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Robert Voris

I'm Not Jack Kerouac

The car was chosen for us. We had no input as to the selection of the automobile that would be our home for the next month other than that it have a CD player and air conditioning. When I pulled up to the building and Luis opened the front door, his response was identical to mine: a satisfied nod, a slight smirk, "oh Hell yes." The 2004 Mazda 323 had 484 miles on it when it left the Enterprise lot on Atlantic Ave. By the time it returned, the odometer read 10,456. It was a five-door, the sexiest hatchback ever. The paint was white. Aspirin white. Fresh snow white. A white that gleamed, crying out for abuse. For mud up to the windows, bug carcasses by the thousands, gravel dings and other horrors. We fell in love with the car at first sight and longed to test its limits, as its limits yearned to be tested.

The first wave of love upon meeting the car gave way to the deep, affectionate pleasure of driving it. CXU6853 was the name assigned by the state of New York. We could never agree on a moniker for CXU6853 that struck us as proper. "The Pill" was bandied about, reflecting the shape of the steel, but discarded as insufficiently emotive. "Brooklyn" was considered and rejected on the grounds that I nickname everything "Brooklyn" and Luis found it insulting that I would want to provide our swift home the same name as my iPod. "The Shark" struck us as derivative of old Dr. Thompson, despite evoking the scowl of the hood and headlights. And so CXU6853 remains the name of that miniature beast. For it was a beast. The 2.3-liter, 4-cylinder engine moved us at a clip that netted four traffic stops in four different states. The accelerator pedal was sensuality defined. Desire to move the car forward was met and exceeded at the slightest tap of the right foot. Pushing down hard on the gas brought the engine upwards of 7000 rpm, but the sound was not the screech of a being under duress, but the strenuous breath of a lover in the midst of the act of tossing her hair out of her face.

If you doubt that a compact car can achieve greatness such as this, I recommend heading to your local Enterprise Rent-a-Car and demanding the keys to one of their Mazda 323s. They won't give you any shit for being under 25 years of age and their rates are fair. To test the sheer speed of the car, check out I-10, the long stretch between San Antonio and El Paso. 130 mph can be achieved with little effort, and the ride is so smooth that you may not notice you've reached triple digits until it's too late. For cornering concerns, take your sensuous hatchback down the massive S-curves of I-90 as it snakes out of the northern Idaho mountains and drops down onto the mind-bogglingly beautiful riverlands of western Montana. Luis piloted CXU6853 along that stretch at 110 without breaking a sweat. If you doubt your Pill's off-the-line prowess, set up at the intersection of Clayton and Parnassus in the great city of San Francisco and prepare to be astonished at how quickly Sunset Beach appears in your windshield. Yes, it's true, a wide-assed hatchback that Blue Books for less than twenty grand can provide the ultimate savories of driving, be it highway, interstate, city or backroad.

Comfort can also be found within the five doors of the Mazda 323. Luis and I are by most measures men of average build. I am 68" tall and weigh 135 lbs. Luis is an inch taller and 45 lbs. heavier. Neither of us had trouble remaining settled behind the responsive steering wheel for ten-hour stretches, nor much difficulty with sleeping in the cloth bucket seats. The top hatch of the center console easily accommodates two packs of cigarettes and their lighters as well as the wallet of the driver (I, for one, find it cumbersome to sit on my wallet for long stretches of time), while the bottom compartment of the console boasts enough space for a full box of granola bars (important for snacking on long stretches for the diabetic traveler) and a cellular phone. The air conditioning of CXU6853 kept us goose-pimpled in Phoenix summer heat, and the six-speaker sound system was capable not only of waking whole counties in the South Carolina countryside but also producing testicle-shaking bass during a good driving song like, say, "When the Levee Breaks" by Led Zeppelin. It is true that your standard 2004 Mazda 323 hatchback is lacking in accoutrements like built-in headrest video screens or a refrigerator mounted in the rear seat, but outfitting oneself with a Nintendo GameBoy and a twelve-gallon Igloo cooler makes luxuries like that easy to live without.

