Sam Feldman

Westward


ISSUE 60 | SEE AMERICA | JAN 2016

It was early morning almost exactly four years ago when I left New York by train, heading toward the starting line of a cross-country road trip. On my way out of Brooklyn I contrived to pass by a sign I was taken with on one of the East River bridges: “You are now leaving Brooklyn. Oy vey! Marty Markowitz, Borough President.” The jocular fatalism summed up my mood well. I’d just moved back to the city after a couple months of wandering the Earth and living nowhere in particular, and I should have been settling in and finding a job. Instead I was spending money I didn’t have to drive across the country with a roommate I couldn’t spare who was moving to San Francisco. I’d prepared for the trip by spending a few days in Boston, where I touched the Atlantic. I suddenly had always wanted to touch both oceans within a single month.

I dozed off on the commuter train through New Jersey. Paul picked me up at the station near his parents’ house, and it was still early when we set off westward. Crossing Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana on I-80 was familiar; we’d gone to college in Chicago, and I’d come to love the flat beauty of the Midwest while crisscrossing it to visit friends and relatives. My four years there were my first experience with the country’s vast interior. Prior to that I wouldn’t have been able to distinguish Iowa and Ohio on a map, or in any other way, and I say that as a semifinalist in my middle school geography bee. (Where I come from, states have a much higher ratio of consonants to vowels.) I’d been bowled over by Chicago as well as its hinterland. A sprawling metropolis full of creatures I’d never encountered before, like drunk Cubs fans and Catholics, it had a strong sense of its own history and culture—a self-obsession, some might say—and a big chip on its big shoulders about the coastal cities. I bought into its mythological self-image wholesale during my first few years there, but by the time I graduated I’d grown tired of its endless unendurable winters, its stark and fractal segregations, its seas of boring bungalows, and did I mention how fucking cold it is half the year?

We arrived back in Chicago late that night, and the next day met up with our friend Tom at Filter, my favorite coffee shop in Wicker Park. It was a fruitful coffee session: Tom introduced me to the concept of a mocha with two extra shots of espresso—such decadence I’d never dared dream of, but it was delicious—and told us of his own recent trip out west, and particularly his travels around the Great Salt Lake. While driving past on I-80, the route Paul and I planned to take, he’d spotted an impossible structure on the very shore of the unlikely inland sea: a magnificent Moorish palace topped with bulbous domes, large enough to house a small army of odalisques. Tom, a photographer, had wanted to approach this strange apparition, but he didn’t see any exits on the seaward side of the interstate, so he could only watch helplessly as it receded in his rearview mirror. Paul and I resolved to seek out this sultan’s palace when the time came and get to the bottom of it, Scooby-Doo-style.

After staying with friends for a couple nights in Chicago, Paul and I continued up to Madison, which seemed quieted by the January chill and the thick rivers of graying snow. The highlights of our visit were oddly paired: a chance encounter with the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile by the University of Wisconsin campus and a visit to the National Mustard Museum in nearby Middleton. It had never occurred to me before to guess the number of varieties of mustard in the world, but the gift shop would have exploded any estimates I had. The Wienermobile’s two drivers were looking for replacements, as their terms were almost up. Wienermobile drivers, it turns out, are usually recent college grads doing a one-year commitment—kind of like Teach for America but for sausages. Paul and I seemed well-qualified but the information session was a few days later, so we passed.

From Madison we headed west and south, enjoying the folksy, friendly vibe of Wisconsin Public Radio until we crossed the Mississippi and entered Iowa. With the loss of Wisconsin’s kind rounded vowels we switched to a mix CD we’d made filled with Belle and Sebastian and Camera Obscura. Their twee Scottish strains somehow mingled well with the calm snow-covered fields and river gorges of the Driftless Area, a region known for its lack of drifts.1

Our plan was to stop for lunch in Iowa City, where a friend’s brother who we’d kind of meant to contact lived, but I made a wrong turn somewhere and we ended up in the Quad Cities, which was fine. We ate at a tacky Mexican place in a suburban mall and got coffee at an ultrahip coffee shop closer to the center of Davenport. The vibe, shiny coffee science crossed with handcrafted pourover artisanry, would have put any café back in Brooklyn to shame. Like most of the coffee I guzzled to keep me awake during our long drives, it only seemed to put me to sleep.

