Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The C_ Motor Inn

One of our options for inexpensive lodging on this trip is the classic American roadside motel. Generally found not off the Interstate but along the old, pre-Eisenhower U.S. highways, these motels have names like the Covered Wagon Motel (where we stayed in Washington, N.C.), the Crawford Motor Inn (Ledonia, Alabama), and the Shelby Motor Lodge (Alabaster, Alabama). Unlike the ubiquitous chain options along the Interstate, these historical leftovers are independently and locally owned, and offer the opportunity to interact with some natives of whatever region we happen to be passing through that day.

The St. Stephen Motel in St. Stephen, South Carolina.
The C_ Motor Inn, where we stopped between Atlanta and Montgomery, offers a particularly good example. I wanted to stay there because the name sounded like something out of the Clark Gable movie, “It Happened One Night,” in which the hero and heroine, taking the bus from Florida to New York, shack up in quaint little “motor camps” with gardens and wicker chairs and friendly morning birds. The man on the phone—very Southern-sounding, Brahna reported—said a room was $30.
We entered Alabama just before dusk. A storm was stirring up and trying to wrestle Morty out of my control as a woman on the radio warned northern Georgia about the possibility of tornados. We found the Crawford Motor Inn on U.S. Route 80 outside Ledonia—a town too small to merit placement on any of the three Alabama maps we had in the car. The motel, again, was outside that town.

My first reaction was that this was the first motel I’d ever seen that was actually inside a strip mall. In the office, we met B_, the owner, and T_, the motel manager, who took our cash and had us fill in the guest log. One poster on the wall had a picture of the Stars and Stripes and said in bold font: “This Is Our Flag—Be Proud Of It!” B_ told us that he liked to run a quiet place, away from the “riffraff,” with no room for those who dabble with drugs or cussing in front of ladies. He gave us a tour around our room, noted several times that they keep a “clean” place, and explained a foot size hole in the bathroom wall by telling us about a guy they had to “pull” out of the room a few nights earlier. He said he planned to patch it up soon. As he left, B_ mentioned that coffee would be available in the office at 6 a.m., and I told him to count me in.

When B_ left us alone, Brahna and I turned our attention to making the room as welcoming as possible. Its four windowless orange walls and stale smoky smell made me feel like I was stuck inside a rotting peach. Brahna wrote her last blog post while sitting on the bed, as I labored over the AAA maps and guides planning the next day in Montomery and Selma. We played Bessie Smith quietly on my iPod speakers, impotently defying the overwhelming whiteness of where we were. Per T_’s suggestion, we ordered Dominos and ate it in the room.

Dinner at the Crawford Motor Inn.
I was excited to meet B_ in the office for coffee the next morning, looking forward to talking with someone who seemed like an interesting man—in any case, a 70-something Alabaman who had doubtlessly lived through what can perhaps most politely be described as “the shit.”

I found B_ sitting in a lawn chair outside the motel office, enjoying, as he had been when I last saw him the night before, the sight of his own red pick-up truck in an otherwise almost empty parking lot, and the gas station, and the cars on U.S. 80 zipping by. He sat with a tall pony-tailed and fu-manchued truck driver. I muttered something about coffee and B_ sprung up and into the office.

He emerged with two flaccid sausages settled uneasily on white bread. He said he woke up at 5:30 to make them, and that they were the best you can buy. “This one,” he said, “is for the wife.” I thanked B_ profusely, but told him that “the wife” doesn’t like sausage. “She does like grits though, especially when they’re creamy,” I said. B_ ordered T_ to cook up some instant grits—“sha liiikes ‘em creameh!”—and I stole quickly back to the room, to warn Brahna that she had a bowl of grits coming her way, and that we were married.

B_ and T_ sat us down on two stools on opposite sides of the office counter, and doted on us non-stop. B_ slid a massive spoonful of butter into Brahna’s grits—“sha liiikes ‘em creameh,” he said to T_ again—and joked with me about what else, besides coffee, he prefers black. B_ again expressed his intention to run a clean establishment, with no quarter for drugs or excessive noise or cussing in front of the ladies. 