The most striking feature of the Mazda 323, though, is its utility. As far as I'm concerned, utility is the most important virtue of any thing, person, or concept. Grief that one is embarking on a 10,000 mile odyssey across the country and back with a friend instead of a long-dead younger brother is only worthwhile if it is utilitarian; if, for example, it transforms what otherwise might be viewed as a 22 year-old recent college graduate's hedonistic adventure into a soul-enriching month-long exploration of the transient nature of not only the pleasures of life, but of life itself. The joy of driving CXU6853 was a practical joy. I did 130 across the scrublands and plateaus of western Texas because we needed to get to Phoenix that night (San Antonio to Phoenix is nearly 1100 miles). The scrotum-bouncing music volume was used to augment the copious amount of soda and coffee necessary to maintain focus in the arid ranches of eastern Wyoming. Seats soft enough to sleep in were required for cross-country travelers with less than $1300 and a nearly maxed MasterCard between them.

Life is in the details, as the saying goes, and CXU6853 had details of utility aplenty. The door wells had slight distends at the front, perfect for stashing a bottle of water in. The steering wheel possessed controls for the stereo, making it easy to skip a slow song without taking one's eyes from the road or disturbing one's traveling partner when he's engrossed in a crossword puzzle. The overhead lights could be independently turned on and off, making it easy to read in the passenger seat without disturbing the driver. More than anything else, CXU6853 proved to me that simple utility need not equate to mediocrity. Sure, a Porsche would've been sexier; an SUV more impressive; a Benz more coddling than our sweet little go-kart during the process of Westering, but would these haughtier machines have been able to squeeze into the tiny (later discovered to be illegal) parking space we found in New Orleans? Could they have blended inconspicuously with the elks outside the Grand Canyon or the bison roaming the roads of Yellowstone? Would their high-performing engines have delivered the 25-mpg our 323 mustered, that with the AC on high at all times? CXU6853 even had a nifty automatic/manual hybrid transmission. Maybe cars in the next price division up also carried hermaphroditic transmissions, but Brooklyn (I still maintain it's a good name) had it without breaking the bank.

Attraction is the basis of any good relationship, but sex only carries you so far. A real, trusting, loving partnering can only be achieved if there is use to be had on both sides. Luis and I have nothing but love for CXU6853. Not only was it hot, with its sharp angles, low-slung wise-ass front, broad, curving rear and that white paint that called out for rowdiness, it was a trouper. It hung in for the long run. We, in turn, gave the car the opportunity to fulfill the dream every car must have -- to be given more than daily runs to the grocery store or the nearest Blockbuster, to be let loose across the length of a continent, to be driven by true travelers.

The largesse of American appetite seems a direct reflection of the enormity of the country itself. We piloted the 176.6 inches of CXU6853 over 9978 miles, a total of 3,579,875 car lengths. During those millions of asphalt cycles, we were privileged to see: the low, green mountains of central Virginia; the dense tidal forests of the Carolina coasts; the desolate scrub desert in northern Arizona; the wild and ancient lakes in Idaho's stovepipe; the flowering untouched plains on Rosebud Indian Reservation in southern South Dakota -- all without leaving the country. The edges of both oceans splashed under our tires. The brittle granite of Yosemite National Park and the crest of the Continental Divide were conquered as well. We ordered sandwiches and sweet tropical drinks in Spanish at Versailles in Little Havana, drank mandarin vodka with tourists from various British Protectorates in New Orleans, toured wineries in the foothills east of Sacramento and accompanied my cousin while he purchased marijuana from a black man operating an ice cream truck on the South Side of Chicago. Modest Mouse propelled us through the mountains of southern Oregon. The Fugees were rapping across most of New Mexico. Bob Dylan sang "A Hard Rain's a Gonna Fall" when we entered Nebraska. And all the while we remained within the borders of the United States of America. Our experiences were diverse and many, yet they were always American. And we always wanted more.