The next day we reached Kansas City, the western border of my lived experience with the North American interior. I spent a few days once in Overland Park, a classic suburb on the Kansas side of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers. Founded around the turn of the twentieth century, it had become the state’s second-largest city by the turn of the twenty-first, though its name harkened back to the nineteenth century when the Overland Route first presented itself as a viable alternative to passage by ship around Cape Horn or portage across the Central American isthmus. In the 1850s, the Oregon Trail, Santa Fe Trail, California Trail, and other paths of migrants and traders passed through the area around the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers. The boomtown that grew up around the intersection of this westward flow of humanity and the Kansas River was known as Westport. Its brief moment in the sun ended with the Battle of Westport, a decisive Union victory in 1864. After the war, one of the railroads spiderwebbing their way across the country built the first bridge over the Missouri at Kansas City, a few miles north of Westport, and the die was cast. Kansas City, soon a waystation on the transcontinental railroad, exploded outwards in all directions, annexing Westport in 1897.

Paul and I couchsurfed with a gluten-free girl in Westport, which today is Kansas City’s funky-hip-indie neighborhood. Over Thai food, Jesse2 regaled us with stories of her days in Hawaii, her path to gluten-freedom, and her activism. To hear Jesse tell it, she was a sort of den mother to a group of lost boys who advocated for the legalization of marijuana in Missouri. Jesse was the kind of person who told stories in which she always ended up being right. Her stories of Hawaii, like everyone’s stories of Hawaii, made it sound like an impossible island paradise with no connection to our troubled planet Earth, let alone this mess of states we call a country. At one point during the year or two she spent there, she’d been driving around a gorgeous tropical island with some guys when the car broke down. They decided to split up: the guys would go off and get the car fixed, and Jesse would stay on the beach and chill. Before they parted, the guys instructed Jesse to “manifest some bud” while they were gone. Marijuana is plentiful in Hawaii, which is the fourth-leading producer of the plant, but it’s not like the beaches are paved in pot leaves. Sure enough, though, by the time the guys returned, some old dude Jesse encountered on the beach had gifted her a large quantity of bud. Jesse was impressed with her own previously unknown power to manifest bud, which she’s had ever since.

After dinner we strolled around Westport and smoked hookah at the least smoky and emptiest hookah bar I’ve ever been in. Jesse told us about all the people she knew whose various problems, physiological or otherwise, had been solved by switching to raw food. Back at her place we sat on the couch while Jesse performed a Japanese tea ceremony for us, explained its significance, and corrected our faux pas, such as attempting to pour our own tea. After we snuggled into our sleeping bags, she manifested some bud.

The next morning we crossed into Kansas. As everyone knows it’s flat as a pancake, but everyone is wrong. Before we got to the high plains, we drove a few hours through green brush-covered hills. The rocky soil here has always been hostile to agriculture, which is why it’s still home to the tallgrass prairie that’s been cut back to less than 5% of its former territory. Native Americans in eastern Kansas once lived in villages near flowing water, but the U.S. moved them out in several waves, at first to make room for new tribes being pushed in from Missouri and Illinois, later to accommodate the white settlers who had already begun squatting on reservation land. Native Americans in flat western Kansas were nomadic, but ironically they were displaced later.

By the time we got to the flat part of the state it was midday and we were looking for lunch. The clear choice was Hays, the economic and cultural center of northwestern Kansas, and the clear choice within Hays was a local establishment called Taco Shop (motto: “You’ve never had it so good!”). “This place is a classic,” a Yelp reviewer wrote. “If you ever meet somebody from Hays, KS, usually one of the first things said when describing the town is, ‘you have GOT to eat at Taco Shop.’” Not all the Yelpers are so positive (“This is the cheap version of Taco Bell ran by cheap labor, aka high school students”),3 but we were sold, enticed by the idea of someday meeting a person from Hays and being one step ahead of them.

I’d been ruminating on all the other lives lived by my American compatriots, and as we drove through the sunny empty streets of Hays I asked Paul if he thought people in small towns sometimes stayed there because they felt trapped. Some people left for the big city, of course—hence the encounters described by the enthusiastic Yelper—but there must be others who wanted to leave but felt they couldn’t, in addition to those who liked their small-town lives. There are so many obstacles: from the parking lot of Taco Shop to, say, San Francisco must seem like an impossible leap for many. But it just so happened we were making that leap, and there was room in the backseat for at least one person next to our overstuffed suitcases and sleeping bags, so we thought we’d ask. None of the teens in Taco Shop wanted to run away with us, however.

