Dear Friends of the Pub Quiz,
After a long road trip, one slowly grows used to stationary life. Unlike any of our hotels, our Davis home has more than two rooms; I find myself re-acclimating to the space and the locale. At night after the boys are in bed, I have caught myself walking into a room, say my daughter Geneva’s room, and considering anew the walls of art, like a tourist, perhaps like the tourist I was when I walked the rooms of the Art Institute of Chicago a week ago today, marveling at what I beheld.
We are home, but in my dreams, the road returns to me, and I return to movement as my frame of reference. What is the speed limit? In some states, it was 80, so we set the cruise control at 84. The momentum of our travel still propels my restless imagination. When passing another car, one feels like the pilot of a spaceship rather than the driver of an overstuffed minivan. Care must be taken. But when no cars can be seen, which was often the case in Wyoming and South Dakota, the extreme speeds seem appropriate, even conservative. When the roads are that deserted, one can take a moment on that smooth ribbon of asphalt to look to the side, to consider the nearby bluffs or mountains, the landscape, seeming moonscape or, in Utah, the salt-scape. The drought seems to be creeping east, originating in California, like so many of our nation’s trends and fads. Our country is a huge panorama that must be seen to be understood, but even then, it stretches outside of and beyond our comprehension.
One needs context to understand the road, and for me, that context often comes from the books I’ve read. When I first ventured to California as a 20-year-old, driving from Boston to Santa Cruz with my freshman-year roommate, Jack Kerouac provided our context, and our inspiration. Listening to our road trip tape, with songs by Chuck Berry, Erick Clapton, and Bob Dylan, we ate up the miles, amazed, then as now, with the enormity of it all. As Kerouac says, “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” We looked forward with anticipation, like pilgrims making discoveries. In the original scroll of On the Road, Kerouac writes, “The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great, that I thought I was in a dream.” Perhaps we need authors to capture and represent the ineffable joys of motor-travel, so that we better understand our vast fly-over states, even as we race through them.
Written in notebook form in the 1940s, Kerouac’s plan for On the Road did not reflect the benefits nor the homogenized trials provided by Eisenhower’s interstate. Despite his love for speed, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty could not travel as quickly as we did, driving, for example, from Mount Rushmore to Chicago in a day (more than 925 miles!). Despite his speed, Kerouac stopped often, as we could not, arriving in Wisconsin just in time to meet with professors and administrators. On some days we would drive 400 miles at a sitting, stopping only for cheap gas, the bulldog and children snoring or occupied with books in the back.
But imagine how slowly Mark Twain traveled that same expanse! In 1861, Twain moved with his brother Orion from Missouri, where young Samuel Clemens had spent years learning the craft of a Mississippi steamboat captain, to western Nevada. I just completed a version of that drive this past week, and we found it to be long and grueling in our high-speed automobile. Kate and I discussed how we would have fared making that same trip across such a desiccated landscape via covered wagon in the 1860s. Clemens first took the name “Mark Twain” while writing for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, using the newspaper office as his university, as Whitman and Hemingway had also done. Because of the 1859 discovery of the Comstock Lode of silver, Twain was not the only one to make his fortunes (and misfortunes) there. While the current population of Virginia City is a mere 855, in Twain’s time, it was closer to 25,000.
Eventually Twain himself left, as well, coming farther west to write for The Sacramento Union and various San Francisco newspapers. This means, of course, that his horse would have brought him along what would have later become I-80, a couple years before a Southern Pacific Railroad depot would be built in “Davisville” in 1868. I wonder what Twain was thinking while crossing Putah Creek!
Rather than tomes of adventure stories, and local color reflections, such as what Twain wrote during his time on the road, I have merely a list, composed by my wife Kate, to sum up our recent trip:
- Number of miles driven: 5,179
- Number of states visited: 11
- Number of U.S. presidents viewed in stone: 4
- Number of books read by Truman: 16
- Number of U.S. presidents viewed in wax: 43
- Number of Midwestern thunderstorms enjoyed: 2
- Number of movies watched in the car: 11
- Number of swimming pools sampled: 6
- Number of miles between Davis, California and Beloit, Wisconsin: 2,029
- Number of audiobooks read: 4
- Number of Picassos studied at The Art Institute of Chicago: 23
- Number of Amazon Prime boxes delivered to box #605 in the Beloit College student mailroom: 7
- Number of minutes of Olympics coverage watched: 0
- Number of daughters dropped off at college: 1
The Buddha said “It is better to travel well than to arrive.” We traveled well, as you can see. With the road continuing to haunt our dreams, I’m sure it will be a while before any of us feel that we have arrived.
Tonight, Your Quizmaster will return to the Pub Quiz. Expect questions on some of the topics raised above, and on most of the following: Questions of possibility, the prowess of Obama, parcel posts to the UK, the problems with cotton, synchronous performance hall performances, healthy tans, the Middle East, celebrity gossip, Fast Company, New Scientist, regrettable poisonings, Olympic heroes, wings of independence, the need for a marine biologist, electricity, Halle Berry and other people who are even taller than she is, Phoenicia, recycled pilgrims, defying the polls, silver online, Tonight Show hosts, unwelcome scandals, people who cajole coyotes while earning Pulitzer Prize nominations, happy rides, rail travel, the relationship between baseballs and the unhelmeted, secretaries of state, cityscapes, beasts of burden, and Shakespeare.
Special thanks to Jason, the backup quizmaster who makes my vacations and road trips possible. I hope you enjoyed your time with him during these past two Mondays. Now it is my turn!
See you tonight.
Here are three Arthur Conan Doyle questions from a quiz I wrote in 2011:
- Arthur Conan Doyle was born and died in what century or centuries. Be specific.
- The British actor inside R2D2 shares a last name with the street Sherlock Holmes lived on. Name it.
- What musical instrument did Sherlock Holmes play?