The more we wanted, however, was not the gorging more that is the cornerstone of the Ugly American stereotype. We never needed to be higher, drunker, better fed, further awed at any one time. Rather, our desire for the next mountain hike, Guinness-fueled conversation or ocean swim remained unfulfilled. This makes sense, since the expanse of the nation and the endless supply of towns behind the horizon made the expectation of boundless more seem realistic.

There is a correlation between our moderate if bottomless more and the gluttonous more enjoyed by many people within the framework of the New Economy. After all, it's not much of a logical leap to assume that, given the ever-continuing opportunities for indulgence as one travels state to state, each opportunity can be indulged bottomlessly itself. To wit: If Robert and Luis found it acceptable to order the 1/2 lb. Bacon Cheeseburger Meal with up-sized fries and 42 oz. refillable soda cups at the Hardee's in Newport News, VA, why should they show restraint at the Hardee's in Daytona Beach, FL? Since the economic system we've devised promises upward class mobility, it follows that as one's income rises, one must reflect the increase in purchasing power with suitably expensive products. Therefore, as a beneficiary of capitalism, a person with the means to be excessive must do so, right? The magnificent bounty of the union undoubtedly contributes to this mindset. Those millions of 323-lengths wound through timberlands of such plenty that I was astonished at the fact that we were not driving through a National Forest. The orchards of California's Central Valley were so dense with fruit that it seemed incomprehensible that, even if all the citizens of the republic were to dine exclusively on dates, there should ever be a shortage.

One night while smoking in the backyard of my childhood home I counted forty-three species of tree in the surrounding properties. Maybe global warming exists on some meteorologist's database. Maybe the mean temperature for February has risen five degrees in the last two hundred years. But I with my own eyes saw the rain and hail pepper our windshield like machine gun bullets. I felt the frost of five-a.m. fog burrow in the hole at the toe of my sleeping bag. The breakers along the beaches of Santa Cruz still pack enough of a wallop to leave me sore for two days after I swim there. Sure, the planet's dying. It's dying the same way I'm dying at twenty-three -- a long time from now, and any cigarettes that I smoke, alcohol that I drink or cholesterol-laden foods I eat in the present are going to have little to no effect on my expiration date. Right?

We know that the arrogance of immortality that afflicts us in youth is a fallacy, and that the idle vices we indulge during our twenties become destructive addictions that destroy our bodies, minds, even our spirits. And yet there is a disconnect between this awareness as it pertains to each of us as individuals and how it also indicts our culture. Are large, inefficient cars not our national cigarette? An expensive, offensive, filthy addiction predicated on the notion that since everyone else has one, so must I? Does our cultural compulsion to package everything strike anyone else as similar to alcohol abuse? Perhaps it's useful, even healthy, for certain items to be individually wrapped (most foodstuffs are probably better off as such), but when taken to excess (must every plate in a dining set be accompanied by its very own thin paper sheath) it amounts to a distasteful, stinking, vomit-inducing poison. Is the suburban sprawl that characterizes almost every city in America not reminiscent of the artery-clogging food found in fast food restaurants along the highways that lead commuters into their subdivisions? The square miles of residences that lack groceries, newsstands, restaurants, flower shops, hardware stores and thus necessitate five-minute drives in order to acquire any goods -- are these not eerily similar to giant globs of congealed fat, ever growing along the clogged highways that are the bloodpaths of the country? Is it not impossible to imagine that our youthful and vigorous country will befall the same fate as many of us who are now young and collapse under the weight of our poor habits and Devil-may-care attitude?

