Sunday, September 18, 2011

Marfa Road Trip: Chicago to Memphis

This morning at 6:45AM, my mom and I set out on a 1500 mile road trip to Marfa, TX. After six hours driving through southern Illinois, we were both happy that we chose this route instead of the more direct route through Missouri and Oklahoma. No offense to the Ozarks, but Louisiana on the horizon makes the idea of 30+ driving hours bearable.

Today was a geography lesson. Although we spent the vast majority of our road time in IL, we also went through Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee. The South seems to spring up on you about four hours south of Chicago, reinforcing the fact that I know nothing about Illinois. All told, I think we spent about nine hours and forty five minutes on the road today. I'm glad we packed in a lot of driving on the first day, when I am excited just by the idea of it all and am entertained by the sunrise on golden acres of corn and crosses the size of skyscrapers.

Our mascot, Birdie Poop, was there to see it all with us, including the county fair moving down I-57 on converted pick-up trucks. Looked like the set-up for the part of the fair that's just for kids, which looked creepy to me even when I could fit into those little boxes. Even so, it was a romantic sight to see a circus marching down the Mississippi to another town, another show. One of the buildings looked similar to the circus jail Dumbo was locked up in and I got misty. Then I saw the carnie who was driving the truck. A friend from Sturgeon Bay once told me that when the County Fair was in town, nobody used the laundromats because if you did your laundry after the carnies your clothes would come out filled with grease stains and cigarette butts.

Down the road, I discovered the subject of the greatest comic strip novel yet to be written. A mile out, we started seeing a series of billboards for a store called Boomland, advertising one item at a time in massive red and white lettering. FIREWORKS...CHICKEN...CIGARETTES...etc. I counted ten billboards before one read EXIT NOW.

Boomland is a world unto itself. Swirling with complicated social hierarchies and awkward taxidermy, I could have stayed for hours to pick apart the social terrarium that is Boomland.

When, at the register, I told the cashier that I didn't need a bag for my three Clif bars and bag of trail mix, she looked me in the eye and said, "Oh, we have to give them to everyone, or else that little man over there in the wheel chair, the manager, will tackle you and then come after me." It was then that I started noticing something different about Boomland, beyond the mounted picture of "Tim, the Taker" under his slaughtered and stuffed ten-foot-long moose from Alberta. I started noticing notes. In the woman's rest room, taped to the soap dispenser, was a note that read simply, "DON'T FILL SOAP DISPENSER". Instead of in the dispensers, the soap was in a hodge podge of containers along the ledge above the sink. One was a pretty straightforward stand alone soap dispenser like one would have in their home, but the other (and I only recognized this because I just left a job at a restaurant) was very specifically the same type of bottle restaurants use to drizzle sauce on a finished dish. Even though it made the handwashing experience more exciting, it still stuck me as determinedly convoluted. Was the wheelchair-bound store manager behind it all? In a store so big, perhaps it was up to everyone, even the customer, to spread this bulletin of soap policy so it reached even the employees of Wally's Pizza Parlor, who were, let's face it, ostracized. Although I was happy to accept the plastic bag to make mine and the cashier's life easier, I couldn't help but feel...managed.

Then my Mom showed me this picture, evidence of just how personal things can get in Boomland. A note on the thermostat reads, "DO NOT TOUCH. HANDS OFF, WALLACE". Could it be the same Wallace behind Wally's Pizza Parlor and could that explain the downturned faces of Wally's staff?

As I exited the building, passing underneath a banner that read "WE LOVE GOD, AMERICA AND HOSPITALITY" I looked over at the manager in the wheelchair, surveyed his short-sleeved dress shirt and belted khakis and watched as he stood up, scratched his butt and sauntered towards the hot sauce aisles.

Goodbye, Missouri.

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