Highway 35

Driving Highway 35 out of West Virginia, across the Ohio River, through the long rolling hills of Ohio, the overwhelming sense I had was the sense of texture: small towns with wide lawns and quiet Sunday streets, aging corn barns tangled up in honeysuckle and creeper (echoes of the Zagajewski poem, the homesteads of exiles methodically overgrown), well-worn houses falling into themselves. Flat-bottomed motor boats for sale in the front yard, ride mowers idling on wide lawns, the furrowed fields smoothed out by corn. Old turnpike signs, local banks, fresh bunting after the Fourth. There was this pressing sense of things, this texture, in the sense of its first definition: "The feel, appearance, or consistency of a surface or substance". But also its third definition, "The tactile quality of the surface of a work of art". Texture, from the Latin textum, suggesting not only text - words, Scripture - but a web, a net, something woven. We didn't move as quickly, of course, but there's something proper about that.

Along the way, I was thinking of the democratic peregrinations that we require our presidential candidates to take. Part of the wonder (the pageantry?) of the primary season is the way in which each state's primary is something of a local exercise in democracy: there are town halls, morning coffee in the local coffee shops, tours of high schools and basketball gyms, this constant rehearsal of the local scale of politics. The irony of the situation, though, is that each candidate is trying as hard as possible to be elected at a scale which exceeds the imagination of most of us. There's just something so bizarre about asking a candidate to press the flesh of a hog farmer in Iowa before he can become President of a country of more than 300 million people. I remember some of the rhetoric during W. Bush's first campaign in 2000. He was the type of guy, it was said, that you could sit down and have a beer with. (Never mind the fact that his administration has been marked by a curious withdrawal from any number of public engagements.)

But driving out of West Virginia a couple of days ago, I was struck by how removed that world was from the world (or worlds) which I usually inhabit. And in a very real way, this country is marked by the incommensurable gaps. It's something on the order of the fact that a presidential candidate has to go to the local town fair before he can host state dinners, but it's more than just a social disconnect. It's economic, it's cultural, it's geographic. It's also, I think, related to this question of how we know the country.

If, as I've been thinking about in some other work, landscape is a way of seeing, and if the view (or the visual more broadly) is a way of knowing, then how do the views that are built into the experience of our country lend themselves to ways of knowing the country? It's a significant question, I think. Talking with Kirsten about this the other day, she talked about perspective. For her, when we turned off I-64 and onto Highway 35, it was as though the world opened up or opened out. If the function of the Interstate system is to go to somewhere, then the function (at least now, somewhat anachronistically) of these old U.S. Highways might be to go through somewhere. As to how that relates to a way of knowing the United States, I'm still not exactly sure.

To be flip about the whole thing, I might be able to say that I'm working through this question of the texture of the view, or the texture of the landscape. More to come about Kansas and Colorado, but this is it for the moment.


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