The epic “now that the kids are gone journey” begins and ends in Albuquerque. When we arrive just about the first thing I notice at the airport is a big display of Breaking Bad merchandise. We return to Albuquerque and Rachel, my old friend from Johnston College, takes on a Breaking Bad tour. Our first stop is the car wash. In front there is a big official tour conducted in huge trailer, similar to the one Walt and Jessie cooked meth in. A large group of tourists take photos. Blue smoke gushes out of a vent on the top of the trailer. There are “no trespassing” signs in front of Walt's ugly cul de sac home. There is no parking anywhere and a small crowd takes pictures. We also see the cafe where Walt met with Lydia, the site of Pollo Hermanos and Hank's house. The RV tour is rated on Trip Adviser as one of Albuquerque's most popular attractions, second only to the Balloon Festival. When we return to the airport, Himself is disappointed to learn that the shop is out of Breaking Bad magnets. The clerk tells them that it's impossible to keep souvenirs of the program in stock.
I marvel at what a grip Breaking Bad has in establishing the city's identity. Himself says he's not surprised although he is nearly militantly nonplussed by anything I find uncanny. When I ask him however, he is unable to name another TV show that has etched itself upon the city where it filmed so indelibly. The fact that Breaking Bad is a cable show and is probably one of the blackest comedies in the history of television, increases my wonder at the phenomena.
After nearly four weeks of motels, it is good to be home and while I am, per usual, struck by the quietude sans kids, it is nice to be able to navigate fearlessly to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Opie whines shrilly with delight for hours after we return. Gary, the cat, bites both of us, although he has no history of being a biter. After an hour though, we are forgiven and Gary pesters us, purring loudly and kneading in the bed for most of the night.
We've drive nearly 5000 miles and visit 16 states, only two of which I'd been to previously. As we drive we listen, via Audible, to the entire Dos Passos U.S.A. Trilogy and then, after visiting his home town of Sauk Center Minnesota, Babbitt and Main Street by Sinclair Lewis. It is remarkable how all of these quintessentially American novels hold up and add poignancy to our journey through Grand Rapids, Chicago, Minneapolis and seemingly infinite small towns where often we are regarded as a novelty. I am surprised at the ubiquity of water towers. It seems most towns have them as well as an “Historic Main Street.” With few exceptions though, on the periphery of these little bergs are endless strip malls of Walmart, Home Depot and myriad chain stores and restaurants. Hence, vacant storefronts come part and parcel with “Historic Main Street.”
In my mind's eye, the small towns and Econo Lodges run together. Breakfasts buffets with waffle machines,shitty coffee, Fruit Loops, fake maple syrup and margarine. Except for the big cities, we are usually the only visitors at local attractions. We stop for gas in Faith South Dakota. There is no credit card slot on the gas pump. I walk into the station. Four men are playing cards at a table in the back. There is a list of names accompanied by the DVD titles that are late being returned. Grumpy Old Men is nearly three weeks overdue. I foist my credit card at the clerk and tell her we're going to fill up. She looks at me quizzically and tells me to come back with the card after we're finished pumping the gas.
A lot of America is crammed down our throats these past four weeks. Each little town is in so many ways like every other little town. Chicago bleeds into Minneapolis. Woebegone museums of emptied attics and the giant institutes crammed with dirty money art. The Waffle House. Cowboy hats. Highway Burma Shave signs have morphed into anti-abortion campaigns featuring cuddly infants. Homogeneous Silver Lake and hipster Park Slope are a million years away from so much of what's in the middle. I am conflicted after having dipped my toe in. I struggle not to judge people by their beliefs and institutions and whether they shop at Walmart instead of Costco.
During the last week of travel Joe College and I text back and forth tensely and continuously. Girl-friend-in-law is returning from four months in Prague the last week of December and he has it in his head that they will spend a few days sequestered in a mountain cabin, preferably well decorated and with snow on the ground. This escalates for me emotionally because the boy is single-minded and stubborn. The popular New Year's period is chosen. Prices are up and most owners won't rent to a person under 25 years old. He visualizes the cabin he wants and is unwilling to compromise, despite the infinite number of more practical alternatives that I pose. Dozens of e-mails and text messages are exchanged. It is crazy making not because the boy wants a romantic getaway with Girl-friend-in-law but because his inflexibility and doggedness so parallel my own.
I feel bad that the plans for their reunion have resulted in so much sturm and drang. Wanting him to avoid the self-sabotage that has plagued me for as long as I remember, I write him, “I really want this for you but because I see so much of myself in you, seriously, take it down a notch (As I also have to remind myself.) You're going to want what you want but you will wake up one day I'm afraid and realize that sometimes treating your “wants” as “needs” is short sighted and self destructive. I've resumed a few relationships (YES BECAUSE OF FACEBOOK!) with people from my college days so suddenly the place you're in is particularly resonant to me. I remember feeling that my 20s would last forever. It is shocking to find myself this old. Nevertheless, while striving for a place of moderation, you absolutely should wring as much pleasure as you can, now in this final year of college and the beginning of the next part of your life. This brings you another step closer to where I am now. Getting to where I am now comes very fucking quick. One day you will remember that I told you this. It will be shocking. Anyway, I hope at least at my age you will know, like I know, that if nothing else, your life has been worthwhile because you had a kid. Or two.