25 August 2012

Route 80

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:00 am

STARS. He said that people knew many different kinds of stars or thought they knew many different kinds of stars. He talked about the stars you see at night, say when you’re driving from Des Moines to Lincoln on Route 80 and the car breaks down, the way they do, maybe it’s the oil or the radiator, maybe it’s a flat tire, and you get out and get the jack and the spare tire out of the trunk and change the tire, maybe half an hour, at most, and when you’re done you look up and see the sky full of stars. The Milky Way. He talked about star athletes. That’s a different kind of star, he said, and he compared them to movie stars, though as he said, the life of an athlete is generally much shorter. A star athlete might last fifteen years at best, whereas a movie star could go on for forty or fifty years if he or she started young. Meanwhile, any star you could see from the side of Route 80, on the way to Des Moines to Lincoln, would live for probably millions of years. Either that or it might have been dead for millions of years, and the traveler who gazed up at it would never know. It might be a live star or it might be a dead star. Sometimes, depending on your point of view, he said, it doesn’t matter, since the stars you see at night exist in the realm of semblance. They are semblances, the way dreams are semblances. So the traveler on Route 80 with a flat tire doesn’t know whether what he’s staring up at in the vast night are stars or whether they’re dreams. In a way, he said, the traveler is also part of a dream, a dream that breaks away from another dream like one drop of water breaking away from a bigger drop of water that we call a wave.

– Roberto Bolaño, 2666

I wonder if  Bolaño ever actually drove this stretch of road across the Great Plains, or if he just read about it in Kerouac’s legendary road trip chronicle. Twice over the next few days we’ll be driving this route, though probably not at night so we’ll have to imagine the semblances of stars. The other day I was editing a bit of text I wrote this summer based on driving Route 80 west from Des Moines and Lincoln:

Through the bug-spattered windshield he saw a small herd of antelope grazing the sparse brush a quarter mile off the highway. A solitary pheasant stood erect and immobile in the passing lane, staring at him like a desperate avian hitchhiker. Low-slung oil wells performed their oblique one-stroke rotations, the idling pistons of the American West. It wasn’t until he caught the first glimpse of the mountains hovering on the dusty horizon that he gave any real thought to his delivery.


  1. This morning I took a walk from our roadside motel, away from the interstate and down the road marked with the “pavement ends” sign. At the bottom of the hill I crossed the stream on a one-lane wooden bridge. Coming up the other bank, the whitewashed wooden house on the right had a front yard littered with old cars, just like so many rural places, plus a couple of motorboats on tow trailers. Next was a vast three-storey house, newly constructed, the owner scuttling across the lower roof carrying a bucket of paint. His was the corner house of a winding street lined with other enormous new houses. There’s thirty miles of cornfields and small woods between here and the eastern edge of Des Moines, so it’s hard to see why commuters would build all the way out here. Maybe this is where the farmers move after they sell out.

    At the top of the hill was the Catholic Cemetery. Like Boot Hill and most French graveyards, the dead often get the best views. I figured that maybe some non-Lutheran Germans had settled here, but the tombstones had names like Healy and Garrity, with a smattering of Morales and Gonzalez. Maybe the Irishmen were the hired hands before the Mexicans came. I saw only one stone featuring an epitaph: “All Our Life’s Dreams Came True,” the Crooks inform us from their graves. I wonder whether their neighbors believed them. If the Crooks had happened to be Protestants the epitaph might have read something like “We Achieved All Our Life’s Goals.”


    Comment by ktismatics — 28 August 2012 @ 8:59 am

  2. I don’t know that particular road, but I came pretty close – Kansas City in the South, and Minneapolis/St Paul in the North – and I know those cornfields, those big skies and those stars. There just isn’t any description does it justice.

    I hitch-hiked up the West Coast in the late 70s, from LA to Vancouver, and then from Vancouver over the Rockies to Chicago. It just seemed to be one great cornfield from the Rockies to Chicago, and it stretches way South too – at least to Kansas. I wish I’d kept a diary now. I travelled with a companion who was – I would say confidently now – an alchoholic, and I shared the tipple with him out to be sociable – we’d just come out of a hard-drinking environment, which isn’t (and wasn’t) really my scene.

