Do you like being by yourself ? How do you experience your own company? It’s a fundamental human question. I’d invited my friend John—razor intellect, gamma-ray eyeballs—to drive across America with me, to take a trip into America, but John was immobilized by difficulties with his teeth. So I was alone. Alone for 10 days at the wheel of a sky-blue 2009 Toyota Camry—my son’s car, which I was driving back from Los Angeles to our home in Boston because he was taking a leave of absence from college.
Alone, which has its advantages. I made the rules, I set the pace, autocrat of the pee break, and if I wanted another Filet-O-Fish, motherfucker, I was having one.
Alone, which is, let’s face it, getting worse. Being alone in the 2020s is a condition of oppressive subjectivity, of dank skull-centricity, in which the world—this tree, that building—seems to ding you endlessly with your own separateness. It hasn’t always been like this. It’s been a journey, this long withdrawal into the head. But we’re here now, and there’s no point pretending we’re not.
500 B.C.: A Greek artist paints a human foot from the front for the first time, thereby placing himself at a revolutionary new angle to nature.
1637: Descartes writes, “I think, therefore I am.”
1966: Owsley Stanley introduces LSD to the San Francisco underground at the Trips Festival, and the brain becomes the universe.
1991: I see a bumper sticker that says I claim my own power and lovingly create my own reality.
2016: Donald Trump is elected president.
That’s the evolution of consciousness, pretty much.
“Do you believe Jesus Christ died for your sins?” asks the woman sitting next to me on the flight to L.A. Not fervently, not dogmatically—we’re having a lovely conversation—she just wants to know. “Well, if he didn’t,” I say, “I’m in trouble.”
In L.A., prepping for the big drive, I instruct the fine mechanics at RM Automotive in Northridge to make the little Camry roadworthy. It needs some work—the shocks, the steering rack, the fluids, the whole (if I may) gestalt—so there’s a bit of downtime at a Holiday Inn in Chatsworth, in the San Fernando Valley
Downtime? Dreamtime. Out there on Devonshire Street I’m deep in L.A. space, which is tingling and car-swept and horizontal and prolific on a scale quite amazing to a Brit like me, raised in a blighted hedgerow on a diet of HobNobs and mushy peas. The Krav Maga studio and the hypnotism center, the barnlike sushi place and the U-Haul and the jolly old IHOP, the biker couple exiting the Star Bar with the tremendous, ponderous dignity of the totally smashed. Palm trees in the breeze, softly explosive California light, stony green-brown hillsides at the end of the street, dispossessed people on every corner. As I amble to the IHOP for lunch, a heavily layered man with an exposed psyche stalks jaggedly past me. My neck prickles. “I’m recording you on my phone, sir,” he says to me. Or at me. “I’m allowed to.”
Where am I? Where have I ended up? Only some mighty, hidden, continuously creative act seems to be holding all of these elements together, maintaining them in relationship. Inside the IHOP, an elderly woman with a Billy Idol haircut orders her meal. “This is gonna crack you up,” she promises her waitress. “I want a mushroom omelet without the mushrooms.”
And then I’m driving, escaping L.A., heading east, floundering along behind the trucks on Interstate 40. Okay, America: me and you. Let’s go.
The first couple of days, despite everything done by the fine mechanics of RM Automotive, are spent in a paroxysm of anxiety that the little Camry is going to crap out, break apart beneath me at 80 miles an hour, shed glowing lumps like a space shuttle on reentry. The passage into the desert, into another world, impinges upon me only vaguely: I drive past signs for Barstow. Barstow? Barstow … And then I’m mumbling the first line of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas : “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” On the edge of Kingman, Arizona, I breakfast at an uncharacteristically sluggish Denny’s that is somehow inside a gas station: It’s a Flying J Travel Center, with Torque and Recoil on the magazine rack and Prayers for Difficult Times for Men on the book stand. (“Jesus, my old abusive habits are tempting me today.”) My notebook records that despite the invigorating desert air, I feel bleak.
