Friday, September 30, 2005

The Whirled Traveler

I’ve spent a majority of my time on the road now for a decade. After thirty years of living pretty much entirely within the state of Minnesota, I suddenly found myself, in 1994, traveling cross-country for a living, seeing a rich variety of places, often several diverse locales in a single day. It’s travel, and it’s not travel. I love to see new places, but doing it as a job can take a bit of the sheen off of it. My present company flies all around the world, and this is a constant subject among my roommates: is the benefit of seeing the world on someone else’s dime compensation enough for having to see it in such a cursory and disruptive way? After a while, one becomes numbed to the nuanced differences from one place to another. But I used to love these little details.

Most of my career flying has been in the Midwest, and now I’m seeing some further reaches (for me) of the Lower 48. The last couple months have given me some quality time in Ontario, California, San Antonio, Atlanta, Des Moines, Knoxville, Detroit. These places go into my logbook, added to New York and Denver and Miami and Chicago and a zillion other towns of varying sizes in the Midwest. Each visit gives one a chance to cement one’s favorite discoveries from past visits--it’s cool to have a favorite restaurant in a place 1,500 miles from home--and to further extend one’s knowledge of an area. There’s precious little glamour left in being an airline pilot after the implosion of the entire industry post-9/11, but eating dinner five states away from where you had breakfast still offers a shred of interest.

It’s tough not to try and pigeonhole your experiences, to pass a kind of organizational summary judgment about each area, as a means of making sense of places relative to one’s home turf. One begins with a pastiche of innuendo and silly USA Today summaries and movie cliches and works inward from there.

This week I've been in Texas. Land of oil wells and cattle drives and cowboys and slimy politicians. (OK, I made that up.) (But it’s true.) (OK, I made that up too.) If you were abducted and woke up with your corneas missing and your face in a bucket of ice water, even then--with no corneas!--you would never mistake Texas for, say, Wisconsin. Big as several other states combined, it seems like a country unto itself, linked to the rest of the US only by lottery tickets and long-forgotten fragments of grammar. Lots of people speak with a drawl (“He talks like a schoolmarm thru his nose,” they might say of me; “Goddamn Yankee”) and country music is a constant background in grocery stores and elevators and hotel lobbies. Everyone drives a truck. A big one.

Everything in Texas is big. Space is not at a premium, so things are spread out. And Texans love their steaks. Halleluja (I’m doing Atkins, and happy to be here) but a fella never goes hungry in Texas. I remember a few years back in Dallas going out to lunch and ordering a baked potato as a side, and it came in, literally, at two pounds. I’m a pretty big eater, and I didn’t finish my lunch that day. I began to have friendly thoughts.

Like a hair dryer dropped into the bath water (or maybe pulled out of the bath water), California makes a natural contrast. This place is like another freakin’ planet compared to Texas. The state was once referred to by Charlton Heston (or some other luminary with scab-encrusted phalangeal articulations) as “an artificial limb which should be lopped off to save the body.” (Yeah, that’s a ripoff of a Saul Bellow quote. But I’m sure that’s not where I heard it.) Anyway, it was, of course, an endorsement to me. And I was not surprised to find that I loved everything about the place (well, you can keep the avocado and sprouts, but everything else...). San Diego is God’s Own Climate, and L.A. has something of New York’s electric vitality, but with an oily, Vegas spin. San Francisco is like a love child of L.A. and Seattle. I remember the first time I went to L.A. I was struck by how the architecture was so focused on bringing the outside in. This was in stark contrast to my (then) home state of Minnesota, where the architecture was intended to keep the outdoors out, a prophylactic against the hellish climate for 11 months of the year.

It’s cool to see how other people live, and to contemplate the perks and pitfalls of life in another place. I’ve been able to accurately refine my sense of where I would (New York City) and would not (Detroit) like to live. My in-laws, bless their hearts, have basically never left the state of Wisconsin for 70 years and are terrified at the prospect; to them my job would be like being stretched on the rack.

I say: “Hey, nice rack!"


Amanda said...

I heart Texas! And it's just those little idiosyncracies that make it so loveable. People are people there - in all their glory. Glad you got to experience my home state. Now if only you could hear my accent....

wunelle said...

You could post a recording of it! (My mind would fill with images of gigantic T-bones and 4wd trucks!)


derek said...

On Firefox and Explorer on my Mac, all your apostrophes on this post are black boxes. Works fine on Safari though.

wunelle said...

I generate the text often with Appleworks, and I wonder if that puts a funny code in things. If I spell check, the apostrophes disappear in the text, but show up in the posting. Lots of oddities. Maybe I should just write in TextEdit. I'll try that.

derek said...

Yeah. Use a Unicode-based editor and you should avoid the problems.