For the past two years, I have driven between California and Texas six times. I drive because I enjoy the shifting landscape, the lonely desert towns, the peace of solitude, and the reconnaissance with displaced friends along the way. Also, I forget how terribly tedious it is.
Alas, on the third or fourth hour of the third or fourth day of the third or fourth trip, I find myself talking with no one in particular – an imaginary faceless passenger with whom I want nothing more than to share this passing of time and earth. Sometimes I have been lucky enough to have such a passenger, but often, I have only myself and coffee. So, in an effort to make my journeys worth their time, I try not to drive the same road twice.
I don’t believe roads have souls. But they do have character. Every road tells a story of its bookend towns and the people who, by some need or desire, have braved its asphalt in the quest for something – opportunity, dreams, freedom, or maybe even just groceries. No two roads are the same, as no two towns are the same, and no two people are the same. I drive on these roads with the emigrants before me and the pioneers before them. We have all looked out to the same barren hills, expansive valleys, and kitschy roadside attractions (only 15 miles ahead!). We all have names for them, and each town means something different for each of us, whether it be a familiar resting point or just a mile marker.
And yet… if I stumbled upon an intersection with a Subway and a Chevron, a good-natured country woman behind the convenience store counter, and a tumbleweed rolling through the open lot next door, where am I? Is it Lordsburg, New Mexico? Maybe it’s Fort Stockton, Texas. I’m not sure. What if there’s a Whataburger instead of a Burger King? Does Whataburger bestow upon the town a soul that would otherwise be denied by Burger King?
After six journeys, I am terrified to say this: every town has a place to eat, a place to fuel, and a place to piss. The only difference is the exit number. A town with Burger King might as well be the same town as one with In-N-Out. We are merely passing through infinite reflections of the same truck stop, exit by exit, state by state, lifetime by lifetime.
But no. Existence should be richer than that.
In my time on the road, I’ve been foolish enough to pull over at several historical markers. I don’t know why I do anymore. I already know what they’re going to say:
“This spot was where some emigrants or explorers from somewhere passed on their way to somewhere else a number of years ago in search of something better.”
But how can I reduce the experiences of once-living, once-breathing human beings into a lazy generalization? Is it because, watered down, the experience of each individual is not too different from the experience of any other individual? We eat. We poop. We love and hate. We are all the same. No story told hasn’t been told before. No word uttered can be claimed to be one’s own. I am the image of whoever came before me and whoever comes after me.
I exist as a banality. A walking platitude, already melded with the pulp of mankind.
But no. When I was born to this world, my parents gave me my humanity. I owe it to them to fight for it.
When I was a wee little tot, my parents would take me on road trips to Oregon. I loved learning the names and faces of each individual mountain in the Cascades, because each mountain had a character unlike any other mountain in the world. Shasta was a bold and powerful, yet benevolent goddess. McLoughlin was a proud yet lonely outcast. Bachelor was a friendly buffoon. I made up my lore, because why not?
A mountain: a raised piece of earth. Nothing more. But we give them names, like people. We recognize them as individuals, and when we look at them, we smile. It’s in our humanity. We owe it to ourselves to see mountains as people, perhaps even greater than people, because if we lose our respect for the individuality of mountains, what right to we have to respect the individuality of ourselves?
Disillusionment is what happens when we see things for what they are: rest stops are like other rest stops, all mountains are raised pieces of earth, roads are stretches of asphalt that connect people who are born, work, and die regardless of state, language, or latitude. In reality, nothing is unique. Everything is a copy of everything else. Everything is flesh, cells, structures, chemicals – building blocks of a collapsable universe. Disillusionment is the atomization of the soul.
Disillusionment is the story of my generation. We are not unhappy because we are unfortunate. We are unhappy because we are disillusioned.
To live is to struggle against disillusionment. It’s to struggle against breaking our ethereal humanity down into a numbing physical reality. It’s to keep from seeing everything as the same as everything else. It’s to struggle to see everything as its own ideological sovereignty, as its own unique individual, to encapsulate within the constituent elements of our universe a soul, a character, and an identity. To live is to give names to the hills and trees and roads around us, so that we may enrich ourselves with their character, even if that character is foolishly imagined.
To die is to see the world as one horrible sameness – a sameness that denies character to the little things that otherwise make long drives meaningful, small towns enjoyable, and individuals respectable. I try not to merely drive on roads, I wish to get acquainted with them as well. I owe it to the richness of life to do at least this.
I compel you, Reader: Join me in the fight against sameness. Look around you. Find the unnamed hill in the distance. Give it a name, and love it like a brother.