The beginning, after I’d just left London, was heavy on the pretentiously indie electronica. Still in a strung-out state of mind, not really, in my head, having left yet, I listened to Aavikko and Emir Kusturica and chain-smoked the toxins out of my system. A few weeks later, I’d mellowed. Ohio and Michigan and Wisconsin had rolled by, green, robust and wholesome, and mostly I listened to the folksy twanging of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, indulged in a little Matchbox 20 even. I was thinking about a lot of things.
In France my cousins uploaded me a bunch of French music. But once they’d left there were weeks I wouldn’t see a single person I knew other than the grocer, and the music was constantly, continuously on. The soothing invariability of noise was like having another person there, I guess. I ate lentils, leeks, poached eggs, baguettes and nutella every day, in some new configuration—it became like a game to figure out new relationships for them. Those days I’d just press ‘random’ and a thousand songs could defile between tea or bathroom breaks without my ever focusing on one. Once, I listed to the first four hundred or so, in alphabetical order. A lot of work got done.
After a brief and perplexing, acid-house pop back into London, I got to Cork, where there was too much to do for music to play constantly. When the day ended, though, I’d retreat into a world of headphones, rizla paper and literature. It was the first occasion I’d had in years to read as much as I wanted to, and it lasted for weeks. The music became backdrop then. Baroque, acoustic, ambient, world. It didn’t really matter; I wasn’t really listening.
Vickie doesn’t drive, so she DJed instead, and I discovered music I owned that I’d never paid attention to before: Röyksopp, Tricycle, Lemon Jelly. The accordion in the music of La Rue Kétanou made us manic; we swerved in hilarity, circumventing sheep and old men.
Reuniting with my car in Califonia reproduced the elation I’d felt heading west a few months before. I listened to music again; there was nothing else to do. A six thousand mile carpet of landscape was unrolling before me, and everything I might need was easily within arm’s reach. Everything outside the car changed, concrete gray zoos metamorphosing into red rocky bluffs and sage-colored bayous becoming forests and Tennessee. But the car’s internal architecture remained the same, the FM transmitter and digital camera in my lap; a lighter, Camels, chewing gum and a pen in the ashtray; warm socks and granola bars and a road atlas on the passenger seat. A lot of other shit, too. It just accumulated, as if the gum wrappers were actually breeding.
Sure, the Beach Boys crooned down California and the Easy Rider soundtrack blasted across dusty, 90º West Texas, all the windows down as together we rocketed down slim ribbons of road. Those were just some of the clichés. I left my heart in Arizona, my towel in San Francisco, and a whole mess of pluot jam jars to people who’d been kind. I got into country music, except when it surprised me by morphing into Christian rock. There was one night, near Albuquerque, where I actually drove 100 miles out of the way because I was just that into Paul Simon.
I only ended up having to sleep in my car four times. Turning the engine and the music off curiously made things noisier than they’d been all day, but after a half-hour the silence faded. The first night happened west of San Antonio, under a mesquite tree; it was hardly cold at all. In the morning an angry Texan lady in an SUV that could’ve flattened my car under just its front wheels woke me up with a lecture about private property and trespassing.
The second was after one of the most marvelous evenings of the trip, a Cajun music festival in Lafayette. Unfortunately for me, the last ten minutes before bedtime were spent standing atop a red ant colony. I scratched all night. A week later—the bites had become pus-filled sores at this point—we crossed the border into Alabama, but despite the streetlights I slept until ten, waking up to a smiling sun, an appointment-less day, and a mysterious pamphlet entitled “100 Places to Eat in Alabama Before You Die. “
The last night happened in South Carolina. I was way behind on sleep hours and driving deliriously, feverishly, despite a speeding ticket still wet with ink. I pulled into the rest stop at the state line and tried to sleep, but it was so cold the windows had iced and the car was thirty feet from the interstate, shaking with every semi. At five a.m. I woke up shaking and my right eye, inexplicably, had swelled shut. I drove blearily (eyeless) to a truck stop and when I woke up a few hours later my eye, inexplicably, had shrunk back to natural.
The last night was going to be a car night until I realized I had a friend in St. Pete; I spent the night in a baldaquin bed with silk sheets instead. On a number of happy occasions I was saved at the last minute by an appetizing bed that materialized out of nowhere.
Some Cajun music from the Lafayette festival made it into the rotation; a lot of new bluegrass accumulated in Tennessee. I picked up the Oxford American in Mississippi; it happened to be their annual music issue, and came with a Southern-music compilation CD to which I eventually learned all the words. In New Orleans every radio station plays music you’d feel lucky hearing one of your local stations play, and I wrote down the names of good bands on a piece of paper that flew out onto the interstate one day. Going down Florida, all the stations play country music, until you hit Miami, when suddenly it disappears entirely.