Oh what a mighty spewage of vinyl weighs heavy on this land!
A dark mood spread through the body politic like a septic infection last week in response to bad numbers in employment, housing, and commerce, not to mention unease about the now complete takeover of the stock market by robot traders. But I left it all behind to trip across New England from the Vermont border to Maine and back, and many a strange thing did I see….
New Hampshire’s got their state motto on the license plate wrong: Live Free or Die. It ought to read Live Free and Die. Just north of Concord on I-89 there’s a highway rest stop. The primary retail outlet there is… the state liquor store! Yes, for some reason the New Hampshire government controls the sale of liquor. Puritan guilt? Creeping socialism? Who knows. Apparently some brilliant state wonk got the idea that they could maximize revenue by selling liquor to motorists. Now, granted, not everybody motoring up I-89 is an alcoholic, but surely some of them are. Maybe it’s a scheme to kill off the Boston Irish — but at some risk to the citizens of The Granite State. Note: there was no coffee shop on the premises. I kid you not.
Meanwhile, New Hampshire’s little wedge of seacoast has been completely coated in vinyl, as if some angry god decoupaged the darn thing after eating a bad clam roll. The world has never before seen an array of seaside cottages so uniquely hideous as the ones we passed from Seabrook to Portsmouth. The owners had managed to try every proportioning system and every color scheme known to man — except the right ones. They made your eyeballs wobble in their sockets just motoring by them on US Route 1-A — and we were not unaware, of course, that our presence on the road, along with ten thousand other pleasure-seeking tourists, only made these houses seem worse by dint of the highway’s toxic proximity.
We stopped for lunch in a clam bar, naturally. The dining room was populated by a new race of humanoid behemoths, great lumbering brutes the size (and shape) of giant sloths, only dressed in the raiment of clowns, downing heaps of battered fried things, purportedly of-the-sea — except I honestly don’t see how there can be anything alive left to catch out there with the industrial-strength trawlers scraping the ocean floor as if they were Zamboni machines grooming the rink at the Boston Garden. I would like to tell you that we ordered cucumber sandwiches but it would be a lie. We got the clam strips — that is, clam rolls minus the rolls. For all I know, someone in the kitchen is shredding old Michelin inner tubes for the Fry-o-later, but it’s all about the cocktail sauce anyway.
There were more giant sloths wading curiously in the surf (still hungry perhaps?) as we crossed the border into Maine, where you really want to weep for your nation. Is there any way to fuck up a landscape that has not been tried there, short of all-out war (which might actually have the benefit of`clearing a lot of muck away)? Maine is where the oil fields of Texas crawled off to die, and left their remains in a thousand miniature golf courses, giant plastic signs shaped like lighthouses, lobsters, schooners, whales, fisher-folk and other ghost-like entities no longer of this world, and enough asphaltic free parking to accommodate the automobile club of the hosts of hell.
The awful cavalcade prompted me to remember that it’s all over for this stuff and the pattern of culture it represents. What you are seeing is the residue of an economy that no longer exists. I doubt we will build any more of it. You’re just left wondering what becomes of it all now that we slouch toward oil depletion, climate change hijinks, the vanishing of capital, penury, and possibly starvation. In the years ahead there will be fewer and fewer vehicle miles recorded on these inevitably disintegrating highways — with the sharp sea air gnawing away at every I-beam and truss in the overpasses and bridges, and the government too broke to do anything about them — and the American middle class with their quaint touristic habits will join the codfish, sperm whales, and great auk in the Atlantic Ocean’s extinction Hall of Fame. The Long Emergency can’t come soon enough.
The long agony of motoring up the coast brought us eventually to Mt. Desert Isle where Mr. John D Rockefeller, Jr. had the foresight to capture most of the acreage and hand it over to the National Park Service before it could be turned into another clam roll empire. The majesty of Acadia National Park is a rebuke to all the tragic hucksterism that destroyed the coastline everywhere else in New England through the miserable 20th century. We hiked the rocky scree trails around the summit of Cadillac Mountain and the path along Otter Cliff, which smelled like Christmas and chowder, and didn’t see too many people away from the motor roads. Here and there the bell of a lonely buoy sounded distantly through the creeping fog making the frantic absurdity of daily life in America seem like a mere bad memory. Then we had to leave.
We took a different route home, more northerly, across a rural Maine region largely un-molested by the toils of tourism, but stunningly poor. Some of it looked like Arkansas — not the part where WalMart lives, either. At long intervals we passed through mill towns where the mills are now silent and the only visible business was the tattoo trade. Even there in the New England backwaters, the toxic superhero-thug culture of Hollywood rules and the idle grandsons of mill-workers glowered in death-metal regalia at passing strangers as if they were auditioning for parts in the next Road Warrior movie. Not a few of them seemed to have lopsided heads. Does crystal meth do that?
Everywhere along the route, shovel-ready highway improvement projects from the late stimulus crusade were now underway, and you wondered exactly what kind of future they were intended to serve — or was it all a kind of weird national potlatch ceremony in which we were literally throwing away our wealth to memorialize what seemed normal the day before yesterday and never will be again.
Compared to the ominous vastness of Maine, northern New Hampshire was a blur. Somewhere in the White Mountains, punch-drunk with motoring fatigue, we stopped at the only available venue for coffee in one little burg, a McDonalds as chance would have it, apparently staffed by client-workers supplied by the ARC — and I’m not trying to be funny mentioning that. You wondered how much such an agency was creaming off their minimum wage salaries. This is what it’s come to now in the Home of the Brave: corporate wickedness knows no bottom.
The last weird display we encountered was the mystery of highway cones in Vermont. The orange rubber cones were deployed along the center line of I-91 for scores of miles, with absolutely no sign that any project — shovel-ready or otherwise — was underway, leading us to suspect that the project of cone deployment for its own sake was a kind of rogue stimulus program. Just cones, cones, and more cones, as baffling as crop circles. No heavy equipment, no men in hard hats. Just mile after mile of cones. Whatever it signified, it was at least equally unproductive as high frequency trading — the other half of what’s left of the US economy.
Home again and suddenly fall is in the air. Or is it the distant sound of falling knives?
The sequel to my 2008 novel of post-oil America, World Made By Hand, is shipping to booksellers now. Order via AMAZON.