How to capture your own imagination and then … set it free.
Way back when, in the 70s, actually, I took a Greyhound bus across the country, Los Angeles to Washington DC, to do a summer-vacation stint as an intern, a favor called in through a family friend — something that never materialized, as it turned out. A lot of other stuff, however, did transpire that summer. More perhaps than during any other three-month period of my life.
And it all began with a bus ride — a long, LONG bus ride. People with stories, and more people with more stories. Some getting off, others getting on, food smells, coat smells, skin smells, bus smells, all of it sealed by that unmistakable smell of diesel exhaust.
It was the kind of “adventure” my father simply would never have allowed; but at 19, and in college in another state, I was physically out of his range of control. I am 100% certain that the LA bus terminal was not full-blown in his mind; if it had been, skid-row details and all, it would have literally blown his mind.
Coast to coast, I think it cost $72 — or around a dollar per hour. I had very little money at the time, which dwindled to absolutely zero for some weeks in DC. So there was no other option for travel. Three days didn’t sound that bad; it just didn’t.
I’m unsure what time we set out from the bus terminal in LA but at some point we all fell asleep and were awakened at around 5:30 a.m. in the middle of nowhere – the rez, presumably — to pile out and have breakfast at this one dilapidated place that had three choices: eggs over easy, scrambled eggs, and eggs over hard. Hash whites, as I call them, came with everything. White toast. Ketchup. Salt and pepper.
There was literally nothing there. A nondescript building, a certain Arizona noonday sun out already at the break of day, and a lot of scrub and dirt in every direction. We the weary were following orders, presumably so that the bus driver could make some extra kickback cash and the folks in the diner could experience a windfall every week or so. I don’t know. But how else would this work? I remember the driver saying there would be no other stops for a good long while, so it was in our best interest to get out of the bus.
It might not have been the first time I truly “got” the notion of a roadside attraction, but it was the first time it really got to me. It seemed to represent everything that could captivate my imagination — that middle of nowhere feeling, that big empty sky carting a few spindly clouds on by, the desolation to some extent, a sense of the realities of the human condition as we all stood there, groggy, on unfamiliar ground. Isn’t it all a roadside attraction on a certain level?
I have always been captivated by this allegorical scene: a bunch of people who don’t know each other… on a journey… in the middle of nowhere… making a pit stop for something or other. Weary travelers, all present in the now because the now is so obvious. The bus stops, the people are awakened and get out, they scratch their heads. Who are we? What are we doing here and what road are we on? What will happen next? Maybe we should just look around for a sec and get our bearings. Trust that the bus will get us where we’re going.
In my life, I have sought out this kind of place — these bleak and empty spaces where the wind whips you around as the dust swirls at your feet. I’ve written about them, as I am doing in Dreaming of La Sal and did in Miranda Blue Calling. I’ve filled my head and my heart with them.
It didn’t hurt that at the time, in the late 80s, I was coming off Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins; but he didn’t invent the notion and all it represents by a long shot, he just romanticized it in a way that was sweet and ebullient and genuinely appreciative of women. How delicious that was!
But there’s also Beckett in a roadside attraction to some extent, and Ringling Bros. and Swiss Family Robinson and a kids’ lemonade stand and even the Catholic confessional. The roadside attraction is a way we thrust ourselves, in fiction or real life, into the moment. We are either waiting for others to show or watching others arrive or watching them go by or watching it as we pass by — all the metaphors of leaving and arriving in one location.
Writing about these lonesome places has allowed me to see space and the sky as big, bigger, biggest, with me the small human acting not in some small-time drama but in a story as big-ass as the props. That’s the latest theory, anyway.