    It was an interesting way to see America – pity it’s mostly a blur now. I just can’t remember where we crossed the border into the USA from Canada. I remember we had to walk across the border, but I can’t remember why – our lift didn’t come with us. I can’t remember any place names between Medicine Hat and Minneapolis. I don’t recall Winnipeg – we might have passed round it… And Fargo? When the movie came out it had recognition for me, but I just don’t think we passed through there. But I’ve been looking at the google maps, and while Estevan, Minot and Bismarck seem sort-of familiar, there doesn’t seem to be any main road that way.

    So, somewhere in North Dakota, just past the border post, we got caught in this hail storm which just seemed to come in minutes out of a clear-blue sky on a blazing hot day – hail stones as big as tennis balls! And then it blue over in about ten minutes. And that night we slept out in a cornfield under that huge starry sky, and for the first and only time in my life I saw the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights! There is no describing the vastness of it. Awesome! But also spooky!


    Comment by lafayettesennacherib — 29 August 2012 @ 3:13 pm

  3. You covered a lot of ground, Lafayette. It is hard to tell one state from the next, or even the US from Canada, when crossing that endless landscape. For most Americans it’s the flyover zone, but I find it oddly soothing, nearly hypnotic, to drive through a thousand miles of prairies and cornfields. If you hitchhiked from Minneapolis to KC you would have intersected with Route 80 in Des Moines. Have you read Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson? The first story/chapter, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” happens on the road coming east out of Kansas City. Sleeping in a cornfield and seeing the Northern Lights? That’s spectacular. The only time I saw them was while sleeping out in the hippie campground in Spokane Washington during the 1974 World’s Fair.


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 August 2012 @ 4:48 pm

  4. No, we took the Greyhound from NY to LA, with a pause in Arizona to go down the Grand Canyon.

    Looking at the map again, I’m not sure we DID pass through Kansas city; it might have just been Oklahoma City – the latter I’m sure about now. Sure wish I’d kept a diary. I can only remember for sure passing through Philadelphia, St Louis, Oklahoma City, Amarillo and Albuqerque before getting off at Flagstaff for the Grand Canyon. I think we passed through or stopped in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Cincinnati before St Louis, but not sure. So I can’t be sure that we didn’t just go from St Louis to Oklahoma City.

    Whatever, we didn’t travel between Minneapolis and Kansas City OR St Louis, so that’s as close as we got to highway 80.

    That Denis Johnson book looks very interesting. I note that one reviewer compared him to Brautigan, who I like; Whitley Streiber, who Dejan and Patrick like and who I mean to read soon; and Richard Price who I own a couple of books by (note the contempt for formal grammar – why write like that when no-one speaks like that, unless clarity demands it?) which I’ve been meaning to read for years but I was just about to put into a bag to give away to charity in a big biteing of the bullet and clearing out of everything I know in my heart of hearts I’ll never get round to.

    Do you rate Richard Price, John? Do you think he is an unmissable American great? Should I hang on to Clockers and read it?


    Comment by lafayettesennacherib — 29 August 2012 @ 5:45 pm

  5. KC, OKC — close enough. You must have been on the road for weeks to cover that much ground.

    I read Clockers shortly after it was published. I don’t remember any details, but I thought it was good. Jesus’ Son I read more recently. It isn’t as intricate, recounting tangentially related episodes in the lives of stoner losers in the Midwest, but the stories are engaging and the prose is sometimes transcendent.


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 August 2012 @ 7:25 pm

  6. The early ‘Ladies’ Man’ is very good and very funny Bronx stuff. ‘Clockers’ I remember liking too, and Spike Lee made an extremely poor movie of it. I only know Whitley Strieber’s ‘The Hunger’, which is a great vampire book (only one I know, much better than anything by Anne Rice), and was also made into a basically poor movie, completely ruining the horror of the book.


    Comment by Patrick J. Mullins — 30 August 2012 @ 11:09 am

  7. No, I didn’t think either of those movies was much. They’re both sort-of ok, that’s all.


    Comment by lafayettesennacherib — 30 August 2012 @ 1:22 pm

  8. The question of where I crossed the border back into the USA from Canada, and hence where I saw the Northern Light, has been running through my head for days. I got a good hint when I googled ” Aurora Borealis, N. Dakota”:

    Aurora Borealis over Minot, North Dakota

    from the comments: ” Minot happens to be the best location in the Lower 48 for viewing aurora. We use a thing called the Kp Index. From Minot we can often see aurora at Kp4 but it’s dim. K5 and you= usually have a good show if the sky is clear.”

