World’s largest buffalo. Jamestown, North Dakota. (photo: Dan Harris)
“That’s a big ass buffalo,” I said, because there’s not much else to say when you’re standing on black ice trying not to break your neck in the middle of a frozen North Dakota winter and staring up at a giant bronze bison that exists for no particular reason.
“Yeah,” said Dan, because that’s the appropriate response.
The photos were snapped, and away we went. The buffalo had done its job. It made us stop in the middle of nowhere, the way a thousand roadside attractions across the nation used to encourage a million drivers to pull over and linger, just long enough to drum up a bit of business in a place where business was certainly not booming. They’re relics, these roadside attractions. Strange museums. Odd statues. Giant balls of yarn. Curiosities of a time when road travel itself was still a curiosity. Some of the lucky ones, like our friend the giant buffalo, sit on the Interstate system, which turned drivers off the old highways with their efficiency, and whose speed limits discouraged stopping.
The Interstate is a dull country. Quick marts and gas stations, chain fast food joints, billboards reminding you to shop here and find Jesus. Not necessarily in that order. But there are breaks in the beige fabric of those red line highways. You just have to keep your eyes out for them.
* * *
Dan Harris. Writer, editor, Levittown escapee.
I’ve gone coast to coast on the U.S. highway system many times, but I’ve usually done it alone. This trip was a means of escape. Not for myself, but for my friend Dan Harris, a former schoolmate of mine who was fleeing America’s first planned suburb (and his hometown) for the wild strangeness of Seattle. He’d expressed some reservations about doing a drive that far, and I’d asked if he wanted a co-driver.
“You’re the only person I know who would fly across the country just to drive across the country at the drop of a hat,” he said.
We left Levittown on a Saturday, both to get past the traffic from the next day’s New York City marathon, and because Levittown, the archetype of mass-produced suburbs in the U.S.A., is an insidiously unnerving place. Like the best horror movie settings, there’s nothing obviously wrong with it. And yet, everything feels off. You can feel the life draining out of your shoes. My second day there I was struck with one of the worst headaches I ever had. By the third day, when we skipped town earlier than expected, my neck muscles had turned to stone.
With the blessing of, and a box of Italian pastries from, Dan’s incredibly kind mother, we rolled across the Cross-Bronx Expressway and holed up for the night in Paterson, New Jersey, a former milltown whose gorgeous waterfall inspired the work of William Carlos Williams.
Paterson Great Falls, an unexpected New Jersey gem.
Paterson is a town rough around the edges, but gleaming underneath. It’s one of the America’s most diverse cities, containing some of the largest concentrations of Peruvian and Dominican immigrants in the country, as well as a Turkish population large enough to give the city its own “Little Istanbul.” It holds the second largest Muslim population, by percentage, in the U.S. (after Dearborn, Michigan). And it holds a place in the imagination of America’s writers, having served as a homebase and setting in the works of William Carlos Williams, Nelson Algren, and Junot Diaz.
It’s my kind of town.
Dan and I settled into a hotel for the night and started out in the morning for another town that’s been hit by hard times in the past few decades: Pittsburgh. But unlike Paterson, Pittsburgh has begun to thrive on the back of influx of new arrivals, young entrepreneurs, and tech money. But that’s another story all its own. What makes a city like Pittsburgh rebound is a story by itself, as is what makes Paterson an immigrant destination, as well as the factors that keep it a safe one. But on a massive, week-long road trip, you only get glimpses of these things. A hint at the deeper waters you’re skipping across.
* * *
On approach to Chicago.
I still think of Chicago as home. Or one of my homes, anyway. It remains, for me, the most quintessential American city. Unlike the grand ports of the coast, Chicago opens only onto the heartland itself. Follow the Great Lakes, and you get to the cities of the northeast. Follow the river, and you wind up spilling past New Orleans and into the Gulf of Mexico. Follow the railroads that made its reputation, and you wind up at the front door of the Pacific.
But it’s still a gateway to America for so many communities. Lithuanian. Polish. Turkish. Russian. Mexican. Jews and Muslims and Catholics. Small Buddhist temples tucked away on residential streets. I came to town and had dinner with a friend whose family came from Holland and breakfast with a friend whose family came from India. Like a lot of my favorite places, Chicago is a crossroads and a trading post. A port that opens its arms to the world.
Dan Harris and Tim Cook get down with some ice cream at Margie’s Candies.
But first and foremost, for me, this is a town where my community lives. Ten years after leaving the city, it still feels like home. Still welcomes me back every time. There’s a stability here. A continuity. Chicago may be a port where the world rolls in, but it’s also got a deeply entrenched work ethic. People come to Chicago to learn things, to get good at something. And sometimes they take that work and move on to the next town, and sometimes they dig in and make the city bloom.
My friend Tim Cook was born here, and continues to teach school while cranking out his own poetry, teaching many of the same courses he took himself when he was coming up as a fourth generation Chicagoan. Zeeshan Shah came here and studied as a chef, and now runs his own restaurant at the north side bar The Long Room, knocking out big breakfasts under the name of The Biscuit Man.
Zeeshan Shah thinks you should try his fried chicken biscuit.
I’ve lived in two cities as an adult that truly felt like home: Chicago and New Orleans. But the differences in feel are profound. My Chicago community feels rooted. The vast majority haven’t gone anywhere, and coming back still feels as solid as it did a decade ago.
