Archives For America

89 Midwest Hiway

Somewhere in the Midwest… from my 1989 road trip. Not much has changed.


Borrowing from the Talking Heads, the title of this post perfectly describes the next few days of our trip. They don’t call it flyover country for nothing — because there ain’t much to see along the ground. We didn’t even take one photo!

Still, we did have experiences and memories, though nothing mind-blowing. And so, a collection of moments from nowhere…

Before taking off from Laramie, I needed to find a copy shop. Driving through the funky little college downtown with its Gunsmoke vibe, I thought of Matthew Shepard. As beautiful as Wyoming is, it seems like a lonesome, isolated place to be gay. I sent a silent hello up to him as we headed out.

We rolled across Wyoming and into Nebraska. It’s monotonous … just flat flat flat. No sense of mystery and magic like in the Southwest. We pulled into a motel in North Platte in late afternoon. The parking lot was empty. For the first time in our nonstop weeks of traveling, we both needed a nap. The hours of nothingness had drained the energy out of us. We were stunned to wake up in a dark room: we’d slept for two hours! The parking lot was full; I never heard a thing.

There weren’t many options for dinner. We went to a little Italian place that looked like a converted Arby’s. The food was okay; I wasn’t expecting Florence. I was shocked to see that beers were only a few bucks. I’m used to paying over ten in Boston. But what killed me was the house wine: Riunite Lambrusco. I didn’t even know they still made it! This was my sister’s drink of choice when I’d cross over into New Hampshire with my fake ID and we’d cruise around and crank tunes and party in my Camaro. Riunite…. wow. Maybe it’s still 1980 in North Platte.

The next day, still grinding across Nebraska, my oil change light came on. I Googled for a Jiffy Lube and headed off I-80 to Grand Island. I don’t know why it’s called that; we didn’t see any water around. Talking to the mechanic, he told me that the city had been nearly flattened by an epic tornado years ago — and that there’s a mountain of debris on the outskirts of town. I said tornados scared me, since they seem inescapable. He said that when the warning sirens go off, he grabs a beer and stands outside to watch the twisters move across the plains. Life in Nebraska, I guess.

In Iowa the scenery got a little more interesting. It was still farmland and barns, but I was surprised to see rolling hills. It lowered the monotony level a bit, but not much. My New Mexico friend Kelly grew up in Iowa. I don’t know how she did it — and I’m glad she got out.

Iowa has the distinction of my worst hotel for the entire trip. Why on earth did I pick a place that was an indoor water resort? I must have been delirious from weeks of driving. The rooms encircled a garishly lit indoor courtyard with pools and water slides. The entire place smelled of chlorine and felt more humid than Atlanta in August. It was disgusting. And loud. Two families with 37 kids next to our room banged their doors nonstop. Even Mtuseni, who can sleep through anything, was like, “WTF?”

The next morning we went to Perkins, a regional chain that felt nice and homey. I liked it, just simple eggs-and-toast breakfast — though it didn’t have the same hold on me as Waffle House. Sitting in the next booth were four hefty gay guys. One of them wore a “Pete for President” t-shirt. I was psyched. We were in Iowa, the first election of the upcoming 2020 primaries, so I thought the shirt was a good omen. I was Team Pete from the beginning, believing the country needed generational change. I even thought about working for the campaign, maybe in South Bend, after the trip was over.

On the second leg through Iowa, the rolling hills faded away — replaced by flat, agri-industrial land. The quiet rural beauty of the Midwest plains was fading away.

In the early afternoon we crossed the Mississippi for the last time. We’d seen it in New Orleans, then in Memphis, and now here, way up north. We stopped at a strange, deserted rest stop on a bluff overlooking the river. The trees and bushes, the scents and hints of fall color, all felt like home to me. It’s like we crossed the river and suddenly were in the Northeast. It brought a sense of comfort. I’d been missing that true feel of autumn as we got deep into October. Yet at the same time it made me feel a little sad. All those wild landscapes, the big skies, that indescribable Western vibration — it was all behind us. And the end of the trip felt very close.

Jackson road

After spending a day amid steaming geysers as Yellowstone prepared to shut down for the winter, it felt like a shift had occurred. The first days of our road trip — day after day after frikkin’ day — we trudged through stifling late-summer heat. Now we were scraping frost off the windshield in the mornings. It suddenly dawned on me how long we’d been traveling, and I was nervous about crossing the wide swath of flyover country that lie ahead. I’d driven it before in the opposite direction in 1989; it floored me how you could drive all day and still be in the same damn state!

The original itinerary was to swing southward into Colorado, which Mtuseni wanted to see. But I hadn’t planned anything, and my head was too frazzled to do any research or just wing it. So we began the long trek eastward.


Mtu JH cafe

The beginning of our last day in the West.