The Grand Canyon? For me, a nonevent. I dawdle around one of the parking lots in confusion, about to ask somebody, “Excuse me, where is the Grand Canyon?,” when I sense the great vacuum pulling at me and go toward it. Mild vertigo kicks in as I approach the South Rim: I experience a weightlessness, a hollowness in the legs, that is curiously like anger. Plenty of people, plenty of phones: The air around me is full of that acoustically flattened chirping sound that humans make when confronted by the sublime. I stare. I gaze. I peer. I’m numb. My intention, my plan, was to affirm my existence in the face of the chasm, to assent—finally, ultimately—to my life as it is, to hurl an amen into the multicolored abyss, to shout like Allen Ginsberg in “The Lion for Real”: Terrible Presence! … Eat me or die! But it’s not happening. Ramparts of geology frown at me and I turn around, feeling better with every step away.
The Meteor Crater, in Winslow, Arizona, cures me of my Grand Canyon anomie. To the work of millennia, apparently, to the infinite patience of wind and stone and water, I can find no connection. But a single wildly destructive moment, a one-off, bomblike incident of cosmic mega-violence in the desert—that, I can relate to. That makes complete frigging sense to me. More than 50,000 years ago, an iron-nickel meteorite weighing several hundred thousand tons plowed into the ground east of what is now Flagstaff, producing a nuclear-level explosion upon impact and leaving a mile-wide hole. To quote from the excellently written pamphlet handed to me at the Meteor Crater & Barringer Space Museum: “In the air, shock waves swept across the level plain devastating all in their path for a radius of several miles. In the ground, as the meteorite penetrated the rocky plain, pressures rose to over 20 million pounds per square inch, and both iron and rock experienced limited vaporization and extensive melting.” The hole is huge and clean and narrows toward an inverted peak: an upside-down mountain of nothingness. I look into it and feel utterly peaceful.
My relationship with the little Camry is changing. No longer on the lip of terror, primed for her disintegration, I’ve begun to appreciate her durability, her reliability, her modest potency. I’m growing to love her. She holds her own in the woofing back drafts of the trucks on 40E; she slips gracefully between those shifting, barging volumes of air. She seems happiest at 85 miles an hour. In the mornings, outside whatever Red Roof Inn or Best Western I’m staying at, I see her crouched neatly in the parking lot, compact and ready, and I greet her with joy. I pat her steering wheel as we drive along. I call her Baby Blue.
At a La Quinta next to the airport in Amarillo, Texas, I ask the receptionist where I can get some food. Half a mile back down Route 40, she tells me. Walkable? I ignore her suggestion that I drive it, set off on foot, and blunder instantly into a side-of-the-highway moonscape of dead grass, gopher holes, broken fences, torpid little ditches, and trash that was expelled from passing vehicles, two minutes ago or two years ago. Everything discarded, unattended, ripe with the mad physics of neglect. Unwalkable. Hostile to pedestrians, hostile to everybody. Instant exile. It feels very important somehow, as the trucks blow by with Chewbacca moans: I’m on the inside of the outside of America.
Approaching Oklahoma City, I panic. I haven’t had a proper conversation for hundreds of miles. Is this how I’m doing it, this road trip, sliding through America frictionless as a dolphin? I take an off-ramp, and on a grass verge on the edge of a gas station I spot a little group sitting in carnivalesque disarray. They appear to have been centrifugally dislodged from the main event and deposited here at the fringes, and they receive me with the instinctive graciousness of street people everywhere. Isis, a middle-aged woman with her shoes off and a tiny, pop-eyed dog called Dobby in her lap, leads the conversation. She and her friends, D.J. and Butterfly, are currently involved in two situations, parallel projects: They have to recover a stolen Schwinn bicycle with Mongoose rims, and they need to find enough money for another night at the Green Carpet Inn.
Isis is telling her story. “They say God only gives you what you can take. Well, I’ve said to him so many times, ‘I can’t take no more.’ I’ve had seven therapists, and they’ve all said to me, ‘Hey, if you wanna be a serial killer, with everything you’ve been through, you got the right.’ ” “Calm down,” Butterfly urges quietly, as the monologue begins to accelerate. “I could talk to this man all day!” Isis says. I ask her what the Green Carpet Inn is like. “Hell itself.” That bad? “The center of hell. And that’s where God’s throne of judgment will raise up.” Right there in the middle of the Green Carpet? “Right there. And everybody will get what’s coming to ’em.” “Be safe,” Butterfly says as I take my leave. “Don’t let nobody push up on you.”
(I Google the Green Carpet later and find that in between blasts of grievance from disgusted guests, it has some magnificent prank reviews, written—I like to think—by Isis and her friends: “We slipped into our free satin robes and pure cotton slippers and took a soke in our hot tub on our balcony. We had a free in room meal and the hotel cook even came to our room to prepare the meal and he served it to us. I never wanted to leave.”)
