Approaching Kansas City the temperature began to drop sharply. We had been following route 70 out of Columbus, Ohio since the night before. At lunch time the temperature was 63 and we faced a line of thunderstorms in central Missouri. The Weather Channel warned of tornadoes and, in fact, a twister did touch down in Arkansas that day, killing several people. When we stopped for gas in eastern Kansas the temperature was 26 and the pump was painfully icy in my hand. At nightfall it was my turn to drive. It dropped below 20 degrees and every ten miles worth of driving seemed to bring it down another degree. The sun hung on the western horizon longer than usual, fighting our attempts to reel it in. For about one hundred miles west of Salina there was ice in the left lane; we spent long stretches languishing behind tractor trailers that we did not have sufficient traction to pass. Night finally fell and with it came absurdly low temperatures hovering in the single digits. As my wife and her sister slept, I piloted the car ever westward. There was no traffic anymore and the occasional towns and neighborhoods gave way to an inscrutable black void of rolling grasses. My mind, in the way it often does at such moments sifted through a catalogue of historic, literary and personal associations conjured by the vicious cold and the emptiness streaming past.
I thought of what a tremendous barrier the Great Plains is. How its flatness reminded me that it was once a sea bed. How scared, tiny and bored the settlers must have felt crossing in rickety wagons. Columbus at least had three moderately large ships when he crossed the Atlantic. Driving across the Great Plains at night when the road is empty feels a bit like flying to the moon in a Ford Pinto. I thought of the video game of my youth, Oregon Trail, and all of the snakebites, cases of dysentery, broken wagon axels and injured oxen waiting to happen to the unfortunate settler.
I thought of the opening chapters of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” Killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickock drove hundreds of miles in a convertible across the same prairie just to murder the whole Clutter family in a home invasion and robbery that went horribly wrong. I thought of Capote’s descriptions of that night time ride and the musings of Perry Smith, the more sympathetic of the pair, on the beauty of the night and grasslands and how they contrasted so markedly with the savage act the two would commit.
As the temperature dropped to five degrees I thought of the cold. I remembered the queer thrill that I always got as a child on nights when the thermometer would approach zero. I thought of how the chill made the warmth feel warmer and human conveniences more precious. I began to root for the cold, hoping that for only the third time in my life I might experience a negative temperature. It would later reach -2, the second coldest I have ever seen it and marking a 65 degree differential in a single day, by the far the largest I have ever seen. I thought about horror novels employing the cold. I thought about how in “Storm of the Century”, “The Shining” and “Ghost Story” the authors Stephen King and Peter Straub created the sense of winter as a siege and the snow as a barrier, isolating the characters in a bubble of blinding white silence in which to face ghosts and demons.
That car ride on New Year’s Eve from our birth home of New Jersey to our adopted one in Colorado was just a moment in time. It may have bordered on silly and dangerous and at times it was interminably boring. At the same time, the memory is precious and indelible. I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower, the Hagia Sophia and the Rocky Mountains and there are many land marks that have left vivid impressions on me. At the same time, the most dearly held memories are unusual and seem almost prosaic when I describe them to others. There was the day when I waited on a deserted railway platform in Krakow for a train to take me to see Auschwitz. I was listening to Nick Drake on my ipod and thinking about past loves. Somehow the grey, dusty loneliness of that summer day combined with the music and my thoughts in such a way that I felt a perfect, comfortable solitude, like the one astronaut who stayed in the command module during the Apollo missions, orbiting the moon while the others went for their famous stroll. That one astronaut, Michael Collins originally, would, when on the far side of the moon, be the remotest single human being in the world, joining the planet Pluto and the Tristan da Cunha islands in the remoteness category of the Guinness Book of World Records.
I remember an afternoon I spent in London, the day before I was to come home from my three month backpacking trip of the continent. That morning I went into a Boots drugstore on Fleet Street and purchased three boxes of extra strength Panadol. I was bearded, disheveled and somewhat burnt out from my journey and the woman behind the counter, an exquisitely beautiful Indian girl with huge eyes gave me a suspicious look and asked me in the perfect cockney accent “Do you know what it’s for?” To which I smiled under my outsized sunglasses bought in Vienna and replied, “Yes” holding out two ten pound notes. I spent that afternoon childishly abusing British over-the-counter narcotics (of extremely low potency, I might add), perhaps in a last celebration of European liberality that I was about to exchange for the heavy layers of regulation that envelope you in the US from the moment you step off the airplane (years later in Turkey I was to glory in buying antibiotics without a prescription, unlocked cell phones and Cuban cigars in the same spirit). Anyway, after eating generic Chinese food at an outdoor café near Trafalgar Square, I wandered around the British Portrait Gallery (London’s best free museum) taking in paintings of long dead royalty and photos of chic post war celebrities in a thoughtful stupor.
For me travel is about such in between moments. It’s about the journeys, random afternoons and cloudy days when, for whatever reason, everything seems to stand still and you are so far from your normal orbit that you can forget yourself and just experience everything around you. Supposedly there are people who can, on command, recall every single day of their lives (on days when I believe in the afterlife I feel like we’ll all be able to do this after we’re dead). For me, however, much of life is, depressingly, a forgettable blur. There are high points and low points that stand out but the connective tissue in between is just simply not there. There are also things that I did that I cannot remember actually doing, or rather, I remember doing them but I can’t remember what it really felt like. Punctuating all of that there are memories I have from my travels that blaze forth for no particular reason at all: the afternoon I spent reading “The Vampire Armand” on the banks of the Tiber, an autumn sunset with my future wife on the rocky shore of Peaks Island, Maine watching a cruise ship leave Portland harbor and a nighttime ride through time and space that crossed a vast Kansas nothingness shrouded in killing black.