CXU6853 was the constant contradiction to the enormity of our journey. No matter how many thousands of miles, no matter how many different ecosystems we ventured across, our world was limited to two bucket seats, five doors, six speakers, eight air-conditioning vents. Despite the vast possibilities for our lives that streaked through our imaginations while the desert heat sparkled off the buttes in Wyoming, at any time those portended bright futures could be snuffed should Brooklyn decide to handle erratically or her brakes fail to engage with proper enthusiasm. The car was the inescapable (literally) dose of reality in the month-long fantasy we were engorged in. But the contradictions the Mazda presented weren't limited to splashing cold water on the fantasies of foolish young men.

"Know Thyself" was the Oracle's great command. Out of the thousands of antiquated quotes through which modern people attempt to graft reason onto a world their brains are powerful enough to know only that they cannot understand, those two words have always served me best. More than loyalty, ambition, generosity or pride, relentless self-examination is my true hallmark. During that month of asphalt and sky, of music and desert, my thoughts were restless, forever probing inward even as my senses took note of the extraordinary data that flew through the speeding windshield. What did this trip mean? Who did I want to become? How did I want to go about becoming that future personage? Once I decided on a method to achieve my goal, would that method be available to me in this society?

These are not light questions, and despite all attempts at levity (substance abuse, ribald conversing with Luis, the occasional Guns ‘N Roses sing-along) they were at the fore of my consciousness always. Not everyone has the opportunity or desire to see the Grand Canyon in this life. Did it matter that I now had? Was some greater worth now mine, given that I had climbed a two hundred-foot tall redwood and looked out on the Pacific from between its top limbs? Had my character undergone some change from having wordlessly sucked down a Miller Lite in a nightmarish strip-club in northern South Carolina while a permed-up thirty-something year-old woman paraded before me in an American-flag thong to Johnny Cougar's "Hurt so Good"? The road life has more pleasures than perils, to my thinking, but was this the life I wanted? Nomadic. Sporadic. Living for the uncertainty.

Thoughts like these have a tendency to become circuitous. Even worse, they grow solipsistic. Who do I want to become? metamorphoses into Who am I right now?, which in turn gives way to What is "right now" and how does that concept differ from me; is there a "right now" without me? By turning off my thoughts, can I turn off time? What is a thought? Are thoughts just an evolutionary tic? Our brains became developed enough to enable us to build tools, cultivate plants, domesticate animals, dominate the earth; was consciousness just an unfortunate byproduct of these advances? I consider lines of thinking that lead to questions such as these to be fruitless. My preference is more towards the questions devised by my neurons that can be readily answered by other neurons, e.g. What do I want to eat next? (A granola bar, more often than not); Why did I set out on this trip? (Why not?); Which of the many girls I am attracted to will make me happy? (T.B.D.)

CXU6853 was an easy and accessible answer to my musings vis a vis life on the road. While Luis and I often were without easy solutions to the classic problems of the nomad, we were not without certainty. We knew how we were going to get from place to place. We knew that eventually Brooklyn would bear us back to Brooklyn. We knew where we were and where we wanted to go. But who were we, and why did we want to go there? Ostensibly, we were traveling in order to arrive in Fresno, CA by the 21st of June to help celebrate my mother's 50th birthday. Why drive, though? Why would Luis give two figs about my mother's age?

Driving across the country had long been a fascination of mine, and my graduation from college dovetailed nicely with the anniversary of Mom's first half-century of life, so I guess we drove because of fortuitous timing. And Luis came along, not for the destination (though he did enjoy himself at Mom's party, taking advantage of the backyard pool and consuming the gargantuan oranges that grew in my neighbor's yard like it was his job) but for the journey.

Those dilemmas having been neatly addressed, the largest question -- "What was the purpose; to what utilitarian end did this epic journey drive relentlessly towards?" -- now looms. Why was a cross-country drive such a source of romantic self-imagination for me? What did I hope to find within myself, or to change about myself, out there among the rapidly passing lane dividers, faceless tollbooth attendants and neatly groomed highway lawns?