    There’s a major-ish looking route (Highway 39?) between Estevan in Saskatchewan and MInot in ND which crosses the border at:


    which, allowing for the changes of near 35 years, seems more like the place I remember that the only likely alternative I can find, on Route 29 (?) between Grand Forks and Winnipeg, there’s a border crossing at:

    Canada Border Station Services Agency, Emerson, Mb.

    But I can’t be sure.


    Comment by lafayettesennacherib — 1 September 2012 @ 10:04 am

  9. The other side of the border, Emerson Mb becomes Pembina ND:

    United States Border Station Pembina, North Dakota

    This looks familiar anyway: Stormclouds over Pembina http://tinyurl.com/crpth38


    Comment by lafayettesennacherib — 1 September 2012 @ 10:30 am

  10. Now, this is REALLY exciting. If you go into Google maps and search for ” US Border Patrol Railway Avenue Portal, ND 58772 United States” , you’ll see a map obviously.

    You can’t get into streetview directly on the Border Patrol, but if you back up a couple of block South along Railway Avenue, streetview becomes active, and then you can sneak up to almost opposite the border patrol (make sure you’re looking North, and go forward as far as you can, then look to the right) and though the picture is not that clear, I can see that it is in a big wooden shack, which is how I remember it.

    So Portal is a strong contender.


    Comment by lafayettesennacherib — 1 September 2012 @ 11:01 am

  11. This has all been very interesting, and you could have certainly told us about it before at CPC. What’s the big deal about being on-topic?

    I’ve always wanted to see the auroras, but never have. Your young-man’s trip is very picaresque. I’ve never been up in the NW, although Idaho and Montana would be fantastic, as would lots of Canada, especially in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. I did fly over Labrador once because of a flight passenger’s heart attack, we landed at Goose Bay, but the hour and a half over this country was the most pristine perfection I’ve ever seen, except for the interior of Tahiti. I’ve been in Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, large swaths of Texas, I think most of it’s better as ‘flyover’, as John said, except Texas is so fantastically arrogant. But I much prefer California, even though I’ve concentrated almost exclusively on LA. Never hitchhiked or camped, never wanted to. Interesting you didn’t stay in any of the major cities any length of time to speak of, or you haven’t said so. I’ve flown over the Grand Canyon a couple of times in recent years and spent two summers in Colorado. It gets beautiful out West and also parts of the South. The Midwest has a modest beauty, like some of those immaculate farms in Iowa, but there’s more corn and soybeans than I have the energy to rave over. In 2009, we were directly over the Grand Canyon, and could see as far down it as shadows would allow. That was pretty breathtaking, and the Rockies are and the Sierra Nevada is. I flew over the Arizona Badlands this past Xmas, they are impressive, but not exactly beautiful.

    Objectively, I could say a lot of this and esp. that Labrador flyover, which was unbelievable (and MUCH more beautiful than flying over Glasgow on the same flight, which was about 6 hours previous, ha ha), but nothing has really come close to what I saw in French Polynesia. It really IS like that, although not everybody has a worship of the tropics like I do. Oregon, Wash. State, Vancouver must all be spectacular, but I have no strong desire for anything but other parts of the Pacific. And they’re too remote not to be even much more expensive than Tahiti. No interest in Hawaii, but I’m sure it’s got gorgeous parts. That’s where ‘South Pacific’ was filmed, not Tahiti or Bora Bora, but I didn’t know that at the time. In about the 4th Grade, I had this enormous desire to go to Hawaii, and did nothing but read about it, and then it disappeared after a month or so. I found this frustrating (I know, sounds like ‘Marcel’), but it was replaced by Tahiti, and that never went away. When I would practice the piano at Steinway in 2002 and 2003, I would think of Tahiti and DEATH at the same time constantly. It was as if I hadn’t lived if I didn’t go to Tahiti. And I finally came into the money. I’ve paid for these two trips there in many ways, but I wouldn’t have any self-respect had I not gone. Since there’s lots of French white trash there, it’s not all ‘sweet Polynesians’, but there were a lot of them, even in billionaire Bora Bora. But I like your trip, and know others who have done these kinds of things. I even had a niece who backpacked all through France and Italy, so girls do this stuff too. I started to try to do to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory a few years ago instead of back to Tahiti, but wouldn’t have been right. The Rockies and the Alps in Switzerland and even the volcanoes of Hawaii are much higher than the volcanic needle mountains of Tahiti, but the interior of Tahiti IS the Garden of Eden. Looks like it, feels like it, IS it. And yet I have known few people who were interested in it at all. Jacques Brel did die in the Marquesas, the most undeveloped and pristine parts of F. Polynesia. He’s fly his plane from Fatu Hiva to Papeete, I remember, I think it took about an hour. He moved there after he found his cancer was incurable.