We drove on towards Denver, and dusk set in around the time we crossed the Colorado border. Colorado’s supposed to be mountainous, but they don’t tell you it’s got a big chunk of western Kansas in the northeast corner. You can see the hills approaching as you near the end of the plains, and eventually the elevation scoops you up. Denver is on a high plateau just east of the spine of the Front Range, the first mountain range you hit when migrating westward across the country. Back in Brooklyn when we were planning out our route, we’d been torn between Denver and Cheyenne. Paul wrote to an acquaintance from college named Stephanie, a Denver native who’d moved back home, to ask for advice. “I know what you’re thinking,” her reply began. “Road trips are about discovering US hidden gems…historic windmills, softball museums, abandoned warehouses. Gasoline is too expensive for that nonsense. Come to Denver.”

We stayed with Stephanie for two nights, and she was a gracious host. Like everyone out west, she asked us what route we were taking and, when we said I-80, warned us about the mountain passes, particularly in Nevada. For late January, the weather had been relatively mild, but if a storm came up those passes could become impassable. Sure, sure, we shrugged this off, as we would countless more times over the next few days. We’ll be fine.

“I don’t want to brag or anything, but our 300+ days of sunshine fall on a city of happy campers,” Stephanie had written us.4 Our one day in Denver, however, was overcast. The next morning we said our goodbyes to Stephanie, who did not want to run away with us to San Francisco either, and Paul and I hit the road once again. We headed north on I-25 through the plateau towards Wyoming, parallel to the linear beauty of the Front Range, and stopped for lunch across the state line in Cheyenne.

Cheyenne, the magic city of the plains, felt like a city from a video game or the Twilight Zone. The air seemed dusty beneath the harsh winter sun, but the buildings seemed to shine; they were well-kept up or new construction, no doubt thanks to the money pouring into the Wyoming economy from the extractive industries. Cheyenne has about 60,000 inhabitants, all of whom appeared to be in hiding or perhaps kidnapped. The gleaming city was deserted, but the stores and restaurants were open. It was not difficult to find parking.

We wandered first into a used book and music store, staffed with equanimity by a single middle-aged man. The prices were dirt-cheap so we bought a few books, although not America Online for Dummies (A reference for the rest of us!), which “covers e-mail, the Internet, and AOL Version 5,” according to the front cover. A Mr. Coffee burbled on a stool in front of the romance section. There were no other customers.

We found lunch in a hopeless place: 2 Doors Down, a burger joint in the heart of downtown Cheyenne, which is to say by the former train depot. The giant railyard behind the old station cuts right through the middle of town, as if the whole city spread outward from that one point, which of course it did. Cheyenne was born from the union of the transcontinental railroad and Crow Creek. Today Wyoming is one of two contiguous states not served by Amtrak.

Part of the mystique of Cheyenne was the sense of vastness surrounding you and pressing in on all sides, and after lunch we drove off into this vastness. As a general rule each day of our westward drive exposed us to more beautiful scenery than the day before, but nothing prepared us for the drive across Wyoming. A light dusting of snow textured the plains, above which the Laramie Range rose to meet dark mountainous clouds, which were topped by lighter clouds, on top of which was the largest sky I’d ever seen.

Less than half an hour westward we pulled off I-80 into Buford, Wyoming, population 1, which claims (repeatedly, on billboards) to be the nation’s smallest town. (In fact it shares that title with at least two other towns, one in Nebraska and one in Maine.) We didn’t catch a glimpse of the man with a zipcode all to himself, but his name was Don Sammons. A Vietnam veteran, he and his family moved to Buford in 1980, long after its heyday during the construction of the transcontinental railroad. After his wife died and his son moved away in 2007, Sammons was the only remaining inhabitant and sole owner of Buford. Less than three months after our visit, Sammons sold the town through an online auction site. The buyer, Pham Dinh Nguyen, was a 38-year-old coffee entrepreneur in Ho Chi Minh City who’d never been to the United States; he paid $900,000 for the five buildings and ten acres of land that make up Buford. The following year, he changed the town’s name to PhinDeli Town Buford, after the brand of coffee he now sells out of the convenience store/gas station. The company's website refers to the town formerly known as Buford as “the USA’s first-ever Vietnamese coffee town,” a title it’s unlikely to share.


The author in Buford.

The rest of Wyoming was pure beauty, and then we crossed over into Utah, where we planned to spend a couple nights in Salt Lake City. We’d had some trouble finding a place to couchsurf there, partly because we didn’t start looking until Kansas City. Paul, the superior couchsurfer between the two of us, had sent out a number of requests to simpatico-seeming hosts, but everyone was busy or nonresponsive. Finally in Denver we resorted to a general post on the SLC hosts-wanted forum, which garnered a quick response from a fellow alum of our alma mater. A native of Istanbul, Enver had graduated college in the ‘90s and stuck around in Chicago making money until about five years before, when he moved to Utah. He graciously invited us to stay with him in his Emigration Canyon mansion just east of Salt Lake City. “Also, you and your friend will have to share a large bed,” his message to Paul concluded.

