I am coasting at a steady speed of 100 miles per hour (slower when I sense cops) state to state. I left from New York City where Alice Ramsey also departed on her transcontinental adventure on a ‘rain-drenched day’ in June 1909. She made history as the first woman to drive across the United States. It was the era of ‘firsts’ for women in Western culture who were mostly expected to stay home as cooperative wives and mothers. Ramsey drove an uncovered car, the Maxwell DA, now a revered, collectors’ automobile, sporting googly headlights and a funny yet elegant body. Ramsey and her three female companions wore long dresses characteristic of their time, covered in dusters. I hate to think about their high-speed encounters with bugs but assume that’s in part what their helmets were for.
Crowds gathered by foot, bicycle, buggy, and horseback to marvel as the famed lady road trippers passed on crude, muddy roads. There were sometimes no roads at all, they trailed telephone wires and railroad tracks. Paved roads were few and far between in the early 1900s, only 141 miles of rural roads were covered with the black tops we see everywhere today. The United States government had barely begun its crusade to proliferate highway systems. Automobiles were becoming an affordable tool of the middle class and with it, the government sought to lay interminable infrastructures. Over the course of the 20th century, cars replaced trains as the way to travel.
The biggest tragedy to strike the ladies on their historic excursion occurs when they run out of gas in the Midwest. Ramsey wrote in her own account that a man yelled, ‘get a horse.’ No one has yet to tell me I’d be better off on a horse, though I do field lots of unsolicited opinions. More than a 100 years later, I’m far from the first woman to travel long distances alone. Still, I am told to ‘take someone with me’ by family and strangers alike.
The problem is, I really like being alone. More than one man offers his sound advice on how to pump gas for which my response is to act confused and ask lots of questions. Ramsey did indeed run out of gas on one occasion, but in her defence, she needed to stick a ruler down the fuel gauge each time to check – one could easily blank it while avoiding potholes and leers.
I think about the short history of roads and cars, as I down peanut butter pretzels in my own gas-powered contraption.
Fossil fuel-powered engines dominate this country, but may soon be replaced with electric cars as they too become affordable to the middle class. The impetus for this trip is to see a natural landscape that will be sacrificed to make these new vehicles, our promised climate saviours. Industrial sectors are trying really hard to hoodwink the masses into believing these ‘green technologies’ don’t require massive destruction. Don’t look at the mountains we blew up to deliver your clean car! It’s not convenient to think of the dark sides of human invention. It’s easier to believe humans can continue to benefit indefinitely from gobbling up everything and everyone.
For 14,500 years, the ebbs and flows of four distinct periods of glacial melting etched the land. Asphalt replaced the stories of ice. Mines replace the stories of mountains
For centuries before cars – pathways and footpaths – no more than six feet across, connected people to important places like meeting spots at confluences of rivers. Native Americans had their own infrastructures expertly matched to join landscapes without trampling them. The erasure of Indigenous peoples from the land became the erasure of the land itself with the 20th century – transnational system of bituminous blacktop roads slicing straight lines through valleys, grasslands, deserts, plains.
Further back yet, for 14,500 years, the ebbs and flows of four distinct periods of glacial melting etched the land. Asphalt replaced the stories of ice. Mines replace the stories of mountains.
I am desperate to see what remains of the natural world in this strange age of industrialism and technocratic fever dreams. It’s hard to look around and not see the prints of progress, that endless, sly word. What of nature hasn’t been lost to progress, been gambled away in greed, chewed up? I long for un-development, but I use roads to see what’s left of this country’s natural beauty, an irony I am fully aware of. My route coast-to-coast was made possible by settlers who paved it, expanded the highways in wartime and bloated them with combusting cars.
I don’t want to crash, but there are too many precious mountains to see, so I sneak glances in open stretches when no trucks are around. I wonder which might be blown up for parts.
In Northern Nevada, progress wants to pave right into a 17 million-year-old mountain. Hundreds of trucks will carry the necessary chemicals to eviscerate the land, over and over, for forty years along a two-lane highway that they may expand. The idea is to get rid of all of the splendour on top to access the lithium underneath to power batteries. Ancient sagebrush, meadowlarks, pronghorn – gone. All to make cars for roads that have existed for a spark of a second in the history of humankind.
That way we can keep busy going places and see less nature and more malls. Or maybe we won’t go anywhere at all because there’s nowhere beautiful left and besides, it’s too polluted outside, but at least we’ll have lights in our concrete dwellings that we call renewable.
I want to see the mountain before its stories are lost to the story of human supremacy.
I am welcomed to the campsite on the proposed mining site by a small group of humans. They will stay here to block the destined infrastructure with their bodies. I picture the battle of flesh against metal. This is the biggest war being waged everywhere in one way or another. Body against machine.
