#215, Dundalk, Ireland
Four weeks, twenty shows, twenty-five states, some nine thousand or so miles later, I am at last back in Brooklyn after a month out on the road with Balthrop, Alabama. I have stared out of van windows at the passing landscape of America. I have visited truck stops and Love's Travel Centers and refilled, in various rest stop bathrooms, a dented Dasani water bottle that lasted me all the way from Chicago to Phoenix. Some drives were short but some pushed the eight, nine, ten hour mark: New York City to Pittsburgh; Tuscon to Louisville; Athens, Ohio back to Brooklyn. We had plenty of diversions along the way to keep us sane: we had Patton Oswalt and Dave Chappelle to make us laugh, the incomparable coal miner's baritone of Lorne Greene to make us wish we were cowboys, and more Wilco and Elliot Smith than you can shake a stick at. We told jokes and filmed the view through the cracked front windshield as the green Highway Gothic signs lumbered past. But along the side of the road, hour by hour, day after day, there was nothing but the infinite weirdness of the United States of America to entertain us. And entertain us it did.
Staring out the windows of a rapidly moving vehicle isn't just a way to pass time; it's also a sort of talent. After I've popped a Dramamine and downed a hot coffee, I'm good to go. Just set me next to the window, put on some tunes, and I'm set.
Back in the middle of the last century, when highways were still young and Subways (the food chain, not the trains) were not even a twinkle in a marketer's eye, there was a lot of bare countryside. Burma Shave signs were there for a bit of excitement, a kind of early version of Times Square, but apart from a few gas station signs or town names, there wasn't much roadside reading material. Enter the "roadside attraction," stuff they made up to make you stop along the way and wonder who came up with this stuff and why you can't quite seem to resist it. Cactus Stuff: Exit 72. North Dakota Cowboy Museum: Exit 27. The Santa Cruz Mystery Spot, Crazy Mountains, Buffalo Skulls, the World's Largest Rocking Chair. I may not have seen it all, but I saw signs for it all, which is probably just as good -- if not better -- than the thing itself. After the twinge of disappointment I felt at the sight of the Largest Cross in the Western Hemisphere (in Oklahoma, just in case you were looking for it in Sierra Leone), I think it's better to keep some things mysterious.
Billboards and signs are the only reading material I bring for the road. On these little reservoirs of text, you can see America in all its diverse weirdness. The practical and hopeful nuzzle together; the comedic and tragic come to blows. Buy this, stop here, look out for that: America is nothing if not eager to tell you -- or sell you -- something. Ads are nothing special, but it's the weird stuff I relish: poetry painted on barns, papier mache dinosaurs, the forgotten and unloved museum. So I get really excited when I go to another country and I see a little glimmer of the roadside attraction.
I've spent a lot of time on the Dublin to Belfast Enterprise train. It's a pleasant but unremarkable railroad amble, about three hours or so, with a smattering of stops along the way. I have the stops memorized: Dublin Connolly to Drogheda, Drogheda to Dundalk, then Newry, Portadown, and finally Belfast Central. One of my favorite things on the route is the railroad platform at Dundalk Station. Passing through it the first time many years ago, my eye was caught, appropriately enough by this bit of text, painted in a cheery hand alongside a flower box:
You catch your eyeYou'll never see the man who sat across from youBetter look away
I scribbled it down in my small green notebook as the train pulled away, but that was all I'd had time to see. Afterward, staring at the monotonous passing trees and greenery, it seemed like a mirage. What was that all about? Had I dreamt it all up? A few days later, on the trip back down from Belfast, I eagerly anticipated the Dundalk platform and its unexpected poetry. It made the train journey more exciting: just those small bits of text that I hadn't expected seemed to give the trip some larger meaning -- a reason for being. Each time I took the train, I would look forward to that strange poem of unfulfilled desire and feel something of the same whenever the train pulled away.
It was years of occasional trips before I finally stopped over in Dundalk presumably to do some research for my novel but really -- I knew my true motive -- to find out once and for all what the rest of the poem said. I was surprised and delighted to find that poetry was all over the station: scrolling on platform canopies, arching over the Victorian covered walkway, in plain view on the windows of the waiting rooms. There was also a small railway museum on the platform, honoring the old station masters from W. Catterell (1874-1884) to B. McQuaid (1988- ), and providing a young couple a place to make out among the poetry and the white plastic chairs.
And there was this: Time Passing on the 2.15. Why keep images of transit fresh? Anyone who commutes knows how easily they can go stale. So whether you're passing through North Dakota or Drogheda, New York or New Mexico, I'd like to know from my readers: what are the attractions that have made some of your journeys memorable? What are the signs or unexpected images that keep your journeys fresh? And no Subway: sure that's cheating.