He started talking about some “boy,” but we didn’t know what he meant. Then he looked up, and we turned around to see a young black guy, around our age, who was handing in his key and checking out. B_ was in equal measures hostile—“You gittin’ out yit? Good!”—and amicable—telling us he had known him since he was “yay high” and asking him if he would soon return. When T_ came into the office from doing laundry, B_ told her that the “black boy” in Room 2 had just checked out. Brahna and I tried not to look at each other.
We were guests of honor. Brahna did an admirable job eating the impossibly buttery grits, nearly finishing the whole bowl before giving up. B_ seemed convinced she did so not in resignation and disgust, but with overflowing satisfaction. Then he pulled out a pile of photographs he was sure we'd want to see: B_ with the mayor of nearby Columbus, Georgia; B_  with his fellow local Rotarians; B_ with the last surviving member of Merrill’s Marauders (a WWII special ops unit he seemed sure we had heard of).

B_ told us about his farm down near Dothan (“Ya’ll ne’er heard a the Dothan Regional Airport?”), with its 50’ porch and plentiful deer population. He told us about his time in the army, and with the “Rangers.” He told us about his feud with the gas station next door. He said we were “real unusual.”

Before we left, T_ took us aside. She was crying. She said her husband died last year. She said that when she saw us newlyweds, she just had to tell us to cherish one another and every day we have together. She trailed off and broke into sobs. The three of us snuggled into a long-ish group hug. I felt like a bastard for lying.

I set up a self-timer shot of the four of us using B_’s old wooden footrest as a prop. After the orange light clicked and went out, Brahna said I should check how it came out. “How in the world you gonna do that?” B_ asked.

B_, T_, Brahna, and I

Friday, 24 February 2012

America Who?

If the long ride from Richmond to the St. Stephen Motel in South Carolina showed us what the current South is all about (or at least aspects of it), Charleston and Savannah showed us what the old South was about.

Covered in gorgeous colonial homes and elaborate old cemeteries, these two cities are both breathtakingly beautiful and also morally ambiguous. They are at once odes to a glorious ante-bellum past and places that have no way to explain away the realities that underlay that culture—slavery.

Plaques all around the city discuss the wealthy owners of these homes, but only allude to the many slaves responsible for maintaining them. The signs present the realities of the pre-war past as fact, but use no subjective language to actually describe it. In Charleston, for example, we visited the Old Slave Mart, a museum explaining the domestic slave trade that once took place in that building in Charleston. The exhibit presented the fact that white people bought black people from “traders” to work as slaves in their fields or homes—a process that involved the inspecting and auctioning of human beings—but they never quite relate this experience to the beautiful homes that the people on horse-and-buggy tours of historic Charleston were taking pictures of right outside.

The Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston, SC. 
Savannah, similarly—one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen—simply exudes old, Southern charm. Cobblestones pave the streets, Spanish moss hangs from the trees, and vast homes with double-decker balconies surround the several park-like squares that comprise the city (James Oglethorpe himself came up with the design when he landed in Georgia in 1733).

An old home in Savannah, GA. 
But, like Charleston, it felt like a place that was living in the past—a past that is neither straightforward nor easy to make sense of. The cemeteries that surround these cities each have large monuments to the Confederate soldiers that died in the Civil War—and, of course, innocent, young lives should be commemorated regardless of who or what they were fighting for. But plaques on some of these graves that mention a “lost” or “noble” cause, or the soldiers who “lie in distant graves around their Northern prisons” again muddy the issue. (We later visited Andersonville prison—a prison for Union soldiers in Georgia—and I assure you the accommodations were no more hospitable.)

America is currently, supposedly, a united country, but the question of what we are celebrating and who, exactly, we are commemorating is still very much unclear.

