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Diary: This American Road, Barstow

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The second phase of our farewell tour of America (if a Cher-style farewell tour, with little pretense of actual long-term retirement and plans for future performance more or less already locked in) has begun. The first phase took us north, up the West Coast from Los Angeles to Alameda, Ashland, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, and back down through Eugene, Sunnyvale, and Santa Barbara. This much more ambitious phase has us crossing the U.S. of A in the other direction, starting from Huntington Beach and ending up, theoretically, in Raleigh, North Carolina — coast to coast. First stop: Barstow, a town I (as I assume many do) know only from the first line of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

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With or without the drugs, I do get the sense that Barstow, now as then, serves primarily as a waypoint to Vegas, the fork in the road at which you must choose whether you really want to commit to the Sin City experience. Part of that came from the all-foreigner crowd around me in the breakfast room offered by our lodging for the night, one of many such establishments along what looked like Barstow’s motel mile: the silent young Germans, the gregarious old Brits. (Actually, I observed the highest level of gregariousness in the motel’s Indian owner, who told of his life’s previous chapter in Johannesburg and had probably insisted on the place’s most memorable touch, each and every room’s towels having been folded into little elephants.)

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Even before launching into this ultimate American experience, I came up with a theory about the homeland of which I’ll soon take leave: America, as I see it, mashes up the forbiddingly eccentric with the frictionlessly generic. Part of that impression comes from the folksy roadside attractions that captivate so many visiting non-Americans (In these two weeks, I will live Wim Wenders’ dream). Another part comes from my favorite passage of my favorite Los Angeles novel, Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, whose English expat protagonist berates his countrymen for failing to understand how America has “reduced the things of the material plane to mere symbolic conveniences,” and that “until the material plane has been defined and relegated to its proper place, the mind can’t ever be truly free.”

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We Americans, he says, “sleep in symbolic bedrooms, eat symbolic meals, are symbolically entertained and that terrifies them” — those “groveling little materialist” Europeans” — “fills them with fury and loathing because they can never understand it.” Experiencing America therefore means experiencing its generic spaces, and as we headed toward not Las Vegas but Flagstaff, Arizona, we experienced one of its finest: In-N-Out Burger, a reassuringly guaranteed presence alongside southern California’s freeways. We’d meant to end our last road trip with a protein-style hamburger and animal-style cheeseburger, but it didn’t happen, and so with a protein-style hamburger and animal-style cheeseburger our latest road trip begins.