Through Space, Time and Middle America, Part One: Wind Turbines, Cheese Fries, Intermodal Stations, and Bottlezahwatahzahdollah (A trip before the Coronavirus.)
by Jason T. Sparks, Our Man in Nashville
I look back now on May of 2018 as a kind of—pardon the bastardized Latin—month mirablius. I had started a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for my nigh-forclosed mortgage, and the results had been beyond my wildest dreams. I was given press credentials to cover that year’s Nashville Film Festival, which I covered for this very blog. The tax season—which, because of my day job, eats up 53 hours of my life every week from January through April—was over for another year. As soon as the film festival ended, the third component of the miracle month came up: I had a road trip to take with my son.
My oldest son, Robert, is—my potential bias notwithstanding—an amazing individual. The oldest of the three kids we adopted in 2001, Robert was, to put it euphemistically, not the primary subject of optimism among those who knew him. An IQ test he’d taken revealed a score of 81. He was three before he spoke, and that through some oral malformations that made him difficult to understand. He had food issues, as kids from the foster system tend to. There had been seasons of his young life when there was no guarantee of food, and so, he had learned out of necessity, when there’s food to be had, get it quickly and at any cost—even if that meant stealing said food—and either eat all of it at once or hoard it for later.
All of that being said, there was little expectation that he would ever have a shot at college. So we thought, anyway. It turned out that higher education had been planning for an influx of students with exceptionalities, and at least one school was planning for students with special needs exclusively. That school, Shepherd’s College, in Union Grove, Wisconsin, was interested in Robert, his mother having essentially mounted a campaign. Would he be interested in coming to “try on” the school for a few days, an option Shepherd’s offers in April and May? Absolutely.
We had, however, an obstacle to overcome—we were, at the time, without a car. We live in Nashville. The school is in Wisconsin. Flying was too expensive, and Amtrak was not an option (which is a soapbox for another time). Thus we looked to riding the dog, only to find it was (1) nearly the same as flying (2) not going to get us anywhere near Union Grove. Thus it was that we found MegaBus, a fleet of double-decker buses serving most of the US at rates far below their canine competition. Via their website, I determined that my son and I could go from Nashville to Louisville, then Indianapolis, then Chicago, then Milwaukee (and then use Lyft or some such to reach Union Grove) for under $200. That was that. Our decision was made. On a sunny Tuesday, our journey began.
I: Nashville to Louisville
We quickly learned one of the reasons MegaBus is cheaper than The Other Guy. You know how The Other Guy has bus stations, actual buildings set aside as places where their buses arrive and depart? Wonderfully greasy cafeteria, strippers sitting next to Mennonites, etc? MB doesn’t really have that. Their buses arrive and depart from…well, based on my observation, any random point in a city that will have them. Nashville’s original MB “station” was a gravel lot on 4th Avenue. Thankfully, by the time my son and I were making our trip, the “bus station” was indeed a bus station, an edifice called Music City Central, which is the hub for Nashville’s city bus line, formerly MTA but now given the insipid rebrand WeGo.
Carless at the time, Robert and I would have been using the city buses anyway to get to the MegaBus; we were lucky that we didn’t have to make any transfers, etc. From our neighborhood bus to the MegaBus was a simple matter of an escalator ride (less simple for Robert; playing the noblesse oblige card inherent to age and parental status, I had him carry the luggage). So we found ourselves on the upper level of Music City Central, at an outdoor bus shelter—well, on the sidewalk near an outdoor bus shelter, at any rate. We and about twenty other people, all schlepping suitcases and pillows (no guitar cases; sorry to burst the stereotype) stood, sat, leaned, and waited, and, the moment that the bus was one ten-billionths of a second late, we began to worry and complain. Fourteen minutes later, two MegaBuses appeared, and this was a test for the focus of the crowd. One bus was headed to Chattanooga, Atlanta, and other points southeast of our fair city; the other, ours, was headed for Louisville, Indianapolis, and Chicago.
Let me be clear. Robert and I were ready, we were prepared, and our boarding game was on point—on fleek, if I may be so bold. Our printed-out tickets? In our hands, ticket numbers circled, ready to present to the driver. Our luggage? All in one place, on its wheels, ready to be loaded. In it went, and on we went, and absolutely no one else managed that feat. Getting every traveler onto the correct bus—indeed, getting every traveler on an incorrect bus to process and realize their status as such—ate up nearly half an hour. During this time, Rob and I took our seats, only they weren’t ours. MegaBus, you see, offers a few reserved seats for an extra two or three dollars—seats at a table, say, or, as we ordered, the very first seats on the second tier of the bus, in front of which a huge window avails what I have to imagine is a devastating view. I have to imagine because the seats I’d reserved were occupied, for the entire trip, by a cadre of popped-collar douchebros. Robert and I, while manly in our own ways, are both introverted, conflict-averse folk, so we decided not to press the issue. He settled into an aisle seat on the left, I settled into an aisle seat on the right, a row behind him (added bonus, no one ever took the other seat on my row; my backpack occupied it). By the time Robert had settled into his seat, and I had (1) made peace with the fact that my seat couldn’t be un-reclined (2) figured out that the outlet for plugging in my phone was in fact under my seat, which led to a series of contortions worthy of Chief Inspector Clouseau, our bus was rolling.