While Charleston and Savannah were both cities grappling with the past, however, our accommodations for those nights were anything but traditional. In Charleston, we stayed at the Not-So-Hostel—true to its name, an alternative hostel that offers travelers a space to camp in the backyard for ten dollars, but still use the house's amenities. In Savannah, we tried “couch surfing” for the first time with a spunky girl from Kansas who amazed us with her welcome of complete strangers. Other than the two large dogs we had to compete with for space in the living room, it was a great experience that we are definitely hoping to try again.

The kitchen in the Not-So-Hostel (Charleston)

Ricky with Petunia, one of our neighbors while couchsurfing. 
While at the Not-So-Hostel, we met a group of 24 teachers from developing countries around the world who were on an American-sponsored program to help bring our methods of teaching back to their countries. Given our journalistic instincts, Ricky and I couldn’t help but ask them all sorts of questions about their impressions.

“In my country,” said VJ, a native of Goa, India, “We have rules, but they are not followed. Here, everybody stands in line and does what they are told.”

His impressions of America as a law-abiding, docile place might be true to some extent, but it came as a particularly interesting revelation in light of a weeks-worth of learning about the extreme violence that resulted from a country that was anything but well-behaved.

Another teacher from Ghana mentioned that he expected Americans to be snobbish, but they were in fact quite nice. (I wanted to point him to New York or LA in order to provide counter-examples, but I decided against it.)

The point is, though, that while I may ask these questions to foreigners expecting to get some kind of single-sentence response, I myself don’t know where to begin on my impressions of America. America is a highly complex country that cannot be adequately described or explained in one or two sentences. In just the East Coast leg of our trip (the first week out of sixteen), Ricky and I have encountered several types of Americans, most of whom have little in common with one another. We have moved from cars with Obama bumper stickers to motels with “marriage=man + woman” signs; from “Go Green” license plates to gas-guzzling pick-up trucks and storefronts with signs ensuring customers that they’re “American-owned.”

We have encountered several Americans, and more precisely, several Americas. And it’s only just the beginning. We have several more Americas to seek and discover.

Friday, 17 February 2012

The First Three Days

I’ll start with New Jersey, since I wouldn’t know where else to begin.

Brahna and I set off from my house at around 8:30 a.m., waving goodbye to my mother, who was standing in the garage wiping tears away, and pulling out of the cul-de-sac. Driving through my neighborhood and toward the highway was as weird as I had imagined it would be. Instead of driving five minutes to high school, or 20 minutes into the city, or even the seven hours to Montreal, we would be driving for four months and across the entire country and back before finally returning to those familiar streets.

Leaving New Jersey.

It was as I imagined, but also different, because it was real. We listened to NPR and drove south. I missed the exit for the New Jersey Turnpike and had to double back—the first of what will surely be many thousands of travel boners.

We first stopped in Susquehanna State Park in northern Maryland, on the shore of the river of the same name. It was on the site of a pre-industrial hamlet, with a mill, a few outlying buildings, and a canal. There once was a long, double-barreled covered bridge stretching the length of the river, the old posts of which can still be seen in the river. The park preserves the small white house that served as the bridge-keeper’s residence while the span still stood. In exchange for the house and a small garden, he had only to oversee the bridge’s maintenance and repairs. While such an arrangement certainly captures my imagination, so does the idea of travel and constant movement. If I lived in the house, I would constantly envy the peddlers, doctors, and other travelers crossing the bridge and passing me by. We drove on.

Bypassing the nation’s capital, which we spent a few days in last August, we stopped next in Fredericksburg, Virginia—an area featuring several Civil War battlefields, together comprising what the National Parks brochure calls “the bloodiest landscape on the continent.” The intense research—I prefer that word to “planning”—we did before this trip yielded a few interesting things to see there, including the grave of the arm of Stonewall Jackson. Gravely injured by friendly fire at the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville, Jackson had his left arm amputated, but he died anyway a few days later. Jackson’s chaplain, seeing the arm, buried it in the cemetery of his brother-in-law’s estate, the nearby Ellwood Manor, in the middle of yet another battlefield. Jackson himself was buried in Lexington, Virginia, several hundred miles away. We needed a special permit to enter the grounds, and were alone there, among the bloody hills, the drooping trees, and Stonewall Jackson’s missing arm.