Before heading out, we took one last walk through Jackson Hole. We had breakfast in a cafe that felt a little incoherent — man buns in Wyoming? C’mon! But the food was good, and I soaked up my last taste of classic old Western decor. We picked up the requisite souvenir t-shirts. And of course we got a photo at the antler arch. I felt sad pulling out of town; like much of the American West, there’s an energy in Jackson that just captures me.

Jackson arch

For some reason I remembered this antler arch stretching completely over a street in Jackson in 1996. Is it a trick of memory? Did I imagine it? Am I losing it? Still pretty cool.


Jackson arch night

It’s pretty cool at night too. I think the purple was for Halloween.


Heading south on Rte 191, a sparkling river meandered alongside us through emerald hills and rocky passes for miles. Mtuseni said he couldn’t believe how clean the rivers were. It felt like we were in the Alps; I thought I’d see Julie Andrews singing and twirling around the next bend. 

After descending through the mountains, we drove across the most beautifully desolate terrain I’ve ever seen. Flat. Dry. Just a few tufts of scrubby grass here and there. In all directions. For miles. There weren’t even many cars on the road. It felt like we were the only people on Earth. We pulled into a nondescript turnout for a pee break — and as we stood in the middle of nowhere facing the western horizon and leaving our manly marks, a prairie dog popped up out of a hole and watched us. I’d never seen one before — and we never saw another. It was so cute, and I marveled that he could live in what looked like a wasteland of nothingness. He had no inkling of all the crap going on in the world; he was perfectly content in his empty patch of land. It’s probably the most profound piss stop I’ve ever had. 

In a tiny blink-of-an-eye place called Daniel Junction, I pulled into a gas station/store to grab something to drink. The place had the typical tall false front of old west commercial buildings — like something out of Gunsmoke — and a little cafe in front, just a few tables. Opening the door, the intoxicating scent of barbecue and grilled meat instantly made my mouth water — and I’m not a big meat eater.

I bought a couple of freshly made tri-tip burritos from the guy at the counter. I swear each one weighed five pounds. As I got back to the car, I looked up and was overcome by a beam of light from the heavens and a chorus of angels. A tall, trim, tan guy in his 30s — in jeans and chaps, boots and spurs, and wide brim cowboy hat — was walking up the steps to a cafe side door in front of the car. Honestly, he looked like a model from the Ralph Lauren western collection. He looked directly at me, smiled, and in a deep, warm radio voice said, “Hey. How’re you doing?” For a second I imagined us riding off on horseback together into the sunset. And some other things. I replied with my usual terse Boston “Hey.” He nodded and went into the cafe. I felt weak-kneed and woozy, like a schoolgirl. God, I love the West!


rockys fading

This snow-capped stretch of the Rockies stayed in view for hours, before finally fading away.


From the time we left Jackson, I kept looking back at the snow-capped Rockies — the same stretch of mountains we’d seen leaving Yellowstone. They were so beautiful and, corny as it sounds, majestic. I was amazed that we could see them for hours. Then suddenly they were gone. I felt sad; the Western leg of our road trip was truly over.

We continued east through scraggly, uninspiring country. I’d booked a hotel online in Rawlins, but when we got in the entire place smelled like cigarettes. The guy at the desk told me that was impossible; we were on the first floor and the second floor was the “smoking floor.” It’s been years since I’ve been in a place where magical invisible boundaries keep cigarette smoke contained — like the farce of “smoking areas” in restaurants. I cancelled the hotel and went to another place in Rawlins… which also reeked of smoke. Evidently when cigarettes are still 50 cents a pack, people smoke like chimneys everywhere. 

It was already dark. And it being Wyoming — still, after hours of driving — there wasn’t another hotel mecca just down the road. So we drove another 100 miles to Laramie. I’d have to check my Expedia account to remember what the hotel was like; I was beyond tired. 

Finally in the room, I unwrapped my burrito and tossed it after a couple of bites. The tri-tip — whatever that is — was like chewing leather. Mtuseni devoured his. He’ll eat anything that’s meat. As much as I lamented leaving the West, this delicate Easterner was ready for some sriracha noodles or oysters with mignonette or braised radicchio and orange salad.  

Yeah, it never would have worked with me and the Ralph Lauren cowboy.   

liberty close

A year ago today was Labor Day, and our first real adventure day on the Long-Distance Dad road trip. 

At the hotel in Jersey, we waited a half hour for a lost Uber driver who clearly never heard of deodorant. While it was hot that day (actually, it was brutal the whole month!) it was only 9:00 a.m. I would have appreciated wearing a mask in that tiny Honda Civic!  