This first leg of the trip was very familiar to me, of course; to get from Nashville to virtually anywhere north, I-65 is the way, and that’s where we were. Fireworks stands and farms rolled by. Billboard advertised cheap cigarettes and gambling opportunities just over the line in Kentucky. I slipped on my headphones and began listening to the album I had just downloaded, the soundtrack to David Fincher’s incredible “Zodiac” (2007). As the pastoral scenes flew by, Three Dog Night asked hooooooow can people be so selfish, hoooooooow can people be so cruel (spoiler alert: because it’s Easy To Be Hard, man). As we neared Kentucky, and the farmlands grew, Eric Burdon sang the ballad of Sky Pilot, an Army chaplain:
He smiles at the young soldiers
Tells them it’s all right
He knows of their fear in the forthcoming fight
Soon there’ll be blood and many will die
Mothers and fathers back home they will cry
My own son is not at risk for that, never will be, and I know this. But he is at risk for leaving home, and this trip makes that all the more real. He has fallen asleep, and I’m watching him as the song plays. When he was ten, he talked himself to sleep by telling himself stories about The Mighty Morphing Power Rangers, often punctuating these stories with a whispered exclamation of “Power Rangers!”—or, as he said at the time, “PAH WAINJUHS!,” followed by the requisite stylized punches the said Rangers threw in their show’s opening credits. Now he is a young man, a handsome lion in repose. He’s one of my favorite people, and I’m deathly afraid of him leaving. I grow melancholy. I react by falling asleep.
What wakes me up is the bus slowing down as we enter Louisville. It’s a beautiful town, with a lot of pride in its history; several of the taller buildings are, on one side at least, covered with huge portraits of the town’s famous residents. An 18-story Muhammad Ali looks ready to rope-a-dope. A 19-story Harlan Sanders offers his iconic red & white bucket (which is in this case about 4 stories). The bus stops under a bridge—again, no such thing as a MegaBus station, per se—and I’m fairly sure I know this neighborhood; in high school, I had an exceptional Drama teacher who hosted two trips to Louisville, so we could attend the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Our hotel, I’m sure, was near here. I have realized in the years since that I saw a pre-fame Julianne Moore in one of the plays—and because it was a play about Henri Matisse, I’m pretty sure I saw a pre-fame Julianne Moore naked.
I am musing over the past when I am brought fully into the present by this sound:
“BOTTAZAWATTAZADOLLAH! PHONECHAJAZADOLLAH! KENDIBAHZADOLLAH!”
I’m sorry, what?
“BOTTAZAWATTAZADOLLAH! PHONECHAJAZADOLLAH! KENDIBAHZADOLLAH!”
I finally determine that the sound is coming from just outside the bus. I look down, and, on the street, right next to the bus, is a small, leathery black woman who looks to be about 112 years old and maybe 120 pounds. On her back is a huge plastic bag, larger than she is. She is trying to sell the contents of the bag to those of us riding the bus. I finally decrypt: she has bottles of water (BOTTAZAWATTA!) and phone chargers (PHONECHAJAZ!) and candy bars (KENDIBAHZ!) for sale, all for one dollar American (ADOLLAH!). Good on her, I think, for embodying the famed American entrepreneurial spirit, for creating a side hustle where one didn’t (but could) exist. I don’t buy anything, but her advertising got stuck in my head, so that’s something. And she was perfectly honest with her target audience: “If I don’ be sellin’ ‘is shit, I get rid of it at the flea market, doe.”
II: Louisville to Indianapolis
Louisville is right at the edge of Kentucky; shortly after pulling out of the town, you cross a bridge, and hay presto, you’re in the land of basketball, John Cougar Mellencamp, James Dean, and Mike Pence. Indiana, as you’ll recall from the maps in every classroom, is a vertical state; I-65 rubs right through its center, and runs the length of the state.
There are farms.
Oh, holy Mother of God, there are farms. As soon as you enter the Hoosier State, there are farms—every single farm you’ve ever seen on any jigsaw puzzle, on any framed art with an inspirational quote on it, on any calendar from a tractor supply or co-op. Farms, barns, silos, threshers, combines, tractors, disc-harrows, hay bales, hay balers, random hay, irrigators, windmills, rows upon rows of corn—really, unless you are phenomenally into farming (an agriphile?), it’s best to sleep through southern Indiana.
