas, the just constant, unrelenting flat that led to me having a full-fledged conversation with myself about some really dark shit? That was gone. I’d lived through Kansas. Hell, I’d lived through sixteen years as an openly liberal, then openly socialist Jew-atheist-Buddhist-whatever-the-hell-I-am-these-days in Tennessee. Was there any surprise that I could make it through Kansas?
Reader, I say to you: Yes. There was.
A friend of mine once told me a story about a friend of his who was on the Interstate through Kasnas, between Kansas City and Topeka, I think, and was passed by this semi. Well, not only did the semi cut him off on the otherwise empty interstate, but he then jackknifed in front of him. So, my friend’s friend—call him Bob—peeled off the side of the road. If I had to guess, it was right then that Bob was thinking about that move, Duel, about the guy being chased down by a homicidal trucker. So Bob pulls off the side of the road, e-brakes, spins a bit, all that good stuff. As Bob gets out of the car, he looks up and there’s no semi. He imagined the whole thing.
What I’m trying to get through your skull with this piece is three things:
- Sometimes, if you’re in a well and true rut, then the best thing to do is to pack up and move elsewhere
- Know what makes you happy in life, pursue it, and know what makes you unhappy, and avoid it
- Never go to Kansas
Next time, I reckon we’ll talk about how amazing Colorado is.