That night I get drunk with a couple of air-traffic controllers, in town for a spot of top-up training at Oklahoma City’s FAA Academy. I thrust myself rather clumsily into their conversation at the bar, having overheard one of them say that Joy Division is his favorite band. “I’m sorry,” I say. “Joy Division? I have to jump in.” And then I’m in it, for hours, in the beautiful loose warm magnanimous stream of American bar talk, which flows wittily and incoherently and aggressively and lovingly and expertly and ignorantly and eternally and momentarily out of orange-lit alcoholic portals from coast to coast. “People aren’t shitty,” one of my new friends insists. “If you give ’em 10 seconds, people are fantastic.” He’s a Florida punk rocker (his band once opened for a pre-famous Marilyn Manson) turned Christian. “When God calls,” he tells me, “you have to pick up.”
The next morning is the next morning. I am a hangover on wheels. I feel like I’ve rolled all night among huge, featherless birds. But it was worth it, and my spirits are high as I buzz across Oklahoma toward Arkansas.
Why are my spirits so high? Because of True Grit. God, I love True Grit—Charles Portis’s book, both of the movies, the entire mythic-historical True Grit landscape. Back when my son was of an age to be read to, we did True Grit three or four times, our responses deepening with each go-round.
And Fort Smith, Arkansas, is True Grit Central. It was in real-life Fort Smith, in 1875, that Judge Isaac Parker—“Hanging” Judge Parker, American superego, charged by Ulysses S. Grant himself with the subduing of the boiling-with-criminality western frontier—established his infamous court. Hawklike he brooded over the hinterland. Left and right he strung them up: 79 hangings during his time on the bench. And it’s in the Fort Smith of True Grit that young Mattie Ross connects with Rooster Cogburn, U.S. Marshal, an officer of Parker’s court, grizzled growling boozer, played first in the movies by John Wayne and then by Jeff Bridges, and hires him to ride out into the Choctaw Nation and catch the man who killed her father.
I linger happily in the foothills of the Winding Stair Mountains, where Rooster’s old adversary Lucky Ned Pepper goes to ground with his gang, and in the tiny edge-of-Oklahoma town of Talihina I eat a vicious piece of fried catfish and exchange pleasantries with a hard-of-hearing senior named Chicken Johnson. Pure Portis.
The next morning, I present myself at the Fort Smith National Historic Site. I’m twanging with True Grit nerdery. And also with some kind of enhanced historical sense, because there’s a fault line here at Fort Smith, a crack in the American psyche: The wilderness meets the law. But what gets me, what moves me, what brings me weirdly to tears, is not the re-creation of Judge Parker’s courtroom. It’s not the crushingly low-ceilinged jail below the courtroom. It’s not even the restored gallows. It’s an art exhibition on the theme of justice by the students of Western Yell County High School. Saving Our Seas is a painting by Dylan, Samantha, and Madison; it features a blameless-looking turtle plying his way through a bright-blue element. On one side of him floats a Coke can, on the other an empty bag of Lay’s chips. Caption: “It’s Not Fair Your Trash End’s Up In Their HOME.” I think of G. K. Chesterton: “Children are innocent and love justice; while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.”
And now, leaving Arkansas, post–True Grit, I lose my mojo. On the road, in my head, I wither. The trip turns. Aloneness claims me. American space is too much for me. I’m not a pilgrim, existentially stripped, bare to the bliss of the heavens and the batterings of God’s grace. I’m a nervous man at the wheel of a Toyota Camry. I need more coffee. I need less coffee. I don’t dig this solitude. With whom can I connect? Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ / Into the fu-ture. The Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like an Eagle” is trailing me like a curse, a ’70s stoner hex. It’s floating at me from car windows and leaking from speakers by ATMs. Pure detachment boogie. Fly-y like an eagle, let my spirit carry me.
I wallow into Memphis, over the shimmery-shiny Hernando de Soto Bridge. A chatty dude in a record store, a cheery and welcoming couple in a bar—I’m talking, but I’m not getting through. I’m stuck in my brain again, diddling across the country like a cut-price version of Milton’s winged Satan: Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell. Steve Miller Band Satan, flapping like a depressed eagle. The only thing I can say for myself at this point in my trip is that I’m not online: I am actually, physically, more or less here. I head for Graceland.