I knew that the hedonistic impulses that drove Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty were not our impetus. On the Road was not the template for our joyride. Drinking beer (or wine, or mandarin vodka, or whiskey) and conversing urgently on the meaning of art, of travel, of life, of how all three are connected occurred often while we navigated the lazy, humidity-choked Southern hills and the burning, arrow-straight desert Interstates, but the person I hoped to find was not going to be found among the last bubbles of foam in a drained beer bottle, I knew. And those impassioned discussions with strangers, no matter how erudite, were never as satisfying as idle chats with my family and trusted friends. This desire to relive On the Road through my own sensibility is itself an answer to that big question from the previous paragraph. Sal and Dean set out on their jaunt with no purpose other than to drink, smoke and have sex. This they did, in spades. Somewhere in there, they also mustered identities. Or realized what had long lain within themselves. The point is, they weren't driving across the country because they'd read about others doing it. I was. I knew I loved to drive, and I knew I wanted to be home for my mother's birthday, but the idea of combining these two came about because I had read On the Road.

I am a geek. A literary dork. Even my edginess has its origins in black print on white pages.

I freely admit and accept the truth. The cool, the bad-ass, the hungry, the holy do not drive glorified station wagons to their mothers' birthdays. Dorks do. My favorite times were not drunk and screaming on the roof of America. Caffeine-jitters, the sun rising, struggling over the crossword with my traveling partner as the flat, green-black expanse of the Central Valley ever so slowly elevated, undulated, lightened to become the grey-green forests and sudden deep lakes in far north California. Crosswords, Catch-22, an Igloo cooler stuffed with yogurt, fresh fruit and Diet Coke. Geeks on holiday. The most apropos anecdote comes from our longest drive, a grueling fifteen-hour, 1100-mile trek from San Antonio, TX to Phoenix, AZ. I got us across Texas, cruise-control set at 110, blowing past towns that seemed to exist only to supply gasoline for passing cars. We passed up the opportunity to visit "West Texas' Largest Winery". As a writer, I probably should have at least given such a unique institution a passing glance. The desert heat and the fact that this proud vineyard was surrounded by thousands of oil derricks, the presence of which did nothing to help the aroma of the petit syrah, I was sure -- these considerations outweighed my curiosity, and the lonely vineyard and its massive sign remain a "what if," filed away for exploration the next time I find myself on the long, nothing road to El Paso. In any case, Texas was neatly disposed of and Luis and I decided to sup in El Paso before the moonlit drive across New Mexico and Arizona. Hugh Hawthorne Kincaid Farr, Jr., one of the many Bacchian figures that we encountered, had given us a hot tip for good, authentic, cheap Mexican food in El Paso, and to this day Luis and I are grateful to him -- one more impromptu dinner of bananas, yogurt, soda and granola bars (soft or crunchy, take your pick!) might have broken our spirits permanently. Our bellies full and spirits high, we exited El Paso with much haste (the city only gets worse as you drive further West, ending in rail yards that stretch like stripped muscle for at least five miles -- they very much give the impression that El Paso is the end of the line).

The desert is not generally associated with good humor or high spirits; spirituality, spirits (in the ghostly sense), spirits (in the tequila sense) and the intermingling of these three, sure, but gregariousness, laughter and the impetuous drive of young men Phoenix-bound seem incongruous with our cultural vision of the desert landscape. Yet there we were, and in fact those red sands, ochre mesas and the heavy, burning sun all fed our mood. The full mountains appeared to have gorged themselves of the earth just as we had devoured our bifstecs, the sand twinkled in a hopeful way, and that hot hot sun, sinking as ever into the West was just too pretty to project any menace. Inspired, I brought out the beat-up digital camera that we'd used to chronicle our experiences at each stop and began to film the sunset. I am not prone to rapture or worship, but the sunset was so enchanting (even through the scratched, grainy viewfinder -- it was that wonderful, and we were driving straight into it, as though we might find that place where the sun goes at night [I operate under the assumption that we all, during childhood, suffered the delusion that the sun went somewhere at night, that it had a family and a home and a dinner waiting for it]) that I failed to notice the immigration checkpoint until Luis brought Brooklyn to a dead stop right in the middle of the highway and rolled down the window.

