It took us eight days to cross the United States from end to end, speeding over prairies in our lozenge-shaped craft, floating inches above the tarmac of Interstate 90 on four rubber-bound air cushions.
Washington was a rolling brown farmland they call the Palouse. Idaho was a brief, gorgeous jaunt across the panhandle: sapphire lakes pooling between evergreen-clad mountains. We pulled up early on day one in Missoula, Montana, and floated down the Clark Fork River — hot enough to be deadly for native fish, but pleasant for us under smoky summer skies — drinking beer and spiked seltzer. We ate dinner on a patio with an old friend, discussing how and when he might get around a new wave of lockdowns to start a new post-PhD job in Singapore. At one point our conversation paused as a man — not a soldier or police officer, just a man — walked by with a handgun on his hip.
We were up at the crack of sparrow’s fart the next morning and on the road across endless Montana. We’d been excited for this portion of the drive, but the state’s grassy valleys, wooded slopes and clear rivers — America’s embodied dream of endless space and exploitable land — was smothered under a dun-colored haze of Oregon wildfire smoke. According to our friend in Missoula, there had only been a handful of clear days in the entire month of July. In the three-and-a-half years I’ve lived in Seattle, summer’s season of joy is becoming poisoned with the dread of wildfires and unnatural heatwaves.
“Don’t want Portland in Montana?” a billboard grunted. “Vote Republican.”
“Pay taxes: 20 million illegals need your support,” a bumper sticker declared.
“Democrats stink,” someone had scrawled on the wall next to a gas station urinal in Livingston, Montana. Outside, men in stained jeans, weathered boots and big hats rolled cigarettes and spoke in a slow western drawl.
“Yer truck looks healthy,” one said to a new friend.
“It’s older’n Moses but stronger’n a Sherman tank,” the owner agreed. I could’ve sat and listened to them all day.
But instead we hopped back in the car and switched on our audiobook: a woman with an east coast accent reading Ling Ma’s Severance, published in 2011. It’s about a pandemic — this one’s a fungal infection, not a virus, and it causes people to endlessly, meaninglessly repeat the rituals of daily life until they drop dead months or years later — and a group of New Yorkers looking for shelter in a mall. The book’s characters (and, I suspect, the author) are obsessed with the fact that they’re living in New York in that way that fascinates other New Yorkers and bores everyone else. The book picks up a bit when discussing the main character’s childhood and immigrant parents, but ultimately we never finished it. In my mind it remains an open-ended tale — a little like the pandemic we’re in right now.
In a gas station in Broadus, Montana, a pair of teenaged girls made us sandwiches. One said her sister had been in the middle of a study abroad program in Sydney when covid struck.
“Did she stay, or come home?”
“It was a miracle, honestly, but she made it home. We were all so worried about her.”
I thought about Sydney’s sparkling harbour, endless beaches and vibrant cultural scene. I compared them to Broadus’ weatherboard stores and demountable homes huddled under the smoky sun. I wondered what the sister thought of leaving Australia for a country with 13 times as many people — but more than 640 times as many covid deaths.
I shouldn’t shit on Broadus. I’m sure the sister was happy and relieved to be home.
Over at the register, H complemented a belt that the cashier was wearing. It was covered in colourful beads arranged in patterns. The man blushed.
“My mom trades with the natives,” he explained.
“Your buckle says ‘Champion,’” I said, squinting at his crotch. “What’d you win?”
The kid’s face went red. “I show hogs,” he said with a grin. “Won third place this year.”
“Congratulations,” I said, and meant it. As we crossed into Wyoming, H and I chuckled at what it might take to win a hog-showing contest. Hogs in swimsuits. Hogs demonstrating a unique talent. Hogs in high heels and ballroom gowns explaining how they would usher in world peace.
We spent 20 minutes crossing an uninhabited corner of Wyoming and descended onto the plains of South Dakota, land of prairies and suburbs. We were now leapfrogging a pair of motorcyclists wearing leather vests emblazoned with shining crosses and the words “Bikers For Christ.”
The billboards grew in South Dakota until the freeway was a canyon between them. Buy land in this new subdivision. Buy a used RV from our dealership. Buy motorcycle insurance. Don’t terminate your pregnancy. Crush Wall Street’s Green New Deal. Buy furniture from these moustachioed father-son salesmen.
We stopped at Oacoma, South Dakota, on the banks of the Missouri River. The Missouri is the longest river in North America — and it doesn’t even touch an ocean. It was wide and brown, and the residents of Oacoma and Chamberlain, a sister town on the far bank, oriented their communities away from the river’s edge. We slept in a campground wedged between a used car dealership and Interstate 90. It was a sweaty evening — another heat dome had descended on North America, this time centred on the upper midwest — and I volunteered to walk over to Al’s Oasis to get us dinner. I returned with a matching pair of bison burgers and Budweiser tall boys.
“This is such a romantic honeymoon,” H said with a grin, but she meant it.
In early May I turned 30. Later in May, I proposed during a picnic in Seattle’s Gasworks Park. She said yes. June was packed with final catch-ups with family and friends all over the Pacific Northwest, and late July was consumed with packing up our apartment. At some point, realising that we would not be able to hold a proper wedding party until international travel resumed some semblance of normalcy (likely in 2023?), we resolved to get married before we left H’s home town. That became a weeklong whirlwind of legal paperwork and familial logistics culminating in a little ceremony at the San Juan County District Courthouse. I cried like a baby reading my vows. We had a little party with my dad — also marooned overseas by Australia’s lockdown — and H’s immediate family. Two days later we packed up Wanda the Prius and hit the road to Boston, where H would start grad school in a fortnight.
So yes, technically this was our honeymoon.
