SUNDAY, MEMORIAL DAY weekend. 50. I buckle myself into an RV and flee to America. I never had traveled in an RV, never been alone or anonymous, never fended for myself, never visited most states. I was counting on novelty to forestall despair.
My plan was to do something obvious no one had thought of. Why not visit the graves of the presidents and vice presidents. Presidential grave-hopping is nothing new--but vice presidents? The vice presidents are fine company when you're feeling low. Except for the 14 who succeeded to the top job--and a few others noted for various achievements--these one-time titans have shriveled like popped balloons. It would take about six months. Add the rest of the 48 contiguous states and the inevitable postcard sites and I'd be busy for nine--a resonant total.
Climate and map set my route. Home was Bedford, N.Y., a well-groomed suburb an hour north of Manhattan. From Bedford I'd drive south to Pennsylvania, west across the Appalachians, zigzag through the heartland to the Rockies, hug the Pacific from Los Angeles to Seattle, and return home via the Great Lakes, taking in New York and New England during their flamboyant fall. Home through Christmas, I'd return to the road in January, visiting the Southeast--west to Texas--for my winter leg. The book I had in mind--well, I didn't really, just say what I saw. By looking, I've learned, you can see a lot. It's surprising how much.
Fueling Migrant takes 10 minutes. If I'm lucky, the nozzle will lock so I can do chores. It's amazing all you can get done in 10 minutes: rinse a dish; fold a towel; swab a windshield; scan a map. It's pleasant making use of empty time. I listen for the pump's beep. Sometimes, for reasons unfathomable, the nozzle's lock has been removed and I must stand in the stench, fingers aching, watching the gallon dial tick toward 50. Some people can wait equably anywhere. I envy their calm: why resist? My zeal is always to be making--a phrase, a smile, camp. Thwarted, I fuss.
This Interstate exit feels memorized: the same chain motels, vying for favor; the same ever-loftier canopies shading a parade of gas-pumps; the same McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Taco Bell and Burger King with their automatic cheer. Busier junctures sport malls, with Wal-Mart and Staples and Home Depot and Circuit City and Bed, Bath, and Beyond or the equivalent--and always, everywhere, the encroaching concrete barriers and crusted belching steam shovels and trucks wrecking and raking roads "to serve you better."
Monotony disheartens by making the world feel small. We travel thousands of miles to nowhere. Novelty invigorates by widening our sights. How can we render a negative verdict on life with so much unseen? Smaller roads rescue our humanity. Here we find characters, not cogs; local businesses, not faceless corporations. Exuberant flower gardens or flaking stoops tell stories. Two nearly identical farmer's markets half a mile from each other on the same sparse stretch make economic rivalry real. (McDonald's or Burger King--who cares?)
Kentucky Horse Park is a vast extent of fields, tings, arenas, and barns. Before engines, horses were our locomotion. Life, death, prosperity might be decided by a man's skill in the saddle. Today, horse-riding is an ornament. Somewhere near here is Churchill Downs. Saudi princes shift in their sleep, dreaming of roses.
The rich haul horses in trailers. They pay trainers, vets, grooms, equine shrinks--shamans and astrologers, for all I know. They spend on their horses, to show they can. They form horse associations and elect officers and squabble over rules. They imagine their squabbles matter.
The RV crowd can't afford horses. They keep dogs instead. Wide worried women walk tyrannical pooches on retractable leashes. When Fido yaps or snarls, his owner beseeches tolerance with a hapless smile. At my last stop, the RV beside mine contained three pleasant-looking mutts, which, during the day, their owner roped outdoors. Whenever anybody approached, these sentries barked, bringing the owner out of her van to scold them fondly. "I just don't know what's wrong with them today," she would declare. This woman was not unattractive, fortyish, I guessed, with a healthy hoyden complexion. There didn't seem to be a man in her van, or children. Her dogs explained her.
I love dogs. I love horses. All my boyhood I rode--around the ring, over fences, to hounds, to agreeable applause. I rode because we were supposed to--why else keep a stable? I tried to ride better than my siblings--or anyone else--to be loved more.
My dogs have mattered more to me than most humans. When my black Labrador, Paddle, died three years ago, I sobbed. I thought I never could cherish another dog, but then my heart pined and I accepted Hercules. Hercules also is a Labrador, brown. I left him home in my son's care. I thought of bringing him, but then this story would be of a man and his dog. I needed to be free to see.
Hurry. The day after tomorrow I am due in Knoxville, Tenn., to visit a friend. That means three dead guys in three cities in two days. Zachary Taylor is one of two presidents for whom we have no memorial--no museum, no library, no ancestral home, no birth cottage, nothing, only a modest tomb. (John Tyler is the other. His plantation, now privately owned, is closed to visitors.) Taylor's tomb may be found in a small national cemetery in Louisville, Ky. Anonymity is a strange fate for the hero of Buena Vista, a president so popular that, after his death--of cholera--16 months into his term, the funeral procession stretched nearly two miles, with tens of thousands of mourners lining the route.
Old Rough-and-Ready had not wanted to be president. He was a soldier. He hardly combed his hair. His clothes look dusty. Warriors find politics distasteful. Their worlds are simpler--friend or foe, life or death, right or wrong--none of this mincing and nuance. Taylor saw the looming split...