The rain is pouring down like I’m under a damn waterfall, and it feels as though all the wind in the world has come together in conspiracy. Each new gust catches the broad sides of my vehicle like a sail, hurling me into parallel lanes. As I jerk the wheel to avoid sideswiping my neighbors on the road, their honking is barely audible over the noise of it all.
I try to ignore the faint sound of my exhaust pipe dragging behind me, clinking like tin cans after a shabby marriage. The diesel engine rumbles roughly, providing unsteady power, and my windshield wipers fail entirely, leaving me to approximate my path on a dark and unfamiliar Connecticut highway.
I’m freezing. I’m soaked from the rain. A hole somewhere under the instrument panel is letting 70-mile-an-hour winds assault me. My stomach is tight. Steam pours from the engine, obscuring my sight and obliterating any remaining chance at safety.
But I have a ferry to make.
The pedal is pinned the floor. I rock back and forth in my seat as if to transfer just a little more energy into my forward progress. If I miss this ferry, I’ll have to drive through all of Connecticut and the Bronx, cross the Throggs Neck Bridge, and continue through Queens before I’m back home in Long Island safe and sound.
Earlier, I had driven five hours to Cape Cod to look at this vehicle. It’s a 1979 Winnebago built on a Dodge chassis. That’s basically all I knew about it when I handed some guy 3,500 bucks an hour ago. Now, I’m on the bleary reverse journey, unsure if I’ve just made quite an expensive mistake.
I’m trying to separate my senses, to find a measure of coherence in my surroundings. There are smells that warn of leaking fluids, sounds of an aching engine, and nothing feels right. I look in the rearview mirror and see the long corridor of my new home away from home: antique wood paneling, tweed cushions, and hinged cupboards that have come loose and are swinging disjointedly.
My eyes fall on the toilet in the way back, and a new sound can be heard. It’s coming from me. Down from my belly, a roar has choked its way up my chest and collected in my throat. Any attempt to stifle it would be futile, so I give it full rein. It is the wild laughter of the insane, coughing up in uncontrollable percussion. I catch my reflection, wide-eyed and manic, in the rearview mirror, and my release redoubles. It is minutes before I regain my composure.
As I drift into another lane, I’m interrupted by the wail of a semi-truck’s air horn. “Oh shut up,” I shout above all the other noises. “Jealous motherfucker.”
Four months and 7,000 miles later, I am standing outside the Winnebago, shouting profanity into the endless desert while the New Mexican sun fries the skin on my shoulders like a tortilla chip. With nothing but flat sand and low brush to bounce off of, my shouts are swallowed by the landscape, and my frustration dies echoless. I swing back around and hurl a heavy boot into the bumper. This is not the first time I’ve broken down. This is not the fifth time.
Although I’d spent weeks addressing the vehicle’s obvious issues before deeming it roadworthy, mechanical problems small and large had plagued my progress since the moment I’d left New York. Within 18 hours of departing, a frozen January night killed my ignition battery — a routine repair. Ten days later, my transmission blew up on a highway in Tennessee — which was slightly more complicated.
All throughout the South, fuel leaks and electrical problems had become commonplace. Somewhere in Texas, the entire back section of the Winnebago began falling off. If you looked at the side of the vehicle, the sad sag of the rear quarter made it look like a condemned building in a forgotten part of town. I looped some rope around it and tied the knottiest of knots. It worked, more or less.
Despite all of the vehicle’s flaws, though, I am still in love. My shouting in the desert is nothing more than a routine argument, a small disagreement — the likes of which pester even the most stable relationships. Although the Winnebago’s suicidal tendencies have undermined my desire for carefree wandering, I’ve been able to satisfy another, larger goal: to finally become acquainted with the country I call home.
Three decades spent in suburbia had isolated me from America. At 30 years old, I knew no more of this place than what I’d learned from evenings spent in front of a blue screen in my living room. I’d seen two-dimensional images of canyons and great plains, ancient forests and rivers, but it was all hearsay. Until I see them for myself, I thought, I can’t be sure they’re even there.
I felt the same about the people. I’d heard every well-rehearsed accent in the canon of American Western cinema, and could mimic the way Clint Eastwood spit his words and how John Wayne slurred his. I copied and pasted a broad, outdated valley-girl accent on anyone from the West Coast. I could read a map of my country, recite the state capitals, and outline our military history, but I couldn’t tell you how giant the Giant Redwoods are. I had no idea what the desert smells like.
Americans, by and large, only see America through a media filter. We don’t acquaint ourselves with its inner workings because they are largely inaccessible. We don’t have the time to travel and there are no bullet-trains to the desert. Our TV-familiarity with this place has become something of a common currency; we all just assume that it must be true. There are few discrepancies since we’ve all seen the same movies. But, so have most Europeans.
Since leaving home, though, I’d steadily begun to replace my half-formed, pre-packaged idea of America with the genuine article. A thousand strangers’ stories collected along the way merged together to form a single national voice, and with each passing week, the hazy images in my mind became more focused, the blurred boundaries separating the interior states became sharper.
If you look at the spaces between cities on a map, you’ll assume they’re essentially empty; brown means mountains, green means forest, and so on. But for every millimeter of unaccounted land, for every seemingly barren stretch of highway, there’s someone who lives there, or near there, who can tell you its history spanning as far back as they can remember. And, if you’re willing to go find the these people, chances are, they’ll be happy to speak with you.
Breaking down outside an impossibly small town in New Mexico was a routine mess, an unplanned-for stop in a place I’d never intended to visit. Yet, like scores of other instances along the way, it was somehow balanced. The stress of not knowing if the Winnebago was finally dead, whether I could even afford to get back to New York if it was, or where I’d sleep in the meantime was offset by what I’d found along the waycultural identity. I feel so much more American after seeing so much of America.
It wasn’t easy to muster up the nerve to begin my voyage, but it was easier each day after taking that first step: recklessly purchasing a vehicle. After that, one domino slammed into the next, until, one cold January afternoon, I took a breath and pointed myself toward the parts of the map I’d never even known had names.