On the road, which is not quite the road that Jack Kerouac described, four grime-gray lanes of Interstate 5 glide between two conical peaks about 100 miles south of Seattle.
On the left, perhaps 40 miles distant, God's peak, Mount St. Helens, is intermittently spouting wisps of stream. On the right, perhaps a mile across the muddy Columbia River, man's peak, the Trojan nuclear plant, spouts similar wisps.
For a moment earlier this year, when St. Helens blew her top with a classic mushroom cloud and other accoutrements of a 50-megaton explosion, some of the natives hereabouts feared that God's peak might turn unusually wrathful -- that this modern Helen might be used to even an ancient score with the Trojan horse on the Columbia.
The nuclear plant, high-strung and balky, sits on the edge of the Columbia River, which is virtually lapping at its massive base. When Helen vented, she sent a wall of mud and water racing down river valleys and into the Columbia just above Trojan.
The water rose ominously at Trojan's base. But God let man off the hook once again. In the end, the broad expanse of the river carried the crud -- mud, water, dead animals and pieces of houses -- downstream to trap Japanese ships in Portland's harbor instead of giving the locals a small taste of what the Japanese got 35 years ago. So goes it.
In a meandering 6,000-mile journey across America -- one that will take me from lonely Western desert roads to winding Appalachian mountain lanes -- it is apparent that American moods are perking as restlessly as Mount St. Helens. It is as if the American psyche is divided, cast on a puzzling split screen. "The people I talk to think their own future is bright, the world's future grim," says a guy in Las Vegas. "I guess that's the way I look at it, too."
The feeling is strongest in the isolated West. But it dissipates only slightly as my trip takes me closer and closer to the city on the Potomac.
Now the gray grime left over from the flood that Trojan escaped reaches 15 feet up the trunks of dying Douglas fir trees along I-5, the color matching the hue of the highway; Trojan perks on unmolested and the highway stretches on endlessly, the first skeletal link in a meandering journey south and east to Washington, D.C.
Quickly, the freeway becomes a mindless blur, the Shanghai Sauna and Message Parlor sign merging into an ancient John Birch Society billboard that has given up on impeaching Earl Warren and now calls for impeaching all of Washington instead.
Winnebagos with bumper stickers that boat, "Small Cars Save Gas For Me" rumble past Civics that urge "Save Fuel -- Burn a Winnebago." Honking when you pass a car that says "Honk If You Love Jesus" gets a glare, sometimes the high sign, for the effort. Tooting at a "Honk If You Hate" car gets an ear-to-ear grin. So goes it.
The second day out, my nephew, Steve, takes me floating down the isolated Umpqua River in Oregon. Floating is a sport that has not yet been immortalized by the new urban adventurers. Its object is more meditation than challenge, using a crude wooden boat like a small whaler to ride quietly on the current, entertained not by rapids but by hovering redheaded buzzards and majestic egrets.
The float is not working. The tide from the Pacific, 16 miles downstream, is overwhelming the Umpqua's current, and so we row, Steve says he has never had such a bad float. It isn't supposed to be this way. Nothing in the Northwest woods is supposed to be the way it is this summer.
In the forests along the river strong, sinewy young men like Steve are gathering ferns for florists instead of felling trees no one wants. This is because no one is building houses because no one can afford the mortgage rates because someone in far-off Washington decided to put the clamps on.
Steve can beat the Umpqua and the tide, applying the sinew to the oars. He can beat a rain-forest downpour, digging pitch out of a rotting tree to light a fire in the sheets of water, the way his father taught him, the way his father, my brother, taught me and all of us. He is not sure he can beat the far-off Washington that has his friends picking ferns.
At the mouth of the Umpqua, in Reedsport and down the Oregon coast in Coos Bay, the mills are chewing up finished lumber, which no one wants to buy, and converting it to chips for pulp, which people don't need mortgages to afford. It's as if Chrysler were transforming its unwanted Imperials into beer cans because financing isn't needed for a sixpack.