“Elvis was an international star,” the guide on the doorstep of Graceland announces as we wait, a small disgorged busload, to be allowed into the house. “But he never performed across seas. Anybody know why?” We gape obediently. “Because,” she says, “because his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, was a criminal across seas.” We’re being shuffled through the totalitarian Graceland system. Form a semicircle … Move up to the gold rope … A short man in front of me begins to boil: “I don’t like this being controlled. Standing around doing nothing!” But no insurrection occurs, and soon enough we’re inside the house.
Which is not at all the debauch of tastelessness I’ve been led to expect. Or have I just got bad taste? I find its proportions cozy and humane, and its variegated decor expressive of a thoughtful eccentricity. Touches of private chapel, safari lodge, and bridal boutique—I like it, I like it. The yellow-and-brown TV room with its multiple embedded screens: rather a nice place. Here Elvis, watching all of his TVs at once, previewed the coming fragmentation, the splitting of the screens and the splitting of the minds. He lounged there between the yellow cushions, enthroned in the future. “Elvis,” confides the voice of John Stamos in my headset, “watched news, sports, variety shows, and situation comedies.”
Across Elvis Presley Boulevard is the other Graceland, the blue-gray complex of buildings where you can gorge your imagination on the Grand Canyon–size posthumousness of Elvis. The Elvis-ness of Elvis. His pompadour like the plume of Achilles. Squint, squint, squint into the vacancy and you can just about see—can you?—the wriggling, brilliant germ of rock and roll way back in there, hear the slap and shudder of the upright bass on “Hound Dog,” the jangled bones of his dancing.
I find myself in a museum with the trappings of his late, mortal period all around me: the Tiffany Jumpsuit, the Gospel Suit, the Black Cisco Kid Suit with the red-leather shoulders, each outfit emptied of Elvis, each outfit throbbing with discrete and barbarous flamboyance on its tailor’s dummy. My God, this is a magical country. American space is crisscrossed with enchantments. Look at Elvis’s gear, this crazy high-priestly clobber with its bejewellings and emblazonings. Summon the man in his final phases, blubbering and sweating and suffering and clanking onstage to “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” He was a visitant. He was ziggier than Ziggy Stardust. But he never played across seas; America wouldn’t let him. America held him close.
On, Baby Blue, on. It’s Saturday night in Nashville: Broadway is heaving, American party time, and all the bar bands are doing covers. From one doorway I hear a tepid “Enter Sandman,” from another a fairly rocking “Jealous Again” (Black Crowes, not Black Flag). Anyone here not doing covers? Any rock and roll to save my soul? Any raw power? Through a window, I see a tattered and promisingly punky-looking unit plugging in and tuning up, so I go in. “I like your jacket, man,” says the bouncer. Well, that’s something. The band starts playing: Dang-a-nang! Chikka-chikka-chikka-dang-a-nang! … God help me, it’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
By the time I get to the NASCAR rally, at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, it’s late in the day. The gates are wide open, they’ve stopped checking tickets, and there’s a dizzy, entropic vibe about the place. Gas smell, tire smell, grill smell. Iridescent oil-atoms in the soft evening air. I look around: trucks and vans and encampments, a mechanized shire, flags flying, spreading in merry medieval disorder to the outer verges and knolls of the farthest parking lots. And from the bowl of the speedway itself, as if from some enormous reactor, rise the great shearing gyres, the centripetal suck-you-in spirals of tire-sneer and engine-roar. What a sound. I stagger toward it like a supplicant.
The cars are all in a bunch, circuit after circuit, an American mantra. Repetition is holy. The void receives their fury. Carry me to heaven on a helix of NASCAR noise. Here we’re all tuned to the same vibration. Every 30 seconds or so, as the cars pass, it baptizes you like a power chord: nnNNEEEEEOOO!*!$$$*!VVWWWMMFFHHHhhsss … Your whole body sings with it.
Somebody must be winning, right? “Can you tell me what’s going on?” I ask a gray-faced man in protective headphones. “It’s a race,” he says. More hospitable is a writhing, octopoidal crew of drunken tattooed kids with their shirts off. Their messy energy is spilling over into the seating section next to me, which appears to be reserved for people in wheelchairs. A yellow-shirted steward guards this section like an avatar: When the kids get too close, when their flailing tattooed limbs infringe, she beats them back with fierce yet somehow soothing motions. I tell one of them it’s my first time at NASCAR. “MINE TOO!” he yells. “I DON’T GO FOR THIS REDNECK SHIT!”