    Comment by Patrick J. Mullins — 1 September 2012 @ 1:16 pm

  12. Portal, North Dakota? Sounds like my kind of town. I’ve been in ND only once: the train from Chicago to Spokane stopped on a siding in some little ND town to refuel or change engines or something, so I got off and walked around a bit. I probably still have the photo of the western-style storefronts and the Pontiac GTO parked near the tracks. Of the 48 states I’ve been to all but 3: South Dakota, Alabama, and Mississippi. I changed planes in Montgomery and Jackson on a round trip from DC to New Orleans, but airports don’t count in my book. Driving out of Georgia through Tennessee a few years ago I got within 7 miles of the Alabama border but veered west and north before crossing over. I’ve never been to Alaska or Hawaii, even though my mother’s sister lived in Hawaii for years.


    Comment by ktismatics — 1 September 2012 @ 2:15 pm

  13. Speaking of US border towns, Bolaño’s book (which I excerpted in the post) eventually zeroes in on a fictionalized version of Ciudad Juarez, which is on the Mexican side of the border with Texas and New Mexico. The novel is organized into 5 parts; the 4th and longest part concerns a series of some 200 murders of young women and girls, most of which remained unsolved crimes. Bolaño writes much of this section as if he were a crime reporter, describing the victim, the cause of death, the crime scene, the leads and witnesses, the investigation. A series of such crimes did occur in Ciudad Juarez, and apparently Bolaño, who for many years lived in Mexico, spent considerable time interviewing police and reviewing transcripts. What’s odd is that in the novel he doesn’t describe these real-world crimes; instead he invents fictionalized crimes, 200 of them, in considerable detail. Bolaño doesn’t attempt to solve these crimes like some sort of CSI-Juarez television show. Instead he presents the transcripts sequentially with very little commentary or drama. Reading them I find myself looking for patterns, with the novel serving as a data repository and testbed for my inferences as I try to create a meaningful thread out of the material. It’s a surprisingly effective way of going about the fiction-writing business, letting the reader try to impose an overarching narrative on a vast and messy accumulation of “facts.”


    Comment by ktismatics — 1 September 2012 @ 2:29 pm

  14. I thought Portal would be your kind of town, Ktis. Actually, I doubt if there is much of a town. It looks like a truck-stop and a border-post. But after a couple of years working in an oil camp in the Shetlands, that was pretty much my kind of town.

    All the truck stops have a same sort of feel, one well documented in the movies, if toned down a bit. My memory of Medicine Hat (how could you forget a name like that?) – that’s Canada for me – Vancouver, Rockies including Lake Louise (blue as a swimming pool) – 5 days watching the Rockies recede… Medicine Hat, US border – where was I? Medicine Hat, early morning, empty truck-stop eatery, served by old, sixtyish woman in skintight see-through white sort of nudie-style cowboy suit, with black stockings and suspenders underneath and no knickers – unmissably! Funny how you remember things like that,but there wasn’t much to remember but grass and corn for days…

    Yes, a lot of Canada is pristine, but if you ever watch the series ‘Ice Road Truckers’ ( shows on Freeview here, bound to be a cable channel favourite your end) you’ll see the reason why – most of it is barely navigable, never mind habitable. I find that show and its offshoots very entertaining. So do a lot of people it seems.