Brahna at the grave of Stonewall Jackson's arm.

We continued into Richmond, our first real destination. There, we sought out the White House of the Confederacy, the official home of President Jefferson Davis during the Civil War, and the church where the revolutionary orator Patrick Henry spoke the famous words, “Give me liberty or give me death!” We had to satisfy ourselves with an outside view of these sites, since it was already dark and we had allotted ourselves limited time in Richmond, knowing that meant more time in places further from home. We got back in the car and drove 20 minutes down I-95 to the America’s Best Value Inn in Richmond South. After rearranging the sparse furniture in the room, we had a pleasant picnic of Korean take-out and wine, and tried to plan—research—for the next day.

In the morning we sought out two things I heard about from RoadsideAmerica.com, a great site for cataloguing and looking through the odd things to be found all around the U.S. First, we drove to Petersburg to see a house built entirely from over 2,000 tombstones for Union war dead. The man who built it, one Mr. Young, purchased the graves from a nearby battlefield cemetery in the 1930s. Next, in Colonial Heights we went to see the house of a man whose life goal is to rebuild Noah’s Ark for the impending second Flood. He and a friend were sitting on the porch of the house watching us photograph it; they didn’t respond particularly warmly to our wave, so we didn’t have a chance to ask the thousand questions we would have wanted to.

A modern Noah's Ark.

Back in Richmond for a few hours in the morning, we walked next to the James River and Kanawha Canal and did a driving tour of the Hollywood Cemetery, recommended by Bonnie, the Lancaster County B&B cook. Perched on a hill overlooking the river, the cemetery hosts the eternal resting places of Presidents John Tyler, James Monroe, and Jefferson Davis, and is itself a beautiful Southern landscape. After that we went to the Beth Ahaba Synagogue, which has a small museum on the history of Jews in Richmond. I found this particularly interesting because I wrote a paper at McGill a few years ago about Jewish abolitionists in the 19th century, and am fascinated by the entire question of Jews and slavery. One thing I was surprised to read at the museum was an excerpt from a Southern Jewish mother to her son, who decided to lead a civilian life in Philadelphia rather than fight for the Confederacy. She wrote that he had never disappointed her—“until now.”

We drove out of Richmond on State Route 5, a scenic byway passing the James River Plantations—most of which were built shortly after the establishment of Jamestown as the first permanent English colony in the New World, and are where tobacco was first developed here as a profitable crop. That led us to Jamestown, our first stop in the Colonial National Historical Park, where we toured the site of the first settlement and the first fort, and quickly made our way through the fascinating Archaearium, a museum displaying only some of the millions of objects that have been uncovered on the site. Included were several skeletons, one of which was mysteriously shot in the leg by a bullet meant to tear ferociously through the skin. Political intrigue? An Indian ambush? It was our job, as visitors, to solve the 400 year old case.


We had to hurry, because the day was disappearing and our intended goal for the night—the Covered Wagon Motel in Washington, North Carolina—was still four hours away. We did a brief drive-by of Williamsburg, which has little to offer the strictly budgeted traveler, and paused meditatively at Yorktown’s Surrender Field, where Britain’s Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington in 1781, all but ending the Revolutionary War and winning independence for the colonies. We figured we had satisfied whatever symbolism we were striving for in visiting those formative spots in American history before embarking on the bulk of our trip; deciding not to stay in Virginia, we sped across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel and into North Carolina.

I could not understand a word spoken by Joseph, the man at the front desk of the Covered Wagon. Only because Brahna seemed to understand, and occasionally translated for me, did I realize he was actually speaking at all. We chose the corner room of an otherwise completely empty motel. It was wood-paneled and had a heater on the floor that seemed to emit an actual flame as we turned the radiator up. We slept well, and survived until morning.

 Covered Wagon Motel in Washington, North Carolina.