Emigration Canyon is the route by which the Mormon pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley, where they founded the first European-American city in Utah. It’s now something of a rustic wealthy suburb, with large modern houses arrayed sparsely along the side of the narrow canyon’s windy roads. A small creek ran between the road and the houses in Enver’s area, which meant we had to cross an adorable little footbridge every time we walked to or from the car. After arriving late at night and finding our way to Enver’s house through the pitch-black canyon, we headed back out for a quick dinner and were amazed to find ourselves surrounded by the urban lights of Salt Lake City after only a few minutes of driving.

Utah is majority Mormon, but Salt Lake City is not. Perhaps because it attracts nonconforming and disaffected people from a large swath of the conservative inland west, the city has a tolerant, liberal culture and a large gay scene. The current mayor is an out lesbian, and the metropolitan area ranks 7th in percentage of the population that identifies as LGBT, just ahead of Los Angeles. The home city of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is also the site of an annual Pagan Pride Day.

Provo, an hour to the south, is the opposite. The home of Brigham Young University, it is almost entirely Mormon and, according to one study, the most conservative city in the U.S. with a population over 100,000. We drove down there the morning after we arrived in Utah to get a taste of a true Mormon metropolis—a medium-size city with, by one count, only three bars. Perhaps it was our expectations, but the whole city felt strangely wholesome. We ate lunch alongside a bunch of Mormon jocks at a sausage place next to the BYU campus—I’d temporarily abandoned my Brooklyn vegetarianism by the time we hit our first barbecue restaurant in Kansas City. When you pass through the middle of the country, I reasoned, a lot of the country’s meat passes through your middle. Afterward we stopped in at the Awful Waffle, a Belgian waffle and crepe joint next door, for dessert. The girl behind the counter, a Mormon from Las Vegas, spent a good five minutes or so deciding whether or not to run away with us to San Francisco, which was the closest we ever got to a yes.

Back in Salt Lake City that evening, we befriended two ex-Mormons, Jess and Chase, who had responded favorably to our couchsurfing request after we accepted Enver’s offer of hospitality. We met up with them at a coffeeshop, hit it off, and ended up going back to their apartment to smoke hookah and then to a local burger chain to meet up with some friends of theirs. If you’re looking to start a new life somewhere with a new identity, let me suggest the fascinating ex-Mormon scene in Salt Lake City. Jess and Chase and many of their friends were BYU dropouts or graduates from small towns and cities across the Mormon west. Many of BYU’s 30,000 students are themselves devout Mormons, but others just have parents who are. These latter sometimes participate in BYU’s underground party scene, where students are known to indulge in alcohol, caffeine, and homosexuality. Some of these partiers end up in SLC, particularly in the bohemian neighborhood known as the Avenues, where Jess and Chase lived. We quickly developed a strong rapport with them; by the time the hookah came out, they’d already admitted to us their ongoing competition to see which of them could hook up with a couchsurfer first.

Reluctantly we left our new friends at the end of the evening and went back to Enver’s rustic mansion, where we stayed up talking with him for a while. Enver was half a generation older than us and an executive of some kind at an e-commerce company, though he appeared to spend most of his time skiing. He told us stories of crazy sex parties at the Couchsurfing headquarters in San Francisco and warned us against women, who might ruin our lives by marrying us, as they had done to so many of his friends.

The next morning we set out westward again, though not before Enver warned us about the dangers of the Nevada mountain passes that carry I-80. Our final day of driving would also be our longest, and it began with the Great Salt Lake. I-80 skirts the southern edge of the magnificent inland sea, and we kept a sharp eye out for the sheik’s pleasure palace Tom had told us of back in Chicago. Nevertheless we were surprised when we spotted it—it seemed so unreal, so unlikely. There was the great frame large enough to house a cavalry regiment, and there the onion domes topping Middle Eastern towers. Even more surprisingly, we found a turnoff that led towards the structure, though it didn’t seem like a proper offramp—halfway between that and a dirt road. With trepidation we drove up and parked by the palace, which appeared deserted. It directly abutted the lakeshore but showed no sign of corrosion from the salty air.

With no hope of getting inside, Paul and I wandered up and tried the imposing front doors. Nothing. As we started away, though, we heard a sudden noise behind us and turned, pulses racing, to find a figure staring at us from the doorway—clearly the sheik himself.

