Letter from the road

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Photo courtesy of Jane Walker. Molly Milam/The Occidental

“I always thought the colors in Tennessee were perfect,” Molly said, “But I think nature is just good at colors. Everywhere I go, the colors are unreal.”

We’re in South Dakota, racing past fields of half-rotten sunflowers at 80 miles per hour. The land, which has been flat since Minnesota, is finally starting to rise. All around us little hills bloat out of the loose, Dust Bowl dirt. It’s like the land’s lips — pursed for so many miles — are finally softening. Dun yellow bleeds seamlessly into a green so sun-bleached it’s almost gray. Everything is dehydrated: like watercolors dried solid, waiting for a wet brush.

Every once in a while the usual interstate landscape filled with cornfields and farmhouses is interrupted by a massive billboard advertising the Wall Drug Store, which offers many amenities: ice cream, ice water, coffee and parking. Eventually we give in and Google it; it’s a mom and pop drug store in the town of Wall, population 876. The owners — Dorthy and Ted Hustead — brainstormed the billboards in 1936 after five years of successful business. The store is now an unlikely tourist attraction that draws two million people to Wall every year. The charm of this story is dulled by the rest of the signage on Route 16: massive red and blue Trump-Pence billboards are like finger-paint blots on the otherwise sedate atmosphere.

Photo courtesy of Jane Walker. Molly Milam/The Occidental

It’s not long before the signs, and civilization, disappear. Tonight’s final destination is Badlands National Park. It emerges out of the uniform South Dakota dirt like a cosmic sandcastle, with layers of sedimentary rock compressed into rugged turrets and moats. Little rings of red circumvent their light brown bases like lipstick stains. We roll down the windows of Molly’s white VW Bug and the wind howls viciously; it’s not hard to believe that, given time, it could bluster these mountains into molehills.

Any other September this road trip would be a dream. I’m traveling cross-country with two of my best friends. We will spend long silent nights in some of the most beautiful places in the U.S.: Badlands, Yellowstone and Zion. Our final destination is a little apartment in LA, and as we drive the chilly Minnesota fall will melt into Southern California’s eternal summer. Yet the whole thing is tinged with an omnipresent sense of apocalypse.

There is so much tension in America.

Kitschy tourist attractions coexist with pro-life posters and billboards encouraging us to turn to Jesus. In every town we pass through, people and communities strive to make their identities known to strangers like us: little cardboard campaign signs encourage us to vote for a slew of governors and representatives whose names escape me even as I read them.

The road is saturated with words — with the desperation of individuals to speak and be heard.

Stranger still is the absence of these individuals. It’s as if the whole country is throwing one massive masquerade ball. In dozens of identical gas stations in South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Nevada and California, I silently confront countless strangers in moments of fleeting eye contact. They all blur into each other: every face is necessarily concealed, distant and distrustful.

Photo courtesy of Jane Walker. Molly Milam/The Occidental

In nature, there is respite. At Badlands it doesn’t take long to lose sight of all the dusty cars and their unknown drivers. We wander a few feet of boardwalk and then hop off and climb onto the rocks. The stone is loose, like the mudrock at the bottom of a lake. A colorful sign informs us that all of this used to be underwater, and I wonder if this is what the bottom of the ocean looks like. I can picture Poseidon or some other ocean deity lounging in one of many wind caves, or — buoyed by the salt-water — striding light-footed across the crumbly ridge.

We wake up the next morning before the sun rises and pack in record time; it will take us 12 hours to drive from Badlands, through Yellowstone, to our Airbnb in Idaho. We stop for bagels and coffee, and Molly and Cassi wax lyrical about a bacon, egg and cheese they had in Perham, Minnesota, population 3,550. On our way out of the Midwest, we listen to nearly every playlist downloaded to my iPhone: everything from Sufjan Stevens to Kendrick Lamar.

On the way into Yellowstone we come across a line of cars parked on the side of the interstate, like a stationary parade. People are looking at something on the ridge: perched on the edge of truck beds and splayed out across Priuses, squinting through sunglasses and binoculars. Molly asks a man with a camera what they’re looking for. It’s a grizzly bear, supposedly resting in a cluster of evergreen trees halfway up the mountain. We wait for a while, but she never emerges.

We end up on the southern edge of the park, at a geyser basin. It’s an unfamiliar formation: a thin layer of gray rock like a salt crust simmers with steam, interrupted by the occasional bright blue pool, like technicolor mud puddles. Some of the pools gurgle and spit, some of them bubble like pasta water about to boil over. Their little shorelines are rimmed with vibrant Crayola yellow and sour candy green mineral deposits. The air is sulfuric and it’s impossible to ignore the volcano underneath us. It hasn’t erupted for 600,000 years, and is capable of decimating everywhere we’ve been and everywhere we’re going. Every day it  doesn’t activate and we stay alive. In the presence of this overwhelming chemical heat, that seems miraculous.

I don’t know how to process the last eight months. Before this September I had never been to Yellowstone, but the feeling it gave me, like the ground melting underneath me, is not unfamiliar. This year everything that I imagined to be solid — my typical four-year college experience, the security of my family and friends and the rote normality of my everyday interactions — has evaporated. The assumptions that upheld me have dissipated like mirages, like the never-ending streams of steam that rise from Yellowstone’s geysers.

Nothing is eternal. Not oceans or rocks. Not people or societies. Not opinions or the words that express them. Everywhere we went things decayed and bloomed, exploded and crusted over.