June 6, 2016
We’re still 400 miles from our destination and I don’t have to drive at the moment. The pavement roars by, punctuated by the sound of kamikaze insects slamming into windshield. Eric, my good friend and veteran of many long road trips, drives a lot now that we are in British Columbia, since I’m better at working the cameras. We can both tolerate silence. I can’t speak for Eric, but I am grateful for the occasional times during this loud trip when I don’t have to speak over the road noise, an ugly sonic stain attached all of my video footage, even the good bits. It is in these moments, the spaces between interesting conversations and at time frenetic work of digitally harvesting a memory of the landscape (which doesn’t change nearly as often as driving at 70 mph would make you think but I still can't stop taking pictures), I have time for silly questions. “Was this driving trip to Alaska a good idea?” is a solid example of a silly, silly question. 2,800 miles into a 3,800 mile road trip is a poor time to be questioning your road trip choices, but here I am. I have a plane ticket, one way, Juneau to BWI, and a reservation with the Alaska Marine Highway to carry myself, Eric, and this car down to Juneau, AK from Skagway, AK. It’s, um, a bit late to be wrestling with this question.
Of course, being in the process of the trip doesn’t invalidate the question of what it is worth. Had I talked myself into something that was just completely stupid, this romantic road trip across an entire continent? “Would I be able to get anything for this car once we get to Juneau?” is the more practical question to consider. I avoid it. It implies that we will get this car up to 201,000 miles without any problems. While I have every reason to believe that will happen, it seems like jinxing it to take that completely for granted. “Will my document of this trip make any sense to anyone?” Oh, hey another silly question, one that’s way too intense and ultimately unknowable to spend much time thinking about while the drive is still happening and before we get to the good parts. The most urgent question though, the one that keeps coming up on Day 4 on this drive across North America is “When are we going to see the Rocky fucking Mountains?”
We were starving for mountains, Eric and I. Our destination this evening is the Mile 0 Campground (in Mile 0 Park, which includes a Pioneer Village we do not visit), just over Alberta’s western border with British Columbia. This campground is farther north than I have ever been in a motor vehicle that couldn’t get you 30,000 feet into the air (I landed in Reykjavik once, and that’s 64 degrees of latitude, hard to top that one). If we had driven straight west from Edmonton, instead of north by north west (no crop dusters, this is the land of oil and gas), we would have hit Jasper National Park, one of the most spectacular places on Earth, and the heart of the Canadian Rockies. Instead, my dumb ass played it safe and we have to ride the rim of the Great Plains for another day. We roll into Dawson Creek (yeah, I always make that joke in my head, too — I don’t wanna wait for our lives to be over) having seem some cute hills and lots and lots and lots green and not so green fields, punctuated by the occasional body of water. Cripes, the Great Plains are boring.
One Month Earlier
The car taking us on this not-so-wild ride is a 1997 Subaru Legacy L. The driver’s side door can’t be unlocked from the driver’s side. It eats headlight lamps. The boxer engine sounds, er, unhealthy, a bit on the knock side. The car is either a hotbox or an extension of the frozen tundra. The key and the trunk don’t quite get along. I have no choice but to deal with that because the driver’s side trunk release doesn’t work. The seat cushion structure is more a matter of imagination than physical support. The passenger seat is encrusted with the remains of some unknowable liquid concoction that is quite ugly, though that usually doesn’t matter because 97% of the time I ride solo. The tape player doesn’t work. The CD player doesn’t work. The LCD screens don’t light up, so it is useless to attempt to know the time after nightfall. The cigarette lighter (yes, the car is old enough that it was an actual cigarette lighter) is barely connected to the car and it has to be just right to power my puny little FM transmitter, my lifeline to the world of podcasts that keep me sane while driving the highways and traffic choked streets of our nation’s capital, the worst part of my freewheeling freelance lifestyle. It was one of the last Subarus ever made without standard all-wheel drive, which makes driving in the snow an adventure in momentum (and terror) management. The brakes are a bit soft until all of a sudden they are not. This is my car. But not for much longer.
Now, I Mean Right Now
“Why the hell did you drive to Alaska? I didn’t even think that was possible.” Driving to Alaska is such a fanciful idea that it is inscrutable to most. Even when they grasp the geography of it (still on the same continent, y’all), the scale of it is so vast that people have no referent for it. I can tell from the way that the conversation moves that a large part of their lizard brains simply do not believe what I just said. “I drove to Florida” one person tells me in response and the conversation flows away from this epic trek (WE DID IT!) to the more mundane concerns of the here and now, the believable things. These lights won’t clean themselves. They balk even harder at the idea that the car didn’t come back with me. “Wait, what?” Yeah, I left my car in Juneau. The one in Alaska. Not quite as catchy as leaving my heart in San Francisco, but still. I can’t say that I blame them. I can’t always answer the question myself. Why did Eric and I drive to Alaska?
“I kinda don’t 100% know myself yet, but I think I will” is not an acceptable answer to that question in polite company. I wanted to do something great with a car that by all mechanical conceptions of your average driver should not have made the trip. Alaska is the only state that I hadn’t at least passed through the airport in (Hawaii and Nevada, you are next, promise). I wanted to make a movie and create blog posts and be one of those people I so admire on the Internet (Brian Phillips, Blair Braverman both did much more interesting things in and around Alaska — I’ll wait for y'all to come back from those long reads). I hedge when asked the question in person. I can’t actually bring myself to say such an audacious thing aloud, certainly not in front of, you know, people (on the Internet? Whatevs). For some reason, admitting that type of ambition feels ridiculous, like how dare I. “Because I can” is a justification that I linger over, as lazy and privileged as that feels. It cuts to the core of more than just one choice about one trip, but rather the entirety of my current career trajectory. I am a freelancer. “Because I can” is a pointed statement about the great existential question of why one would pursue any “career,” whatever the hell that word means in the age of the gig economy. I prove the meaningfulness of my choice to self employ by making these plans and taking this, and other such, trips, something I would never have the courage to do if I had played it safe and stuck to having one job at a time. Now, we're getting closer.
It took me a long time to join the gig economy. I am as risk averse as any human being (which is to say, very), so I clung to the perceived safety of a staff position with regular hours, such as they are, in the world of not-for-profit theatre, for 7 or so years. But when I was actually one of those regular job people, it was impossible not to be reminded of Thoreau’s incisive observation: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Is that a cliché? Maybe, but it’s not wrong. I count myself among that mass of people. As a freelancer, I am now at least free to resist that desperation. How does an anxious creative person struggling to get the rest of the world to recognize the value of that creativity set those fears at rest, at least for awhile? Panic is never far from the surface, go a few days without a gig, even if I am exhausted, and I can’t help but be worried about my career, my lovelife, my future. There is only one way for me to set that panic aside. I ask myself, every day, “Did you do something creative today?” and make gorram sure that the answer is yes.