    As a Scot, Oregon and Washington and British Columbia are getting nearer to my natural environment – plenty of pine trees and rain, beautiful though – but even Vancouver is still 5 degrees of Latitude south of Glasgow… and I just checked the latitude of Shetland – about half a degree South of Anchorage!

    I have to say that the California coast from Los Angeles up to San Francisco, particularly around Big Sur, is my idea of Heaven – if you can afford it ! Northern California comes close too – maybe equal with its own charms like the Redwood forests. We stayed about 10 days in Huntingdon Beach, LA, and maybe 5 in a place called Willow Creek (another close contender for Heaven) – a famous ‘Bigfoot’ tourist centre – in the California mountains inland from the coastal university town of Eureka, where Alexander Cockburn nested. These mountains are marijuana plantation country – what Pynchon writes about in Vineland.

    I’d forgotten you were in Boulder, Ktis. I keep placing you in Boston or somewhere like that. But I remember now you saying that before. Well, I at least dipped my feet in the Colorado River at the foot of the Grand Canyon, not so far away.


    Comment by lafayettesennacherib — 2 September 2012 @ 5:02 pm

  15. Willow Creek – the Bigfoot Statue and Collection


    Comment by lafayettesennacherib — 2 September 2012 @ 5:37 pm

  16. Lafayette, these stories, esp., the last long one, make you seem so likable. I wish you were more social and not so mischievous.. I wish you’d write on my bleug, but you just won’t.

    Actually, Glasgow from the air and what I saw of Scotland was lovely. I had a chance to go to Edinburgh in 2002, but it wasn’t practical. I’d have liked to.

    “I thought Portal would be your kind of town, Ktis. ”

    Oh, PUL-LEAZE, I can’t believe you wrote that. John wouldn’t care if a town called Portal had nothing but an outdoor privy and one of those outdoor hand-pumps country folk in Alabama used to have.

    That drive from LA to SF is probably the world’s most popular. Everybody goes nuts over the Big Sur, even Henry Miller retired there, and he spent so much time saying hateful things about the U.S., like that ‘New York is the grandest and most vacuous city in the world’. I thought about that for about a decade and a half, before realizing how dumb it was. I haven’t ever gotten to do that drive though. My dental hygienist told me Carmel was maybe the most gorgeous place she’d ever been. Doris Day has an inn there, not to mentiion Clint Eastwood of RNC failure fame last week and ‘Make My Day’.


    Comment by Patrick J. Mullins — 2 September 2012 @ 6:16 pm

  17. Ice Road Truckers I’d never heard of; hard to believe there would be an actual series based on guys driving trucks across a flat and featureless terrain — like a series written by Beckett. The gal from the Medicine Hat truck stop might liven up a few episodes.

    “Big Foot Days” in Willow Creek has that cornball quirky sound to it. There’s a “Frozen Dead Guy Days” in Nederland, a town just up the mountain from here, commemorating some guy from Norway whose mother wanted to be cryogenically preserved after she died, so he bought a commercial freezer for mom and put her in a shed in his back yard. There was a big to-do when the city declared the maternal deep-freeze illegal. Now it’s a goddamned annual festival.


    Comment by ktismatics — 2 September 2012 @ 6:38 pm

  18. ” …hard to believe there would be an actual series based on guys driving trucks across a flat and featureless terrain”

    The terrain’s the thing. The road only exists for part of the year, when there’s ice. Then the road is ‘created’ new every year – marked out over the ice – and the truckers take huge parts out to distant mines and engineering projects that can only be reached by air the rest of the year. It’s extremely dangerous, and there’s a race to get as many journeys as possible before the road starts melting – then it’s REALLY dangerous. It’s compelling viewing. I would never have thought I’d be interested, but I chance on one episode and got hooked – beautifully filmed and some great characters. I even got a dvd box set of the second season.

    I do read your blog Patrick, and enjoy it, and one day I’ll dip my toe in the water, but I can’t get drawn into anything time-consuming – I already have my duties at the CPC (thanks for taking some of the load, recently), and some political blogs I comment on, though I just can’t be bothered arguing anymore… blah blah


    Comment by lafayettesennacherib — 2 September 2012 @ 8:15 pm

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