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Cours de philosophie


Crossing the US by car
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hp   Bob: So, you are on the go. How are you gonna travel to the East Coast? Will you take the plane?

hp   François: I plan to cross the US with my car.

hp   B.: With your car! But didn't you throw a rod a few weeks ago on San Mateo bridge?

hp   F.: Yeah, but AAA came and towed the Chevy II to a repair shop.

hp   F.: When I told the mechanic I intended to go to Boston with it, François added with a laugh, he looked at me puzzled and said that in his opinion the car would not make it past Sacramento. But I think these Chevrolet engines are unbreakable.

hp   F.: And, what the hell, didn't Nietzsche say "the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is to live dangerously"?

hp   François kissed Vicky goodbye. They agreed that after his arrival in Boston he would join her in Niagara Falls where she was gonna be staying at friends's.

hp   He packed all his belongings in two small trunks, a suitcase and a couple bags, put them in the boot and on the back seat, and one early morning of August hit the road.

hp   The weather was warm and sunny, the freeways unencumbered, and the car ran like clockwork. By noon, Sacramento was already far behind. François had crossed the Sierra Nevada near Donner Pass, and entered Nevada.

hp   He planned to stay on Interstate 80 for the next 4000 kilometers, till he reached Cleveland, where he would take Interstate 90 toward Buffalo, in upstate New York, and end up on the Massachusetts turnpike to Boston and Cambridge.

hp   The most striking feature of the stretch through Nevada was the starkness of landscapes and the immensity of skies.

hp   During the long hours of driving, his mind roamed as unshackled as François himself. In various places he crossed, he had memories either from past experiences or from readings.

hp   In Reno, some months earlier, he had gone to a casino and felt the strange atmosphere with no windows, no clocks, no sense of time, and the gamblers, old and young alike, looking addicted, faintly mad, swarming the roulette and blackjack tables, or alone like automatons actioning one-arm bandits.

hp   At Winnemucca, NV, he remembered that it was the place where Mrs Madrigal, the unforgettable character of the Tales of the City, had lived in her youth. And he thought about life at 28 Barbary lane, described by Armistead Maupin, which appeared so zany and yet was so true, as he could attest because he had lived a similar one in Palo Alto.

hp   In the evening of the first day, he reached Utah, traversed Salt Lake City, the first big city with business skyscrapers since San Francisco, and kept on going eastward to Wyoming.

hp   Around midnight, near Laramie, WY, he had driven 1800 kilometers and decided to call it a day. He didn't check into a motel or anything, but lurched in a shallow ditch by roaside, stopped the engine, put the handbrake on, and fell asleep on the front seat.

hp   At four o'clock in the morning, he was woken up by the breathing of fillies, from the neighbouring field along which he was parked, poking their heads through the open front car window. It was Mary O'Hara's novel, My Friend Flicka, which he loved so much, in a French translation, when he was a kid, which popped up to mind this time.

hp   He poured himself a cup of strong coffee from the Thermos bottle and got going.

hp   The next city was Cheyenne. Even though the section of the journey geographically speaking was still in the Rocky Mountains, there Route 80 unfurled in rolling hill country between Wyoming mountains in the north and Colorado mountains and ski resorts in the south.

hp   Then François entered Nebraska. In North Platte, he thought of William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), "The Boy Orator of the Platte", the famous figure of American politics of the end of the XIXth century and the beginning of the XXth century, who marked so strongly the American psyche, even if some may not be aware of it.

hp   Bryan was a moving character, at the same time very progressive, not to say advanced, from a social standpoint, and very conservative in matters of religion and education. He was a proponent of many social laws which were all eventually voted long after his death. But in the "Scopes Monkey trial" of 1925, he defended the biblical view of the universe and the interdiction to teach Darwin's ideas in schools.

hp   The second day of driving through the western part of the Middle West was monotonous, just punctuated with stops at petrol stations to refill the tank with gasoline and the Thermos with coffee, and get food at some roadside store or diner.

hp   After Omaha in Nebraska, the road continued to Iowa and the state capital, Des Moines, one of the rare places around there not bearing an Indian name. At the end of another 15 hour lap, François decided to sleep in a bed, and stopped at a motel the blue neon sign of which he sighted glaring in the night before Davenport.

hp   The morning of the third day the journey crossed a major landmark, the wide Mississippi river at Davenport, IA, in the glorious sunrise light, and continued through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio. At Cleveland, OH, on Lake Erie, as planned François left route 80 and headed north-east. He drove through a small chunk of Pennsylvania, before entering New York state a few miles after Erie.

hp   That night again, he slept in his car on the road bank near Buffalo. Niagara Falls was only twenty kilometers away, but his goal next day was to reach Cambridge and leave his car and stuff there.

hp   That fourth day, he went though New York state (Rochester, Syracuse, Albany) in the early morning and reached Massachusetts, the final state of the trip, around 10 o'clock.

hp   In the Berkshire Hills, the car which had been so reliable for more than 4500 kilometers began to show signs of fatigue. The engine overheated and lost power. The throttle pedal seemed no longer to command speed.

hp   Eventually François had to stop in a forest near Springfield, MA, to let the motor cool off. Would he have to call AAA just a few hundred kilometers from his goal? he wondered. That would be an irksome setback so close to the end.

hp   After half an hour of rest, however, the engine started without trouble and she appeared to have sufficiently recovered to go on. François drove more slowly, and somewhat anxiously, up to Cambridge where he arrived in the afternoon.

hp   He had covered 5000 kilometers in three and a half days.

hp   He parked the car on Memorial Drive, along the Charles River, near MIT buildings which he had visited in the spring, took the suitcase, and flagged a cab to go to Logan airport and fly back to Niagara Falls.

hp   At nine in the evening, he landed at Buffalo airport, where Vicky was waiting for him.

hp   V.: Hey, François, you look thinner than last week. How was your trip?

hp   F.: The trip was fine. It's wonderful to see you again, Vicky. I'll tell you all about it later if you don't mind.

hp   She drove him to her friends in Niagara Falls, and after minimal greetings he excused himself and went to sleep.


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