That said, I was still looking forward to Indianapolis. I’d never been there, and one quote about the town kept running through my head: a native Hoosier, a fellow named Vonnegut, had said in a book that Dresden (before we bombed it) was “The most beautiful, sparking city I had ever seen, outside of Indianapolis.”
We finally broke free of the seemingly endless farms and entered Indianapolis, which we had to more or less descend into. By which I mean this: some parts of the US Interstate System are built, for whatever reason, on bridges and overpasses, meaning that the city you’re trying to reach is actually below you as you drive. Indy is such a place. We took an exit ramp onto a long, steep hill, upon which there was a surprising volume of traffic; on the hill, I noticed my first detail about the city—a website in real life. Directly across from this exit, it turns out, is the building that houses the global headquarters of Angie’s List. Corny though it may seem—maybe I was farm-drunk, if that’s a thing—I experienced a mild elation similar to the rush of seeing a celebrity. OMG, you guys! It’s Angie’s List! Like on the Intertubes! BUT IT’S, YOU KNOW, HERE!
Which was, to be honest, the biggest rush Indy provided. Our stop in the town was next to a park named for James McNeil Whistler (word to his mother), where a farmer’s market is apparently held—and had closed half an hour before we got there. Otherwise, there were six businesses on the street where we parked. One was a Subway. The other five were all bail bondsmen. What that says about MegaBus, and who’s saying it, I’d rather not know. There were a few neat sightings as we left the town; there was the IU Medical Center, bits of which are now named in honor of Bobby Knight (folding-chair injury triage?), and Butler University, which Robert saw and asked if Alfred from Batman had gone there (ba-dum-tss). Sorry, Mr. Vonnegut, but we’ll have to agree to disagree.
III: Indianapolis to Gary to Chicago
I dozed off again, once we were north of Indianapolis, but I only slept for about an hour before Rob woke me to ask, “Dad—what’s those?” I looked out of the bus window, and saw that we had entered one of the most surreal landscapes I have ever seen. Indiana is a flat part of the world, no hills to speak of; as such, there are long, flat planes of land over which wind is constantly blowing, and, much like southern Indiana, northern Indiana has an expanse of farms.
These, however, are wind farms. They are full of turbines.
You may know in your mind what wind turbines look like—white towers with three rotating white fan blades on them. What you don’t know until you encounter them in the wild is that they are surprisingly tall—100 to 150 feet, and the blades are easily 50 feet long. And they are moved by any wind, so the blades are always moving, even if very slowly. Also, the folks who build wind turbines apparently build a lot of wind turbines; the giant fans seemed to fill the landscape, as far ahead as we could see, and reaching the horizon on either side of the interstate. What else was there? Nothing—just seemingly infinite wind turbines, their blades always whirling, and, if you stare at them long enough, they appear to be moving. Towards you.
The wind turbines finally taper off, and soon after that, the bus finally departs I-65 for I-90 West, as the bus approaches Gary, Indiana. Fearful that the inane showtune from The Music Man might cue up in my head, I am listening to the Zodiac soundtrack again—specifically, a 9-minute masterpiece by Isaac Hayes known as Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquadalymystic, a song in which a piano, a drum kit, an electric bass, and Hayes’s voice ultimately descend into orgiastic lunacy. It is also the perfect song to listen to as one drives through Gary enroute to Chicago.
Your first clue that the reality outside your bus window is changing, as you drive through Gary, is the mural that dominates the side of a building in that town. Like the ones in Louisville, it depicts some local celebrities. These celebrities are five brothers, the youngest of whom is already dead, but first became The King Of Pop. That’s right, as the sun set on Gary and Isaac Hayes said “unh, unh” in my ears, I took in a gigantic mural of The Jackson Five, still resplendent in their Dancing Machine-era afros. I was reminded of George Clinton’s lyrics from Chocolate City: “We’ve got Newark, we’ve got Gary, I’m told we recently got LA.”
The other clue that reality is changing is the preponderance of details about Gary which indicate that you are no longer in farm country, but now in what is called The Rust Belt. Sharing the landscape with buildings and houses are pieces of gigantic industrial machinery. The bridges seem insanely complex, the structures next to the bridges (whatever they are) even more so. Rows of shipping containers wait by magnetic lifts. To my Aspergian delight, there is something running alongside I-90, on both sides, and seemingly under it as well—railroad tracks. There are trains, miles and miles of trains, some moving, some not. This all appears to be the precursor to some great industrial city, something out of Metropolis.
And it is.