We started the next morning with a few brief walk in Goose Creek State Park outside Washington—which, by the way, is the first locality in the U.S. named after the then-future president: the name appears on municipal documents dating back to 1775. Much of the park was decimated by Hurricane Irene, though we took a nice walk along the Pamlico River. Again, we seemed to be in the park alone.
We drove through intense rain until reaching South Carolina, where we went for a stroll on the completed deserted Myrtle Beach boardwalk. Being in such a beach-oriented place in winter—and on such foggy day—seemed a particularly “us” thing to do, and was actually rather pleasant.

 Stretching at Myrtle Beach.

We ended the night at a motel in the tiny town of St. Stephen, about a mile outside Charleston and just on the border of the Francis Marion National Forest. Even though we were using both the GPS and, for back-up, Brahna’s iPhone to guide us through the forest and to the motel, we passed the building twice, and would have done so even more times had we not realized that the motel was not a building at all, but a set of converted trailers we had overlooked. It was well off the main road.


Featuring such luxuries as four walls, a roof, and even a bed, the St. Stephen Motel did, in fact, keep us sheltered through the night. Freight tracks passed directly behind the lot, which I found soothing. Brahna says she’ll write an entry starting with this morning, when we started the day by visiting a monastery. Right now, here in Charleston, I have to do some research on Savannah and Atlanta, and then, I hope, we’ll go to bed…I mean, the tent.

Monday, 13 February 2012

What it (Apparently) Takes to Feel Ready to Leave

Today, I held a beauty pageant for my wardrobe in order to determine which items would receive the privilege (or perhaps misfortune) of accompanying me on my road trip.

“There are eight sweaters before me,” I told my sweaters. “But I only have room in my suitcase for seven. The sweater I do not choose must immediately go back to my closet and stay there while I go on my road trip. So who stays and who goes? The sweater that fits really well, but doesn’t keep me warm? Or the sweater that isn’t as fashionable, but is made of pure wool?"

Holding beauty pageants for my clothing, with the voice of Tyra Banks in mind, is actually only one of the many peculiar activities I undertook in the past week in order to prepare for my trip. One other activity, for example, was consolidating, printing, and placing in albums the over 700-pictures on my computer from the past four or so years.

While this may seem like a strange choice of activity before embarking on a trip of this nature—there is plenty of research, reading, and shopping I could and should have been doing instead—it was, however, what I needed in order to feel ready to leave. Not only did it make sense to erase these pictures in order to make room for new ones, but I felt that I had to to contend with ex-boyfriends, ex-roommates, and ex-friends before moving forward. Before embracing my future, I needed to feel at one with my past.

I’m nervous to get out on the open road, and to face all the unknowns that lie therein. I’ve heard countless cautionary tales from friends and family—mountain lions in Texas, grizzlies in Yellowstone, serial killers in Texas, and various car-related incidents. And of course there are many loved ones I am going to miss (though Ricky and I have ensured them all that they’ll be hearing from us at least every 48 hours). But like all those who have gone west before me—unburdened by too much baggage—I’m just about ready to begin the next chapter.

Remember How She Took Those Carolina Hills

One ubiquitous feature of those works officially anointed the Great American Road Trip Books—those, unlike On the Road, whose writer used only one automobile for the whole trip—is the nearly fetishistic relationship between the driver and his car. In The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Henry Miller wrote of his 1932 Buick: “The damned thing behaves like a flirtatious woman.” The scary part there is that we know quite well how Henry Miller treats flirtatious women. Worse even was F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose 1924 serial in Motor magazine issues a challenge to all later road trip writers to beat, or at least meet, his intense and creepy anthropomorphization of the 1918 Marmon he and Zelda christen, referring to the car’s lopsidedness and general state of disarray, “The Rolling Junk.”

The car, Fitzgerald writes in "The Cruise of the Rolling Junk," suffers from “a broken backbone unsuccessfully reset.” It has “spinal trouble” and “suffered also from various chronic stomach disorders and from astigmatism in both lamps.” When the Rolling Junk blows out a tire in Philadelphia, a passerby asks whether the couple has another tire in the trunk, for such an emergency. “We did have another,” Fitzgerald writes. “Its name was Lazarus. It was scarred and shiny and had had innumerable operations upon its bladder.”