And now I have an amazing piece of luck: I meet a generous and voluble NASCAR aficionado. Eloquent, crisply excited, beer in hand but ablaze with relative sobriety, he tells me about the recent makeover and resurfacing of the Atlanta track, how the banking on the turns is now four degrees steeper, and how the cars that race the circuit must have restrictor plates on their engines to control the flow of air and thereby limit their speed. Atlanta is not his favorite speedway; that would be Talladega. “I’ll be honest, though,” he says, having taken stock of my non-NASCAR-ness. “You’re gonna see some things there you don’t like.” What could he mean? Some kind of Trumpist Sabbath? I don’t care. I am incoherent with arousal. “This fucking SOUND,” I shout. “I love it! It’s like when I saw Metallica at Woodstock, you know? ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ ! Ba-ba-ba-BAAA-ba-ba-ba-BUUUH … You know?” He nods approvingly, his eyes never leaving the race. “That’s a very good analogy.”
“Maybe,” someone said to me at a warehouse rave in San Francisco in 1992, “maybe the problem isn’t that you’ve taken too much acid. Maybe the problem is that you haven’t taken enough.” I was in a state of temporary insanity—but not so insane that I couldn’t appreciate the neatness of the observation.
America, have I had too much of you or not enough? In search of you, I have scaled the mountain of nothingness and sat on the top—which is actually the bottom, because the mountain of nothingness is upside down. I came off my road trip, my lonely-man road trip, when I met up with my son and my nephew in South Carolina. There were still 1,000 miles to drive to Boston, long, yawning hours at the wheel of Baby Blue, but my solitude, and thus my journey into America, was ended.
Things continued to happen, of course—American things. In Richmond, Virginia, as I wandered the nighttime streets in a condition of mild banishment (my son had kicked me out of our hotel room so he could Zoom with his therapist), a man approached me, wanting cash. Then he wanted to sell me some sneakers. We compromised on my buying him some chicken wings and walked to a chicken-wing place that was glowing helpfully nearby. He ordered 20 wings. “Hold on,” I said. “I’ll get you five.”
On the afternoon ferry from Orient Point, Long Island, to New London, Connecticut, I did some weighing and balancing. Salt wind, grinding of the screws, ocean clouds with their dowry of gold … Could I get a handle on everything I’d seen, everyone I’d talked with? My blunderings and my blurtings? Doubtful. It would take a poet or a paranoid, wouldn’t it—or an idiot—to roll all of this together into a meaning. Into a grand theory. To connect the leering, oily-black rest-stop-haunting ravens of the Southwest, and the Amazon freight cars beetling through the desert, to the woman standing behind her housekeeping trolley in the hallway of a Hampton Inn outside Greenville, South Carolina, taking a long, meditative pull from her 12-ounce can of Red Bull. (“That’s a big can,” I said. “I’ve got ADHD,” she said, “and this stuff levels me out.”)
I’ll say this: American space embraced me. Then I fell out of it, or was kicked out, like Lucifer, son of the morning, for the sin of great solipsism. Then it embraced me again. The hard, compulsive generosity of this country—there’s nothing like it. Raise your game, it says. Raise your game. Each encounter seems to tune you up for the one that’s coming next, more resonant, more of a gift, more desirous of your understanding. And that’s pilgrimage, like it or not.
Three weeks after we get home, we’re in a bar on gray Route 1A, outside Boston, my son, my dog, and I. Our other car—not the saintly Baby Blue—blew its fuel injector and we came slewing into the lot of this bar in a cloud of panic and gas fumes. Now we’re having a beer and waiting for AAA. A patron making his unsteady way to the men’s room stoops to pet my dog as he passes. My dog—a bag of nerves—neither growls nor sneers with anxiety, and I express surprise. “Dogs love me,” the man says. “Women, on the other hand …” And there we are, suddenly inside a country song. Roots music.
Bits and pieces, America. The glare of nonstop revelation refracted through a zillion facets. Day to day. Place to place. Your gorgeous, heartbreaking cities, your openhanded people. Winter sunlight glancing off a metal barn roof, glimpsed from a moving car. And all of us going through it, going through you, never more together than when we feel ourselves alone, because if we’re all feeling it, loneliness is over.
This article appears in the July/August 2023 print edition with the headline “America Inside Out.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.