Driving Cross Country
At first, the signs in front of fast-food restaurants said 'GOD BLESS AMERICA.' A few days later they said 'GOD BLESS AMERICA, SUPER BURRITO $1.98.' Soon enough, I supposed, they'd say 'GOD BLESS THE SUPER BURRITO'. And why not?I was driving across the country in the aftermath of the unspeakable, and, like many Americans, was suddenly finding the silliest details of my country weirdly touching. There were more pressing things for God to bless, but if He found Himself with some time on His hands, I would not begrudge the super burrito. You think these things, when you spend a lot of time alone in a car.
At 9 a.m. on September 11, I'd been standing in Logan Airport, waiting for the shuttle to New York; I was scheduled to read from my new novel that night in Union Square. Instead, I headed home to watch television and talk on the phone. Twenty-four hours after the hijackings, I was gamely telling friends that I considered it my patriotic duty to fly again, to saunter into airports and board planes as though it were still the most ordinary thing in the world. I was due in Iowa the following week; I had my ticket; I would go. Aren't you afraid?friends asked. I'm going to get back on the horse, I told them, avoiding the question.
Twenty-four hours after that I was driving a rented Corolla to Iowa. I had plenty of excuses. Logan was still closed, and no one had any idea when it would be up and running again. The only way I could be sure of reaching Iowa was to drive. My friend Ann, who didn't want to get on a plane, needed a ride home to Nashville from New York. I'd drop Ann off in Tennessee, do my reading in Iowa City, and then drive home. It would be comforting to be sunk up to the neck in America with one of my best friends. Besides, I'd always wanted to see the major cities of, um, Ohio.
Driving south, Ann and I talked about the attacks, and travel, and America. We agreed that it felt good to watch the miles pile up as we left the East Coast. That's the thing about air travel: it can be disorienting. Whenever I fly from one city to another, I spend the first few hours walking the sidewalks and thinking, How did I get here, exactly? I've felt that in Des Moines and London and Genoa and Brisbane. Airplanes are magic: they transform you in a matter of hours from a native to a tourist.
I'm still not afraid of flying. It's still statistically safer than driving. But in those days after September 11, I was afraid of being afraid. I didn't want to be in an airport—usually my favorite part of a trip—surrounded by hand-me-down anxiety. And so I drove and drove, to Nashville, to Des Moines, to Iowa City, to Chicago.
As I left Ann in Nashville, I gave her my cell phone number. She called often to remind me that at any moment I could drop off the rental car and fly back to Logan. (It had finally opened again.) Not done driving yet, I told her. I want to see people. I want to explore the fleshpots of Toledo. (I have a lot of nerve, making fun of Toledo—I vacation in Des Moines.)
The night before I got home I drove as far as Du Bois, Pennsylvania, 500 miles from Boston. I checked into a Hampton Inn and thought: I am done driving. I knew that I would wake up in Du Bois in the morning, get into the driver's seat, and go to bed—my own lovely, longed-for bed—in Boston. But I wouldn't be traveling. I wouldn't be transformed. I'd spend the day alone in the car. The only people I'd see would be other drivers walking bowlegged into rest stops and fast-food restaurants. I'd pass by Dairy Queens and Mobil stations, and over bodies of water that seem to repeat: Fox Creek, Black River. After you cross the Mississippi, everything's an anticlimax, and I had crossed the Mississippi a long time ago. If I really wanted to see Toledo, or Johnstown, it would be different, but I was driving from Des Moines to Boston, and everything that wasn't my final destination, as they say on planes, was just in the way. When I reached Wilkes-Barre and Bridgeport and Sturbridge, I would know exactly how I'd gotten there.
What I missed were my fellow travelers. I missed air travel, with the headaches and comforts that add up to a kind of ritual: check-in, boarding pass, the liturgy of cockpit announcements, all those things that mean something else now. I missed the businessmen bellowing into cell phones in airport bars, the families pushing Smarte Cartes full of luggage and toddlers, the schools of flight attendants with their cunningly small-wheeled bags darting through the crowds. I missed whoever would be sitting beside me, my automatic companion for miles and miles.
Mostly, I missed those places that I couldn't drive to. I refused to believe that California was lost to me, or Italy, or Australia, or anywhere I couldn't get to absolutely alone. I am not self-reliant. I need a pilot and flight attendants and seatmates. It is significant, after all, that when God set Adam and Eve traveling for the first time ever—when he sent them toward the first uncertainty—he did not give them a map or luggage or instructions, but he gave them company: he gave them each other. They were leaving Paradise, where they'd been ignorant and carefree and happy, and going toward a dangerous Elsewhere. He knew they'd need each other, if only to say, at the end of their travels—like all travelers—"Did you see that?Did you like that?Do you remember?"