The sheik was a big man of indeterminate ethnicity with a shaved head, a hairless face, and a large black cone dangling in each of his pierced earlobes. “What are you doing here?” he asked, and the feeling returned to us, familiar from childhood, of being In Trouble. “Uh, we’re just looking around,” I managed to get out. “We were on the highway and saw this place, and we were just curious.”

I must have said something right, because the sheik softened his stern visage and invited us in. We followed him down a hall and into a huge cavernous space where, it turned out, everyone from Bob Dylan to Ke$ha had performed. The sheik, who managed the venue, showed us around and told us a bit about its history. The Saltair, sometimes known as the Coney Island of the West, was a Mormon resort opened in 1893. A short train ride from SLC, it attracted young couples and families who could dance and swim under the constant supervision of church elders. Beginning in 1925, the resort was plagued by fires, floods, and recessions in the Great Sale Lake that left it beached and far from the water. In 2005, the Saltair reopened as a concert hall. The sheik explained this to us, showed off the balconies and sound system, and gave us a friendly sendoff accompanied by the standard warning about the mountain passes in Nevada.


Approaching the Saltair.

Elated at our Scooby Doo-esque success, Paul and I drove on past the Great Salt Lake and into Utah’s next natural wonder, the Bonneville Salt Flats. A vast, flat surface of salt that extends all the way to the Nevada border, the salt flats have been used to set land speed records and film desert or action sequences for about a century. We took the car offroading for a bit but failed to set any records.

As we crossed into Nevada and began to increase our elevation, we recalled the warnings we’d been given about the mountain passes and decided to ignore them. We’d come all the way from New York without any problems: “What could possibly go wrong now?” I asked aloud. “That old sheik didn’t know what he was talking about! Even God himself couldn’t sink this car!”

Shortly after this challenge to the heavens I noticed, at the edge of my perception, a certain noise. After a while it became undeniable, and I confirmed it with Paul: the car was unhappy. We didn’t know why, but it was definitely distressed. My usual strategy of ignoring car noises wasn’t working, though I kept trying. Finally we pulled off the interstate into a rest stop to take a look at the car from the outside, or something. Neither of us was an expert, but one of the tires seemed kind of flat. We were much more certain that we were a great distance from the nearest human habitation and that cell phone service did not extend to the majority of this rest stop, although by wandering around standing on picnic tables we were able to locate an occasional signal. Considering the lack of options, we decided to drive on.

Fortunately we made it to the next town, but unfortunately that town was Battle Mountain, famous for being named the “Armpit of America” by Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten in 2001 due to its “lack of character and charm, its pathetic assemblage of ghastly buildings and nasty people.” By the time of our arrival it seemed to have been largely taken over by angry dogs, but we did manage to buy gas and put air in the tire, and the car shut up after that.

After Battle Mountain it was a straight shot to San Francisco, though the sunlit Nevada landscape was so beautiful we had to stop periodically to throw a frisbee around. We crossed the Sierra Nevada after nightfall and arrived in the Bay Area around midnight, exhausted from the rigors of our cross-country adventures. The next day I dipped my hand in the Pacific at Ocean Beach, finally achieving my weeks-old dream of touching both oceans in a single month.

A couple days later Paul was moved in to a studio he was subletting, and I was on a plane back to my remaining roommates in Brooklyn. The plane flew over the sheik of Salt Lake, the ex-Mormon youth of the Avenues, the waffle shop girl who almost ran away with us, the misogynistic tech executive, the one lonely inhabitant of Buford, the mile-high city of happy campers, the economic and cultural center of northwestern Kansas, the gluten-free den mother of Westport, the coffee wizards of Davenport, the remiss Wisconsin geologists neglecting their caves, the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile, and all the old college friends of Chicago. That must be why they call it “flyover country.”


1 The Wikipedia page for the Driftless Area notes: “There is an admission that Wisconsin geologists have been remiss in fully documenting their caves, inside or outside of the Driftless.”

2 This and other names have been altered to serve the interests of privacy and generality.

3 Some Yelpers are more diplomatic: “I have eaten at some of the best, most highly touted restaurants in the world. Does Taco Shop compare to those? Not really. However, …”

4 She continued: “Our skyline makes skyscrapers and mountains look like they are best friends. Our airport is a favorite for conspiracy theorists, and the sculpture that greets airport visitors fell on its creator and killed him. We aren’t susceptible to that many natural disasters.” Reading Stephanie’s boosterism was almost certainly more fun than the actual 36 hours we spent in Denver.