After the most zig-zagging, convoluted drive ever, we finally arrived at Liberty Park to catch the ferry. Was fascinated by an abandoned railway station there, with an ornate wrought iron roof, and the old track signs. Mtuseni wasn’t that impressed.

liberty park stn both

Still trying to erase the stink of the Uber driver from our senses.


train station roof

I can picture this station once bustling with travelers on their own journeys to near and far. 


liberty ghost tracks

Paths to nowhere now… but once to many somewheres.


antique railroad destination track sign


Discovered the new Empty Sky 9/11 Memorial at Liberty Park, which points to where the Twin Towers had stood. Mtuseni knew surprisingly little of that event. A New Jersey reporter interviewed me about that day and my personal connection to it. Tough memories; simple but powerful memorial.


empty sky 9-11 memorial in new jersey


Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty were new sights for both of us. Ellis Island is so impressive. I got emotional thinking of my grandparents arriving from Eastern Europe. Such courage — they were only teeneagers! I want to return and dig into the archives, find their records.  

Check out our Instagram greeting from Ellis Island!


ellis sign mtu


ellis island outside

What immigrants must have thought — and felt — as they approached this grand building!


ellis sign

Crowds… I miss them now. 


great hall crowd

The Great Hall where my grandparents were processed. Just… wow.


great hall michael

Maybe before I die I’ll figure out selfies and selfie sticks. (Actually, I really don’t care.)


There is a room with walls covered in citizen documents. Just randomly scanning them, this one caught my eye. The woman lived in my hometown way back when — and I had just ridden my bike past her address days earlier. Crazy!


citizen doc

Butters Row was the road to my kindergarten. It still has a one-lane wooden bridge!


Mtuseni has wanted to see Miss Liberty since his first US visit seven years ago. He was so excited. It is a beacon of America, still — and forever, let’s hope. Exciting for me too as I had a small replica of it on my desk as a kid.


liberty boat

Crowds on a boat — the good old days.


liberty sky


mtu liberty front

Probably never imagined being here growing up in a shack in South Africa.


statue of liberty

Goober alert. (But hey, why not?)


liberty shop girls

My funny gift shop pals. I tried to be Mtuseni’s wing man on the trip; he wasn’t buying it. American girls intimidate him, I think. 


Took the ferry to Manhattan and walked to the World Trade Center and 9/11 Memorial. Ogled at the Oculus. (And got lost in it — the first of several times. Cool architecture, dumb layout.) 


outside wing of oculus in manhattan


oculus inside

Damn, I look exhausted. And it’s only the first full day! 


Took the subway to the Port Authority Bus Terminal … from the sublime Oculus to the armpit of the universe… and a quick shuttle bus back to the hotel. A great day… with so many ahead of us!


skyline from liberty both

I so wish we were there now. And that Mtuseni wasn’t 8,000 miles away.   


Back to Manhattan tomorrow!

Weight of the World

November 23, 2014 — 3 Comments

Mtuseni Nov 19, 04It’s hard to pinpoint when I reached that state of parenthood where every picture of my kid fills me with love and emotion. It doesn’t matter whether Mtuseni looks happy or grouchy or sick or bored: when I see a new photo of him my heart melts. But the photo he posted on WhatsApp the other day hit me another way. He just looks sad, and it nicked my heart. I asked him later if everything was okay and he said “I’m well” as he almost always does. But I know that with my taciturn son the still waters run very deep. Mtuseni looks like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders — and in many ways he does.

He’s been out of college classes now for a year — and it’s been almost five months since he graduated. He’s shocked that he can’t find a radio job. Not even an interview. Hell, not even a Christmas job. What shocks me is that he somehow thought he’d be handed a job ten minutes after graduation. I’ve told him that college grads in the US don’t even find jobs that quickly, but somehow he thought the very-real accomplishment of finishing college would carve a golden path through the mess of South Africa’s 60 percent youth unemployment rate.

Young people want everything right now, if not yesterday. And when you’re living in a shack, in a settlement where people resent you for opportunities you lucked into, that desire for quick change becomes desperation. There’s no more money from mom — just food and a bed — so his expenses all fall on me, which gnaws at his pride. The nearby community center where he could go online and job hunt no longer has Internet, and there are no library computers or wifi spots around. There’s no secure mail, so that application option is out.He seems to be more cut off just as he needs to be reaching out and branching out.

He’s frustrated and said he feels like South Africa is becoming a joke of the world. I don’t see things there getting much better any time soon. Was I naive and misleading to put him through college, telling him he’d have better opportunities? Even if a great job is far off, the experience helped him grow in so many ways that it was clearly worthwhile. And he’s resourceful and driven. He’s been helping set up a new community radio station in Diepsloot township… for free, but it’s experience. And we’re waiting to hear on his upcoming interview with City Year-South Africa. We met with the VP and toured the headquarters this summer in Boston, and Mtuseni was impressed with the people and the organization’s philosophy.

I’m lobbying hard for him to join City Year because it will greatly expand his network, give him more maturity (and a monthly stipend), and will add an impressive credential to his resume. Mtuseni told me that kind of thinking is a middle-class American luxury, and that when you’re living on the edge you just need a job now.

Because it’s tough being young and carrying the weight of a hard world on your shoulders.

Follow and share updates about the Long-Distance Dad book project on Facebook!