The bus suddenly slows, and when I look out of the front window, I see that we are stopping at a toll gate. Atop this toll gate, in block letters, is the word “ILLINOIS”, followed by, in cursive, “Skyway”. The bus only pauses for a moment, and onward we roll. Welcome to Illinois, the Land of Lincoln. Unh, unh. You start in what is literally called East Chicago, which is more of the same you saw in Gary, only more intense with each passing mile. The factories are bigger and older. The giant metal things are more giant, made of blacker, rustier metal. Row houses from the Twenties and earlier, everything huddled close to everything else. The billboards start to be Chi-centric: Renew your CTA Transit Card Today. Watch The Big Bang Theory on WGN, Channel 9. Zbordnylak and Zbordnylak, Attorneys At Law.
Bigger, denser, more industrial the outside world grows. Isaac Hayes leads the band on a loop of crashing madness. Finally, on the right, you begin to see the skyline. You begin to see It. You see your first inkling of It before anything else, growing larger and finally looming ahead of the bus, and finally, no doubt, you’re looking at It: The Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower, former tallest building in the world, still #24 worldwide.
The thing is, It, in all Its glory, is only the centerpiece, the main focal point in CHICAGO, ILLIMOTHER****INGNOIS, which appears to be the largest, most sprawling city you’ve ever dreamt of. The trains that started back in Gary have doubled down here, and now, they’re passenger trains, running right alongside the interstate; you look up and there are commuters on the median, standing around or sitting on benches. You half expect to see Dr. Bob Hartley catching his train. It is not the only Big, Iconic Thing–look, it’s the Hancock Tower! It’s those round apartment buildings from the Wilco album cover! Robert is an avowed White Sox fan, and when I realize we’re passing Comiskey Park, I grab his arm and shout “LOOK!”, as if God himself were just outside the bus. The city seems huge, boundless! The dark parts are gritty as hell, the shiny parts as beautiful as hell! Wow! Zowie! Neato Bandito! Holy Blues Brothers, Batman!
We have essentially a three-hour layover in Chicago, where the MegaBus stop is…a random street corner. Thankfully, I have the presence of mind to check this random corner on Google Maps, and thus I learn that the corner is maybe a minute’s walk from an establishment called Portillo’s Hot Dogs. If you ever find yourself in Chicago, Portillo’s is a must. It’s right at the tipping point of Iconic Local Legend and Tourist Draw. On the walls are giant posters from the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933, alongside wanted posters of Alphonse Capone, and cheesy grip-and-grin pix of various Blackhawks, Cubs, Sox, and minor Belushis shaking hands with Mr. Portillo himself. The food, however, is the reason to go. Chicago-style hot dogs, cheese fries (or, as George Wendt famously pronounced it in those sketches, cheece frice), Italian dipped-beef sandwiches, nigh-pornographic slabs of chocolate cake, malted milkshakes, et cetera, et cetera. In all fairness, I should also mention an incident that happened as Rob and I walked to Portillo’s. Still entranced by It and all the amazing architecture flanking It, I may have been paying inadequate attention to where I was going. Protip: somewhere on Clinton street in Chicago, there is a point at which the sidewalk swells to a hump. If you don’t see it, you will trip over it in a manner worthy of The Great Carnak. Your son, whom you love enough to take on this road trip, will then laugh at you. For three hours. No matter how much food you buy him.
IV: Chicago to Milwaukee
By the time our bus arrives, it’s fairly late, and we’re all spent–my son is spent from laughing at me–and the remaining jaunt is fairly sedate. Chicago finally recedes after about an hour–it’s that big. Milwaukee is smaller, suffice to say, and looks strangely older, seemingly full of old, brick factories and warehouses. Honeywell, the makers of Granny and Grandpa’s round thermostat, maintains a huge site. And, yes, there are breweries; yes, a certain sitcom theme finds its way into one’s head.
I will say one thing about Milwaukee that I wish I could say about every other city, especially my own. The MegaBus stop in that town is an entity known as Milwaukee Intermodal. At first, I thought this meant we were going to be among trucks and shipping containers. Not so. Intermodal simply means, after all, between modes, and MI is a way station for all the ground-based ways to transport humans. Here there be Greyhound, MegaBus, a Wisconsin-based outfit named Badger Transit (because of course it is), and, to my great joy, Amtrak. It’s clean, it’s well-lit, there are vending machines, a cafeteria, and a gift shop (specializing in Brewers and Bucks swag); I don’t understand why every city doesn’t have one. Our reverie at MI is short-lived; it’s late, we’re tired, and The Lad Himself can’t wait to see his potential future alma mater. Union Grove has fewer than 5,000 people in it, so we’re done with the bus, opting instead for a staggeringly expensive Lyft. We work our way out of Milwaukee, and its attendant adorable antique architecture, and suddenly, we’re back in farmland–miles upon miles of farms, barns, silos, this time with far more cows in the mix. Union Grove is not a town that announces itself, really; there’s little to announce. Suddenly–or, at least, it feels sudden–we are on a 2-lane highway devoid of farms. On our right is a Dollar General and a Dairy Queen. On our left is Shepherd’s College.
My son has arrived.
Brentwood bus photo by Anna Hanks