 A Marmon, similar to the one driven by the Fitzgeralds on their 1920 adventure from Connecticut to Alabama.

Those who have hunted covered bridges with me, those who have driven with me from Montreal to New York or vice versa, or, let’s be honest, those who have had a conversation with me lasting more than five minutes—any readers fitting these descriptions know that I don’t exactly enter this discussion with clean hands. You have heard of Mortimer. You have heard all about Mortimer.

Originally purchased by my parents for Cassie's last years of high school, Mortimer is a 2002 Honda Civic—beige, comfortable, gregarious. I began driving him when I got my license in May 2007. We have grown closer in recent years, clocking countless hours in upstate New York, southern Quebec, Maine, New Brunswick, Vermont, Massachusetts, Maryland, Pennsylvania. I seem to have forgotten the origins of his name, though for a while I had a ceramic koala bear also named Mortimer taped to the dashboard. It represented Grandpa, whose balding pattern and bone structure makes him look very much, and in the best way, like a koala. There is also a minor character named Mortimer in a minor Woody Allen film, though seeing as I remember neither the character nor the film, it seems unlikely I would have named my car after him. 

Until recently, the only problems in our relationship had originated with me. I slowed down too slowly, sped up too speedily. My insistence on listening to jams at an unhealthily high volume ultimately led to some communications issues, as when it took who knows how many miles to hear the rusty metal bit scraping along the Trans-Canadian at 90 mph. Then there was the rainy day when I accelerated—accelerated—too fast around a wet curve, swung 270 degrees counter-clockwise and across the double yellow, backing Morty’s ass up on the opposite curb and into a couple small trees. As little shoots of water slid down his headlights on that empty, rainy road, I felt I was not crying alone. But Morty was pissed. He left home and shacked up with some grimy mechanic for almost a month.

Late in December, when Mortimer pooped out at the mall, I felt abandoned, disappointed. That weekend, when Brahna and I drove my mother’s red Mazda 6 to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania—of course, the only place for civilized people on New Year’s Eve—we drove around the old country roads examining the Amish and gawking at covered bridges. I felt Mortimer’s absence, and, quite strangely, felt sorry he was missing out.

 Mom, Brahna, and Dad watch Mortimer loaded onto the tow truck, late December 2011. He needed a new transmission.

As explorers, we name a new world: “America.” As parents, we name a new child: “Richard Henry Kreitner.” As quixotic knights, we name a horse: “Rocinante.” And now, as drivers, we name a car: “Mortimer.”

We name that which we can name—that which has no name already, that which cannot, or cannot yet, name itself. We name something in order to dictate the future life of its still embryonic character. We name that which we do not yet fully know in order to feel that we do know it—a small, stolen intimacy that is the first step to what we hope may someday magically become the real thing.

There is an inverse correlation between one’s technical understanding of one's car and the extent to which one forms an anthropomorphized relationship with it. For several reasons, I never bothered to learn anything about who my car really was as a person, so to speak, preferring to craft a silly projected identity, "Mortimer," and to let my father's preferred mechanic do the job.

In this, I have stood, contrary to Newton, on the shoulders of fellow ignorant dwarfs. Henry Miller and his traveling companion, the American painter Abe Rattner, were just the same. “The first car we looked at was the one we selected,” Miller writes. “Neither of us knew anything about cars; we just took the man’s word for it that it was a good, reliable vehicle.” 

Though The Cruise of the Rolling Junk is a heavenly fictionalized account of a drive the Fitzgeralds took in 1920 from Connecticut to Alabama, one aspect of the book is too pitch-perfect to make up: the depiction of the couple as hopelessly Yankee and hopelessly stupid about the workings of the automobile. Like many ignoramuses past and future, they are ashamed at this stupidity, and take refuge from that shame in the formation of bizarrely personalized, and ultimately superficial, relationships not just with the Rolling Junk itself, but with its various parts. As the Philadelphia mechanic sets to work on their tire (“after a gay spasm of cursing”), the Fitzgeralds stand idly by and watch:

He took off the injured tire and contemptuously showed me a large hole I’d overlooked in the casing. I assented weakly to his assertion that I’d have to have a whole new tire. While he effected the necessary substitution Zelda and I amused ourselves by naming the rest of the tires. The two in front we called Sampson and Hercules, because of their comparative good health. The rear axle was guarded on the right by the aged Lazarus, covered with sores…

 F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and the Rolling Junk.

