Notes from a Road Trip

Oklahoma, Memphis, and Bucksnort, Tennessee

Hands on a simulated space station during the filming of the Flaming Lips' 'Christmas on Mars'

Oklahoma was red, dry, and hot. We stayed there for a few days, in a small apartment connected to the house of a musician who was also making a movie about Christmas on Mars. Alan was in the movie. I was along for the ride. The lakes in Oklahoma are manmade, dug a few feet into the earth. We saw a few of them, when Alan wanted to go for a jog. The dust of the dried red ground, cracked like the surface of Mars, forms a skirt over the bottom of Oklahoma cars, and gathers around your shoes. The state lizard of Oklahoma is the Mountain Boomer. The state mud of Oklahoma is mud. The state meat is meat, and the state corn is as high as an elephant's eye.

It was fine to turn my mind off for a few days, to go for the out there, through Texas, and back. I haven't driven for a decade, so Alan stayed behind the wheel. We've been friends for so long we can fight without fighting, and mostly we played rhyming games and enjoyed talking, and gained weight. We trundled across the country for 9 days and ate at truck stops until I leaned forward to pick up some coins I'd dropped and the two bottom buttons shot from my shirt like bullets, pum, pum. I closed my eyes when that happened, stayed leaning over for a few minutes, feeling a bit sad.

There were no miracles. There was no annunciation of angels who came down and told me what to do with my life, no gleaming spaceship studded with satellite dishes which lowered before us outside of Bucksnort, TN, and produced small gray creatures with instructions for our futures. No good-looking truck-stop waitress turned out to be my future wife. Which is okay. I was hoping, somewhere, that America would open up and provide some secrets, but instead there were many cows, and gas stations.

We went to the National Civil Rights Museum. It's at the Lorraine Hotel, and you walk a single route from the beginnings of slavery, through the days of Frederick Douglass, to the girls trying to go to school, people humiliated and beaten for eating lunch, thousands of angry white faces, any one of them mine, and on the other side Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks, and Bayard Rustin. There wasn't much Jesse Jackson, I noticed.

At the end you are in the room where King was staying the day he was shot. My eyes brimmed. So much hard work destroyed by a single shithead with a gun.

Then we went to Graceland, a few miles away. I couldn't help but contrast the experiences. Civil rights leaders went to prison many times for his beliefs, and many gave up their lives. Elvis enjoyed racquetball and sandwiches. MLK went to the mountaintop. Elvis went to the army. MLK, trying to win basic human rights for the African-American, was shot to death after a catfish supper, standing on a dirty patch of concrete outside a small hotel room. Elvis died in the bathroom, his skin oleaginous from too much butter.

Elvis, the part you weren't supposed to see.

At a gas station in Tennessee there was a box of free taped sermons. I took one. On it, a preacher with a small, whiney voice said, “Let's look at creationism. Let's look at what they teach. Let's look at the Jews. Let's look at the World Trade Center. That's something the United States Government wanted to happen. That's something that the 300 people who run the world wanted to happen.”

We listened to its entire hour, and Alan said, “I would like to pull over and put this cassette on the road and run it over.”

“I like that idea,” I said. So we stopped and the cassette was balanced to stand, and Alan angled the car, and with a crack the sermon was delivered into the asphalt. I looked back and bits of the plastic were still scattering in the currents of air.

Night driving.




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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© 1974-2011 Paul Ford


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