Recalculating the Route
Long: 90° 11′ 57.8544″
(Somewhere near St. Louis)
Our journey begins with Jesus. Wet-haired and sneakered, lumbering beneath the weight of His enormous cross. My brother and I pass Him while heading west on I-70, just a few hundred miles into our road trip from Indiana to L.A. My brother has dreams of working in the movies, and I have dreams of driving him there.
But long before we ever arrive, we cross paths with the Savior Himself, who hardly shifts His head our way from beneath His thorny crown.
Not that I expect him to.
After all, we are just another Ford Focus with sinners inside, blanketing every last lily of His field with fumes and fast-food wrappers.
Had I been in a God-fearing state of mind, I might’ve taken his second coming as a sign. Might’ve grabbed hold of the wheel and steered us in the opposite direction. But on that May afternoon in 2010, my brother and I are still young (21 and 25, respectively), and we remain faithful in the power and the glory of the road. No matter that the road does not return our faithfulness, nor should it. Not to we who possess so little understanding of what it takes to build a road. What it means to work the earth and lay the gravel, to carve a path where there was no path before.
No, we are merely young men heading west as tradition dictates.
We are merely young men.
But we remember also when we were young boys—trapped in the glow of an Apple II computer screen—and how our pioneering spirits soared as our pixilated families blipped down the perilous Oregon Trail. Back then—when even consequences as dire as death were of no consequence—my brother and I played the game recklessly: fording rivers when we should have ferried, pushing on toward Chimney Rock though our wives and children were sick.
It was only after we exchanged that trail for a road—traded in our wagon for a Focus—that our recklessness began to subside. One day we woke and our river fording days were behind us. One day we woke again and the consequences of our actions had turned real.
Which is why when we find Jesus on that highway, we are careful to keep our blasphemies to ourselves.
Perhaps it is Him, I think. Perhaps this is the beginning of the end.
But a second glance in the rearview reveals that the man behind us is just a man dressed like Jesus; that the rapture has not yet begun.
Real Jesus, I think, would’ve never attached a shopping cart wheel to the bottom of His cross.
Not He, who had borne that weight once before.
Lat: 38° 37′ 37.2108″
Long: -90° 11′ 57.8544″
Cursed is he who misleads a blind person on the road, but blessed is the blind person who builds one. As John Metcalfe did beginning in 1786, when Parliament entrusted him to create a series of roads throughout the English countryside. Over the years, he’d expand a three-mile project between Minskip and Fearnsby into a network stretching no less than 180 miles.
He’d build roads in terrains thought impossible; he’d build bridges over waterlogged bogs.
All of this without the blessing of sight.
Was it Jesus or Metcalfe who said, I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them…
Perhaps it was both.
And though Metcalfe himself turned no water into wine, he had another trick: turning rubble into road, again and again, shrinking his world until it suited him.
Lat: 38° 37′ 37.2108″
Long: -90° 11′ 57.8544
(Just outside of Oklahoma City)
My brother and I take turns driving, pulling to the side of the road every few hours for stretches and bathroom breaks. During my brother’s shifts, I pass the time by thumbing through our dog-eared atlas, marveling at the way in which our country has confined itself to pages so big they take two hands to turn. But it is hardly a feat for an atlas, who before he was a book was a titan, one who backed the losers in the war against the gods. As punishment, Zeus weighed him down with celestial spheres, but that was only half of his sentence.
One day, Zeus continued, we’ll name a book of maps after you, and you’ll become a floor mat for every human who’s ever sat shotgun in a car.
I admit that I, too—on occasion—have condemned poor Atlas to Zeus’s prophecy.
But I’m always sure to rescue him as well, snagging him from beneath my feet and tracing veins to Albuquerque, Charlotte, Savannah, Alexandria and beyond. Always, loyal Atlas shows me the way, even if I never make it there.
Midway into our second day—after a night spent on some spring-broke bed outside of Oklahoma City—I glance up from the atlas to spot wind turbines sprouting from the ground. They look like silver stalks of corn, and passing them is like witnessing the second miracle of our trip.
I wonder: Who was bold enough to imagine taming wind and harnessing its power?
In the beginning, the task must have seemed impossible, unfathomable.
Like a blind man burdened with building roads with nothing but faith to guide him.
(The site of Metcalfe’s True Love)
Before John Metcalfe built roads he walked them, allegedly completing a 200-mile solo trek when his travelling companion’s turtle’s pace proved too slow.
In another version, Metcalfe’s shoe-leathered journey took him 300 miles—from London to Knaresborough—in order to return to his true love.
But can either story possibly be true?
Could a blind man have walked the length of the state of Indiana?
Could a blind man have been so recklessly in love?
And could a blind man’s conviction in his doctrine of one-foot-in-front-of-the-other have driven him to such extremes?
Along a different road, many years before, another blind man encountered Jesus. The blind man was without sin, and so—in an expression of God’s power—Jesus spat upon the earth, made mud, and proceeded to rub it into the blind man’s eyes.
“Go wash in the Pool of Siloam,” Jesus said, and the blind man did.