Last November, I left New Orleans after a nine year run, and I still don’t know what it’s going to feel like going forward. Will it still feel as stable for a me a decade from now as Chicago does today? Or is it a more malleable town? A place whose shifts are so dramatic it’s easy to feel like once you’re gone, you’re gone forever?
In Minneapolis, I ran into two friends who also recently left the city: Ali Arnold and Greg Good.
Ali and Greg in their Minneapolis home.
It’s always a shock to see people you know from one city in a brand new space. Greg and Ali are still new to Minneapolis. There’s a certain familiarity for Greg, who grew up in South Dakota. But for Ali, who grew up in the south and had spent nearly 20 years in the New Orleans, I wondered how the transition to the north would take.
It’s been an adjustment, but perhaps the strangest adjustment has been to being in a city that’s high functioning. New Orleans is still, to me, the most exciting city in the U.S. But things get challenging when the institutions you depend on are suddenly needed. Decades of corruption and ineffectiveness have bred a culture where people depend on each other, but generally expect the city to do nothing at best, or make things much more difficult at worst.
Minneapolis may not be perfect, but the contrast is pretty stark. Streets get swept. Roads get repaired. Things get done, for the most part, on time. When a wheel fell off one of their trash cans early on, a worker from the sanitation department was out to repair it the following day, while Ali stared out the window, slack-jawed.
“Move your car before 7 a.m.” said Greg, referring to the next day’s planned street sweeping. “They take it seriously.”
“Huh,” I said.
* * *
I feel like Sir Mix-a-Lot should know about this.
From Minneapolis, it was time to start booming for the coast. The old industrial heart of America was behind us and now it was on to prairie fever. The route across North Dakota and Montana doesn’t beg for postcards. The roads are as flat as the scenery, and the 80 mile an hour speed limit seems determined to rush you across to the next break in the landscape. Only the occasional roadside attraction can break up the monotony.
Two of my favorites: The Berkeley Pit Mine, and the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum.
I am very sad the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum was closed the day I rolled in, because it’s a doozy. A creationist-themed “museum,” the GD&FM maintains that the earth is no older than 6000 years, that dinosaurs rode the ark with Noah (or at least, lizards with the genetic makeup to become dinosaurs), that humans lived inland while dinosaurs were coastal, and that animals and humans used to live ten times longer due to surplus oxygen in the atmosphere.
It also counts as its donors Greg Gianforte, the Montana congressman who bodyslammed a reporter for the Guardian.
I’m particularly taken with this type of insanity, because it manages to take a deranged view even farther than I thought possible. Many creationists have argued that dinosaurs never existed, and that their bones were merely planted there by God to test our faith (meaning God is either a cosmic golden retriever who just likes burying bones, or that he’s gaslighting us–I don’t know which is worse).
But to keep a straight face while you tell people that dinosaurs were on the boat with Noah? That takes some chutzpah.
The remnants of the Berkeley Pit Mine, possibly the most polluted spot in the U.S.
I’m sad to report that I had no better luck with the Berkeley Pit, a former copper bonanza that is slowly, unavoidably, filling with toxic water on the edge of Butte, Montana. This is the horrifying remnant of a deplorable bit of engineering by the Anaconda Mining Company, who somehow managed to make an environmental disaster into an even bigger environmental disaster by leaving.
The pit mine, which was shut down in 1982 over environmental concerns, has been slowly filling with groundwater which leeches chemicals out of the rock and turns them into a toxic, acidic cocktail. On at least two occasions, large flocks of geese have died from landing in the pit water to rest. Without massive environmental action, the acidic water will eventually fill to a point where it can poison the groundwater at the head of the Clark Fork River. Without the water being pumped out, this could happen sometime in the next decade.
And you know what that means? It means gift shop.
The former mine now has a gift shop and an observation deck. For just two dollars, you can go out and see this monstrosity for yourself. I tried, but as with the creationist museum, I was thwarted.
I did see two guys butchering a deer on the sidewalk outside a market, though. So, that was something.
* * *
This troll lives under the Fremont Bridge in Seattle. Note the VW Bug in its hand.
Few cities have as wonderful an approach to them as Seattle. Everything is thick forest and canyon walls right up until the last second, when it reveals itself like an emerald set against a gleaming sky. Assuming you can see it, of course.
It wasn’t easy to see when we came in. Seattle’s notorious winter rain kept it shrouded for most of my visit. But up close, the city reveals itself. In spite of the billions of dollars pouring into it as the tech industry booms–just like logging and aeronautics before it–it’s a city whose heart is still a bit wild, and whose hair is permanently unkempt.
You can see some of the strangeness on display in the Fremont neighborhood, where a giant troll keeps watch under the bridge, and a huge statue of Lenin, purchased by a local as the USSR was collapsing, stares out disapprovingly over the neighborhood.
But for Dan, the end of the line was south of town, where he’d be moving in with his girlfriend. Seven days of travel. 3,000 miles. And for the first time in his life, he’d be living far from his hometown, in a place that couldn’t possibly feel more different.
“Hey Dan,” I said. “You live here now.”
“Yeah I do.”
A new life on the strange end of a strange nation. An immigrant in a wild new place. There’s nothing that speaks more to the spirit of the country than that.
End of the line.