Mike Bland

Instigator

Day 2, Jan 31: Harrisburg, PA to Bristol, VA

Back home in Virginia for the second day of my Great American Road Trip

- Memphis, TN
Tags: GART, Jimi, personal
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Had the best intentions of hitting the open road at the crack of dawn, but barely made it out before the crack of noon. This is a big step, y’know? Pushing out the huge psychic blockage preventing me from leaving the apartment and living the dream took a lot of energy. So I take it easy, treat myself to the continental breakfast of an apple, instant oatmeal, and strawberry/banana yogurt (thankfully, I couldn’t taste the banana at all!). I was the only one there.

This isn’t really a solo trip. I pull out my Strat when I get back to the room. We spend quality time together for about 40 or 45 minutes before we take back to the road. The Guitar Techniques magazine was a good investment. Since I started taking lessons again in July, focusing on jazz, I started picking up on a lot of small-but-important ideas and techniques that I’d missed for years and years. This particular issue of GT is full of small bits of wisdom, useful exercises, and nifty licks—and has Jimi on the cover, with a transcription of “Hey Joe”—and these days points about chord progressions and qualities and scales and modes aren’t so lost on me.

However, I haven’t seriously played with other musicians in years. Yes, I’m learning new stuff, and I’m getting better, but none of it matters if I only pick up and plug in in my living room, or in a hotel room. One of these days, soon I hope, I’ll get to a point where I’ll be able to hang. Fear is the greatest friction.

To my surprise, some friends responded to my Google+ post. In fact, a couple of them either were from or went to college in Memphis, my first stated destination. Memphis is the birthplace of Rock ’N Roll, and it seemed a great first choice in major destination along my rambling path. They sent suggestions and some good friends of theirs my way. Funny how things like that just start to happen when one stops finding reasons not to act, and just gets on with it.

Gorgeous day, open road. I spent the vast majority of my life in my hometown of Hampton/Newport News (practically the same town), and I’d often drive to Northern Virginia or out to the Shenandoah Valley. On those trips, I’d sometimes bring CDs to play, but mostly I’d flip around on the radio, seeing what sort of sounds fate would send my way over the airwaves. This was actually a hugely happy part of my life that I took for granted, and now I’m happily reconnected with it.

I’m finding I enjoy National Public Radio quite a bit. Before this trip, I’d known about NPR for years, but this is the first time I’d really had a chance to get into it. The level of discourse on political, social, and economic topics somewhat more elevated and less bombastic from what I was used to before getting rid of cable TV, and a bit more in-depth and coherent than what I get from online news sources. People speak with as much respect for one another’s viewpoints as they do with conviction for their own. Plus, I’ve added a couple of new books to my reading list, thanks to a couple of author interviews: Quiet by Susan Cain; and Man Seeks God by Eric Weiner.

Early in the Eric Weiner interview, he mentioned, in passing, the Chinese concept of the “world of dust”, the material world absent of spirituality. I’m not a particularly spiritual person in any traditional religious sense, but images such as this exert a firm grip on my mind. After all, what is the Great American Road Trip if not a spiritual metaphor, a modern-day Holy Grail quest, an existential mystery manifest in concrete physical experience? Why am I doing this? What do I hope to find when I get to the Left Coast, weather permitting I get there?

I am very, very fortunate to have the luxury of affording the time and expense to drive cross-country, listening to the radio and meditating on the nature of the world of dust as I sip on my Diet Coke. I do not, currently, have to worry about food and rent and safety, nor providing for children. I do not, currently, have an occupation, that All-American bedrock of identity that explains one’s place in society and how one contributes to it. None of these things are concerns for the near future—outside of making for awkward conversational moments when the ubiquitous “What do you do? Who do you work for?” spotlight shines on me—but I’ll have to face them all at some point. I may be the last of my generation of friends to grow up; I’m the last one still running from something, instead of standing for anything.

At around 1:45pm, I stop in Winchester, VA for lunch at The Daily Grind, in the old downtown section on the pedestrian mall. Again, perfect weather. There are people, but still it’s very peaceful and quiet. I have friends here, but I don’t call them. They’re working, they have a child and a house and careers, and I don’t, and it’s been a while since we’ve seen each other anyway. We’re in different worlds now. Don’t want to drop in and disrupt their day. Yes, that’s fear and friction at work. I excuse myself on the basis that I want to make it to Bristol, at the far southwestern corner of the commonwealth, not too long after sundown, so I’ll be fresh for the big drive to Memphis the following day. One step at a time.

There are few things more glorious than cruising through the Shenandoah Valley, the Blue Ridge Mountains as a backdrop, farms and fields and cattle (and one alpaca) dotting the hills, on a warm and sunny afternoon. The only thing more glorious is doing the same on a brisk autumn afternoon when the leaves are in full color. Still, I take what I can get; if I’d waited ‘til autumn, I’d’ve likely found a new excuse to wait until the following autumn.

While still ruminating on the world of dust, the radio reminds me that despite the suffering and problems in the world, there are moments of beauty, raw, direct beauty, that keep things interesting and hopeful. They don’t have to be particuarly spectacular, deep, grandiose things:

Spied a little thing and I followed her all night
In a funky fine Levi’s and her sweater’s kind of tight
She had a west coast strut that was as sweet as molasses
But what really knocked me out was her cheap sunglasses
Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah

Just north of Bristol, I call my mother to let her know of my new adventure. She’s a little surprised, and a little not. This is a pattern. In 1998, I moved to St. Louis to “pursue music”, but ended up packing shipping boxes for a graphics company. After Mark McGwire’s 70-home run season ended, and the city-wide adrenaline faded, I decided to come home to give computer science a chance. In 2005, after being long-frustrated at work and visiting NYC for the first time, I quit my job, sold my house, stored my stuff, and set out to find a job in the city. I ended up working for Google in Mountain View a short while later, until I was able to move to the NYC office in 2008. In 2011 I quit Google, and now in 2012, here I am traipsing across the land with no clear goal in mind.

But back to speaking of molasses, I make it to Bristol around 7:30pm. Everywhere I stop, everybody talks with a really thick Southern accent. I eat it up, and start paying more attention to my own accent, to see if I start twanging more. It’s not just that the accent is kind of sweet, or that it’s not something you really hear too often in the city, but the people are sincerely nice when they’re talking to you. It’s not a bother to interact, it’s not a facade to be nice, they don’t have something else to get to, they’re not competing with you to see who’s got the most impressive intellectual and linguistic chops. Folks are just relaxed and nice and, well, happy to see you, it seems. This is a bit idyllic and naïve, perhaps; being from the South, I’m not blind to its history and continuing issues. But in general, I really believe these are good people, and the connection feels easy and warm, even though it’s best if we don’t discuss religion and politics just yet.

I check into the Holiday Inn. The WiFi isn’t really working in my room, so I draft an itinerary for my trip over the next few weeks using the driving time map in the back of the Michelin atlas. Man, there’s a lot of driving I plan to do. But then, the plan may change. The weather may make some decisions for me, particuarly how far west and north I wander, which would push me south instead. I might get tired and/or find what I’m looking for and turn back before reaching the Left Coast. But at least I have a rough idea of what I’m in for. The need for “some kind of plan” doesn’t exist anymore, at least not for the next four weeks.