"Shit," says Steve and it is a word I will hear over and over, as a description of presidential candidates, and Washington's whimsies, in a hundred sentences that defy parsing and occasionally defy logic but are loaded with quiet passion.
Not far north of Reedsport, Carter Lake lies almost hidden in the mists that billow each day over the Oregon dunes. It lies next to Lost Lake.
On the day President Carter was renominated in far-off New York, 13-year-old Ching Mei, a Chinese-American from San Francisco, stood alone in the reeds along the shore of Carter Lake, staring at a single loon mournfully wailing.
The country, young Ching Mel said, was "going down." He wrote off Jimmy Carter with a graceful sweep of the hand, a Tai Chi Chinese exercise sweep taught him by his father, a Tai Chi master in San Francisco. e
And Ronald Reagan? Reagan was too old for Ching Mei, a "wrinkled old actor" who offered no hope, either, Ching Mei's father fled Inner Mongolia in his 60s, started a new family here in his 70s, sired the boy when he was 74 and still practices as a Tai Chi master at 87. So goes it.
On the road away from the Umpqua the town of Remote, Ore., comes and goes quickly, Interstate 5 passes through Riddle and then through the Siskiyou Mountains into California where the place names change abruptly from Indian to Spanish, the landscape from wild green to cultivated brown, the sky from crystal blue to pea-soup yellow.
The winds turn from the warm Chinooks of the Northwest to the hot and ghostly Santa Anas and then, after a left turn amid the oil derricks of Bakersfield, into the raw, scorching gales of the desert.
At Tehachapi, where the cemetery is the last green patch, the scrawny trees turn to cactus and the roadside signs offer "Desert Estates" in vast expanses of sagebrush marred only by mobile homes.
Islands, oases in a wasteland as far from Washington. D.C., as King George was from the colonists, emerge abruptly here -- Ridgecrest and China Lake, Calif., towns that grew up to serve the spook works of a military that needs isolation for Stealth; Reno and Las Vegas, towns that grew up to serve the spook works of the soul.
There is a neat paradox in the mood of the people in the desert -- for that matter, in the mood of the people almost everywhere more than an hour beyond the banks of the Potomac. Far-off Washington has life screwed up, the future starts with Steve's sh, the presidential election choices are downright sh, ending in y.
But life is not all that bad at Paul and Vivian Miller's Windy Acres ranch house, where the town of Ridgecrest ends and the desert stretches off toward Death Valley.
Paul is bitterly sick of the televideo image of politics and government that intrudes nightly beneath the little plaster of Paris sign that reads "Home is Where the Heart Is," just to the right of a twin wall hanging that asks God to bless the place where his and Vivian's hearts are.
The screen pours out political convention scenes of "this great American introducing that Great American" and, with all those Great Americans around, Paul Miller doesn't understand that the devil is wrong back there in Washington.
But he figures Ridgecrest, which thrives only because Washington is building more and more weapons, is alive and well, thank you, and he feels, paradoxically that it will remain so if only Washington will just leave it alone. Windy Acres can repel the scorching desert winds on its own -- he and his neighbors are looking at a kindly future even if the country beyond the desert is coming apart at the seams.
Beyond Death Valley, where the desert blooms in the neon of Las Vegas, Harold Parks starts to use the sh adjective to describe his feelings about Carter and Reagan, then just says "they stink," realizing precariously late that he is in what amounts to a House of God.
Parks runs the Little Chapel Around the Corner, which performs 4,000 marriages a year, at $20 a hitching, no blood test required, a belief in God -- "but he can be named Buddha or what ever' -- desired by the management.
Parks came to Las Vegas in 1957 as a security guard for the nuclear tests out at nearby Yucca Flats, got a "pretty good dose" of the radiation everyone is worrying about now, rationalizes that such experiences are just one of the little risks one takes like walking across the street but enjoys marrying people off much better.