According to Jameson Wetmore, a scholar of technology and society at Arizona State University, we form relationships with our automobiles to protect ourselves from being overwhelmed both by the complex operations of the vehicle and by our embarrassing ignorance of them. In an article titled “Moving Relationships: Befriending the Automobile to Relieve Anxiety,” Professor Wetmore notes that “the practice of envisioning an automobile as a companion is often wrapped up in concerns about reliability and safety and can be a psychological response to calm the anxiety that such concerns cause.” The Fitzgeralds, in this view, obsessively name the tires and various “appendages”—their word—of the Rolling Junk in order to overcompensate for their lack of any sincere relationship with, or interest in, the workings of the car itself. The vehicle is to its passengers just a novel way to get from one place to another, a means to an end: quite the opposite of friendship in the real and original—the human—sense of the term.

If "Mortimer" is just a projection and a defense mechanism, that identity I forced upon the Civic will surely begin to crumble as I am forced, over the next few months, to acquaint myself on a deeper and more sincere level with the car on its own terms. Already, beginning to learn the practicalities of what makes the car run makes me feel silly for having spoken to it as if to a person, and for having coaxed it up high hills.

And yet, I expect that something of "Mortimer" will remain. There seems to be a certain type of relationship one can have with one's car that is not based on fear and anxiety, selfishness and miscommunication, but rather on pride and performance, dignity and fidelity. If Mortimer does land Brahna and I safely back home after four months and 12,000 miles, and drastic changes in weather, how could I not be proud?

Shortly after the Fitzgeralds arrive in Montgomery, the reminiscence begins. "Remember how she took those Carolina hills?" Such an ascription of will to the Rolling Junk seems different from the Fitzgeralds' earlier silliness, as it is this time based on shared experience, achievement, and respect.

I hope to attain a similar level of understanding between me and Brahna and Mortimer on the trip, and also between us and the people we meet. On past trips, Brahna and I have loved meeting strange new people--characters, we call them--and adding them to our list for future reminiscence. There is, of course, Bonnie, the impossibly down-home breakfast cook at the Lancaster County B&B. There was the couple in the Acadia campground who told us about all the dogs they had rescued, and who then yelled bloody murder at them all night. There was Bruce, the waiter in Bar Harbor who, though the restaurant was otherwise empty, stood silently next to our table through the whole meal.

As travelers, we treat those we meet in new places as strange characters worthy of fiction: it heightens our sense of ourselves as travelers and writers, and wards off the sense--always threatening to rise to the surface--that just because you drive through the Carolinas doesn't mean you know the Carolinians. To have a mental list of characters feels enriching, but it just covers up for a deeper and more ineradicable poverty. To crystallize someone in a frozen pose, to act as if she exists on Earth only in order to enrich our vacation and, later, our stories, to basically use her as a means to our own ends--this is precisely what the Fitzgeralds did to the Rolling Junk and what I have always done to Mortimer. It is to pretend an acquaintance with, and knowledge of, that which you are actually too scared or ill-equipped to get to know on its own terms.

The establishment of real human relationships instead of these fake caricatures requires the same determination and effort as does the process of opening oneself to learning the actual operations of the automobile. Henry Miller himself noticed how one's understanding of a car can influence the way human beings themselves interact with one another. “The automobile was invented in order for us to learn how to be patient and gentle with one another," he wrote. "It doesn’t matter about the parts, or even about the parts of parts, nor what model or what year it is, so long as you treat her right. What a car appreciates is responsiveness."

Just like a woman, or a man.