“Would you like to Sonic Size that drink?”
I stared at the squawking metal box with the big red button.
Theoretically we were back home, but here, somewhere in the Texas Panhandle, I was feeling a little adrift. Our new (new to us) car was pulled into a Sonic Drive-In that looked identical to the ones in cheesy paintings of nostalgic Americana. Usually Marilyn Monroe was wearing roller skates and delivering a tray to James Dean, who was sitting with Elvis in his 57′ Chevy. Minus any dead-before-their-time American celebrities, the scene looked otherwise perfect. The sky was light blue with a daub or two of whispy clouds. A strong wind blowing from the south, from Mexico, was whistling through the two open windows of our car. Nearby on the interstate, cherry red semis blew past like industrial sized tumbleweeds.
We were without doubt back in the United States, looking at the familiar surroundings through a new lens, that of the returning traveler, seeing again for the first time just why the U.S.A. confuses and intrigues the rest of the world so very much.
A young slightly overweight guy smiled broadly as he delivered our tray of food. On foot. He thanked us with a Spanish accent.
We’d flown from Mexico City back to New York where Magda had a few jobs lined up that we couldn’t afford to miss out on. While she was working, I was wandering around car dealerships, kicking tires and looking skeptically at painted-over rust spots. We finally bought our new Subaru in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn, from a guy who bought cars at auctions in New Jersey and resold them for slightly more in front of his basement apartment. While he had never even opened the hood, the mechanic we took it to gave it the thumbs up (while expressing some shock at the amount of rust on her underside) and suddenly we found ourselves handing over a stack of hundreds in exchange for a ride to Alaska.
Days later we were in Texas, picking up the North Via South route as if we’d never left it. Our first stop was Dallas, where our friend Heidi from New York had moved some years back. Having a car is not only essential to the rest of our trip, but it is also essential in most U.S. cities. Long ago most places gave up on socialist fantasies like, “public transit” or “sidewalks” in favor of moving about encased in glass and steel, blowing the a.c. and singing to the radio. Heidi lives in a comfortable subdivision a few minutes (by car) outside of downtown. Unlike many other places not developed parallel to the rise of the automobile though, Texas has ample parking for all. Usually either for free or very close to it.
It was our first time in Dallas and we found ourselves liking its mix of extremely modern, post-modern and neo-classical style buildings. Like most cities on the Great Plains, Dallas can thank cattle, farming and oil for its wealth. Signs of its agricultural past tower over the freeway interchanges in the form of stoic grain elevators and countless iron rails laid across the streets. A more recent economic boom has brought cultural spaces like the new Dee and Charles Wyly Theater and the spotless and graceful Arts District into the heart of its downtown. Naturally we spent much of our time circling these new buildings, hunting for the best place from which to photograph them.
While we were cruising around the outskirts of downtown Dallas, we got on a roadway that looked somehow familiar. It descended slightly to duck beneath a railroad overpass with two grassy knolls on either side. A mysterious sense of déjà vu came over me and I glanced around, looking a book depository. It was back there, overlooking Dealey Plaza, the top windows giving it a perfect view of our passing car. A chill ran down my spine as we drove under the train tracks and out of sight.
Although I’d never been to the site of JFK’s assassination, I, like most Americans, have seen the place from every angle without ever stepping foot there. We returned and parked the car in a lot that is at the top of the infamous grassy knoll and walked until we were standing in the footprints of Abraham Zapruder, who occupied that spot filming the passing of the visiting President when he was assassinated. Like other visitors to the site, we pointed at the x’s marking roughly the two spots on the road where the Kennedy was shot, then swiveled our arms to the top of the book depository as if the shots had just been fired. A group of men who like us were born a decade after the incident stood in a group excitedly discussing the chain of events that most agree led to the assassination of the 35th President.
After Dallas we headed deep into the landscape that most typifies the American West: vast flat stretches of prairie-like grasses, acres of both cotton and corn. Little towns that once crowded the intersections of endless county roads are dormant now, windows cloudy with dust and cobwebs. We avoided the interstate in order to find these derelict jewels and zigzagged up the graph-paper like map. While we drove, the rows of agriculture flipped by like a blur of shuffling playing cards. An unbroken horizon drew out the sunset for hours, letting long shadows ripple over the fields and a bright orange glow kiss the occasional tree, house or oil derrick that dared challenge the extreme horizontal of the southern Great Plains.