Parks is a curbstone philosopher who has concluded that people are individually happy, collectively unhappy in 1980. "I've given up on the Carters and the Reagans, the cure-all plans out of Washington that always seem to make things worse. But I haven't given up on myself, because I'm happy here. The sun always shines."
In the '60s Kerouac's road took him through a different country, a country of intellectual rebellion with disillusioned youth and angry elitists threatening a government they believed was not listening. The road in the '80s seems calmer -- but only because it is the voiceless, the northwest lumberjack or the Midwestern truckdriver, whose anger is directed toward a government, a government now populated ironically, by some of those same people who rebelled in the '60s.
The folks out along the road, the unKerouac-like road, would like to talk to you people in Washington, D.C., not just the man on Pennsylvania Avenue, but the people inside the building where this story is being published, the people who smile out at them from television screens, the people who shuffle out the billions as if a dollar sign followed by a couple of digits and a long row of zeroes answers all delemmas, the bureaucrats who write them form letters that don't make sense.
They want to tell you that your stories are missing the point, your dollars aren't getting there, your answers are delusions as often as not. They think you are deluded, perhaps by your semblance of power, but they are not. Perhaps that, too, is a delusion. But they think their own individual lives are working better than the ones you are trying to form, or describe, for them. a
The road out of Las Vegas quickly fades into desert again, skirts the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, passes the sun-bleached Top of the World Bar at the Great Divide, wanders through the Indian reservations of New Mexico past ancient native faces that stare back blankly -- desert road maps of furrows and wrinkles, life's roadways leading off to lost water holes and faded dreams.
Up the old Santa Fe Trail the road arrives at Dodge City, Kan., where the roadside sign reads "Welcome to the Old West" after 3,000 meandering miles heading East.
From there the landscape begins to turn green again, although in the summer of 1980 the great drought has left groves of trees, fields of corn, well-tended front yards in death brown as the road winds through Kansas, Missouri and into Kentucky.
At Paducah, Ky., the mighty Ohio River prepares to empty into the Mississippi and its rampages constantly threaten the town. In the great flood of 1937 the water relentlessly rose up the banks, crested at 60 feet and inundated all of Paducah.
The federal government and its forces from the far-off city on another river built a flood wall 12 miles long and as tall as two men to prevent that from happening again.
The Rev. Willie Bradshaw, a black preacher who tends to a flock of 155 at the Church of Christ on Ninth St. has lived behind the wall all his life. Being a black in what he calls "the wingtip of the south," he looked most of his life to the federal government for sustenance and help.
Bradshaw was brought up wanting the federal government to come to Paducah, as a benign protector. Now, in a quiet and admittedly metaphysical way, he looks at the federal wall -- which stands nicely to the north in the direction of Washington, D.C. -- and he wants the wall to keep the feds and the river out.
Bradshaw feels lost in the maze of a presidential election that inexplicably is talking about the Klan, about Darwinism and about racism and hatred. A churchman, he feels equally lost in the flutter of revivalist politics (racist politics, he believes) and is as leery of the television Moral Majority evangelists as he is the television politicians.
"We got politicians tending to chuckholes in the soul," Bradshaw says, "and preachers tending to chuckholes in the streets."
Bradshaw's two sons -- Patrick, 12, and Gregory, 7 -- are doing handstands in the pews of the little church on Ninth Street. He tries to look ahead at their future, just as millions of American parents do, and he sees a future that is fine, just fine, behind the wall in Paducah. Beyond the wall, the future is more cursed.
The dichotomy is the same everywhere. Dropping down out of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, the roadway finally approaches the city.
On a bright Saturday afternoon, the hot summer fading into a balmy fall, the cab driver tells me that Washington is a great place to live, much better than when I left it six years ago, but the rest of the world is sure screwed up.
Carter and Reagan? They start whith sh, he said. Congress? It ends in ty. But life around the corner at Calvert and Biltmore? Nice, he said. So goes it.