"Is that on," a sharp, loud voice called to me from out the driver's side window. The tone belied the speaker's identity: cop. Sure enough, when I looked out, a full, bushy mustache and a pair of squinting dark eyes peered back at me. The wide-brimmed hat of highway patrols, parks service officers and other second-tier law-enforcement agencies rested with authority atop the man's close-cropped black hair.

He was far angrier than I had expected, and I realized at the same moment that when I had turned to face him, I'd brought the camera with me.

"Erase that tape!"


"Why were you filming me?"

"I wasn't, I mean, I was just trying to get the sunset, and..."

"What are you waiting for, I told you to erase that tape!" I fumbled with the camcorder's controls, making a show, not erasing anything. The I.N.S. officer took another look at Luis, noticed the New York registration sticker as well as the Enterprise I.D. At long last, he grasped what was going on. Luis, my loyal lieutenant, had journeyed into the nether regions of Mexico to bring me, the cocaine kingpin of northwest Brooklyn, back from the exile I'd had to undertake to dodge the multiple outstanding warrants regarding the brutal murders of a crusading U.S. attorney and his family. And for kicks we were bringing no less than fifty kilos back with us, not to mention videotaping the security facilities of New Mexico for our mules' use.

But now, thanks to the diligence of this mustachioed forty-something, stranded on a lonely stretch of road on his own in a brown steel cage with nothing to do but accost what few motorists he came across, our scheme would be foiled. Maybe he could even have Luis deported! Then he inspected our licenses and found them to be legitimate. Then, when we opened the twelve-gallon Igloo and showed him our horde of yogurt, bananas and Diet Coke and he saw the copies of Catch-22 and Skinny Legs and All open and waiting for our attention, well, it isn't often that one sees such dejection on the face of another human being. I almost felt bad that we weren't about to earn him a commendation and perhaps even a transfer from his Limbo. How disappointing that must have been!

A flash of excitement, followed by the crushing truth that the dangerous criminals were nothing more than dorks on holiday. Not even a drop of booze or an empty plastic bag with flecks of marijuana. Books! Bananas! Bob Dylan on the stereo! And what kind of jackass films the sunset when he could be gaining valuable knowledge of how to manipulate illicit goods or arms through the southern border? He waved us through without another word, and the Geekmobile continued her parade of glory across the republic and back.

Perhaps that should be the car's name. Luis and I both prize honesty, particularly honesty about oneself, so it should follow that the car's moniker reflect that high standard. CXU6853 will forever be the car's legal, true name. But for all those travelers that love her as we do, know that a nickname now exists to honor her: Geekmobile. I rest assured that only a true nerd will ever love the car as we did, that only a professional dweeb will honor her with a journey befitting her strengths. Geekmobile's strengths are the strengths of a geek: she is economical, practical, enthusiastic, quick from the start and desirous of nothing so much as a challenge to rise to. She's out there on the Enterprise lot on Atlantic Avenue, two blocks west of the Flatbush/Atlantic/Pacific mega-intersection in the best of all boroughs, waiting for you. Is your heart simultaneously hearty and dorky enough to seek her out and take her on another adventure? Be quick to act, though, or you might catch a glimpse of a pale hand ashing a Marlboro out one window while the voice of a Colombian joker hollers the lyrics of Isaac Brock out another as Luis and I find all the truths we didn't unearth last time.

©2007 by Robert Voris

Born in San Francisco, California in 1981, Robert Voris lives near the largest cemetery in Brooklyn, where he works as a waiter. His work has appeared in JMWW, New York Resident, and Collectanea magazines. As this essay points out, he hates cars, but loves road trips.

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