And then, after blinking the water from his eyes, he blinked away the blindness, too.
(Cow pasture near Amarillo, Texas)
Hours after we leave the wind turbines in the rearview, my brother pulls the car to the side of the road. Suddenly we are in a cow pasture in Amarillo, and the landscape bears a striking resemblance to wagon trail games of my youth. That is, except for the ten or so mid-century Cadillacs buried nose down into the ground.
They, too, resemble stalks—though hardly silver.
As we approach the art installation, we see the cars have absorbed a rainbow of colors, the handiwork of previous pilgrims who’d come bearing spray paint cans. Those upturned cars bleed blue, red, aqua and aquamarine. They even bleed colors we don’t yet have the names for: underbelly-of-a-trout, inside-of-an-ice-cube. No hubcap has been spared, no taillight left untagged. They are still cars, in theory, but now, they take nobody anywhere.
These days, people just come to them, including the busload of wobbly-kneed tourists who interrupt our fraternal moment, brandishing their cameras like crisscrossed bandoliers. I watch as dozens of arthritic hands reach for their weapons, though none seem sure what to shoot. Eyes in their viewfinders, fingers on their triggers, all they see is rusted dust.
They wonder: Is this art? Is this what we travelled so far to see?
And while they don’t have the answer, they still know what they must do: steady their hands, take their shot, add it to their collection.
Meanwhile, my brother—conjuring a bit of that old, reckless spirit, perhaps—preserves the moment in another way. I watch as he digs through a nearby pile of abandoned spray paint cans, shaking each to his ear until he finds one with a little something left.
Together, we shake the dregs and spray until the paint runs out.
We pause to take stock of our contribution: a few streaks of cerulean now dripping from the hood of a car. It’s not much, but it’s proof of our having been there, confirmation that we once walked a road together, didn’t just let it slip beneath our wheels.
Lat: 38° 37′ 37.2108″
Long: -90° 11′ 57.8544″
(Broadway Street, Fort Wayne,
Warning: Detour. This essay has taken a turn.
Recalculating the route.
Recalculating the route.
Recalculating the route.
I regret to inform you, Reader, that there is no alternative route.
That no matter how hard I try to write us back onto our road trip, each turn circles me back to the same different place.
Word by word I built this road, but I blinked, and now the route has changed.
This essay has recalculated, and now we are on a different road, five years prior, and my brother is not in the car. He is in high school then, and I am home from college. At that moment, the distance between us is immeasurable, somewhere between an inch and a lifetime, as brotherhood often is. Our road trip is a flicker in our futures, but we don’t know it yet; all we know is that we’ve grown up and apart, that somewhere along the way our roads veered.
Recalculating now to that night in that car on Broadway Street, when my then-girlfriend (now-wife) hums along to Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me.” We are young that night, and our faithfulness in the power and the glory of the road remains unshakable. But then—mid-caterwauling chorus line—the road shifts, or the van swerves, and suddenly we, too, are shaken.
That van collides into our car, breaking its nose and its body, and through it all our eyes remain wide. It smashes our headlights out, shrouding us in near darkness as a lamplight flickers overhead.
A moment of silence—peace—followed by Def Leppard’s hollering us back into the world of the living
We are not dead, I realize.
My eyes fall to the young boys—they are merely young boys—stumbling forth from the stolen van they’ve just T-boned into a tree.
They are drunk and high and circling, though at least three of the four are sober enough to know to try to run. My girlfriend trembles beside a tree, watches as the fourth young boy slinks my way, whispers conspiratorially: Hey man, you got a cigarette?
Perhaps rage is the reason this essay recalculated its route. Perhaps the road trip was my way to steer us away from here. But for me, all roads lead to Broadway Street, to that night, that car, to the rage I felt as the young boy spilled from the driver’s seat and asked for a cigarette.
But that evening I have nothing to offer that young boy—no sympathy, no cigarette, only his life. I breathe deeply, then turn my attention to the oak tree still shrouded by the smoke from the van.
And whom do I see slouching there but the milk-eyed Metcalfe, shuffling about in his leather shoes. He sees me—or feels he sees me—and mouths the words I’m sorry.
It is his fault, after all, for bringing the world so close.
But my quarrel is not with him.
Instead, I focus my attention on a beleaguered man—Jesus, perhaps?—as He shifts beneath the lamplight
I stumble toward him—I need answers—but He vanishes before I even reach the smoke.
I blink, and a fresh-faced EMT materializes in their place. He appears too perfect to be human, like a Ken doll wrapped in blue.
He reaches for my outstretched wrist.
Hey buddy, he asks, you okay?
I tell Ken I don’t know. That I just can’t say for sure.
He nods, shines a light in my eyes, then watches as my pupils constrict.
Hey, buddy, he says, look at me now: do you even know where you are?
I am in Minskip, I am at Chimney Rock, I am in a field in Amarillo.
Yes, I say, I think I know.
But the road looks different from here.
B.J. HOLLARS is the author of two award-winning nonfiction books—Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa. His hybrid text, Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction will be published in September of 2014. He is an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. His favorite road: Tyler Street. (It means he’s almost home.)