South Dakota became Minnesota the next day, and the countryside bristled with new vegetation. The backdrop to Interstate 90 was a repeating reel like you used to see in cheaper cartoons: a corn field, a thicket of woods, a wooden farmhouse, a red barn, a grain silo and then a corn field again. On and on for hundreds of miles. Around the towns there were office parks and TGIF-style restaurants where jowly men and square-jawed boys in matching polo shirts marched in from the nearby headquarters of some industrial parts designer. More right-wing bumper stickers on extended family-size SUVs: “These colors don’t run — they reload!”
After a brief, stunning drop onto and then across the Mississippi River, Wisconsin was more of the same bucolic farmland — baseball diamonds, wooden churches — until we hit the outskirts of Milwaukee. The traffic thickened and began to buzz in agitation, constantly switching lanes, nosing into impossible gaps at 85 miles per hour.
I remembered a lanky man named Jose, who I met years ago serving beers (and later weed) at a beach bar in rural Oaxaca.
“You like it here?” he asked, nodding at the yellow-sand beach outside. I remember the water sparkling like pale emeralds. If you put on a snorkel, the ocean was full of colourful fish.
“I love it,” I replied.
“Me? Not so much. I grew up here, but I’d prefer to be somewhere else.”
“Where would you go?”
“I want to go back to Wisconsin,” he grinned, the name exotic in his accent, his eyes glazed and lifted beyond the aquamarine horizon. “My kid is still there. His mother, too.”
But before long Jose’s promised land was behind us and we were speeding into Illinois. For us (and for most people) Illinois is Chicago: Gateway to the West. People and products used to make their way from the east coast to the city via the rivers and canals linking the Great Lakes. Look at a map of the U.S. and you’ll see Chicago at the center of a spiderweb of railways and highways stretching all the way to southern California.
But we were doing this great migration in reverse, so for us Chicago was the gateway to the east, a sprawling brown-brick metropolis heaving and groaning, cracking in the summer and freezing in the winter. We spent three days there. We drank aperol spritzes as an octogenarian volunteer explained the city’s architectural history to us from the roof of a river boat. We ate Ethiopian food with our fingers and deep dish hot from the oven. We watched a blind man tease old favourites out of a still-groovy Hammond B3 behind the bar of an Uptown jazz haunt, a relic from another time.
Indiana was 20th century industrial parks and corn, Ohio was more corn. Though the terrain was similar to what we’d seen in Minnesota and Wisconsin, the colour had drained from the landscape by now. Maybe corn had lost its romance. At one point we took a wrong turn and spent an hour on a secondary road meandering through rural Ohio toward Interstate 90. There were no cities marked on the map, but all we saw were strip malls, suburbs, traffic lights, office parks: the new American wilderness.
We flashed through a corner of Pennsylvania and spotted oceanic Lake Eerie from the freeway in New York State. We camped on the shores of Lake Ontario and saw the skyscrapers of Toronto shimmering on the horizon, a full 50 kilometres (30 miles) away.
In the morning we stopped in to watch sheets of water thunder over a ledge at Niagara Falls, then escaped the adjacent town (streets of dead businesses, with the only customers congregating at an overworked McDonalds) to hit the road. This was the final stretch now, soaring across New York’s rolling wooded countryside, stopping in at intervals to fill up at identikit gas station-and-McDonald’s service plazas, hustling through the palid, flabby mass of middle American humanity. The hills grew on the Massachusetts border and we passed a sign announcing that “You are at 1,724 feet (525 metres), the highest elevation on Interstate 90 east of South Dakota.” H and I locked eyes for a moment and then broke into insane laughter.
Woods and hills, rivers and woods, then suddenly a flash of brick and glass from some high-tech office park and we were here: in our new neighbourhood, complete with the same smug liberal yard signs we left back in Seattle: “In this house, we believe…”
In 2017 H and I spent eight months driving around Australia, which is only slightly smaller than the continental U.S. During that journey, I marvelled at how empty Australia is, a landscape that mocks any attempt at building a “modern civilisation” upon it.
Though this trip was far quicker — business not pleasure, you understand — what strikes me about America is how full it is of humans, one of the Earth’s most adaptable species. Towns upon towns upon towns of people, living their lives in nowhere places, blips off the interstate, strip malls built on the riches of today’s corporate overlords ringing the old brick-and-timber downtown districts, themselves a product of yesteryear’s riches, hollow extravagances, promises of eternal growth.
There is no doubt that the United States is a nation in decay. The physical manifestations of this decay — weeds poking through broken concrete, rusty steel giants, boxy automobiles — do hold an aesthetic appeal for me, and its cultural ideals of individuality, entrepreneurship and self-reliance tickle the more adolescent parts of my personality.
But the decay has an increasingly obvious dark side. Its landscape and its people — sweating and straining through a monster hangover in the morning after the Industrial Revolution — cannot support the same power and eternal exploitative growth that has defined it for the last 250 years. Half the country clings to a way of life that defined humanity’s recent industrialized growth spurt. The other half insists that civilisation’s survival depends on adaptation.
So here we are in Boston, a city of colleges, surrounded by smart and earnest people drawn from all over the world (America still retains that allure) to make heavy investments in their education and self development. I’m still holding down my day job while H goes to school, still scraping together savings and making plans for the future as if the entire planet isn’t about to get knocked sideways for the next 50 years.
How does an article like this end? Probably in the same place that most of these conversations end up: a big sigh, a moment of silence and then someone brings up the latest Netflix hit. I have a new ring on my finger symbolising a commitment to a woman I love, a new city to explore, new friends to make, plenty of work in front of me. I’ve got a great life and no answers. I’m just floating along with the rest of us, wondering what on Earth will happen next.
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