I like the way these souls have built their spines. I like the reasons they fight.
Ajbiaj was a word given to me in the mountains of Bolivia by someone versed in Mayan dialects. It translates to ‘one who belongs to the way of the road.’ I like pondering how ancient cultures cultivated belonging in movement, within the in-betweenness of here and there. Especially when so many people now seem obsessed with a perfect, physical home and insulating that home with things and certainty. I leave Nevada with a sense of belonging that can only come from sharing your most deeply rooted values. I try to make it carriable.
A woman on a farm in Taos told me that tears are praise. I wish mine were as powerful as a monsoon in summer with the ability to give water to these parched lands. But they are not. I am one human with dried salt on her cheeks leaving desert sagebrush for giant California trees.
I stop off at a single pump fuelling station in rural Oregon. Inside deer heads and one goose line the walls like dead sentries. An older couple stares at me as glazy-eyed as the taxidermy. He leaves from watching TV at a back bar to fill my tank. She makes me a fresh pot of coffee. ‘God bless your heart,’ she says more to herself than me when she hears I am alone. ‘I used to be adventurous when I was your age,’ she considers me sipping the burnt coffee. ‘Now I’m just here when people stop through this small spot.’ She pauses to search for some news. ‘A bunch of guys the other day came by, they were out shooting coyotes.’
Earlier that day, I saw a coyote, wild and free, slinking through the sagebrush. You can tell a lot about a person by what they think about coyotes.
It’s reported that Ramsey marvelled at the sugar pines and redwoods of northern California. Would she marvel now at the roads that slash through the forests? Even through the massive, godly bodies of trees themselves. One can drive straight through a rectangle cut from flesh born of the ancientness of seeds and roots who grew thousands of years to drink the sun only to give it back to the earth. Would Ramsey celebrate the scars of progress? Machine making room for machine.
I feel the opposite of the wise redwoods. Inchoate. I recall submerging my limbs like gangly boughs in warm water during painful growth spurts as a teenager. What shall we do as adults, for invisible pain beckoning us to grow? I walk quietly through the trees and trillium, taking care to step over banana slugs, as some sort of salve for the soul.
It’s been 42 days and 5,100 miles and as the landscapes morph, the word home taunts me.
I enter dusky blue skies in Texas that spell rain and longing wells up. It’s born in my chest like sap in a maple, but less sweet. The feeling wants to rise to my throat but I don’t have the words, so I cry softly for questions that are too big to hold in my body. I recognize this as an emerging self that wonders about home, roots, and a new story. One I can trust to provide long days to respond with creativity and fortitude to my surroundings, nurture something useful. I think about how to cultivate this new self to join the others.
I’ve been in many worlds, time sifting through my hands, selves shifting through shapes to leave impressions on Earth and maybe in minds. It’s only 238,800 miles to the moon, but I’m not done with Earth yet, and besides, I’d hate to look up and see roads in the sky. At least we have the sky.
I’ve been listening to A Symphony of Selves by James Fadiman. The argument being we contain a multitude of selves. Wisdom, the author implores, is knowing when to be in your right self at the right time. This makes intuitive sense to me like how a tree changes through the seasons in conversation with the elements, sometimes that exchange is subtle, sometimes violent.
Dust storms may exist, signs staked along the highways warn. Reminders are everywhere of how quickly everything shifts
I remember once a wave took me under in Nicaragua. My arrogant self had swum out too far into the cold salt of the Pacific Ocean. I got trapped, directionless, and it did occur to me that I might drown. When I did finally come up with fiery lungs and bloody eyes, I tried to force the lesson to sink into my young, stubborn body. In a way, I am obsessed with challenging the layers of my skin to peel, of untethering my selves to see what’s left. How do I protect what I want to stay?
The rains stop and so do I. I have thousands of miles to go before I return to my room of clothes and books in New York. Dust storms may exist, signs staked along the highways warn. Reminders are everywhere of how quickly everything shifts.
Ramsey concluded her adventure after 59 days and 3,800 miles, returning home by train, the world passing by in a way we think nostalgic now.
She continued to set records right up until she died in 1986. By then, the rural roads of her youth were buried. Now, the affordability of automobiles is set to be replaced with the affordability of electric vehicles, marketed under the guise of progress for the environment. But the environment remembers a time before any of this. The sagebrush and trees remember drinking light without fumes. I wonder what Ramsey would have to say looking out the window if she were my companion. In her lifetime and part of mine, this country has become rich in pavement and products and poor in natural beauty. That’s why when I do see an open space, rolling hills, thick brush, a slinking coyote, I think about the selves I’ll need to cultivate: one to root, one to stand strong, one to fight.